I read voraciously. I only read fiction. Suffice to say, I’m interested in a good story. I enjoy compelling characters, a grandiose plot, a great ending. That “interested in a good story” characteristic appears to have manifested itself in the types of games that I like.
Sure, I like Madden, I play Madden; real time strategy games too. But if we’re talking RPGs or first person shooters, if the story isn’ there I’ll eventually stop playing (no matter how good it is otherwise). Example: Sykrim. Skyrim is really, truly awesome. But I stopped playing it. The game became rather boring after the third guild that I joined simply because it didn’t seem to advance the story. I know that’s the guild system is one of the high points of the game and it’s partially my fault for getting into it more, but it still turned me off.
This isn’t the set up to your average “Things I Love & Things I Hate About Video Games” post; no, this is to establish that I think the “interested in a good story” characteristic is determinative of possibly my favorite console game of all time: Red Dead Redemption.
I was initially skeptical of Red Dead Redemption. I like Rockstar games, but don’t love them. Same with Westerns. Also, I don’t particularly care to invest money in games unless I’m convinced they’ll be good. But since my brother told me to pick up the game (he has similar interests in good stories), I figured why not and guess what? I was immediately hooked. After turning on the console and starting the game, suddenly I was presented with something I had never seen before. It looked like we were getting a real story: the boat, the people hustling; the town… hell the main character wasn’t a prettied-up jackass or macho non-thinker. He looked like he had a back story and it was a good one. He had a history, things had happened.
I won’t go through all the details of the story. You can find that on Wikipedia or Youtube or by (please!) playing the game. Spoiler alerts notwithstanding, the actions you took in the game had a purpose: to advance the story. Almost everything you did in-game accomplished this. You had a former criminal who had already reinvented himself as a loving husband and father; forced by the government to bring his fellow criminals to justice with the endgame of being able to live out the rest of his life in peace, unharrassed. Yes, the graphics were excellent. Yes, the voice acting was tremendous. Yes, the game play was simple yet effective and fun. But I keep coming back to the real strength of the entire experience: the story. Even outside of the main storyline, the characters and their dialogue were incredible. I loved Nigel West Dickens. Irish was a favorite. Edgar Ross was sufficiently sleazy. They were caricatures of Western icons, but they were effective and entertaining. In the context of the story, they were real and they were important.
But then we get to the ending (real spoiler alert here). This is the first time in my long history of gaming when real, sentimental, big-boy tears welled up. I was sad. I reloaded to see if I could do something different. When I couldn’t, I became angry. I went online and tried to figure out what I could do. I couldn’t do anything; I couldn’t save him. The story of the greatest character I ever played in a game abruptly ended with one of the biggest shocks I’d ever experienced. I played the last few scenes, enjoyed the “coming-full-circle” element of them and turned off the XBox 360. I felt fulfilled and a little upset with the result.
I finished the game in November 2010 and I haven’t played it since then. But I remember the story well. It occupies a place in my thoughts like a favorite novel. Whomever wrote the script (Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth, and Christian Cantamessa) should be awarded an Academy Award for best writing in a drama. I searched for more western video games, hoping to rekindle some semblance of the same experience I had with Red Dead Redemption. I couldn’t find one within sniffing distance.
If you haven’t played Red Dead Redemption, shame on you. That’s an issue you need to rectify. If you have, do what I’m going to do. Go back and play it again (or wait until RDR 2 comes out – I’ve read things); I’m firing up the 360 as we speak. I’m heading back to enjoy the Old West atmosphere. And dammit, when I’m trapped in that barn while my wife and son are running for their lives, I’m going to throw open the door and blast as many of those government bastards as possible straight to hell.