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Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback riding through grass at sunset Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

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Why Red Dead Redemption is the greatest Western ever made

A look back at what made Red Dead Redemption so good

I ride off the top of a butte backward on a burro. I’m also being shot at, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a bonus here. If it were real-real, it’d be about a 500-foot fall, minimum. I’m tumbling like a crash test dummy off the side of what is clearly a virtual replica of West Mitten Butte. The burro is along for the ride. I don’t feel great about that, if we’re going to consider the feelings of the burro for a minute.

Let me rephrase that: It’s a beautifully rendered knockoff West Mitten Butte. If someone did not know West Mitten Butte by name — and I didn’t, prior to looking it up in a long list of things I had a form, but no name for, in Red Dead Redemption — then you know it. It’s one of the biggest rock formations in Monument Valley, aka John Ford’s backyard used in iconic Westerns like The Searchers and Stagecoach, aka Bone County from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, aka the spot in the desert where Forrest Gump stops running on Route 163.

This is the second time I’ve played Red Dead Redemption all the way through. The first time was just after its release in 2010. Now, years later, I’m going through it again and appreciating all the little things: the little scritching noises the skunks make in the bushes; the way hats fly off banditos’ heads when you go for a headshot; the satisfying noises made by a hapless horse thief you drag behind you; the overtly racist dialogue of Herbert Moon, the overtly racist shopkeeper.

I especially appreciate the drama of the landscape itself. Even as you’re falling off something — a huge butte topped with hostile Mexican revolutionaries, for instance — it’s hard not to appreciate how right Rockstar got this. There’s a lot of other things going on, sure, at this point in the game: I’m John Marston, a former outlaw trying to redeem himself after a life of crime, and at this point in the game I’m fighting with the Mexican army in 1911 against the rebels in a spot called Diez Coronas. (I will, in the next mission, fight for the rebels. This is a very realistic game.)

But I’m also falling down the beautiful side of a rock formation, and thinking about Monument Valley. When John Ford needed the distilled American West, he went to Monument Valley. When Warner Bros. animators needed the biggest palette imaginable for Road Runner cartoons — the longest takes possible, set at high speed over vast distances — they simply drew Monument Valley, and let Wile E. Coyote get flattened on every surface in the frame. The rock is even the right color, a rust red, the color of oxidized iron in the siltstone of the rock formations: the color of old blood dried over an infinite timespan.

When I hit the ground, the burro goes skittering to one side like a shard flying off a dropped ice cube. The screen goes red with Red Dead Redemption’s trademark “DEAD” lettering. My hat is still somehow on my head. The desert plains extend in all directions without a telephone wire or utility pole to be seen. I appreciate it. Even dead, lying on the floor of not-Monument Valley with random bullets still being pumped into my corpse, I appreciate it.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback dragging Javier Escuella behind him with a lasso Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

The best

I don’t want to be subtle about this, so: Red Dead Redemption is the greatest Western ever made. I don’t mean that in the sense of the best Western video game ever made, or the best Western novel, or the best Western film. I don’t mean that as the best Western script that also happens to have a video game built around it.

In the genre of Westerns, it is the best Western I’ve ever seen, read or played. There are no clarifications or codicils or qualifiers. It is the best, and my favorite, and everything else is fighting for second place: Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach, Unforgiven, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Wild Bunch, Blazing Saddles, Tombstone, Red River, Gunsmoke. Whatever you care to pull from the barrel, Red Dead Redemption is better than that Western.

That may be extreme, but it is also accurate. There are a lot of reasons. The storytelling is cinematic, but also more intimate than film could ever be. There is an actual lady character in it who is written as a person, not just as a foil for a man’s entire story arc and ambitions. There is a long, doomed story arc loaded with enough emotional momentum to make the conclusion a legitimate gut punch when it crashes home. It has secondary characters for days, often presented without harsh judgment despite being a cast of grave-robbers, flimflam men, former and current thieves, and steely-eyed government psychopaths. Red Dead Redemption — more than any Western save Open Range — deals with the death of the West, and renders its demise under the sweeping tide of civilization as something just as savage and cruel as its birth.

That’s all nice. But the biggest reason Red Dead Redemption is the best Western ever made is because in order to play Red Dead Redemption, you have to get off a train and then ride a horse. No one can ride a horse around Unforgiven, though why you’d want to I’ll never know. That’d be grim, filtered through spitting rain, and you’d have to see a digitally rendered Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman’s face is the opposite of the Mitten Buttes; it is the last thing you want to see in all its rendered glory.

Horses don’t go very fast, relative to the cars and planes you can whip around with in other open-world games. If you were being a stickler for realism, you wouldn’t even gallop — most horse travel doesn’t even reach cantering speeds, and takes forever. The horses in Red Dead Redemption can gallop at what feels like 80 mph, making the distances between landmarks somewhat less vast. But even then, a player going from point A to B in this game is going to have to log some serious time just pounding down a trail — surrounded by all that beautifully rendered nothing.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback surveying the desert Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

That nothing isn’t a nothing, really: There’s oddball characters peppered throughout the landscape, and thieves, and setups, and animals — my god, so many animals, and so many of them instantly willing to kill you violently — but mostly it’s just ... the West. There’s not a telephone pole in sight at some points in the game. The sun rises on red desert sandstone and filters through Sierra conifers and burns down over the lip of a small but eerily accurate Great Plains. The occasional lonely campfire burns at night down a trail. The moon cycles from new to full — and when the moon is full, the cacti cast their own shadows in the pale white light, and the sands look like the bottom of a vast seabed.

That space wore a groove in my brain. The usual cycle of an open-world game works something like this:

  1. Learn basic controls by following the game path.
  2. Explore wildly.
  3. Get tired of exploring when returns on exploring diminish and/or patience runs thin.
  4. Finish the game in a linear fashion.

The groove Red Dead Redemption left in my brain was one where — for maybe the only time in my life playing video games — I didn’t feel like I needed to play the story too much, and often didn’t need to play it at all. The story was there, sure, if I wanted it. So were the side missions, and the random collectibles and quests you could take on, and even the achievements like “Dastardly” and “Fightin’ Round the World.”

But most days, when I could, I would just play poker until everyone left the table, or get drunk and get in a bar fight, or ride and see what I could see — or what plants I could find. It made me want to do something most video games only do when they don’t work.

Some days I just went hunting — not even for the achievements you could unlock, but because I liked the rhythm and the quiet of it.

Sit long enough in one place, and the animals cycle through on their own schedules, indifferent to the rest of the world. One time, when I was hunting, I just had John Marston sit and watch a meadow. Beavers trundled through the grass at dawn, making this chk-chk-chk noise I found sort of soothing. The elk popped through at dusk, and the wild boars did whatever the hell they wanted to, whenever they wanted to, grunting away and barreling through underbrush. I wasn’t even shooting anything, or really even scouting.

A grizzly even rumbled through the forest edge, or I guess he did. I could have looked at the meadow all day, but shortly before the sun completely set and the skunks were due to come out, the bear swatted me off the rock I was sitting on, then killed me before I could put a bullet in his eye.

Red Dead Redemption, unlike every other video game I have ever played, made me want to go outside.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback as the sun sets behind a ridge Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

The superwestern

Going a step further to being super-picky about the terminology, just so we get this absolutely correct: Red Dead Redemption is not only the best Western ever made; it is also the best superwestern ever made. “Superwestern” is a term the French film critic André Bazin defined in What Is Cinema?, Volume 2:

The superwestern is a western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence — an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.

It is a superwestern because Red Dead Redemption is about the death of the West, itself a distinct historical moment impossible to talk about without getting explicitly political. The game begins with someone making a pitch for civilization; it ends with someone being killed because they would have been trouble for that new civilization.

It goes past that. There are so many things laced throughout Red Dead Redemption that ring bells across a larger historical context than you might even imagine.

For instance, no one has health care, and fewer still can afford it. John Marston jokes with Bonnie MacFarlane that if he’d known the surgery that saved his life was going to cost her $15, he would have told her to just let him die. Doctors, mostly indifferent NPCs overcharging for quack medicines, also sell ammo. It sounds on point for a Western, but it’s straight late-capitalist dystopian fodder, too. Change the context, and it would work in a Paul Verhoeven film.

The people

The people: They’re not unfamiliar, either. Rockstar usually does this — putting characters in stories who are broad American stereotypes, sometimes cartoonishly so, always with a balance equaling something like a we-don’t-care-about-anyone nihilism in the end. Everyone is loud, everyone has a hustle and almost everyone is in fact the opposite of what they claim to be.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston holding a revolver Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption could have landed there, too. But it doesn’t, because there is something unique here: a larger sense of tragedy beyond the usual Rockstar nihilism.

John Marston is skeptical, but also woke, in the best sense of the word, from the jump. In one of the early rides through the landscape, someone in his party mentions treating everyone equally in the West. Marston very gently points out that sure, that might be true — as long as no one remembers the people who lived there in the first place, i.e., Native Americans. Marston treats women as equals, and the script returns the favor by giving Marston well-wrought, flawed and often independently motivated women as partners and foils.

The story’s heels are familiar, too. Revolutionary leader Abraham Reyes is every radical-chic-loving dorm room Marxist using a Che shirt to hide their snobbery. Agustin Allende is an almost likable but ultimately sociopathic counterrevolutionary who could have easily walked in from the best scenes of a Sergio Leone film. Edgar Ross, the federal agent who blackmails Marston and sets off the entire story of Red Dead Redemption, is the kind of calm, supremely confident sadist with impeccable timing that you start thinking about blowing away the instant he appears.

Looking back now, the crazily racist Herbert Moon sounds a little too familiar, frankly. On the replay, it all feels a little too familiar at times: the baked-in racism, the rage for order by the largely white settlers of the West, the ridiculous firepower lying everywhere, the constant encroachment of civilization on the landscape, the overheard theological justifications for appalling behavior on the part of anyone who wanted to take whatever they needed from anyone they could outmuscle. There is nothing there that is not here on the replay, and nothing here that is not also there.

Even the basic conflict at the center of the plot feels terrifyingly familiar in the worst imaginable way. Remember: To get John Marston to do what the government wants him to do, the feds kidnap his wife and child. Sometimes, riding a horse around for no particular reason could be pleasant white noise — and sometimes, on the replay of the game, riding a horse around is the most fantastical, unreal thing of all: to move, unbothered by a single other person or history, through a landscape that belonged to no one in particular.

There are real human things in the story, relatable ones. When you even bond with them the second time through, then you’re invested. And when the viewer is invested, then a story can hit you with the biggest check to cash of all: loss.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston breaking a wild horse Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

The pressure

That whole “riding a horse” thing: That was one issue that made Red Dead Redemption unique in another way. When Rockstar San Diego began making the game, the designers initially thought they could build the environment around the open-world elements, just as Rockstar North had done in the Grand Theft Auto games. They quickly realized this was impossible: The vast landscapes of Red Dead Redemption’s environment were too large to work like GTA did.

The effort would be unlike anything they had attempted before: a grand, sweeping Western requiring cinematic storytelling on top of the sprawling, chaotic open-world mechanics Rockstar had all but perfected in the GTA series. Rockstar’s long hit streak, the increased demands of Red Dead Redemption’s structure and the weight of a giant budget meant crushing, omnipresent pressure.

By some reports, that pressure nearly broke the company — or at least Rockstar San Diego, the division charged with making the game. According to the reports, Rockstar headquarters in New York grew fearful that the San Diego team wasn’t capable of pulling it off, and took such heavy-handed oversight over the game that employees described it as “working under the eye of Sauron.” Mandatory six-day workweeks with 12-hour days were reportedly standard.

I know that on my second time through. This makes it kind of hard not to feel that exhaustion, that mania, in the corners of the game itself. The lunacy and flat absurdity of exhaustion is all over the game, especially in the multiple threaded endings. The side quest “Deadalus and Son” with an aspiring aviator ends with a hilariously anticlimactic plunge off a cliff. “I Know You” features a top-hatted Death substitute gradually losing steam and interest until his final warnings to Marston are less “BEWARE, MORTAL” and more “eh, well, I guess we’ll see each other whenever you get around to finishing all the hunting challenges.” Characters disappear without notice or follow-up.

There’s especially an exhaustion in the final spaces of the game: in the cold, bear-infested heights of the high Sierra, in the dusty, sun-blasted pastures of Marston’s farm. The coda feels more sketched than written — like even the people making Red Dead Redemption left blank spots on the map, or fell asleep face-first on it after running out of ink.

That isn’t a complaint. It’s more of a compliment to the game’s honesty. Red Dead Redemption effectively ends when Marston is killed in the final gunfight with the feds, and everything that follows is a formality.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback preparing his lasso Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

Spoiler warning

On the replay, two things stun me all over again. The first: The ending, and how I play through the ending to the ending.

Red Dead Redemption’s status as the best superwestern comes from the experiential element of gaming. There are many, many other Westerns brave enough to kill off their protagonist at the end. There is no other superwestern tying the viewer so tightly to a brilliantly wrought character — one the viewer can take on a long night drinking on the town if they wish, or up into the mountains to hunt elk, or into a hotel lobby to sit down for an all-night session of Texas Hold ’em — where the player has the option of being John Marston, but never leaving John Marston, or completely losing the responsibility of his actions, to the narrative.

There is no other superwestern where the viewer then, from the first-person perspective, dies.

The first time through this is, for lack of a better phrase, a complete mindfuck, and the payoff of one of Rockstar’s most beautiful and cruel achievements. I have taken every Rockstar game and their sometimes blank, sometimes maniacal, always floppily mortal characters on every possible trial I could. I have ridden face-first into a train with Trevor in GTA 5, blown up Niko Bellic with a rocket launcher inside countless small spaces in GTA 4 and drowned Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire in at least seven or eight novel variations on drowning.

None of them compares to the sudden realization in Marston’s last seconds that no, there is no bullet-timing his way out of this shootout, no escape, no hiding. He’s dead, and by extension, you — the hapless rider who might have ID’d a little too closely with the main character through all his well-built capering around the last stretches of the dying Old West — might have died a little at that moment, too.

The second time through, I put it off as long as possible. I hunted, I scavenged, I hit every side mission there was to hit. I collected every flower, picked up every map. It felt like a rehearsal for a busy and industrious retirement, really. “Have we been over there?” I’d ask that, looking at some corner of the map John and I hadn’t been to, working through a bucket list of spots and collectibles and weird mumbling NPCs we hadn’t talked to yet. When I ran out of those, I gambled, hunted and bought everything imaginable. Twice.

I stalled, badly, for two solid weeks of leisurely play in the evenings, because I knew where this was going. I even hung out in a graveyard at 3 a.m. waiting to hunt raccoons, which is clearly a totally normal thing to do in real life, much less a video game.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston taking cover behind a brick wall Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

When I finally got there again, I wasn’t ready.

If anything, on the replay, John’s death scene was worse. Not only did I have to discover a new layer of existential dread by putting off John’s death with things that felt an awful lot like what retirement might feel like in real life — I had to, at one point, deliver him to fate. That’s when I tell you that I forgot completely about his son, and the goodbye scene, and how John tells his wife and son that it will be all right, but not to look back and to keep riding until they find someplace to hide. How it feels so rushed — but in a real way, like it would when there’s no time. Then I remember, coming across this note in all caps: HE HUGS HIS SON.

Marston hugs his son when the feds show up, because John Marston knows he’s already dead — even if you, the happily ignorant co-pilot, don’t. That hits like a sledgehammer the first time, but having a few boys between 2010 and replaying it years later? It didn’t help at all, and made the moment so much worse on an emotional level.

It didn’t help in ways that surprised me. I distinctly remember that during my first time through the game, after Marston dies, and the story briefly follows Marston’s son on a mission of revenge to kill the man who killed his father, I kept up my high-moral attitude. As Marston in the game, I liked that I got free rides from wagon drivers, and hails from total strangers yelling, “THAT’S JOHN MARSTON.” It was fun to not just be a white hat. It was fun to be the kind of white hat that got outrageous, country-accented recognition for my good deeds.

The first time through, I kept that up, all the way to the river where I found Edgar Ross waiting. There are other people at the end — Ross’ brother and wife, whom Marston the Younger talks to on the way down to meet Ross. They didn’t have anything to do with this, I remember thinking, walking past them to finish the game by putting every bullet I could into the man who killed my father.

The surprise the second time came in my reaction to the people around Edgar Ross. After seven years, maybe the real-life me was more forgiving. (Maybe.) In the game, though, I felt a visceral disgust walking away from Ross’ wife after she told me where he was, and from his brother at their little fishing camp. These weren’t NPCs. I killed them both the second time through — and did so happily — because this time, they weren’t innocent. No: They were collaborators.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston riding along a river as the sun sets in the background Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

Far away

The second thing: “Far Away,” aka the scene where Marston rides across the river and into Mexico for the first time. Red Dead Redemption reels out a ton of story before Marston heads into Mexico. He’s met major characters, been shot and gone into a coma, had his first big manhunt go completely sideways. The game is in full swing, and the plot’s momentum is clearly headed toward a chase south of the border.

That downhill momentum might explain why Rockstar felt like it could take a breath and put a full mournful, showstopping guitar ballad backing no real action into the middle of a Rockstar game. There isn’t a gunfight looming or a task to complete. All the player has to do during “Far Away” is ride — without options, on a single path, and in my case in both instances, along a white sandy moonlit trail though cholla-strewn wastes into a virtual 1911 Mexico.

“Far Away” is beauty for beauty’s sake, an aesthetic flex for no other reason than flexing itself. It is the moment driving through an otherwise unspectacular day when a random song and the motion of the moment combust into something temporarily spectacular. It is the scene in a film that the director could only get away with if, after two acts, they knew they were so supremely in command that they could try anything and make it work. It is the moment in Red Dead Redemption where — even on the second time through, a full lifetime away from the first time I played it — it fully declares its ambitions. The game is doomed by its ambitions, and will take everything else in its wake along with it to realize them — the main character, the standard open-world game itself, and yes, even you.

And John Marston is so, so doomed. So artfully doomed, like everything else in a damned landscape sprouting the tumors of modernity: the telegraph lines, the fences, the carcasses of buffalo, the dusty, bumptious streets with cars beginning to putter through them. He’s out of place when the game starts; a relic, a cliche too stubbornly tough to die.

In a lesser game, he’d stay a cliche, and yet finish on two feet, ready for the sequel. Video games and stories in general aren’t comfortable with doom, but the “Far Away” is sequence is so much more stunning on replay because this time, you know. The moment the music plays isn’t just a lovely detail. “Far Away” is the signal that Red Dead Redemption isn’t playing with a survivable, trap door-equipped version of Fate. That loss — of the Old West; of time; of everything that the character, and by extension you, have — is very real.

The music plays and John Marston has to cross the river.

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