Why I Love The Anticipation of Something Great Pt 1
"We're more ghosts than people."
Some people think that I like too many things, too passionately and with too much optimism. I happen to know however that it is not that I lack critical faculties, it is just that I much prefer talking about what I love than what I hate. This is why The City is Blinking is dedicated to cataloguing and discussing things that I love. There is way too much cynicism on the internet already, and I don't need to add to it. My birthdays and Christmas time were always incredible growing up, thanks to my father but especially my mother who always made sure that we had a special time and got things that would help in our happiness and artistic senses. I hold those times dearly in my heart and I try to bring the wonderful sense of anticipation for great artistic things into my life whenever I can. I am currently in the grip of a deep and inspiring sense of anticipation for a few works of art that are very likely to be defining experiences in my life.
Let's start with Red Dead Redemption 2, because holy fuck! it looks incredible! Rockstar have made some of the greatest video games of all time. There is no denying this: Grand Theft Auto IV, the original Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto V, are all dazzling, daring and brilliant melding of gameplay mechanics, story telling and peerless world building. There is no-one who makes the open world game with as much passion and attention to detail as Rockstar. Grand Theft Auto V was a divisive game for some, its brutality and savagery, mixed with a dark sense of humour and a story that bypassed the emotional resonance of GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption for BIG TIME FUN. I love GTA V, but I have to admit that it was disappointing to see that women got such a raw deal, and that while you liked the characters, you didn't have nearly the same depth of connection to their struggles as you did in IV, RDR and of course Max Payne 3. Well, it looks increasingly likely that Red Dead Redemption 2 will mark a return to the maturity and depth of emotion of these games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has some big mountains to climb if it is to compare with the original, which was arguably the greatest Western of the 21st Century, neck and neck with Deadwood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and There Will Be Blood. The original game was so powerful because it immersed the player in the world and story so completely that they felt like John Marston's struggles were their own. The story of trying to escape your past is something that resonates with me deeply. Those who criticize Rockstar's work here for being derivative entirely fail to square that accusation with the history of the genre. Howard Hawks and John Wayne essentially made the same movie THREE times, with Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Anyone who has made a Western has taken from John Ford and very likely Sergio Leone - who was himself more a talented scholar than he was an originator - so it is disingenuous to attack Rockstar for failing to live up to a standard that has never really existed in the Western genre. This is very likely a result of a lack of knowledge of the genre, and a belief that by building up the Western as this untouchable and holy thing, they can show their intelligence by tearing Rockstar down.
What follows is usually an accusation of pretension on the part of Rockstar, and that they fail to "tackle the tough issues," presumably slavery and the treatment of the native population of America. Again, this shows a blinding ignorance of the Western, which has rarely, rarely ever addressed these shameful things. Yes, there are movies like High Noon which tackles blacklisting and McCarthyism, and Dances With Wolves which gives the Native Americans a fair representation and a voice in the murder and exploitation of their people, and Django Unchained which deals with the horrors of slavery... but these are the exception, by a long, long way. Again, this is a case of holding Rockstar to a standard that plain doesn't exist in the genre. Most Westerns are simple stories about good vs evil, or about the struggles to live off the land, usually starring John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. The idea that a Western must be revisionist to have worth is plain nonsense, as is evident from the sheer number of classic Westerns that don't care about addressing issues that are in line with a modern, left wing sense of social justice. These Westerns are just as powerful and important as anything that condemns our shameful past, because of their clear sighted and optimistic embracing of the potential of humanity, when our insecurities and evil nature aren't sabotaging us.
The story of Red Dead Redemption was just as human, powerful, thrilling and moving as any of the classic Westerns, revisionist or not. There is nothing at all pretentious about it, and a deep knowledge of the genre - which I am fast approaching - allows the player to see that yes, it is actually as well written, as keenly observed and as unique as the best of the genre. Seeing as the folks who attack Rockstar in this manner, have already been shown to be seriously in need of an education in the Western, it is easy enough to dismiss the thought that Red Dead Redemption has pretensions of profundity. The evidence is in the playing - the scope of the world, the fine details, the story that is influenced by many Westerns but is an original, remarkably powerful story - but compare it to the classics if you like. Compare it to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and see a similar story about the brutality of humankind that echoes Peckinpah's masterpiece but never steals. Compare it to arguably the most imitated Western of all time, the epic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and see a game that easily stands side by side in terms of style and pure cinematic wallop. Compare it to Deadwood and see a game just as blisteringly modern and full of hard won insight into the darkest corners of the soul. Compare it to High Noon and see a story that is just as powerfully focused on a man trying to do what's right, even if it scares him to death.
With those accusations dealt with, it is important to express why I believe that Red Dead Redemption 2 will be the best game of 2018, and why it has a fair chance at being one of the defining games of the generation. Westerns aren't made too frequently any more. They are not quite rare, but they are certainly not as prominent and frequently produced as they were during the 1940s and 1950s. Those who understand the Western know that they are just as capable of exploring the best sides of us humans, as well as the darkest, most depraved aspects of our being, as Noir, AKA my OTHER favourite genre. It is interesting how often the Western and Noir end up in the same place. Think of the veneration of the outlaw and the fated doom that comes to them in something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Assassination of Jesse James and of course The Wild Bunch. The anti-hero is a major part of the Western, just as it is in Noir. Ian McShane's iconic portrayal of Al Swearengen, is perhaps the greatest anti-hero in the history of the genre, a character who could just as easily be the star of a Film Noir.
The original Red Dead Redemption is obsessed with the line between the hero and the villain, something reflected in its systems and the push and pull to do good or bad. Can a man outrun his past? Can a bad man find redemption? There are few games that really address these issues of morality and goodness, and make the player think on their actions with such a harsh light of truth. The Walking Dead was one, The Last of Us another, and of course Bioshock Infinite. They are rare enough though that it is vital that we applaud works of art that are not afraid to tackle these issues with clarity and insight, even if they can't be called "tough issues," i.e. triggers for left-wing folks.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to cover many of the same themes, but I expect a serious increase in sophistication, from the way the gameplay mechanics interact with the story to a greater emphasis on accountability and consequences, and perhaps most importantly the level of immersion in the world. If GTA V is anything to go by, and the claims that the map is the biggest and most detailed of any Rockstar game, Red Dead 2 promises to be Rockstar's crowning achievement in this respect. Here are a few things that I hope we get to see on October 26:
1. Strong, compelling women. Red Dead Redemption had three developed, interesting and non-stereotypical female characters. GTA V had none. I sincerely hope we get to see Rockstar do what I know they are capable of and deliver characters that are just as intriguing and worthy of exploration as the men.
2. Combat on par with Max Payne 3. The original Red Dead was a big step up in terms of satisfying combat for a Rockstar game, building very well on the massive leap that GTA IV signaled. If the gameplay trailer is to be believed, combat, both brawling and shooting, has been given a serious overhaul. The level of detail in the way the guns work is typical Rockstar brilliance; they are truly the Kings of Detail. Max Payne 3 is still the best combat to appear in a Rockstar game, and while GTA V was very satisfying, I hope that with the Dead Eye system we get some leaping through the air, bullet time goodness!
3. A world that demands time to simply exist in. While I understand some of the criticisms of GTA V - while I disagree with them - there is no argument to be had that the world in which the story took place was one of the most intricate, devastatingly beautiful and rewarding game worlds ever crafted. There was magic around every corner, and I fully expect that when we receive Red Dead Redemption 2 into the world on October 26, we will experience a world that we may never want to leave.
4. Pure emotional wallop. Both endings of Red Dead Redemption were shocking, brutal and beautiful as all hell. It will take a lot to compare with it, seeing as they are almost guaranteed not to repeat the style of the first game. I am hopeful though that we will get a game that rivals and hopefully surpasses the first. Going on the gameplay video, I am fairly sure that I am going to cry quite a lot if my horse gets shot :(
5. An iconic soundtrack. Ennio Morricone is still the standard but the original Red Dead made a good attempt at crafting a soundtrack that set the mood and added emotional complexity to sequences. The move into Mexico with Jose Gonzalez's Far Away was a stunning and surprising joy. As was Jamie Lidell's Compass on the journey back to your home. Max Payne 3 and GTA V had excellent soundtracks, so I expect something good.