The lights are on
There’s a set period of time when an open-world game has a sense of wonder. Those beginning hours of discovery fill the mind with possibilities of what kind of shenanigans can be had in each new area that is introduced. Usually, new locations are presented in a structured or regimented way; missions become available in new places specifically for the game to progress to that new area. But every once in a while, something more organic happens.
My first bounty hunter mission in Red Dead Redemption is a moment I’ll never forget. When first riding in to enter the city of Armadillo, myriad side missions and activities pop up, one of which is bounty hunting. Taking a wanted poster puts a marker on the map, and it’s your duty to go to that area, find that varmint, and bring him in dead or alive. My first bounty took me to a bandit hideout on the outskirts of Pike’s Basin near MacFarlane Ranch, a place that would be introduced in a story mission later on, but for the time being was a new area to me.
I approached the campsite and shot a group of half a dozen bandits, except for the main target because obviously I wanted him alive. By the time I had killed the bounty’s posse however, he had already gotten on his horse and darted away. I whistled for my steed, mounted up and galloped off, and thus began one of my favorite chase sequences I’ve had in a video game – and it wasn’t even scripted.
That rapscallion took off into the distance, towards the small hills behind MacFarlane Ranch. Since this was near the start of the game, I was new and inexperienced at using the lasso, and there was no dead-eye mechanic that slowed down time. This actually made the chase more exciting and challenging. I didn’t want to shoot him off the horse for fear of killing him, so aiming a lasso at a moving horse became a tricky situation. I would catch up to him and try to lasso him off his horse and barely miss. Finally I lassoed him off, but then when I got off my horse to tie him up, he shot at me and scurried back onto his horse, and the chase began anew.
I chased the outlaw away from MacFarlane Ranch into territory I’d never seen before. He led his horse past the dry fields of the prairie and into the marshes and wetlands far off the beaten path. I later came to learn that the chase took me near Thieves’ Landing, a location that is not formally introduced until much later in the game. The interesting thing about Red Dead Redemption is that unlike most games that restrict the player into a small area at the beginning, Red Dead’s only restrictions are the rivers that aren’t traversable, giving you a huge expanse to explore from the outset. Most of the land has no activities related to it, but it’s beautiful all the same. I might have never seen this area if it wasn’t for this chase, and that’s pretty awesome.
Meanwhile as the chase went on, Bill Elm and Woody Jackson’s brilliant, rollicking score blasted out of my TV set. For those that haven’t played the game, imagine hearing this playing for the first time as you ride through uncharted territory in a high-pressure horse chase:
Everything from the bass line to the guitars to the percussion was pitch-perfect for a Wild West chase. Hearing this music play for a good five minutes as I struggled to track my man down made the experience just incredible.
Finally, in a wooded area in the middle of nowhere, I managed to get him off the horse and tie him up before he could get back on. As the epic music faded out, I realized that the sequence was everything a Western game should be: open, wild, and spontaneous.
As the game went on, I never had quite the same experience with the bounty hunting. Once I got used to the mechanics I realized that with the slow-motion dead eye mechanic I could shoot the horse and shoot the bandit in the leg quickly, and the mission would be over in thirty seconds. What was once unknown territory became known, and there was less excitement. This is inevitably what happens if you play a game long enough: Everything becomes familiar.
But there is always that sweet spot in games where nearly everything you do is novel, and that’s what I love. In the case of open-world games, there’s an element of spontaneity and unpredictability that adds even more excitement. I had no idea where that bandit was going to go, and he took me into completely new parts of the world. He could have taken five different players into five different directions, and that’s pretty darn cool. When you’re in a moment that is completely new and you have no idea what’s going to happen next, that’s when games are at their best.
Email the author Shin Hieftje, or follow on Game Informer.