What kind of game is Red Dead? You wouldn’t be wrong if you said it’s a video game that plays like every other big-budget, single-player game that has hit the market in the last ten years. Like Breath of the Wild, the Arkham games, Shadow of Mordor, The Witcher 3, the Tomb Raider reboots, the God of War reboot, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, the Assassin’s Creed series… the list goes on and on.
Red Dead is an open-world, third-person character action game that takes place on a freely explorable map. If you disregard the third-person part, it shares elements with even more games that have graced the shelves of your local GameStop: the Far Cry series, modern Fallout, The Elder Scrolls.
Although they vary in the details, these games all follow a similar script. You roam from place to place. You probably climb some sort of tower. You kill bunches of enemies that spawn in the open wilderness. You ride from story mission to story mission, each of which takes you to a different part of the realm. And you do activities, clearly demarcated by little icons on the map: sidequests, bandit outposts, treasure hunts, animal hunts, people hunts, races, card games, rescue missions, robberies. Red Dead has all of these; so does The Witcher 3; so does GTA; so does Assassin’s Creed Origins.
If Red Dead plays like other games, it’s not necessarily because it belongs to the same genre, but rather because it fits neatly into the overall design philosophy that has creeped into the vast majority of big-budget video game titles over the last decade. It fits into a category of video game that the AV Club’s Clayton Purdom has usefully termed the “map game.” The map game “isn’t so much a genre,” Purdom writes, “as it is an overriding philosophy on what makes games fun, an epochal undercurrent. It’s a constant drip-feed of XP and an endless checklist of collectibles and activities, all varied slightly by their set dressings and a mechanic or two.” Most big-budget single-player games are map games now.
In a map game, you pretend to inhabit the vast, intricately designed world that surrounds you on all sides. But in practice, what you really do is live on the map screen, with its clean informational overlay and its activity icons telling you calmly, insistently, where you should direct your attention next. For some people — like my brother-in-law, a professional completionist who collected all 900 Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild — the collectibles, XP, and activities instill a drive to do everything. I suspect that for most people, like myself, the mountain of tasks is less exciting than it is, in a strange way, reassuring. You will always have stuff to do, and none of it will be particularly high-stakes. The genre ensures a steady, ceaseless dopamine drip of busywork.
Map games don’t begin that way, though. They begin with wonder. They begin with the promising exoticism of a new place, a new time, a new world with different rules of engagement than the real world. It’s no accident that most Assassin’s Creed games begin by asking you to ascend to some sort of vantage point, from which you can see the open world sprawling out in every direction. “We’re meant to feel awe at the scope of creation,” writes game critic Cameron Kunzelman. “Like looking at the Grand Canyon, we’re supposed to be enthralled by the scale. We’re supposed to think about how this wide work could swallow us up.” We’re supposed to yearn to escape into this digital vastness, where the finitudes of real life no longer apply.
And yet, somehow, seeing the vastness of the simulation also makes you want to smoosh it down to size. The great panorama makes you want to climb back down into the details: to do everything, go everywhere, experience all that there is to experience. It inflames the innate human desire for exploration — some of us may remember when “See those mountains? You can go there!” was a ubiquitous video game selling point. But the desire for exploration can slide easily into rapacious, acquisitive, crypto-colonialist feelings: an urge to conquer every corner of the world, to relentlessly and expansively territorialize. And these games do little to stem that urge. In many map games, reaching a vantage point will make a dozen activity icons spill onto the map like a bag of loose change. You descend from the tower, or the mountaintop, and care little for standing around and feeling the texture of the world. You blaze through it on a really fast horse, going from quest marker to quest marker, abusing the parkour system or some other larger-than-life movement mechanic to create a ridiculous beeline path to your destination. You clamber through clay houses and market stalls and shove your way through crowds of people. You kill who you need to kill, do what you need to do. You move on, not really having seen any of the spaces you blazed through, but with a sense nonetheless that you’ve taken more of the world as your own.
Over the course of the game, through endless iterations of this process, the world does indeed become your own. But it also becomes homogenized. Everything that was once new and strange becomes familiar, known, like a landmark on your daily commute. It’s the ennui of tourism in general: the difference between when you first arrive in a place and when you feel, only a day or so later, that you’re “done,” ready to move on. You’ve seen the museums and the gardens, all the authentic places. You’ve eaten at a hole in the wall without any TripAdvisor reviews. You’ve added a notch to your belt, a Lonely Planet to your bookshelf. But you also feel nothing — maybe worse than nothing. In his 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace describes the existential misery of being a modern tourist:
To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you.
The map game generates a version of this feeling, both because any game is going to be smaller and more conquerable than a real-world location, and because the logic of conquest itself — “doing” Paris, the Pyramids, Rome, Hong Kong — is intrinsic to the experience. The difference is that you’re not really entering and despoiling a real place that would be better off without you; you’re entering and despoiling a virtual place that was actually made for you. As game critic Will Partin has pointed out, the experience of playing something like Watch Dogs 2, with its steady drip of algorithmically generated incidents that pop up around the player based on his or her playing habits, is less like going to Paris and more like being fattened up on a cruise ship — an experience that Wallace describes in another essay (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) that anticipates the banalities of the modern map game. What is a map game, if not, as Wallace says of cruise ships, a “blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper’”?
And yet the selling point of open world games isn’t pampering at all. It’s the promise of the frontier. That feeling of excitement when you see the wide world spread out around you, that desire to escape into it, to live in a space of expansiveness and freedom: this is a desire for the frontier. And the desire to live on the frontier goes hand in hand with a desire to seize a piece of it for yourself — to better your condition (as our nation once “bettered” its own condition) through territorial expansion. Open world games almost always take place in frontier spaces of one kind or another — either truly new and unexplored territories (see No Man’s Sky, with its procedurally generated galaxies), or, more commonly, familiar spaces rendered new by post-apocalypse or some other form of defamiliarization. Fallout 3’s Washington, DC is a frontier; The Division’s New York City is a frontier; Assassin’s Creed IV’s Caribbean is explicitly a version of the Caribbean where treasure is still buried, where islands can be claimed, and where Nassau is a frontier city that can become a pirate utopia. Even Grand Theft Auto V’s contemporary Los Angeles is a frontier because it presents a version of our own LA with fewer people and without as much order, still ripe for the economic taking. In these games, as in the original promise of the frontier, progress and territorial expansion are intertwined. You know you’ve made it, as a player, when your map screen shows that the outposts have been captured, the territories have been subdued, and the activities have been completed. When you know the West was won.
This equation of progress with territorial expansion is an idea lodged deeply in America’s collective unconscious. For several decades, it was understood by many historians to be the story of America itself. In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a keynote address to the World’s Columbian Exposition in which he argued that up until that point, the frontier had been the driving force behind America’s progress as a nation. He argued not just that the United States had developed socially and economically through its westward expansion, but also that the nation’s peculiar character — its penchant for self-reliance, self-reinvention, individualism, and the new — had been forged in its travails along “the meeting point between savagery and civilisation.” The frontier was a space to be won, in Turner’s estimation. And in the winning of it, America itself had emerged and evolved.
Historians of the Western have often remarked upon the weird — or maybe fitting — coincidence that Turner delivered this address only blocks away from one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, an over-the-top, hootin’ and hollerin’ spectacle of lasso tricks and reenacted skirmishes between staged cowboys and Indians. It was a fortuitous coincidence because Westerns themselves are rich and often complicated expressions of Turner’s thesis. Sometimes they celebrate the frontier; sometimes they mourn it. Sometimes they celebrate “progress”; sometimes they reject it. In either case, they tend to equate the development of the United States with the conquering of the wilderness and the subjugation of the land, which they also tend to allegorize through the individual struggles of their protagonists. In How the West Was Won, an epic 1962 Western projected in super-widescreen using the Cinerama process (which involved three projectors working in sync to make a huge, curved image), one family’s multi-generational journey from New York to California becomes an allegory for the growth of America itself from a hardscrabble frontier territory into a technological superpower. A series of dissolves at the end of the film show the red, Mars-like terrain of the desert transforming into civilisation. Arid craters become lush agricultural fields. A dam fills a valley of death with lifegiving, man-made water. Endless sand gives way to the apex of enlightenment: a network of modern, bustling freeways.
Red Dead vividly demonstrates how the logic of the frontier is built into the structure of open-world gameplay. In one moment, you’re travelling into a vast, open landscape — a land beckoning you into its emptiness. In the next moment, you’re killing the people who are already there, dropping entire platoons with quick lever-like pulls of the left and right trigger. These activities are not tonally or conceptually mismatched, as they often are in games (e.g. Uncharted) that try to graft shooting sequences onto exploration. Instead, they’re intertwined: systematic murder often lurks on the other side of “exploration,” and exploration is presented as a task never quite finished without systematic murder. Red Dead uses its own open-world formula — in which roaming and machine-like slaughter necessitate each other like two parts of a rhyming couplet — to embody, rather than simply depict, the history of violent expansionism that Westerns often celebrate.
There is no XP system in Red Dead Redemption. There are no rewards — aside from a few dollars here and there — for killing more people than you need to kill, or for completing the activities that dot the landscape. There is no such thing as “winning.” Marston begins the game as good as he’ll ever be at shootouts (minus a few Dead Eye upgrades), and the lock-on system allows you to play the game without ever getting better. There are no levels. There are outposts to claim, but they don’t really do anything. You can buy properties, but none of them have any real futurity; they’re simply beds where a worn-out gunfighter might lay his head to rest.
It’s sort of astonishing to contemplate how much the game shuns the sense of progression that other games enshrine. In 8-bit platformers and roguelikes, you reset your progress every time you die, forcing you to start anew as a naked babe. But even they derive their replayability and their overall appeal from the feeling that you’re getting a little better every time. You’ve become quicker; you’ve internalized the rhythm; you know how to cope with the multitudinous threats. ‘Hardcore’ games like Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy are about failure — histories of failure written in trails of blood. But you move on eventually, and you get better.
Red Dead mocks your progress. If anything, progress for Marston involves not an ascent into expertise but a descent into depravity — a moral cheapening. He doesn’t avenge anything, doesn’t pursue wealth or power. He doesn’t even achieve atonement or a spiritual cleansing: Any redemption he earns is only in the eyes of the state, and the state is corrupt. He does what he’s gotta do because he’s being coerced. He’s a dog on a leash. There’s an unpleasant stasis, a circularity, to his condition. If anything, the better you get at the game, the more it reminds you that you’re becoming like the enemy — the machines that kill hundreds of men, or the government that has taken on the imperialist role usually inhabited by the open-world hero.
Or you’re becoming capital-P “Progress” itself, which characters in the game complain about relentlessly. “Change is only good when it makes things better,” Bonnie says. Her scepticism of Progress is common to the Western, where the real enemy is often not the desperado in a black bandana but the stuff that just got here: the railroad, the Federal government, the power of East Coast money. The genre wistfully venerates old ways and dying breeds. In this game, that scepticism of Progress, of the very idea of Progress, finds its voice not just in characters like Bonnie but in an almost pathological unwillingness to let Marston progress as a hero, or to let the player experience the kind of progression endemic to other games.
In the Western, writes Jane Tompkins, “the desert flatters the human figure by making it seem dominant and unique, dark against light, vertical against horizontal, solid against plane, detail against blankness.” Third-person open world games achieve a similar effect, offering players a sense of freedom against the constrained, knowledge against the benighted, capability against the inept, centrality against the peripheral. The player character stands tall in the middle of the frame, contrasting a teeming nation of bugs who swarm around him waiting to be swatted. You can flick the right analogue stick and literally move the world around.
The open world game generates the fantasy that you are not in the world but on top of it, imposing your will upon it. But the world of Red Dead does its best to undercut the basic supremacy of this format. Marston is only ever a part of the world, and when the world gets trampled under the boots of progress, he gets trampled, too. What you move toward is not completion, not conquest, but self-annihilation — which seems fitting for a genre so obsessed with the inevitability that we will be defeated by the land we have tried to tame.
I have fond memories of one sidequest in Red Dead that is flagrantly, almost insultingly pointless. A man named Jeb Blankenship comes up to Marston and bluntly says, “Hey partner, I need your help.” “You and every other fool around here,” Marston responds — a good retort from an overworked Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, he decides to help the man, who is desperate for the return of “Jeb’s girl.” Marston assumes that Jeb’s girl is his girlfriend, maybe his daughter. He rushes to Tumbleweed, where he fights off the hordes of bandits that have descended upon the ghost town like a swarm of maggots on a corpse. As it turns out, Jeb’s girl is a horse. The mission simply ends with that punchline. You have wasted your time.
Open world games are seldom about dead ends, squandered potential, or wasted time; their design stresses limitlessness, both in terms of what the player can do and what the player can be. You can join every guild in Skyrim; you can keep sinking other ships in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag until you have over a billion reales and you’re the seventh “Most Feared Pirate” on the North American leaderboard. (This is literally true of my father-in-law, who still plays the game, six years later, and views “pillaging and plundering” as an endless pastime best enjoyed in the hour before bed.) In the open world, you can keep progressing and progressing until the world has nothing and you have everything. You can’t in Red Dead. You can own every gun, but it won’t make Marston any more than himself, or the world any less hostile.
The frontier is a potent dream. That’s why we keep dreaming it: in video games, in movies, in political rhetoric, in the collective unconscious of the American mind. Red Dead knows. But the game surrounds the freedom and endless accumulation of its genre — every killing spree, every algorithmically-generated skirmish, every property purchased, every animal slain — with a claustrophobic sense of encasement. All progression is stasis. All expansion erodes the soul. You can ride out to the edge of the world, but to reach it is to realise that you’re trapped, like a Westworld guest, in an island prison built for you, with a control tower looming somewhere in the distance.