We don’t usually…DO video game reviews, or analysis, or “reflections” (no one should do reflections as a general rule, but-) on this site, as 1) neither DJ Steve nor myself actually plays that often anymore and 2) who gives a shit, but something happened last night. I finished one of 2010’s most popular games, ‘Red Dead Redemption’…and I was deeply moved. It made me feel something…emotionally. And rather than bury that feeling with UFC fighting or expensive liquor that I buy with my emergency AmEx, I figured I would buck Lifting Fog tradition — buck my own standards of “journalism” — and share all that emotion with you. Anyone not interested in reading please BEAR WITH, we’ll be back to not writing tomorrow.
WARNING #1: What follows was originally an e-mail to a friend, which of course excuses any lack of clarity. Thanks!
Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 are like a super-nice girl you date for a while. She’s funny, and pretty, and you get along great…then one morning you wake up and realize you’re just sort of treading water, that she doesn’t challenge you so much (although every once in a while she makes you perform these incredibly difficult jumps and leaps), and whatever spark ignited the relationship — you went to elementary and middle school with her — isn’t there, or at least has changed. You part amicably, because how else could you end things? She’s still great. You might even see her again.
Later that night your more unhinged friends have dragged you to a dogfight behind the Norm’s on Sepulveda, and there’s this…woman. Tattoos. Slightly mussed hair. She looks dangerous. Maybe she’s killed someone? Didn’t go to college? That’s hot. You get to talking, and it turns out she’s NOT illiterate but in fact one of the more fiercely intelligent people you’ve ever spoken to. Filled with natural insight in a way your Ivory Tower education can’t replicate synthetically. Born in England, so she’s got sort of an outsider’s perspective, and…
Okay, I’m tired of extending that metaphor: the woman in question is named Red Dead Redemption, and she’s very possibly the best game you’ve ever played. (The metaphor’s over, so that’s not gross.) Anyone who’s been around the gaming block enough times is familiar with the “post-game high,” strong feelings born of just finishing something you’ve been living with for however long…but I’m not convinced that’s at work here. It feels somehow deeper. Or more simply: I didn’t cry at the end of GTA: San Andreas, but I DID HERE.
WARNING #2: We are not here to sell the game; we are here to SPOIL THE SHIT OUT OF IT. You’ve been warned.
Holy cow, that ending (the first one). The writing’s on the wall as soon as you complete the “I Know You” Stranger missions, but even knowing/thinking you know how things are going to shake out, I’m not sure anything properly prepares you for the emotional heft of John Marston’s last stand. And when I say “anything,” I guess I mean any videogame. In the modern era, games have dealt with objectively tough stuff, sure — death, terrorism, AIDS (Philadelphia: The Videogame) — but not to the extent that you’re experiencing it as a gameplay mechanism, where you’re actively enveloped — immersed — in the intensely visceral situation at hand. That extra breath Marston takes as he waits in the darkness of the barn, fully aware that there’s a platoon of US Army soldiers and his former handlers out there waiting to gun him down? Jesus Christ. And then you TAKE OVER, desperately wondering in that last Dead Eye if there’s any possible way for you to take out every man cocking his rifle. Anyone not willing to concede RDR as “Best Game Ever” can at least admit it’s probably got one of the more daring and powerful endings around. It HITS.
…And THEN there’s the coda, which may be even more depressing than what came before. You put the pieces together even before you start playing as Jack — that all of the Beecher’s Hope missions are less fun than they are THEMATICALLY RELEVANT and RIFE WITH FORESHADOWING (especially in the horse-riding dialogue, which I’m grateful to have never skipped over) — but even then, even knowing Rockstar’s penchant for extreme downbeats, the way he appears comes as something of a shock. A gunslinger just like his old man? I fully expected some Road to Perdition “I wouldn’t go down my father’s path” vibes, with Jack becoming a writer or male nurse or something…not his father’s echoing damnation. F*CK. That there’s no option to disarm your enemy in that final mission, or simply walk away, speaks volumes about the message Dan Houser and Co. were trying to convey. ANOTHER BIG HIT. (And if you keep playing for a bit afterwards? And listening to some of Jack’s running dialogue? Have some Zoloft handy.)
SPOILERS HAVE ENDED.
But forgetting the story for a second and the ways in which RDR is the best cinematic novel never written, gameplay alone is just head and shoulders above other open-world titles. In how many other games can you say you really enjoyed just driving around? Getting lost in the wilderness, checking your kit to make sure you had enough medicine to survive a grizzly attack or stagecoach robbery? I can remember feeling distinctly bummed during my travels through Mexico that there weren’t more towns (or rather interactive towns, with shops and such), especially in the Diez Coronas region…but then you think, why would there be? The fact that there aren’t, that you’ve got to weather the loneliness and isolation of that area with only a sparse soundtrack for accompaniment, is honestly sort of revolutionary. I’m fully cognizant of my being the type of person to ascribe “art” status when I just don’t want to admit disappointment in something, but processing that moment — and so many more like it, where you truly feel like a cowboy navigating the dangerous country — really kind of knocks you sideways. Wearing a cowboy hat throughout can only augment the sensation.
You could go on about the voice acting (impeccable in a truly jaw-dropping way), the writing, the graphics, etc., but the most striking aspects of any severely unhealthy month-long relationship with RDR are already covered above. So many games now come out each year, each month, that it’s easy for stuff to get drowned in the noise, but this one…this is seriously one for the ages. Those of you who even read this post have likely already played the game. If for some reason you read everything (WHY?) without doing so — play it. Until you get a headache. Then pop some Advil, readjust your spurs, and dive back in. Abandon 21st century American life; descend, for 20-40 hours, into 1911 cowboy reality.
Then return and tell me this isn’t among the most fully-realized, immersive, and heartbreaking WORKS OF ART you’ve ever experienced. I triple dog dare you, stranger.