Jun 29, 2010

Red Dead Redemption

There's been some hubbub on the net of late about the legitimacy of video games as an art form. This debate is most likely a generational issue, and the resistance to the idea that games can be art will melt away with the withering of baby boomers. Most people my age, in those generations marked X and Y have played the very games we know to be powerful works of art, that also happen to be, for the most part, incredibly accessible. Accessibility is to snobbery what lemon is to a skinned fish. Sprinkle even a few drops on and it will start thrashing desperately. The result is inevitable, either way: death. Of course, rounding on my argument like a cowboy on his horse, some components of these artier games might be considered less accessible on the scale of the average gamer. Certainly not every gamer is prepared to sit through an half hour cut scene during the end level of Metal Gear Solid 4. Still, my point stands. These games are on the edge, they push the medium, and they're bloody fantastic.

One such game is Red Dead Redemption. It's perhaps not as groundbreaking overall as a format, but the execution and style of this game is what has been getting Rockstar the 10/10 reviews. I'd like to share one moment with you.

You, John Marsten attack the fort that your quarry has been hiding in in the west US. The fort is defeated, but Bill Williamson has escaped. You ferry across the border river and after a wild shootout from a raft in the middle of a vicious storm, end up in Mexico for the first time. You say farewell to the Irish rat who got you across, mount your horse and ride up the embankment. The horse can't break out of a run yet, so you clop slowly up the incline. Over the crest is a breathtaking view of the red, rounded mesas of the Mexican desert. The sense of quiet natural wonder is heightened by the slow build of gentle but strong guitar strumming, with Jose Gonzalez's Far Away playing over the scene. The storm washes away and the sun starts to shine through, beaming gorgeous fingers of golden sunlight onto the wide open plains. You can't help but keep your horse at an even pace and swing the camera around to take in these visuals.

This scene solidified Red Dead as a top shelf game in my mind. The brilliance of it is that it demonstrates how a game can affect the players and manipulate them into reacting the same way, to move our eye around the screen like a masterpiece painting moves our eye around the canvas. I've spoken to a few people and read reports online about this same scene, and everyone seems to react the same way. Once you crest, your horse is freed up and you can run it as fast as you like, but most players I spoke to or read about kept their horse moving quietly and couldn't help but drink up this stunning moment. That is artistic power, especially when we gamers are so often unfairly characterised as blood thirsty Peter Pans with the attention span of a gnat. To script a game in such a way as to keep our supposedly goldfish-like attentions firmly fixed not on bloodshed, but on natural beauty, and to do it in an open plan, free roaming game is truly a view to behold.

So, if you haven't played it yet and don't intend to, or if you have and want to relive that moment, here is a clip of someone I've never met, reacting exactly the same way I did when I played through this scene.

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