Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #13: Red Dead Redemption

In PS3, Xbox 360 on December 13, 2011 at 11:44 am

Title: Red Dead Redemption

Format: PS3, Xbox 360

Released: 21st May, 2010

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What a difference a song makes. I’ve recently been playing devilishly difficult 2D PlayStation platformer Rayman, and by Christ it is hard. Unfair, at points, but generally, just hard. And yet, such care and attention has been paid not only to the beautiful 2D graphics, with gorgeous sprites and animation that have aged far better than the unbalanced difficulty curve, but also to the music. Every level has a gorgeous riff or fill that conjures up feelings of excitement, derring-do, terror – whatever is required. It really does raise the experience from challenging platformer to absorbing adventure.

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Great sound design expands a world, taking a selection of pixels and bathing them in that magic cauldron of atmosphere that makes them so much more than the sum of their parts. With the right flute trill, suddenly the parallax-scrolling snow-topped mountain range in the background of an enchanted forest ripple with hectares rich of promise. Villages full of characters and adventurers pursuing their own agendas and stories, just out of sight over the lip of the hill. Music and sound thrust a world inwards to the misty enclaves of the brain where the imagining happens; where strands of thought leap and latch onto a riff or a motif, connecting it irrefutably to a character or an idea, starting the rich process of association and connection that will resonate throughout the entire experience.

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Early sound design was primarily in-game. The “whoops!” and “Yippees!” of Mario are just as character defining as his red jumpsuit, just as the industrial whizz of Sonic’s spin charging speaks as much of his power and speed as his blue, aerodynamic shape. The music, too – slotting into the genre, infusing a game with life, telling the player how safe or dangerous a place is, inducing joy and elation, freedom and excitement; terror and danger, claustrophobia and sorrow.

But things got more complicated; we soon had games that were set in periods we knew. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The 80s were real; people playing it may have grown up in them, or at the very least viewed the decade through the cipher of a hundred films. So Rockstar hit upon the idea of filling the radio stations of their world with authentic period music. Everyone remembers the first time they stole a vehicle, and Billie Jean came pumping out over the speakers. It was a curious moment of reality and fantasy colliding, with each aspect furthering the other in a strangely symbiotic, immersive experience.

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And lo, Rockstar went on to make bigger and better games – the lunacy of San Andreas, the gut-punch of GTAIV, and then…Red Dead Redemption.

I had enjoyed Red Dead Revolver (its PS2 prequel, released June 2004), but it was a game plagued with development difficulties, purchased from Capcom on the promise that Rockstar would polish it up and release it as best they could, like an errant child on the first day of school. A grab-bag of semi-successful missions, empty towns with one or two points of interest, and decently pitched set pieces. But it was GTA in the Wild West! This was tremendously exciting, and despite its myriad flaws, exuded no small amount of awesome.

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Then came Red Dead Redemption. Play the game. Really, do. It’s a colossal achievement. Superb voice acting and dialogue. Elegant gameplay. Mastery of genre. Truly beautiful graphics. The first time I stood outside the town of Armadillo, walked in the open prairie and looked up into the stars, it reminded me of working on a farm in the Australia outback myself, years ago, where the night skies were such that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.

But for all this, about halfway through the game, everything loses pace. The missions become repetitive, lots of the side-quests (hunting, collecting wild flowers, chasing bounties) necessitate too much travel, becoming dull, and the story stalls. At this point, John Marston (us), needs to hop the border into Mexico. Exciting in theory, but a potentially bombastic river crossing is mired by standard shooting, and a slow pace. “Damn”, I thought. Nothing gold can stay.

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And then you step off the raft, and find a horse tied up on the makeshift pier. Climbing aboard, you set out at a gallop into a huge new unexplored part of the map, with only a couple of markers giving you guidance. And as you climb the lip of the hill, this huge expanse of territory unfurls beneath your feet, and “Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez fades in.

It hit me for six. It really did. All in-game music up to this point was incidental riffs or licks – little strums of guitar, or action-packed chase music. And then the real world – a modern, new song by a contemporary artist – comes crashing through the walls of fantasy and 2010 met 1911 in this transcendental moment of unexpected joy. You can’t help but be wowed by the majesty of the environments Rockstar has created, but when they’re combined with beautiful, uncharacteristic music, the sense of immersion is put in momentary jeopardy, then increased tenfold.

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It’s a risky move. So much of the game relies on period atmosphere and feel. To bring a modern song in, at such a pivotal point in the game, could have risked throwing the player rudely out of the experience, like the town drunk through the swing doors of a saloon. But the opposite happens. The sense of aching isolation and loneliness you feel accompanying John Marston on his quest to free his family, so many miles from home, is expounded in haunting vocal and guitar. I had to catch my breath, truly, before saddling up, and slowly trotting into unexplored lands. It only lasted a minute or two, but the moment was revelatory.

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And great experiences are always made up of moments. The whole is crucial, but there will always be stand out stabs of memory that persist long after the disc is ejected and the game is sold on eBay. Your first glimpse of underwater metropolis Rapture in seminal FPS (First Person Shooter) Bioshock. Zombie dogs jumping through the window, shattering your hitherto-held gameplay illusions of safety in Resident Evil. Your first fumbling steps into a new country in Red Dead Redemption.

It was a jolt in the arm that was as necessary as it was unexpected. The game had me. Up until this point, I liked it. After, I loved it. I never knew quite what was coming next, and even though the game continued to make minor mistakes, it demanded to be cut some slack. It had impressed me. More than that, it had surprised me.

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Red Dead Redemption will long remain near the top of the list of games that I will always love. Its gameplay will be bettered, trampled underhoof in the march of progress, and the graphics will (terrifyingly) at some point become laughably old hat, but when a game moves you like this, you don’t forget it in a hurry. Bold moments like this in games are among the most exciting experiences you can have. Carefully choreographed excellence, that has all the cinematic quality of a film, yet provides you with the freedom to explore it as you choose, the consequences thereafter all your own.

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What a difference a song makes.

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  1. […] should add at this point that I had a headset on – a little device I’d bought for Red Dead Redemption‘s online mode, but never bothered using. I was mildly surprised to find that it still worked. […]

  2. Me complace muchisimo el total de la info que enseñas.
    Me gustaria conocer suficientemente de el asunto.
    Cordialmente Agradecido

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