Red Dead Retrospective

Monday, February 7, 2011
By now, Red Dead Redemption is old hat. We've wandered the wilderness, hunted bears, been killed by a thousand pumas, even finished the campaign. It's been done, it's forgotten, the last stick of homing dynamite has been thrown.

Not just yet. Rockstar created something special with RDR. Something that I'm sure would make Molyneux cry if anyone realized what they accomplished.

Let me explain: Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios has consistently made games about choice. Rockstar has made games that are more about freedom. What Rockstar has in Red Dead Redemption is the first game that really gives you freedom of choice.

Player actions in Red Dead affect your fame and honor. You have many opportunities for choice within the world of Red Dead but it is rarely forced and never changes the greater outcome of the story. The player is free to make their own moral choices without having those choices forced on them.

The wandering ranchers who've had their horse stolen, the "damsel in distress" luring you into a trap. All of these things are easily bypassed or ignored. Even if the player decides to help, the degree to which that help is rendered is almost entirely up to the player. Sure, the ranchers horse was stolen, but it sure is a nice horse. Yes, the girl says the bandits made her lure you in close, but she could be lying again. And yes, I've been challenged to a duel by a complete shit head, but is it really worth killing him? These little moments make the character of John Marston and his motivations clear.

Most of these moral choices happen in between the major story missions. That's what sets Red Dead apart and makes it a truly remarkable game. The player creates John Marston independently of the story missions. Each player fills out the character and the reasons for what John is doing at any given point in the game through these tiny moments. In this sense, John Marston is potentially more a part of the player than any character before him.

Moral compasses in games are nothing new. They've been used in games like Fable and Knights of the old Republic for years. These games really hit players over that head with the good/bad, naughty/nice mechanic, making their decisions visible on the characters and in the world around them. Anyone can look at a character in Fable and immediately see good or evil.

What I think many developers fail to realize is that pushing moral choices on the player or even centering the whole game on good/bad decisions can cripple gameplay. The stark duality of choice feels unnatural and in some cases, the player would rather not choose either the good or bad road. If these games are to feel more realistic, someone needs to realize that the answer isn't forkier roads, but no roads at all. And in that, Rockstar seems to lead the way.