Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. Some of these are forgotten gems, some you will guess straight away. Others cover more than one game in a series, or compare two similar games.
Today we continue by looking at a true watershed moment in open world design—one whose sequel will likely squash all competition in 2018.
#16. RED DEAD REDEMPTION, BY RHAIN RADFORD-BURNS
Having attempted an ambush on his old friend Bill Williamson, John Marston continues his search by crossing the border into Mexico. As the player mounts their horse and begins trotting toward the sunrise, the faint sound of a guitar begins to play, accompanied by the gentle voice of José González. The lyrics mirror the effort of John to complete such a momentous task in order to see his family again: “Pushing forward through the night, aching chest and blurry sight.” His ‘reward’, ostensibly, seems “so far, so far away.”
One cannot deny the beauty and importance of González’s vocals while crossing the Mexican border. The moment encapsulates three main aspects of Red Dead Redemption’s high praise: the player, engaged in the story and in the chase for Williamson, mounts their steed and rides freely towards the rising sun, accompanied by a stunning melody. These three aspects were monumental in the game’s success and continue to demonstrate why so few games have managed to replicate such an achievement.
By the time the player crosses the border into Mexico, they have already met a variety of quirky and unique characters: Bonnie MacFarlane, a simplistic local rancher who only wants the best for her farm; Leigh Johnson, Armadillo’s District Marshal struggling to maintain law and order in the evolving world of government and technology; Nigel West Dickens, a travelling salesman trying to con people into buying his ‘miracle’ elixir; Seth Briars, a psychotic prospector who robs graves in pursuit of treasure; and ‘Irish’, a dysfunctional alcoholic and pathological liar whose nationality matches the only name by which he is known. All of these characters capture the innocence and individualism of the West and engage the player in their search for Bill Williamson—by the time they have reached the Mexican border, the player is engrossed in the story, and dedicated to finish their quest to find Williamson.
Red Dead Redemption’s story is simplistic in nature—a tough former outlaw must track down his former gang members in order to return to his family—but is told in an engaging manner with a myriad of interesting characters. John Marston is a complex man, stuck in the world of the Wild West and struggling to catch up to modern civilisation as it continues to evolve. Red Dead Redemption tells the story of the death of the West—a story the player will find themselves engaged in.
Although González’s song is a scripted moment in the game, it plays outside of a main story mission, meaning the player is free to continue exploring the open world of Mexico as they please. This freedom is an integral part of the game’s success and is a large reason for the success of other Rockstar games. Despite having a story to follow and missions to complete, the player is granted access to the game’s large open world (which, in most cases, opens up as the story progresses).
Red Dead Redemption’s open world is littered with towns that represent iconic locations of the American frontier: the MacFarlane’s Ranch mirrors the small farmers of the West; Armadillo, the heart of New Austin, is reminiscent of any small town from old Western movies, complete with a sheriff’s office and a saloon; Thieves’ Landing, as the title suggests, is a dirty town overrun by criminals and known for its gambling affiliations; the territory of Nuevo Paraíso includes a range of rebel outposts and Mexican army forts, demonstrating the spread and importance of the Mexican Revolution; and Blackwater represents the civilised and technologically advancing area of the world, filled with government officials and businessmen. All of these locations—filled with dozens of NPCs, stores, and activities—feel alive and emphasise the feeling of freedom that players experience as they explore the game’s open world.
González’s “Far Away” is one of four vocal performances featured on the game’s soundtracks, each of which perfectly represents the moment in which it accompanies: “Far Away” mirrors John’s effort to complete his task and the distance he has remaining; “Compass” by Jamie Lidell, personally a more poignant and climactic moment at the beginning of the game’s final act, matches the importance of the scene in which John returns to Beecher’s Hope; William Elliott Whitmore’s “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” demonstrates the barren emotion felt by the player in some of the game’s final cutscenes; and Ashtar Command’s “Deadman’s Gun” is a slow and tender track which accompanies the credits as the player’s experience with the game’s story comes to a close.
The vocal tracks are not the only songs from the game that accurately represent its setting. Musicians Bill Elm and Woody Jackson composed over fourteen hours of music to score the game’s missions. When Jackson found that there was no “Western sound” in 1911, he looked to the soundtracks of 1960s Western films instead, most notably Ennio Morricone’s work on the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The game’s score is a precise yet unique imitation of these soundtracks and helps to immerse the player in a truly Western world.
Entering Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is a masterclass in game design; the freedom granted to the player, accompanied by a beautiful musical cue and a relevance and reliance on an interesting story, is a technique that other developers can only learn from. Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption is, in many ways, a masterpiece, so the anticipation for this week’s sequel should come as no surprise. To follow up on such an acclaimed title is a daunting task, but Rockstar has taken it in stride—and time will tell how successful it truly is.
Thanks for joining us for a look at one of the greatest titles in the entire medium. Leave a comment with your own favourite Rockstar games, or your impressions of Red Dead Redemption, naturally. Stay tuned for one of the greatest indie adventure games of recent years next week, and don’t forget to prepare for Red Dead Redemption 2 with more Western content over the next few days with OnlySP’s Red Dead Redemption Week!