The Gaming Club

Red Dead Redemption Is a Parable for the Trajectory of Video Games
The art of play.
Dec. 14 2010 11:40 AM

The Gaming Club

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Call of Duty 4

Chris, thanks very much for asking me to take part in the Gaming Club. I know it's boring to agree, but I'm afraid that in this instance I have no choice. Red Dead Redemption was my game of the year by a country mile. In fact I'd go further than that: Red Dead Redemption is the best video game I've ever played.

It was a slightly disappointing year, perhaps, though maybe that just reflects that I'm a casual gamer and haven't played enough. Still, one thing happened this year that has never happened to me before, in that I saw something in real life and realized that I'd encountered it before in a game. This sense of recognition happens all the time with books, TV, movies, even song lyrics, but I'd never had it happen with a game. When I saw the WikiLeaks footage of the helicopter attack in Iraq, it reminded me of something, and it took me a moment to realize that it was the helicopter gunship sequence in Call of Duty 4. The same Olympian viewpoint, the same muffled intercom voices, the same chilling detachment as the fire rains down. If I hadn't already made my mind up, that would for me have answered the question of whether games can be a serious medium.

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So: Red Dead Redemption. I came to it with expectations which weren't high, because I'd already been overexposed to the hype. Also, I'd been severely disappointed by the last time I had an extended go at a game which was touted as an All-Time Classic from Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto IV. I can see the virtues in that game, about which Tom wrote so persuasively in Extra Lives, but for me the problem has to do with its difficulty.

For me, difficulty is central to what's interesting about games. My day job is writing novels, and in that area, the idea of difficulty as a virtue has died, in my adult lifetime. Books would once upon a time be praised for being difficult, for putting up some resistance to the reader—but not anymore. It's fascinating to me that the newest art form, video games, is the one in which the audience most values difficulty. I know that the kinds of difficulty we're talking about aren't philosophically identical, but it still speaks to something new and fascinating in the culture of the medium.

My problem with GTA IV was that so much of the difficulty seemed arbitrary. Vehicles lurching in front of you during chase sequences, for instance. And then there was the fact that so many of the missions involved a long sequence of driving before the actual business of the piece. I minded the difficulty of the main action passages much less than I did replaying these torturously protracted driving sequences every single freaking time. The lack of save points made it much worse. This was a kind of difficulty that to me didn't seem inherent in the world of the game—it was unnecessary, it didn't feel earned.

So that was the other reason I didn't have my hopes too high when I came to Red Dead Redemption, given that in its mechanics it's basically Grand Theft Horse. But I found the difficulty perfectly calibrated to the story, just resistant enough to keep you interested but not arbitrarily steep. The learning curve of a game, when it's measured just right, helps encourage you to invest in characters: You struggle with them and that helps you to identify with them. I found myself more closely aligned with John Marston than with any video game protagonist I know.

His struggle to keep hold of his sense of himself is a big part of the game. I'd be interested to know if anyone felt any temptation to run around killing people and causing mayhem in RDR. I didn't, at all: I believed in the game's story and wanted to keep Marston on that redemptive track. I think also that Rockstar have done something rich and subtle here, in terms of learning from their own experience. Their games are basically a short history of moral panics: Vice City, Bully, Hot Coffee. These are the guys who wrote the manual on how you first provoke, then duck and cover. So they are of necessity interested in the question of what criminal actions a game depicts and how the gamer is supposed to feel about them. You feel this interest in GTA IV, but it's central to RDR, which is a story all about the difficulty of staying on the right side of the law. The game depicts a 1911 Western world in which lawmen have arrived in the West, and the nature of the outlaw's life has changed. The most satisfying way of being Marston is also the most law-abiding. I liked the way Rockstar did that, and made the trajectory of video games—toward respectability, away from random violence—part of the story, and also part of the sense of loss which the game evokes so well.

Anyway, Red Dead Redemption was my game of the year. But now, just as consensus seems doomed to set in, I gather Tom has a different idea?

John Lanchester is the author of three novels, a memoir, and, most recently, a book about the financial crisis, I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. He writes for the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New Yorker.