The lights are on
Power Member - Level 9
Likely the most instantly recognizable genre in any form, the Western has endured through the 20th century by undergoing transformations as varied as the stories told around campfires built in the moonlit night of the American frontier. From the gratuitous spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone to the revisionist novels of Cormac McCarthy, the genre shifts and bends according to the person behind the camera or the pen, but the fixed archetypal elements remain present enough for the viewer/reader to understand the work's function in its generic history. The Man With No Name trilogy gave Hollywood Clint Eastwood's iconic portrayal of the titular hero (aka "Blondie"), the quintessential "drifter" character living outside the law. McCarthy's Blood Meridian depicts the West as a place steeped in myth and blood. Due to the versatility of its elements, it amazes me how seldom they are used in video games.
The first Western-themed game I played was LucasArts' Outlaws (1997), a first-person shooter in which a retired U.S. Marshal hunts down the evil railroad baron who killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter. Though I never really liked the in-game cartoonish graphics (this was before cel shading solved the problem of placing cartoons in a 3D envioronment), the cutscenes made the atmosphere come alive. Outlaws spins a good yarn, and would be my favorite traditional Western game until 2010, when Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption, an award-winning game that I'm sure everyone who is reading this has played. Finally, a developer nailed the genre in look, atmosphere, and overall feel. The writing, the voice work, the mechanics, all of them crystallized in a near pitch-perfect work of genre fiction that paid homage to its inspirations while carving out a new niche for games in the Western genre. John Marston's journey toward redemption seems like standard fare for the Western genre, but Rockstar gave us a way to pick apart a genre the only way an open world video game can: we control how John Marston lives.
Red Dead Redemption's New Austin is violent...extremely violent. When the player first control Marston, the character is already wounded and bloody, barely a survivor of his first encounter with Bill Williamson. Even the household chores, as anyone who grew up on a farm (myself included) can attest, involve a fair degree of violence as you shoot vermin to protect crops or livestock. Violence in the frontier is unavoidable. Through these simple gameplay elements, the game invests meaning in the most mundane daily activities. Roping and breaking broncos, driving cattle, hunting, they all involve violence or danger in some form or fashion, and it is in these situations where the video game breaks from the Western film genre and becomes more novelesque.
I think that Red Dead Redemption owes just as much influence to Cormac McCarthy as it does John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. In his Western novels (particularly his Border Trilogy), McCarthy finds significance in almost every aspects of daily life in the American West. For instance, this passage from All the Pretty Horses shows how the protagonist, John Grady Cole comes to a deep, metaphysical understanding of pain and existence simply by listening to the horse eat:
McCarthy's language is elegaic, tragic, and hauntingly beautiful. But the language of Red Dead Redemption (and video games at large) functions much more differently, namely through gameplay. Every task that Marston performs raises questions about control and motivation. The men forcing Marston to hunt down his former gang members are metonymous for the player's physically controlling Marston. The person with the controller is, of course, just as culpable as Edgar Ross in Marston's torment. We make John Marston kill, we make him hunt, we make him go to missions in Mexico and New Austin. Marston, as he gets pulled into the Mexican Revolution, even admits to Abraham Reyes, "I'm a semi-literate farmer. I ain't in the power game," a meta-narrative comment that, by no coincidence, calls attention to his position as a character in a game. Yet we, too, are limited by the game's scope in what we can do. In these moments of the game, we can pause to enjoy a Western sunset or have drink at the local bar because the game allows us certain freedoms, but those freedoms are bound to the system of the game just as Marston is bound to Edgar Ross. Thus, performing the mundane task of shooting rabbits gains significance about what constitutes gameplay. Can chores be made fun if they're performed in virtual space? The game asks these questions, if tacitly, through its gameplay and mission structure.
The similarities between McCarthy's Border Trilogy and Rockstar's Western do not end in the world of the mundane--these texts are elegies for the American West. In All the Pretty Horses, for example, John Grady Cole, a young man who grew up on his grandfather's ranch until his grandfather's death in 1949, elects to, rather than to live in town after the ranch's closing, to leave his home on horseback in search of work on a ranch in Mexico. Cole begins his journey as a romantic believer in the ethos of the Old West, but he finds the same inescapable truth that Marston does--that the West was settled through blood and political corruption rather than through ideals of American exceptionalism. McCarthy explores this concept broadly in Blood Meridian as well, setting the novel in pre-Civil War America where the West becomes a place of unfathomable horror and grotesque cruelty.
It's easy to see Red Dead Redemption as a spaghetti Western, but I find the powerful narrative and gameplay work to create something more powerful than films or (most) novels are capable of manufacturing. The game does not just question Marston's actions or the actions of his enemies. It makes us participants in the founding of a virtual Modern America, working for or against the closing of the frontier and inhabiting the American West during its twilight years. In my very first post, I used Marston's story as an example of ludonarrative dissonance. Yes, he can tie a nun and leave her on a railroad track, and the game still tells you that you are a tragic hero and bandit-turned-family-man. But perhaps that's why the game is something special. It gives you the story structure and shootout gameplay of a Sergio Leone movie as well as the contemplative depth of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Red Dead Redemption casts a long shadow over the genre of Western fiction, and I don't see any text coming out of the dust to challenge its place anytime soon.