Rockstar's fantastic new Western Red Dead Redemption is even better than Grand Theft Auto.

The art of play.
June 2 2010 5:49 PM

A Fistful of Controller

Rockstar's fantastic new Western Red Dead Redemption is even better than Grand Theft Auto.

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I've certainly gone on my fair share of rampages. The setting of the Grand Theft Auto games encourages this—the entire point of GTA III and Vice City is to rise through criminal organizations—but so does the rhetoric surrounding the supposedly liberating "freedom" provided by an open world. Yeah, there's a story, we're told, but that's not the point. You have freedom! In Red Dead Redemption, you can spend all day riding your horse. You can kill everyone you come across. You can go hunting, or go pick flowers, or play poker. You can chase in-game "achievements" like "Dastardly," attained by tying a woman to the railroad tracks and letting her get run over by a train, or "Manifest Destiny," for driving the bison to extinction.

Fun as those activities might be, they aren't the most rewarding ways to play the game. In fact, here is a heretical suggestion: If you're playing Red Dead Redemption that way, you're playing it wrong. That's not to say that you should ignore the secondary elements of the game. Red Dead Redemption succeeds though an accretion of details, and my John Marston played some poker (something I have a previously disclosed weakness for) and went hunting or picked flowers along dusty roads on his way from vista to (jaw-dropping, sensationally scored) vista. But don't let the flower-picking and the poker-playing become the entire game for you, as part of a hamster-wheel process of leveling-up and achievement chasing. Doing that turns Red Dead Redemption into Farmville.

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Video games aren't the only medium that offers you freedom, after all. Video games can actually be more restrictive of user freedom than other media. Even in an "open-world" Rockstar game, you basically have to unlock the plot in the order ordained by the designers. By contrast, you can choose to read the last chapter of a book first, or to read every sentence in reverse order. Instead of playing your position in a baseball game, you could just sit in the outfield and pick dandelions. And you can watch a movie with a sneering, cynical disregard for the characters and the story. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

"Good actions make you a good man," one character tells John Marston. His reply: "Then I'm doomed." My advice: Try to be like Marston, and struggle to be a good man, even though you're doomed. Red Dead Redemption is a gift to video gamers. We should accept it gratefully, rather than leaping to demonstrate that we can also light it on fire or throw it out a window.

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Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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