A prestigious short story collection from an award-winning Irish author isn’t the first place I’d expect to find a clever critique of a popular video game, and the double-edged sword of escapism. In the second story of Colin Barrett’s Homesickness, the glowingly reviewed collection of eight connected tales mostly set in western Ireland, the plot takes a breather to weigh the goods and the bads of Blood Dusk 2, a not-so-subtle wink at Rockstar’s massively successful open-world Western.
Gerry, a boy raised by his siblings following his parents' death, refuses to leave his room. When not spying on his family, he finds a mix of comfort and frustration in the predictability of his current game of choice.
Here’s the excerpt:
Gerry, the flesh-and-guts boy, was lumped on his beanbag, the only light in his room the glow from the TV atop the dresser. His PlayStation wheezed on the floor at his slippered feet. The game was Blood Dusk 2. You played as Cole Skuse, an ex-Yankee soldier and mercenary. Right now, Gerry was about to attempt the rescue of Skuse’s love interest, a beautiful blonde prostitute named Dora Levigne. She was being held hostage by the Cullen gang inside the saloon. Mission objective was get in there, ventilate as many of the Cullen boys as possible, and get her out. The Cullen faction was part of a larger horde of roving rapists, murderers, thieves and scalp hunters led by a scarred brute known only as the Padre. The Padre was your true and final adversary, the man who, in the game’s prologue, had ordered the murder of your family.
Gerry liked Blood Dusk 2, but was becoming less and less enamoured of the repetitious, shootout-intensive missions you were obliged to complete in order to advance the plot. The game weighed things too much in your favour. You had unlimited lives, too many automatic save points, too nuanced and forgiving a targeting system for taking out your opponents. What was worth it, what kept Gerry coming back, was the game map. The map was gorgeous, two hundred square miles of simulated, fully intractable nineteenth-century North American frontier. While the missions tended to cluster in the towns and settlements that occupied only a small percentage of the game’s physical environment, Gerry had spent countless hours ranging through the enormous remainder of the map. He had discovered the remnants of Indian graves, chased down buffalo on an open plain, drunk moonshine with a benignly deranged prospector by the shore of a moonlit creek. The landscape teemed with wildlife and, to a lesser extent, other people, and you could, of course, shoot every living thing in the game, though Gerry refrained whenever possible. At sunset, he would goad his nag up the trail of a hill to watch the sinking rays cut across the cliff walls of a distant canyon, the ponderous flecks of vultures lagging in the thermals...
It’s a beautiful bit of prose, wielding Gerry’s feelings about the game to pry open the door into Gerry’s psychology. The story of a man who’s lost his family resonates, but the boy cares less about the violent standoffs that drag the story into the swampy, repetitive violence of shooters. And the hero’s struggle with grief and revenge is too easy, too free of pain. Gerry can’t stop playing, though, because this sprawling facsimile of the world is a respite from his own, so totally disconnected in time and space.
Is Barrett literally talking about Red Dead Redemption 2? He doesn’t use the official title. Whether that decision ties to legal boundaries or personal choice, Barrett’s clear about the simulacrum and its function. By critiquing one of the most popular games of all time, Barrett invites readers to see themselves in this grieving child. With a couple of paragraphs describing a video game within the context of its player’s life, Barrett holds a mirror to our own relationship with Red Dead, along with all the other games we play for relief from reality.
Video game fans of a particular vintage have spent the better part of their lives seeking validation for their hobby. For decades, we had to hear parents, pundits, and politicians deem games as violent, puerile, and void of artistry. Games played second fiddle to serious hobbies like literature, film, music, and sports. But that’s changed with time, as people raised on games become great artists, weaving the medium into the larger tapestry of art.
We see games in literature. We see literature in games. And ideally, we see more of ourselves in the stories we love.