Year of release: May 18, 2010
It's Grand Theft Auto on a horse, basically. But who would've thought a concept so superficially stupid would turn out such an utterly complete game that's (still, to this day) arguably the best game Rockstar's ever made? Maybe Rockstar, and maybe Rockstar's biggest fans, but few others. Because here's the thing with cowboy western games: Every genre of game has one great one, and almost always, only one. And more often than not, they're less than memorable. Think about this for a moment: What other video games that use westerns for a backdrop have really changed the course of gaming? Side-scrollers had SunsetRiders, light-gun games had Mad Dog McCree, RPGs had Wild Arms (kind of), but otherwise? Not much there.
A definitive or at least important video game western hadn't been achieved, and had barely been attempted. And the thing with Red Dead is that it could've only been GTA on a horse, and it probably would've been a great game, too. But we got so much more than that, didn't we? This is a sandbox game where the transportation mechanic isn't holding a shoulder button and careering through streets, but tapping a pad button repeatedly, setting a pace for the horse—walk, trot, gait, or gallop—and continuing to maintain that pace. Each step the horse took reverberated on the controller. And unlike a car, the horse would occasionally fight back at you, maybe even throw you off. It was the perfect way to create a world where virtually no corner could go untouched, where you could literally ride off the beaten path, something you were sometimes encouraged to do, and sometimes something you had to figure out how to do for yourself, and for your own benefit.
The way we're introduced to Marston—seeing him left for dead on his first confrontation with Bill Williamson, and having to start putting his life back together on Bonnie MacFarlane's ranch—isn't how we're used to meeting our heroes.
It wasn't just that, though: The mere act of continuing to tap and hold that button, and the pace it set, and the way you felt each step, and the way each step and its controller reverberation shifted depending on what ground was underneath it? That was a kinetic experience. It connected you to the action of moving around the map in a way only one other game—the meditative Japanese epic Shadow Of The Colossus—had attempted to get right in a meaningful way. But where the idea of traveling by horse over landscapes was a way for Shadow Of The Colossus to convey an atmosphere of existential loneliness, in this game, it was a way to convey loneliness, romanticism, longing, adventure, exploring, and the actual feeling of moving a significant distance over a map in ways we had never seen no less felt in a game before. When the simple act of tapping a button repeatedly to move around a game becomes transcendent, you know you've got something extraordinary on your hands.
And that's just where Red Dead gets started. John Marston was unlike any Rockstar character we'd ever seen: An antihero, of course, but aren't they all? This one, however, seemingly deserved a shot at a better life. Having been an outlaw, he's forced by the government to smoke out his old gang in order to get back to his family. The way we're introduced to Marston—seeing him left for dead on his first confrontation with Bill Williamson, and having to start putting his life back together on Bonnie MacFarlane's ranch—isn't how we're used to meeting our heroes. But Marston's gruff, even-handed charm was the first time we saw a character who wasn't overtly anything, really, so much as a straight-shooting canvas for other characters to project their emotions and ideas on, which is why the characters of Red Dead work so well: Almost all of them are despicable. The few who aren't are truly lovable. But almost all of them have personas that brighten and deepen the game's narrative depths in meaningful ways, right through the game's end.
The gameplay is still the best of any Rockstar game to date, as well. Another duck-and-cover system, of course, but also, the bullet-time-esque Red Dead targeting system, a cinematic, insanely fun, ever-addictive way of taking out scores of opponents, who could also be disarmed by shooting in different parts of the body (rather than simply taking them down wholesale). Of course, the driving-and-shooting mechanic was more flexible, too, with the point of the horses as open-sided, versatile game transport proving itself critial: Never has a run-and-gun—let alone a drive-and-gun—mechanic been so much fun before or since. And then there were the climactic dueling mechanic sequences, which while not perfect, and easy to get a grip on, could still make for climactic sequences. The gameplay was that of your third-generation sandbox game, a generation we're still in now: Chapters are chopped up into missions, each chapter opens up a new part of the map, there are side-quests, and side-games you can play to earn more money.
But the side games in this one were different, too: Poker. Herding cattle. Whatever it was, Red Dead has a calm, almost meditative feeling to the game's story, of helping John Marston get back home, if he could. The question that we all ask ourselves at some point—Can you really ever go home again?—feels like it lingers throughout the proceedings, even when you make it back to the Marston ranch in the game's final section. And while individual missions weren't the most memorable part of the game, the chapters, and the way the game was sliced up most certainly were. Marston's story had a serious emotional hook to it, yet chapters kept you immersed in that part of the game's world, one you wouldn't necessarily rush to get out of so much as linger in, soaking up, right until the point you knew you had to drop back into the current of the game's plot. By the game's conclusion, despite a short total running time, you felt like John Marston had, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, lived a very, very long life.
And about that ending: It is, without a doubt, one of the most famously smart, surprising, great moments in video games, and it happens multiple times. Again, we're not in the business of spoiling game endings, but anyone who's seen it has excitedly talked about what it was like experiencing it with someone else that'd seen it, and not simply the ending itself, but 'holy shit, it ain't over yet' feeling of moving through it. And that's ultimately so much of what makes Red Dead that much better of a game than any other sandbox game ever created: It had heart, and heart it wore in every element of the game in that it was about more than great gameplay (the last time Rockstar got it perfect) so much as about bringing games into a world of romanticism, one devoid of an inherent cynicism so much as truths about the nature of people and the individual's place in the world.
Of course, no more is this evident then in The Mexico Sequence. It's impossible to talk to anyone who's played this game without talking about The Mexico Sequence, one of the most spectacular moments we'd ever seen in a video game, and amazingly, one in which not all that much happens. In it, John Marston has finally forded the river and made his way to Mexico. He mounts a horse, and starts riding. And riding. And riding. And then, one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed for a video game—Jose Gonzalez's "Far Away"—kicks in. And it's just you, the horse, and the Mexican hills.
Tapping the button. Riding away, just another hero on a hero's journey, heeding the call to adventure, going deep into the desert, further from home than he's ever been, with, for now, just one thing to focus on: That ride. It was as transcendent a moment video games have ever had, and ultimately, one of the most perfect sequences in any game, ever, and served to represent the evolution of games and gaming culture so much more than any action-filled moment in that game (or really, any Rockstar game) ever could.
The only other way to understand the appeal of Red Dead is by talking to anyone who still holds onto their copy of them. Ask them, and they'll probably tell you, yeah, they pop it in every once in a while, just to take a ride. —Foster Kamer