The Assassination of Rockstar

John Brindle delivers in this amazing read of his view of Red Dead Redemption.

Revenge. It’s an ugly word, but I’m an ugly man. I tried to start a new life of peace and fulfilment – I started playing Red Dead Redemption. But now the work of just one blogger has turned that all to ashes. They say this path never ends anywhere good. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m damn sure I’m going to end the son of a bitch who spoiled that game for me.

As you can see, I get a bit carried away with the idea of the Wild West. Yet RDR itself leaves me somewhat cold, and the dirty no good rotten spoiler in question – Lee Kelly over at Ambient Challenge – has perceptively summed up the reasons why. The game’s visuals and sound are immaculate; it shimmers (to steal a phrase) with droplets of purest atmosphere, and, for a game, I guess the writing’s okay too. But Redemption is so entangled in the design conventions of the GTA series that its mechanics never live up to its aesthetics. I want to expand Spoiler Kelly’s critique to illuminate three major structural ways in which Redemption fails the challenge of its Wild West setting.

The Crime System

Our mother, because she was in all respects a sensible woman, did not believe in shielding her children from images of violence, and, because she was an evil one, revelled in inoculating them. Yet in one case she put her foot down: Jimmy alone was never allowed to play Grand Theft Auto. This summer, however, I made him play telling him the point of the game was to act like a psychopath. Instead, he spent his time cycling around Los Santos, burning off all the muscle I’d built up and being very careful not to kill anyone. Minutes later, he sailed off a cliff and landed directly on top of an old lady, who was crushed. The point is, GTA makes it really hard not to murder. Squashy handling and suicidal pedestrians ensure a succession of accidental killings, while the extreme ease of murder makes it a viable response to almost everything. Opportunities to kick off are everywhere (that the player gains wanted stars when a cop scrapes past their car functions as an incitement to destruction as well as a satirical point), and a police department with the temperament of a nervous horse ensure that even the slightest of them quickly escalates into a horrific bloodbath. Nico’s grumbling in GTAIV comes off as ludicrous not so much because you can contradict it but because you’re obliged to. Dissonance is a spurious concern when players go out of their way to create it; the real question is what the rules encourage and prevent. Red Dead Redemption is not as twisted, but it inherits many of the same mechanics. I’ve lost track of how often I have accidentally attacked someone (sometimes without realising), incurred their automatic wrath, acquired a bounty attempting to defend myself, been shot at, tried to lasso everyone, been shot at even more for doing so, and fled the town. Then I kill everyone in a forty mile radius and restart the console.

Part of the problem here is that Rockstar didn’t bother to offer the player many ways out of such situations. Ambient duels initiate as you walk through the world, but nobody you accidentally trample ever challenges you to a duel instead of simply attacking you. People draw their guns in a trice rather than responding to fists with fists. Nobody respects the sanctity of a one-on-one fight, and officers of the law shoot first and ask questions later (nobody ever shouts “surrender!”, even though surrender is technically an option). The intention of making it so much harder to get out of these situations than in GTA is clearly to dissuade you from getting into them in the first place, but it simply gives you less incentive to seek a peaceful resolution. In a world that demands the use of force, the consequences of force frustrate more than they excite. Contrary to what the makers of Farmville may believe, paying money is not in itself a satisfying ludic action.

But never fear. If you tire of unjust persecution, you can always commit genocide. Because there’s no escalation of force from the law, no army regiments, artillery pieces, armoured trains or barricades, the player is quite capable of trudging through dozens, hundreds of deaths. These non-canon rampages have occupied about 50% of my time in game so far, and they seem to be the usual result of something going wrong. But they are completely divorced from John Marston’s story and from my self-selected continuity – the one where the story I create makes some sense, rather than the one where he murderously acts out. Having watched my friends play the game I’ve concluded that these rampages – which occur without exception at least once in anyone’s play – have two causes. Either they come from sheer curiosity, and an impulse to see how far the player can go, or they are the frustrated outburst of a player who wants so hard to believe in the story she is playing yet is prevented at every turn. Either way, on you plod, killing and killing, people spawning, screaming, running away and spawning again, and brief red numbers you don’t care about lighting up the grey dawn.

That’ll show ‘em.

The Combat System

Of course, genocide may be thematically appropriate for the American West. But I don’t remember anything in A People’s History about a white man who single-handedly wiped out the Native Americans (and all nearby wilflide). These non-continuity slaughters draw attention to another problem: combat. The Wild West’s rugged masculinity is shot through with a vein of fragility, and its rough heroes are vulnerable in the way of all flesh. Getting shot is a big deal, and in the yawning emptiness of an unconquered land, who’s going to save you? The quick-draw mystique only functions because one shot is supposedly fatal. Certainly this is the case on the one-off duel encounters scattered around the game. But outside of them, you’re Wolverine. Snap-to-target auto-aim and whip-fast reloading already make it trivially easy to pop heads, but the bizarre decision to implement regenerating health – which regenerates at a propsterous clip – means you can butcher entire towns without breaking a sweat.

Moreover, the safety net of health regen has made the combat designers lazy. Pinpoint enemy accuracy and short engagement ranges mean it’s almost impossible not to be struck – but no problem, Marston can take it. He shares with his enemies a high probability of success, but wins because he’s tougher – so why bother to make either enemies or the player more fallible? Likewise, since a player leaning out from behind a cowshed to take aim can be shot instantly upon emerging, cover functions mostly to delay the hit until you’ve got enough health not to care about it. It’s as if the combat system consists entirely of quick fixes chasing each other in circles without any original problem to address: the player is accurate, so enemies must be too; enemies are accurate, so the player must replenish health; the player is tough as nails, so enemies must be accurate. And if there are sometimes many enemies for the player to take on, simply implement bullet time.

Features like suppression or more powerful accuracy modifiers based on range and movement might have served to create battles that felt part of the Wild West (and were more than merely pedestrian). The setting simply demands a different approach to bullets, and that in turn requires a different kind of combat, where anyone getting shot, including the player, is a big deal. That might have offered the chance of desperate escapes through the desert with a bullet in your gut, but it could also have cut down on the waves of goons the game deploys to keep things interesting.

Read more of the article at the Brindle Brothers

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