Red Dead Redemption, the new Western from Rockstar Games, is the best Grand Theft Auto game ever made. At the very least, it feels like the game Rockstar wanted Grand Theft Auto IV to be—a successful infusion of narrative (if not quite novelistic) fiction into an open-world environment. Red Dead Redemption does a better job than GTA IV did of grounding Rockstar's usual sendup of American culture in the story of a character reluctant to embrace all this violence. The transgressive thrill of Grand Theft Auto III (the game that many people call "the first" Grand Theft Auto) and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the opportunity to play a villain rather than a hero, and to experiment in a wide-open "sandbox" setting. (Ignore the plotline! Drive a taxi! Kill hookers!) Red Dead Redemption is more sedate, more subtle, and more of a straitjacket: It encourages you to inhabit a particular role inside a sprawling environment—to try to become John Marston, reformed outlaw and aspiring rancher, rather than just play as whomever you might want to be.
As the game begins, Marston has been dispatched by federal agents to "New Austin." While this place sounds like Texas, it's more akin to the fictional Texas that lives in Western movies than the actual old West. While Red Dead Redemption feels original, it's also self-consciously derivative, prodigiously quoting movies old and new: There's a place called Rio Bravo, an oil town called Plainview, and every time you start up the game you hear a harmonica riff that sounds like it was borrowed directly from Once Upon a Time in the West. (It's only the first suggestion that the game will be very Sergio Leone.) But after the almost 30 hours it took me to play through the game's story line, Red Dead Redemption felt like a lot more than a collection of cinematic references. Once again, Rockstar has excelled at creating a sense of place.
Red Dead Redemption is, in many ways, a role-playing game. When video gamers use that phrase, they have a particular meaning in mind: a descendant of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons that allow players to shape their own characters, "level up," and in the process modify the game at least somewhat in line with their own preferences. Red Dead Redemption isn't a game like that. But when approached in the right spirit, it offers a kind of role-playing that is closer to improvisational theater. One of the tenets of improv (as I recall from my very brief, very lackluster days as an amateur, teenage ComedySportz performer) is to always "say yes," never rejecting any suggestion about your character or setting that is introduced by one of the other actors.
Again and again, Red Dead Redemption persuaded me to follow its lead. John Marston is not a video-game You. He's a particular kind of man with a particular set of values—he respects women, he's willing to kill but doesn't do it lightly, he doesn't like looting corpses for bullets and pocket change—that are revealed over time. While the writing in Red Dead Redemption is at times overly broad (the oversexed Mexican bandits who exclaim Andale! upon dying come to mind), it is also consistently smart, and the characterizations are surprisingly, and refreshingly, indirect. The game assumes its players are smart, too, and that they're paying attention. (The marital status of one early character is revealed merely by the use of the word Miss.) As a result, when Marston did something I found unexpected—like burning down a peasant village at the behest of the Mexican army, or procuring young women for a corrupt colonel, or spitting on a man, or beating another one in the face—I found myself thinking, I didn't realize he would do that, rather than, I wouldn't have done that.
Because Red Dead Redemption is a descendant of the Grand Theft Auto games—while not a literal GTA game, it is made by the same studio and it plays almost exactly like Grand Theft Auto IV—I suspect players are reluctant to embrace this style of play. The first time I ever saw Grand Theft Auto III was in a friend's apartment in the early years of the last decade. Rather than show me any of the missions that make up the game's storyline, he showed me how he liked to use the game to go on what he called "a rampage," looting and murdering and destroying everything that crossed his path until the police arrested him or, more often, killed him. There's a plot, he told me, but he didn't pay any attention to it.