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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Red Dead Redemption: Once Upon A Time on my Xbox

Back in 2005 Roger Ebert made a simple remark in one of his Answer Man columns about how video games would never rise to the level of art, could not do the same thing, or be experienced the same way, as literature and film. He's been defending (and refining) the position ever since, in a number of thoughtful and well-argued posts--way too many to link to here; just do a search for Ebert video games--but the bulk of his argument comes down to this, from a November 2005 Answer Man column:
...I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
Ebert concedes that a video game "can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful" and "can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience," but the fact that the player is in charge of the experience, rather than an author guiding it, is what primarily differentiates it from literature and film. I say primarily because Ebert has since come up with a number of other deficiencies that keep gaming from the level of art, notably in his most recent serious stab at the question, the coyly-titled "Video Games Can Never Be Art." Among these deficiencies: the mindless activity and objective-oriented nature of games, which he says is more like playing a sport than having an aesthetic experience: the fact that video games touch upon primal emotion, like momentary shock and fear, rather than either more subtle or complex ones; and the fact that the narrative cut-scene component of most video games, the "storyline," tends to be, to put it generously, poorly written (he calls the cut-scenes in the game Braid "prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie").

He's right about most all of these: video games tend to provoke only momentary, primal shock or fear, as when the zombie dogs in the first Resident Evil showed up and I almost pooped myself. Games do tend to be mindless, goal-oriented hoop-jumping...the best of them simply make the hoops enjoyable. And the writing in cut-scene storytelling tends to blunt IQ points. Video games, after all, are the genre which gave us the chilling intergalactic threat,"All your base are belong to us."

The only thing Ebert really has wrong is art's 100% authorial nature; readers participate when they read, help co-create the world in the given work, even if theirs is a passive co-creation. They can't change the meaning or basic experience of a text, but they can interpret description, just to give an example, in personal and particular Middle Earth looks slightly different from Tolkien's or Peter Jackson's or yours. A reader is a participant, but not in charge. (Film is a little more dictatorial, but that's another topic altogether.)

Likewise, a gamer is never really in charge of a game, which is a point Ebert misses; there's only the illusion of being in charge when you're performing simple tasks, so that the storyline kicks back in and you advance, and what you hope for is a storyline that's worthy of the trouble...that feels like it's the point of the game rather than the tasks. That's not the case with most games, granted, where the storytelling exists to interrupt the monotony of pushing buttons. And the interruptions tend to consist of lame dialogue, lack of character development, insipid storytelling which has the gamer pushing X just to get back to pushing X.

But then you come across something like Red Dead Redemption.

The game is worthy of high praise just in terms of the visual's gorgeously designed, borrowing from Western visual tropes in its John Ford landscapes and Sergio Leone "camera" angles and style (even the still image atop this essay makes the point). And the gameplay itself is a lot of fun. In addition to the tasks you're assigned, ranging from ranchhand work to shootouts to, in one instance, accessory to grave robbing, you can also interact with the free-roam world in any number of simple ways: you can play cards, pitch horseshoes, drink too many whiskeys at the saloon (I did ten shots just to see what would happen; what happened is, I fell down).

But it's not just the experience, the visuals, that's getting the game wide attention and rave reviews. It is, of all things, the storytelling, the characterization. It's the first game I've ever played where I can't wait to finish the task so I can get back to the cut scenes.

The characters, though certainly based on familiar tropes--the gristled, world-weary sheriff; the conniving and comic snake oil salesman; the tough but tenderhearted female lead; and then the protagonist John Marston, who despite having a name is The Man With No Name--feel complex, like real people with pasts that go back further than the title menu. The dialogue is Elmore Leonard-sharp. (Sample: "That sarcasm's most unbecoming, Eli. It's going to hold you back in life, even worse than your lazy eye.") And the main arc, with Marston as the reluctant gunfighter trying to escape his violent past and settle down, makes the simple tasks involved in gameplay meaningful; you want it to end well. (I haven't finished the game, though I've already heard it has a doozy of an ending.)

The fact that Red Dead Redemption is actually story- and character-driven, complemented by outstanding visuals and gameplay, is what's got people talking. It even earned a brief segment on American Public Media's Marketplace program--read the transcript or listen to the audio here--where Justin Calvert, senior editor at GameSpot magazine, discussed the emerging focus on storytelling in gaming:

I think stories are definitely a much more important part of games now, and I think one of the things that kind of illustrates that is the fact that the games have gotten a lot easier nowadays... just [playing a] game from start to finish now is not so much a test. I mean, they still have like a hard mode or something for guys who really want to push themselves. But really, when the people make these games, they're not trying to just challenge you. They want you to experience the story that they've lovingly created.
As to whether it's art, I can't say--it would take me another 3,000 words to get a working definition of "art"--but Red Dead Redemption is ambitious in its aims and inspired in its execution. (There's a message board up at GameFAQ titled Red Dead Redemption: Right here Roger Ebert).

And the game has already inspired other artists...including director John Hillcoat, who helmed the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and who made the following half-hour film, along with editor Barry Alexander Brown, using scenes from the game. The result is very cool. (You can read an interview with Hillcoat about the project here.)


  1. Great response! I just picked up the game on Wednesday and can't put it down.

    When you're done with it, be sure to check out Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. I haven't played the second yet, but I read great things about it, and the first was pretty fantastic in terms of storytelling. It's a bit more interactive in that you choose your dialogue responses, not to mention make decisions of the "should this man die so that millions live" variety, which you don't typically come across every day. I mean, I come across those kinds of decisions, but most don't.

    We gotta see some old time baseball!

  2. Thanks! I've never played either Mass Effect; I'll put 'em on my list!

    And I'll get in touch about old-time baseball...LOVE to see a game.