Red Dead Railroading

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption represents an interesting contradiction in game design. On the one hand, as a “sandbox” game, it represents everything that game critics and scholars have been saying about how the real strength of the medium is in choice, challenge, and exploration, and not in traditional storytelling. On the other hand, the story it tells—if you make a point to actually follow instructions and go complete story missions—is exceptionally linear, sometimes even restrictively so. Critics seem pretty darn near universally tickled pink by both aspects of the game, gushing not only about the richness and fidelity of the world, but also about their involvement with story and attachment to characters.

I liked the game, too, but I think I must have been spoiled by all the RPGs I play that take “choice” as a matter of course in plot development. Actually, what bothered me most about Red Dead Redemption wasn’t the lack of choice per se in any given interaction—such as not being able to choose your own dialog in cut scenes, as you might in many RPGs—but the times where it looked like I had a choice and it turned out I didn’t.

(Some major SPOILERS follow.)

The most obvious example of not-choices in the game are the duels that take place as part of side quests. If you’ve already been accepting duels from random, mouthy strangers, and especially if you’ve been taught the finer parts of dueling in tutorials from the story and side quests, you already know that you can shoot an opponent in the arm to disarm him without killing him. The story makes clear that protagonist John Marston is trying to change his outlaw ways, so it’s nice to have an option to not kill people for a change.

Unfortunately, this only holds up for random strangers and the one side quest where you’re required to disarm somebody. In other side quests, if you try to disarm your opponent, it might look like you’re about to win, but you can’t. Why? Because the only ending scripted for the quest was the one in which you win by killing your opponent. The only alternative is to die and try it again.

The most egregious example of not-choice at work, however, has to be in the climactic scene near the end of the game. Cornered by the army, John Marston sends his family to safety, walks out of his barn, and automatically goes into a moment of slow-motion “dead eye.” I knew I didn’t have time to line up a shot on every soldier there: John was going to die a brutal, heartbreaking death.

This was an excellent scene.

No, I was not at all bothered by being denied choice here, by not having any means of escape. For the purposes of the plot and the themes the game explored, it made perfect, gut-wrenching sense for this to be linear, final, inescapable. What was going to happen was clear, even inevitable, so I didn’t feel ripped off. It speaks well to the storytellers behind this that the scene has so much emotional weight to it. We’re given just a moment to reflect, in slow-motion, how the last seconds of John Marston’s life will go.

I decided that John would go down shooting.

John had done all he could to change his ways. He’d fought among these men, these soldiers. He’d talked to them. They were relatively innocent, caught up in orders they didn’t understand from people they didn’t fully know. John wasn’t going to shoot these men if he didn’t have to, but he was sure as hell going to get the last word in with the two backstabbing government men who’d kidnapped his family, and now broke their word to leave the Marstons in peace. If John was going, he was taking these guys with him.

I lined up two shots—one on Ross, and one on Fordham, targeting the heads—and fired away. They went down, and I felt good. The cut scene started afterward, and John was riddled with bullets, staggering to the ground and coughing blood.

Then, Ross lights up a cigar, and he and Fordham walk off smugly.

I don’t mind having no choice, but I do mind having mechanics that imply an illusion of choice, and then seeing the wires in the act (and then having the wires snap and being told we need to run the scene again until I shut up and do it the director’s way). The funny thing is that there actually are two ways to finish most side quests, as they have different dialog recorded depending on whether you play them as John or as his son (whom you play as after the end of the main storyline). It’s not that Rockstar failed to recognize that things could go more than one way, but that some of the most obvious choices weren’t accounted for, or seemed too troublesome to deal with.

In a game with this much polish, this much detail, this much care to storytelling, the jarring inconsistencies are even more jarring for being so unrepresentative of the whole. Overall, I’d say that Red Dead Redemption represents a triumph of storytelling and world-building, with one major caveat: A choice that goes unrecognized in a game is much worse than offering no choice at all.

6 thoughts on “Red Dead Railroading

  1. *f you try to disarm your opponent, it might look like you’re about to win, but you can’t. Why? Because the only ending scripted for the quest was the one in which you win. *

    I think that should be the one in which you kill your opponent.

    Unless I’m missing something.

  2. Gah, I was really disappointed in that duel disarm schizophrenia. There was one main quest duel that I failed two or three times trying to disarm my opponent only to finally realize it was impossible (even though the game had elsewhere told me it was fully possible and this duel was completely indistinguishable from that). There were a number of moments like that do blemish (at least a little) an game possessing an otherwise indelible sense of place and tone.

  3. face it: video gaming is still about pressing the correct buttons at the right moment as determined by the programmers. no real difference from 1980s “guess-the-word” text adventures.

    the only games giving freedom are simulations without storyline or any concept of “winning” the game (like simearth or m$ flight simulator).

  4. I don’t think we need true “freedom” in games—just the very convincing illusion thereof. After all, from books to movies to TV to games alike, stories are just temporarily convincing illusions. Some games offer that illusion better than others—and some games, like Red Dead Redemption, offer a great job most of the time, which makes it all the more jarring when they drop the ball here and there.

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