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.
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.
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.