I didn’t know much about Red Dead Redemption when it arrived on my desk, begging to be reviewed. And yet I probably knew everything I needed to. It was all spelled out for me on the front of the clamshell. Staring down a double-barrel shotgun was one mean-looking hombre. Right beneath him, the words, “Rockstar Games Presents Red Dead Redemption.”
OK. So the makers of the Grand Theft Auto series had set their sights on the Wild West, I thought. That’s gotta be bad news for the Wild West. And, indeed, the game’s content warning box trumpeted the fact that it was rated M for “Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs.”
“Why are we working on this game?” I asked one of my colleagues, pointing to the box. “They’ve already written our review. What else do we need to know?”
The Wild, Wild West … Rockstar Style
Red Dead Redemption features a “sandbox” environment in which—even as the main story unfolds with cinematic cutscenes—there’s virtually limitless opportunity to explore this wide, wild version of the Old West’s final days. (The game is set in 1911 in a digital approximation of the Texas-Mexico border.) You play as John Marston, a former gang member who’s determined to turn his life around and leave his violent ways and days behind. But dastardly government agents have just kidnapped his wife and son. So it doesn’t look like the quiet life is anywhere close to John’s immediate future.
Visually, the exploratory portions of the game can be a sumptuous experience, with the gritty canyons and pueblos of the Southwest rendered with vivid attention to detail. Wander out into the wilderness at night and you might run into a cougar or a coyote … or a band of thieving, rapacious outlaws.
Just like Grand Theft Auto, there is no shortage of scoundrels, ne’er-do-wells, drunks and prostitutes with which to interact with, hurt, kill or otherwise abuse. And given the game’s wide-open design, players can have Marston act like a scoundrel too if they want to.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto, which can breed a twisted kind of nihilistic delight in practicing random acts of brutality, the moral universe in Red Dead Redemption feels more solid. Make Marston do bad things, and the police come after him. Also, there’s really nothing to be gained by acting perversely. Conversely, his level of “honor” can be increased by having him capture criminals without killing them. (That generally involves using a combat feature that slows down time, allowing John to take better aim and thereby maul instead of murder.)
Even for players bound and determined to do the wrong thing, there are some aspects of Marston’s character that are unchangeable. Prostitutes (wearing period lingerie) are a fixture in many saloons, whispering such things as, “You must be awful tired, mister, wanna lie down?” But Marston always declines, telling them his wife wouldn’t like it.
Seeking Honor in a Dishonorable Land
For all that distinguishes Red Dead Redemption from its urban cousin, however, there’s still a lot of shared digital DNA. Remember those M-rated content descriptors? Marston might always say no to sex, but that doesn’t keep him from seeing someone else have it—or keep players from seeing the involved lady’s bare breasts.
And Marston’s code of conduct—definitely a work in progress—doesn’t keep him from killing a village full of Mexican rebels. Others come to a violent end via Molotov cocktails, dynamite, trains or stagecoach crashes.
Foul words don’t fly continually, but no one can say there’s a shortage of salty sayings here—including numerous f-words and even the c-word.
All of that means I now know a whole lot more about this game than I ever really wanted to. But the facts haven’t changed my initial impression—that Red Dead Redemption is a Rockstar game … just like it says on the box. There is some redemption to be had. But mostly a whole lotta folks just wind up dead.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.