Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taming the Open World

Grand Theft Auto IV was a great game, but it had its problems. Most notably, it suffered from a crippling discordance between its gameplay and its story. Merely a few hours into Red Dead Redemption, I already feel as though it is shaping up to be a considerable improvement over its spiritual predecessor. Red Dead has an advantage over Grand Theft Auto: cowboys are so very cool, and that type of cool has largely gone untapped by video games. Rockstar has captured every conceivable nuance of that cool in this game, but the genre's effect on the overall experience of the game runs far deeper than most will probably realize. Red Dead is thoughtfully designed to portray the Wild West with true complexity, neither allowing any of its facets to obscure its blemishes nor mute them. While capturing the cool of being a cowboy is one of this game's strong points, the way the game captures the ugliness may just prove to be its most enduring achievement.

Capturing that cool is no small achievement, and Rockstar finds it in the details. If the player taps the up button on the directional pad, the protagonist, John Marston, whistles. No matter where he is, this results in his horse running into the area. It is a great feature from a gameplay standpoint; hijacking as a means of transportation, the go-to in Grand Theft Auto, would be rather difficult in an open desert. (Also, Marston is trying to go straight, gorram it.) Far and away the best part of this feature, however, is how it allows Marston to get a running start and, without ever missing a step, hop onto the horse the moment it comes running up alongside him. Once I discovered this stunt, I never began my travels any other way. It is just too freaking cool to not do. Galloping along a path, at full speed, into the sunset is such a thrill that I look back at Grand Theft Auto and scoff; there is no way that playing as a city-dweller could capture this feeling. It also helps that the few miles of land I have seen thus far are so visually impressive. Day, night, dusk, dawn, cloudy or clear – it is all beautiful. Details like the crystal-clear stars in a sky devoid of light pollution or, yes, even the lone tumbleweed puttering through a quiet town all draw the player into Marston's world.

This nuanced design extends to a careful control of Red Dead's tone as the player traverses its world. Nothing detracted more from Grand Theft Auto IV's story than a lack of such control. The streets were crowded with caricatures of modern Americans and with cars that bounced around the roads like pinballs. It was virtually impossible to prevent the protagonist from plowing down a crowd of fat morons, one of whom would then scream, "Cheesy vagina!" and squander all of a given mission's dramatic weight. It was amusing in a way, but it clashed with the game's very grounded narrative about a man seeking absolution for his dark past. There are no such problems in Red Dead Redemption. The game's satirical streak is woven much more subtly into the experience, and far more importantly, the game design does not force the player to behave in a way that disrupts its own main character's redemption arc. John Marston has an unseemly past, but he is trying to do better. Even at his worst, he has never been in it for cheap, violent thrills, and this game ensures that the player will most likely feel the same way. There are few pedestrians to run over on horseback and, if the player does manage to find one to trample, there is little comedic value to it.

The fact that Marston's morality extends beyond the game's core storyline to pervade the entire experience means that said storyline has exponentially more impact. When something disturbing happens within a mission, the player is actually driven to feel the emotion because the event is not buried in an experience full of whimsical, lighthearted sadism. Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City was full of obnoxious, self-absorbed jerks, but none of them perpetrated anything approaching the level of destruction that the player invariably did. Here, Marston only sullies his hands if the player truly wants him to. Consequently even the most sadistic player likely won't be completely numb to witnessing the spectacle of, say, a stickup ending with a shopkeeper getting shot point-blank. The player has not been complicit in a multitude of equally cruel acts, so the events are thrown into relief, and the violence carries weight.

One such instance of violence came when I witnessed a drunk man attempting to rape a woman outside of a saloon. My reaction was to draw my pistol and shoot the man. It not only left me with a strong feeling of righteousness but also the much deeper sensation that I was part of a believable moral landscape. Regardless of whether I had shot the man or simply walked away, my actions would have fit the scale of the game's narrative; it would not have been a bout of cartoonish sociopathy that the game would later have to forget in order to progress the plot. This consistency leads to a more immersive experience than the tonal whiplash caused by Grand Theft Auto's gameplay.

There is a tremendous amount of technical skill evident throughout Red Dead Redemption's world, and it leads Rockstar to the rare achievement of doing justice to the western genre in a video game. The game's careful modulation of tone and morality, however, represents an even greater achievement: Rockstar has elevated the medium of the open-world game.

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