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A Contrary Examination of ‘Red Dead Redemption’

A Contrary Examination of ‘Red Dead Redemption’


Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar San Diego
Rockstar Games
PS3, Xbox 360

Red Dead Redemption is often considered one of the best video games of the previous generation, a reputation it hardly deserves. The game routinely takes control away from the player when agency is needed, and gives too much freedom when it’s superfluous. Red Dead is totalitarian in its gameplay and narrative presentation, but provides a hollow, laissez faire open world in an attempt to compensate. These problems culminate to create a game that misunderstands, and straight up ignores, the interactive nature of the medium it’s in. Despite its dazzling production values, Red Dead Redemption fails as a video game because of its unengaging, scarce, and meaningless interactivity.

Gameplay + story + open world. These are the bare-bone components that make up Red Dead Redemption, and they’re at odds with each other. Its gameplay is constricted by RDR’s overly cinematic storytelling while its open world is inconsequential. It’s a game of contradictions. It’s both cinematic and tedious, linear and open world. It’s a video game trying to be a movie.

And this, at its core, is what makes RDR a poor game: it willingly sacrifices interactivity for cinematic flair. Take its gameplay for instance. Instead of allowing the player to freely aim their weapon, Red Dead Redemption uses auto-aim in an attempt to reproduce the shoot-out style combat often associated with the Wild West. However, this deprives gameplay of any skill or challenge; just push the auto-aim button and shoot. The Dead-Eye mechanic plays much the same role. It requires minimal skill to use, as its main purpose is to empower the player, making him or her feel like a cowboy in the movies. Red Dead’s quest to achieve this cinematic style comes at the expense of satisfying gameplay.

Mission design has been largely forgotten as well. Most levels consist of dull shoot-outs, linear turret segments, tedious horse riding, and uninteresting fetch quests. There are no new gameplay mechanics to add to your arsenal beyond the introductory chapters, or different gameplay opportunities with each level. In RDR, story missions are repetitive and similar, with few offering a memorable experience.

This is in contrast to a Call of Duty campaign. Whether it’s fighting in a crashing plane in zero-gravity, or guiding a team of soldiers overhead via satellite, each mission in a modern Call of Duty offers something the player has never done or seen before. RDR’s mission design however, is predictable and flat.


However, Red Dead Redemption is trying to be cinematic, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its cutscenes. The game wants to be like a movie, RDR’s opening sequence establishes this intent. But this premise makes for a flawed game. It’s not that the cutscenes are poorly made, it’s that the story that RDR wants to tell doesn’t make sense in video game format.

Takes this scene for example. It’s shot, paced, and written as if it was a movie. Cutscenes in most other games are usually for exposition and exist to advance the plot. Here, the cutscene is four minutes long and takes its time to create a tense confrontation and a satisfying resolution, while also doing some character building, all with snappy dialogue and interesting camera angles. It’s not really a pivotal moment in the game’s plot, but it nonetheless takes considerable time and effort to achieve a cinematic level on par with film. It’s impressive, but does this kind of cutscene belong in a video game? The story is linear with no player input, so why not make a movie instead? The passion and expertise are clearly there.

Red Dead Redemption’s gameplay, mission variety, and cutscenes highlight the game’s archaic design: accomplish lacklustre missions with unengaging gameplay then get rewarded with a quality cutscene. By this very structure, the game deemphasizes interactivity and emphasizes a linear medium. It’s baffling, then, how this game is considered a masterpiece of interactive entertainment. It seems critics have been too blinded by Red Dead Redemption’s extravagant production values to consider the merit of the game’s design.

Red Dead’s open world is also misplaced. Rockstar must have understood how linear its main campaign was and tried to compensate for it by giving players an open world. The problem though, is that these two components feel isolated from each other. The activities you complete outside the main story are meaningless, both in terms of character and world development. Marston stays on the linear path dictated by the story and the world stays largely the same, no matter what the player does. RDR’s world is static inside its sandbox but is alive during its linear campaign, which makes its open world feel inconsequential and unengaging.

Red Dead Redemption is a poor video game because its gameplay is uninteresting and limiting, its narrative is intrusive and forgets the player’s existence, and its open world is meaningless. The player is routinely disempowered when they should have control, and is given too much freedom when it’s irrelevant. The game is confused which medium it’s in and ends up failing at both linear and interactive art forms. How Red Dead Redemption can be lauded by critics is mystifying considering these basic flaws. There’s obvious effort and vision on display here, but that doesn’t excuse Red Dead Redemption of these gaping and elementary problems.

-Scott Langton