Note: I'm pleased to announce that Playthroughline has laid claim to another contributor. The inimitable Ed Smith first came to my attention with his sublime takedown of Watch_Dogs. When I asked him if he would like to contribute a Script, he kindly and voraciously put one together for Red Dead Redemption. His work makes for a great addition to Playthroughline and there'll surely be more from Ed in the future! Below you can read his extended thoughts on Red Dead Redemption and how it compares to BioShock Infinite, which he announces in the first sentence.
Red Dead Redemption has a lot in common with BioShock Infinite. Both games have something to say. Their remarks are obvious, and directed, adolescently, at a nebulous entity you could only really refer to as "the system," but still, they each have higher narrative ambitions than most big-budget videogames. And ultimately, they are both ruined by the mechanical systems that they are tied to.
It's impossible to hear any of Red Dead Redemption's insights into turn of the century America over the myriad gunfights and side missions. Likewise, BioShock Infinite is a game emblematic of the perverse priorities of game developers, in that it favours "cool" shootouts and stylistic violence over nuanced, thought-provoking discussions about race.
The two games also represent a change of fortune for their respective developers. Until BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games was riding high on the reputation of the first BioShock, and Ken Levine, shortlisted for Time Magazine's list of most influential people in 2012, was considered one of the industry's brightest creatives. Now, Irrational is all but shuttered and Levine is scripting a remake of the movie Logan's Run and working on smaller narrative-driven games for Take-Two.
Red Dead Redemption was a turning point for developer Rockstar as well, but in contrast to the fate of Irrational and BioShock Infinite, it marked a step forward. Compared to Rockstar's earlier releases, like Grand Theft Auto, Midnight Club and Manhunt, Red Dead Redemption was sophisticated and adult. The low-brow humour and gratuitous violence that had become writer Dan Houser's trademark was finessed into a script that was straight-faced, down the line and ostensibly intelligent. The ubiquitous "gamey" elements (shooting, killing, implausible side missions) encroached on Red Dead Redemption's lofty narrative intentions, but at least the intentions were lofty. Where BioShock Infinite will be remembered as the game that steered Irrational down the gutter, Red Dead Redemption is when Rockstar turned a corner.
Or at least it would have been, if the developer weren't completely gutless. A year after Red Dead Redemption, it published LA Noire, which I still believe is the best written videogame of all time. Then came Max Payne 3, not exactly high art, but at least unsoiled by the homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism that usually comprise a Rockstar script. The company really seemed to be maturing, but when Grand Theft Auto V launched in 2013 it was clear that, as is typical in videogames, intelligence had been trumped by marketability.
Presumably feeling pressure from the kind of vocal morons who stalk gaming forums, who'd been demanding that the next Grand Theft Auto returned to the idiocy and childishness (or "fun," as they called it) of 2004's San Andreas, Rockstar packed GTA V with toilet jokes, slapstick violence and stupid, exaggerated stereotypes. In Red Dead Redemption, De Santa is gay, which is communicated by a lingering glance he gives to a young male waiter who is pouring him a drink. In Grand Theft Auto V, you walk into a hairdresser's and the guy cutting your hair screeches: "I love the outfit you have on today! Gooooooorgeous!"
This is why, despite its myriad problems, particularly when it comes to marrying narrative to gameplay, I have affection towards Red Dead Redemption. It's one of the few Rockstar games that isn't actively poisonous. I think Houser and his co-writers did themselves a favour by making a game set in the past; they clearly don't have the patience or wherewithal to engage properly with contemporary issues. Red Dead Redemption was liberating for Rockstar since it didn't involve any of the modern day "satire" that the developer seems to pride itself on, but invariably fail at. It took some broad swings, targeting, loosely, the vaporous concept of "the system," but it wasn't a parable.
Unlike BioShock Infinite, where the period setting felt very much like a backhanded attempt to comment on the news of today, Red Dead Redemption was wholeheartedly interested in the America of 1911. The metaphorical quality of BioShock Infinite acted as a kind of safety catch. If the game's ruminations about race and politics were criticised, defenders could point to the science-fiction elements, the abstraction and the obscurity. They could say it was asking questions, rather than posing opinions, and was doing so in a way that was deliberately entertaining.
Red Dead Redemption, however, picks a target, and seems like a product of genuine research. The lives of the characters might be broadly applicable to those of the players in the sense that every person in history has had to compromise with the society they lived in, but the game is more a story of specific people. It does attack "the system" and that's where it fails, because aureate literature doesn't match with base gameplay.
But chiefly, Red Dead Redemption is concerned with the fictional people it represents, with John Marston. It has love for its characters. It takes time to mourn them if they die. BioShock Infinite on the other hand may claim to be interested in the struggles of people, but ultimately just uses human characters as tools in its baggy political debate.