Two-thirds of the way through Red Dead Redemption, I was briefly driven insane. Yet another inept, one-dimensional, “funny” stereotype of a character needed a favour, and was promising, again, if I did just this one more easy thing for them, they’d finally stop jerking me around and help me find my family. Of course, after yammering interminably at me as we travel to the meeting, this one easy thing goes wrong, and I’m required to save this character’s ass again (leaving him to die like he deserved leads causes a game over) and massacre yet another army of faceless locals.
Despite being set in an open world, this is a game that, at least within missions, loves to say “No” to the player, one that will be endlessly, arbitrarily restrictive. Can I ride my horse to the meeting? No, you must ride along in the wagon. Can I sneak around back before the meeting and see what’s doing? No, even though it’s obviously a trap, you’re going to march on in the front door. Can we go over open ground instead of sticking to the road? No, the road is where the scripted ambushes are, so that’s where you’re going to go. How about I go around this corner and over to the other side of the roof so I can kill the last man keeping me from my family (since you trapped me in a cut-scene the last three times I met him)? We do have high-ground advantage after all. No, no, no. That’s not how the story goes. How about I spy on the enemy camp using my rifle scope instead so if I see something worth shooting, I’ll be able to shoot it? Of course not. You’re going to use binoculars, so that when the bad guys get a jump on you, you’ll be defenseless. How about I draw my gun as I approach the bad guy? Nope. You have to talk to him first, and if you point your gun at him that’ll scare him and you’ll fail the mission.
This is a game that hates freedom; one that is afraid of player-agency. In Red Dead Redemption, the game designer is God and the player’s sole responsibility and purpose is to sit quietly, follow along the designated path, and marvel at His creation. Only His creations are not so glorious. Visually impressive, sure. But the characters and the story are, for the most part, just not worth my time. Speaking of which, my time is just not something the game seems to think is valuable.
On the other hand, that last 10% or so of the game is just brilliant, so much so that it’s almost worth the slog leading up to it. After the fireworks finally die down and you get some moments of quiet. When you finally get to herd cattle and use some of those skills that the game taught you that haven’t been put to use since the opening hours. When you finally get to see Bonnie again, after she was dropped out of the game so abruptly, as if the game didn’t quite know how to deal with the aftermath of her abduction.
So in the end, it’s an open world game. It’s a Rockstar game. And it does little to fix the endemic problems of both these classes of games. But it does look great, and sound great. The shooting and health mechanics are improved over GTA 4. It’s also quite a lot easier to get around from mission to mission. And while there are deep flaws in its narrative, and it desperately needs a better way to develop characters than having them talk at you while you slowly ride all the way across Mexico, there are certainly some memorable moments. Even if these are buried beneath the writer’s pathological need to cram every single iconic Western scenario into the game.