I've been meaning to write a something about Red Dead Redemption for some time, only I keep playing Red Dead Redemption.
I know, I know, when you signed up for this it was just advertising and a bit of literature - not sitting for hours and hours in front of a frankly awesome rig incorporating an Optoma GT7000 HD projector, PS3 and 1973 Harmon Kardon solid state amplifier, clutching a greasy plastic control paddle and tapping away for hours on end like a little boy with a rare genetic condition that causes him to look like a 29 year old man.
Funnily enough that's what my ex-girlfriend said.
But see I like the idea of writing about video games because the first writing I was really into was the video gaming magazines like Mean Machines and C&VG which I would read from cover to cover every month, a habit that lasted till I discovered the dodgy man in Shepherds Bush Market who would sell an eleven year old three ancient editions of Razzle for a fiver. There's also the distinct possibility that video games are just about to turn into art - and if there's a point to being a critic then maybe it's to try to propagate your sensibility within whatever it is you're criticising. You might even argue that one of the reasons that most advertising is real pony is that no one takes it seriously enough for it to have developed a critical culture.
But reviewing games, as a grown-up, ain't easy. The problem is that the element of interaction overwhelms the things that you would normally take interest in as a critic. Most people are more interested in how the game plays than how it sounds, or looks, or what it's saying. There's also the fact that games contain this other dimension which there isn't really a critical vocabulary to talk about yet - which is to do with pacing, how the tasks in the game are presented and what they are. You might call this a game's politics.
Most games are a lot like work, i.e. in order to succeed you have complete a series of goals set by someone else, and are rewarded for doing so with some form of credit that you can spend within the game. These games are late capitalist. A lot of games are also nihilistic, because the game world is hermeneutic nothing you do really matters. This is both chief advantage of gaming, compared to real life, and the scariest thing about it. If your children are noisy, wilful and violent plugging them into a Playstation is, no doubt, a blessed relief. But you're also encouraging them to immerse themselves in a world without consequences, or where the consequence of their actions are perverse, where stabbing 50 people in the face earns a you a Command Pro Perk.
But I digress...Red Dead Redemption.
If you've played Grand Theft Auto, you've already got the idea. Loner arrives in a large virtual environment populated by characters who swear a lot. Gunplay ensues. Only, and here's the kicker, in Red Dead Redemption you're in the Wild West, and you're a cowboy.
That's all I want to say about the, hem, gameplay.
Red Dead Redemption manages to be bigger than your average game, partly because it's a Western, which means it has this whole existing culture to engage with and comment upon, something it does in a rather smart post-modern way, and partly because its writers have taken care to introduce morality into the mix. So there's the normal obsession with shooting stuff, with weaponry and levelling-up, but you also have an 'honor' meter. So if you go round murdering nuns (which, yes, you can do) then you lose honor and become a 'desperado'. But, this behaviour has consequences, it makes your life more difficult, because everywhere you go people get together a posse and try to ride you out of town. On the other hand if you do good, good characters are predisposed to be genial and give you discounts.
This demonstrates, in a purely practical way that there is a reason to try to behave well, that it is not just its own reward. It offers choices which are absent in most games. You could not, for instance, play Call of Duty and manifest an attitude of pacifism within the game, whilst still playing the game. But in RDR you can at least choose only to shoot people who are intent on shooting at you.
But of course, as Bolaño says: 'Evil is a Ferrari on the highways of freedom'.
There's also a third option, which is just to ride around the beautiful virtual countryside writing haiku about birds. And here's the unique thing about the game: RRDR is libertarian in its politics, because you don't have to do any tasks at all, if you don't feel like it. The world is wide, so your motion doesn't have to be straight ahead through time, it can just be digressive in space. It's the first game I've played that gives you the option of being a horseshoe throwing hippy.