Civilization and its malcontents meet their maker in this sepia-toned, bullet-time, bloodbath
From the makers of Grand Theft Auto IV, new western title Red Dead Redemption is quickly becoming legend.
The game’s bleak realness, tragic arc, and notable glitches might be why makers Rockstar and publisher Take-Two soft-peddled its release. It was a profoundly difficult game to make, and few review copies of the game went out before ship date in May. The game was expected to sell five million copies within one year of release.
Shocking watchers, the game has sold five million copies in less than three weeks. It’s single-handedly boosted the stock outlook of Take-Two. It’s become a most-talked about game on the web, trumping even World Cup fever in the UK. This is not just because of its copious bounty, treasure and sport hunting.
Red Dead Redemption accomplishes the near-impossible. The ambitious, $100 million sleeper of a mega-hit manages to make all its precedents feel like antecedents. From this point forward, an entire generation will refer to a game as the major landmark in an increasingly vibrant, violent genre.
Pink, dawn light delicately filters through the frays in Marston’s poncho as he kneels down and slices open a freshly shot buck.
“Lie still,” Martson jokes, alone on the great plains of West Elizabeth.
Red Dead Redemption is the first truly pastoral game. Benjamin Franklin would have loved its abject disdain for city life. Rockstar San Diego studio has crafted one of the biggest game worlds ever made. It worships at the altar of geography, manifest in everything from the rugged, snow-topped mountains of Tall Trees to the searing desert shitholes of Perdido. Out in the endless back country, bear, cougar, wolves, wild boar and other predators stalk the apex predator holding the controller.
Big sky country feels big inside this game. The stars shine ultra-bright. Evening and morning hues feel hyper-real. Storm fronts move in and dump rain, and clear out again, then fresh puddles reflect that narcotic light.
Ambient sounds combine with a subtle yet masterful, modern take on Western-themed music by alt-country underground legends Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, who are on Nirvana’s old Sub Pop Records label. The pair recorded fourteen hours of pensive rustic notes, reportedly all in A Minor. Lone bells, harpsichord, and fiddle might punctuate a slow, predawn ride. When the action gets furious, thrilling drums back beefy bass, arid electric guitar, trumpet. It’s the best forty-hour Western film you’ll never see in theaters.
Lead character John Marston – voiced by Rob Weithoff – has more nuance and heart than many real-life film actors. Star-crossed from birth, facial scars mark John’s history of violence, and he comes with a credible backstory that at least explains the misspent youth.
The orphan of Scottish immigrants, a boy with no name, Marston fell in with a charismatic, quasi-revolutionary named Dutch Van Der Linde, played immaculately by Benjamin Byron Davis. Dutch’s gang sought freedom from the encroaching social order, but “went crazy” as Marston puts it, and Marston lost faith.
When Dutch left John for dead during a botched robbery, Marston went straight. He married, settled down, had a kid and started a farm. The game starts when a savage Federal agent named Edgar Ross is tasked with stopping Dutch. The Feds seize Marston’s wife and child, and threaten them with jail and death unless John takes down his old gang. And off he goes.
You become a legendary hero or outlaw in pursuit of Dutch, killing thousands of gang members, banditos, Mexican revolutionaries, and both countries’ military. Set in the year 1911, Marston is the pacification of the West incarnate, just years before World War I proved civilization is defined by its most savage.
Writers Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth and Christian Cantamessa should be applauded for vividly illustrating an often overlooked fact that: the people’s history of the United States is mostly poor on poor. Slaveship sailors died young. Neither kings, nor councilmembers personally subjugated the Indians. Piss poor migrants fleeing famine, jail and worse will do the dirty work. Today, the trend continues. Immigrants and the oft-derided Generation Y – jobless and prospectless – fight two wars of pacification.
There’s a reason why these synthetic westerns – Preacher, Deadwood, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood – continue to resonate so strongly in these perilously modern times. Not only artistically bulletproof, Red Dead Redemption hammers on what philosopher Slavoj Zizek notes in his July book Living in the End Times:
“Civilization is grounded in a lie. ... In order to civilize the Wild West, the lie had to be elevated into truth.”
Now, that truth crumbles. Being John Marston is an exercise in the type of mythic violence that paved the way for modernity with a road of bones.
“Blood, whips, guns, or dollars,” Ayn Rand would add. “Take your choice. There is no other.”Links: 30 minute film shot in RDR