Listening to fans talk about Red Dead Redemption in relation to its influence on the videogame Western genre is a lot like listening to someone describe the Big Bang. First, there was nothing. And then…bang.
Historically, that’s an inaccurate viewpoint. There were, of course, plenty of Wild West videogames released before Rockstar’s 2010 open world title. Good ones, too. Sunset Riders turned the 2D beat-em-up into a wild west shootout. Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath took draped a proud franchise in cowboy garb and created a crown jewel in the process. Wild Guns inserted sci-fi into the land of cowboys and outlaws and became a cult classic. You could even argue the Oregon Trail provided gaming’s original look at the era.
Despite these efforts, few ever made the claim that gaming had received a definitive genre title prior to Red Dead Redemption dropped on May 18, 2010. At the risk of oversimplifying why that was the case, we ask you to consider the word immersion. Immersion is the core component of many videogames. We play games to escape. We want to step into a new world and experience new things. Even simplistic titles have the ability to suck us into some other plane of existence.
People have always harbored a special desire to enter the world of the Wild West. They want to enter a time where good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black. They want to experience a period when simple problems had clear answers. Of course, none of those qualities really represent the Wild West as it was. Blame the misinformation on movies.
So far as allowing us to step into the West that Sergio Leone and John Ford painted with 35 mm film, though, there was indeed nothing like Read Dead Redemption. Games like Red Dead Revolver and Gun proved that the blueprint and technology for such games was there, but their execution was wrong. As Dr. Robert Ford mused in Westworld, people don’t want to live someone else’s fantasy of the West; they want to make their own.
Red Dead Redemption is, to this day, the only title of its kind to allow that. It’s not a game that is constantly trying to guide you through a theme park of period specific delights. Those attractions exist, but they are waiting for you to discover them. In the meantime, the game is content with allowing you to ride the plains in relative silence or play a game of cards. You can’t overstate the immersion that comes from being allowed to feel like you’re wandering off a beaten path.
There’s going to be a lot of talk about expectations for Red Dead Redemption 2. What people want and what they don’t. So long as the game allows players to sit beneath a starry sky with their rifle, pony, and the promise of a new adventure somewhere on the horizon, however, it should remain the only game in town.