Wednesday 14 November 2018

Red Dead Redemption's Weird Western World

The original Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010 by Rockstar Games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Wild West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members across Mexico and the fictional State of New Austin after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storytelling and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment. 

Red Dead Redemption release trailer.

Advances in technology have meant that no video game is truly complete. Indeed, the "day one update" phenomena has shown that most games aren't even fully debugged and ready to run when they are sold. But where there is extra money to make, downloadable content (DLC) is soon to follow. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, the Undead Nightmare DLC (2010) throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to solve a mystery going back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun. 

Along the way, Marston encounters even more strangeness. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn that trails a rainbow behind it as you ride. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.  

Undead Nightmare trailer.

Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle, and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.

Apparently those critics were a minor voice, because the more recently released prequel Red Dead Redemption II (2018) for Xbox One and Playstation 4 goes much further in integrating elements of the Weird Western into their otherwise more realistic game. In this installment set in 1899, 13 years before Red Dead Redemption, you play Arthur Morgan, the enforcer of John Martson's old gang. After a robbery gone wrong, the gang is on the lam and trekking across the American landscape to avoid Pinkertons and bounty hunters. We see the gang both at the height of its power and through its fall into madness, despair, and death. 

Red Dead Redemption II release trailer.

The game pushes beyond the tropes of the Spaghetti Western to be a much more realistic take on true Western life. Opportunities for fastpaced, bloodthirsty gunplay are further between and resource management becomes a much more significant part of the game. You have to watch out for the well-being of the camp, your horse, and your character, meaning there is more hunting, crafting, bathing, feeding, and brushing going on. The world of Red Dead Redemption II is much more fully and beautifully realized as well. Its sprawling map is a microcosom of the United States, with regions identifiable to actual parts of the country. The city of Saint Denis is a stand-in for New Orleans, surrounded by bayous and neighbouring the red earth of the post-Civil War American South. North is "Roanoke", replicating the Appalachians and Hudson Valley. To the West are ranges of mountains reflecting the Sierra Nevadas and Canadian Rocky Mountains. Tucked in the midst of the mountains is a small tribute to the geyser basins of Yellowstone. In the middle of the map is the eerily accurate "Heartlands" that look exactly like what one would see driving through the grasslands and badlands of the prairies. New Austin returns as the equivalent of Texas.

Throughout this immense world are a plethora of sights and strangers that get weirder and weirder as the game progresses. The original game had its share of odd characters, eccentrics mostly. The only clearly supernatural figure in Red Dead Redemption was the mysterious Stranger, an unkillable, top-hatted gentleman who appears to know everything about John Marston's past... and future. It was a statement by him that provided the seed for Red Dead Redemption II's precipitating incident. Yet he is poorly defined and there is much speculation as to whether he is God, or Satan, or something else entirely. Much like the stranger in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973), there are hints as to who this Stranger could be, but overall he is an encounter with the Unknown beyond human ken.

Compilation of scenes with the Stranger.

By contrast,  Red Dead Redemption II goes balls to the wall nuts at times. Extraterrestrial visitors appear at least three times in the sky, first above the ruined shack of a Heaven's Gate-style suicide cult. A ghost in the swamps outside Saint Denis eternally relives her tragic tale of lost love and suicide. Speaking of Saint Denis, what would a proxy of New Orleans be without a vampire? Sasquatch bones can be sighted in a mountain cave, a horrific Moreauesque experiment can be found in a deserted house, high in the hills is a witch's hovel with a cauldron brewing, and human sacrifices by pagan cults dot the landscape, as do ancient fossils, Viking burials, pirate wrecks, and crashed flying machines. A side mission has you searching for mysterious rock carvings of Zeppelins and atomic bomb explosions for a man who looks and talks like he is from the 1920's. Another mission has you performing tasks for a Tesla-like genius, culminating in the discovery of an automaton that looks like a cross between Boilerplate and Bender. 

The following videos by LegacyKillaHD showcase some the various Easter eggs and where to find them, though (more) spoilers ahead for those waiting to find them for themselves...

LegacyKillaHD does a good job outlining the running thread of Science Fiction shared between Red Dead Redemption II and Grand Theft Auto V, revolving around the "Epsilon Program" cult found in the latter and the continuous references to UFOs that seem to follow a consistent pattern (for example, the clue in the suicide cult's shack not only leads you back there, but to the second encounter on a mountain peak). Players familiar with Grand Theft Auto V note that the Epsilon Program warn against the lies of the red haired, so it may be that Francis Sinclair, the apparent time traveler, became both an object of reverence and fear for the cult, and is probably none the wiser about them himself. But the Epislonians also believe that "Sperm does not exist - it is a lie spread by biology teachers - along with everything else you have ever been told" and "The world is 157 years old", so who knows what they're on about. The reality is that Rockstar Games is kind of making it up as it is going along. Based on this story thread, there is high hope that this edition of Red Dead Redemption will host a Sci-Fi-themed DLC to contrast with the original's Horror-themed DLC.  

Otherwise, these Easter eggs, along with the more historical references, are an encyclopedic compendium of Western images. The landscape itself provides a ready-made foundation... When the gang flees to the State of Lemoyne, it is to a depressed region of once-stately plantations, the last gasps of "Southern hospitality", and its illusory facade over racism and KKK rallies. The time period furnishes added colour. Suffragettes appear in the game, leading to one of its early controversies when persistently clueless games "journalists" couldn't tell the difference between gamers screwing around doing stupid stuff and gamers as a class of "violent misogynists". The main antagonists are the Pinkertons, the detective and security agency founded by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton in 1850. Owing primarily to its record as strikebreakers and union infiltrators in the latter part of the 19th century. Most notorious was the Homestead Strike of 1892, which placed the Pinkertons in the middle of a labour dispute between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company. When the Pinkertons attempted to enter the Homestead Steel Works, they were confronted by the workers. It's unclear who shot first, but after a night of veritable guerrilla warfare, nine workers and three Pinkertons lay dead with 11 and 12 injuries respectively. The Pennsylvania State Militia was eventually brought in to quell hostilities.

Red Dead Redemption II takes it cue from an earlier period in Pinkerton history, which is standard for the franchise. Red Dead Redemption's version of 1912 looks more like 1890 or earlier, compared to actual photos of Texas or Arizona in 1912. While working security and detection services for railroads, the Pinkertons uncovered a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War they were hired on as security for the president and came to adopt a role that is fulfilled today by the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA, none of which existed at the time (the Secret Service was itself founded by Allan Pinkerton at the close of the Civil War). In that capacity, the Pinkertons were part of the hunt for Jesse James, the Reno Brothers, the Youngers, and the Wild Bunch, which included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In Red Dead Redemption II, they're on the trail of Arthur Morgan, John Marston, and their gang. 

This does make Red Dead Redemption II somewhat awkward. The prior game was less morally ambiguous, insofar as you are acting for a good cause in bringing down outlaws, even if it is under duress. The game rewards honourable behaviour (there are missions you literally cannot do if you are wanted by the police) and it is consistent with the story and character of John Marston. In Red Dead Redemption II, you are an outlaw who the game rewards for good behaviour but nonetheless does awful things in the story. You may spend hours doing good deeds to raise your honour gauge, only to lose honour again when the story missions demand robbery and shootouts in the street. Morgan bemoans the passing way of life of the Wild West and that outlaws like him are not wanted anymore as civilization marches onwards, as though criminals were ever desirable to have around. I have to admit that I'm not not on the side of the Pinkertons here. 

Nevertheless, the additional Weird Western references add charm to what is an otherwise bleak story. Pirate wrecks around the avatar of New Orleans is probably one of the least weird things. The actual city was known for connections to piracy, not the least being Jean Lafitte. He and his brother Pierre started a smuggling operation out of New Orleans until the law forced them to move to an island in nearby Barataria Bay. From there they branched out to piracy until the US Navy invaded the island in 1814. In exchange for a pardon, the Lafittes and their fleet helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the final conflict of the War of 1812. "Pirates Alley" in New Orleans is named after that history, though no one is exactly sure why it's called that. It was also the motivation for Walt Disney to put a ride about pirates in his replica of New Orleans.

Viking remains in Red Dead Redemption II's proxy of New England has more to do with myth than reality. It is well established by solid archaeology that Vikings did reach as far as Newfoundland and Baffin Island during the Mediaeval Warm Period, about 950-1250 CE. Norse sagas led researchers to North America's shores in search of the legendary "Vinland", and until it was confirmed as Newfoundland, traces of Viking settlements were searched for up and down the Atlantic seaboard. This led to many instances of pseudo-archaeology, attributing a range of different sites to Vikings: early and forgotten colonial structures, Indigenous petroglyphs, deliberate hoaxes. Rhode Island hosts several including the Newport Tower, the stone base of a colonial windmill belonging to Benedict Arnold's great-grandfather but variously attributed to the Vikings, Chinese, Portuguese, and even the Knights Templar. 

The several occurrences of witches and pagan rituals echo traditions of American folk magic in the Appalachians and Ozarks. These were mainly sets of superstitions and folk remedies carried on primarily by elder women in the backwoods of New England to the Deep South, such as keeping horseshoes over a door and a lucky rabbit's foot, as well as herbal remedies in areas where doctors weren't common. The most famous incident of witchcraft in US history was, of course, the Salem Witch Trials, which really had nothing to do with folk magic anyways (except a theory that at least one of the victims was, in fact, guilty of attempting to use maleficent charms, regardless of whether or not they were effective). Surprisingly, neither Voodoo nor Hoodoo are found in the game to speak of, at least not on the mainland.

New Orleans is renowned for ghost stories as well as pirates and Voodoo (hence Disney also placing their ghost ride in New Orleans Square). It is, in fact, regarded as the most haunted city in the United States... Its rich history and potent atmospheres seems well suited to tales of mystery and the supernatural. Guides in New Orleans do a brisk business in ghost tours. Anne Rice picked up on that atmosphere, living in the city and featuring it in so many of her books like Interview With the Vampire and The Witching Hour. Red Dead Redemption II is ambivalent as to whether its vampire, inspired by Nosferatu, is actually a real vampire or not. Unambivalent is the tragic ghost out in the bayou north of Saint Denis. Less supernatural and more The Hills Have Eyes are the "Night Folk" prowling the swamps. 

At the border entering the state of Lemoyne is a ghost train that appears during the midnight hours, from a late 19th century variation on the common folkloric trope of cursed wanderers. Where exactly the trope comes from is lost in the dim mists of time. It probably owes a certain amount to the "Wild Hunt": those dark, moonlit nights when a phantasmagorical troupe of spectral huntsmen charge through forest roads astride their night-mares, cursing, killing or carrying off any mortal in their path. These hunts were typically the privilege of the gods, including Hearne the Hunter in England, Wodan in Germany, or Freyja in Nordic countries. In the United States, the Wild Hunt was shaped by Washington Irving into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman (1820). Canada's variation is Le Chasse-galerie, the story of a spectral canoe of cursed Voyageurs transcribed by Honoré Beaugrand in 1892. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) is about such a wanderer, as did Richard Wagner in his opera The Flying Dutchman (1843). The proliferation of steam travel in the late 19th century gave a new means for the cursed to wander, and a new means for people to die tragically. The touchiness of steam engines and the difficulty in properly timing railway travel (leading to the creation of standardized time zones) lead to many disasters and much criticism in the press. Through the 1840's, 50's, 60's and 70's, there were multiple fatal crashes every year. Traumatic wrecks, lives lost with unfinished business, and the occasional optical or auditory illusion conspired to create the legend of the ghost train. 

Finally, for this review, there is some speculation in fan circles about whether the giant that one encounters trapped in a cave is a Sasquatch or not, given that Sasquatch is already known to exist in Red Dead Redemption. It is more likely a literary reference to Roald Dahl's The BFG, about a giant who lives in a cave and is afraid to leave for fear of being killed. In a world populated by outlaws, alligators that bite you in the crotch, and incest cannibals, he may not be totally in the wrong. Another pop-culture reference is the Moreauesque experiment in an abandoned house... A terrifying fusion of man, bear, and pig that is an amusing allusion to the cartoon South Park

The list of things to write about in Red Dead Redemption II is long and keeps getting longer as more and more players find the hidden references buried deep within an expansive game that takes over 60 hours just to play the main story. It's not unlikely that this review will be updated at a later date. For now, I have to get back to playing and finding these things for myself. I don't consider myself a "gamer" insofar as I'm not interested in gaming as a hobby in itself, with the exception of classic gaming like Pac-Man and the original Nintendo. What I love are particular games and franchises - Sakura Taisen, Bioshock Infinite - and the Red Dead Redemption franchise is one of those things. I broke the rule and pre-ordered the special edition of Red Dead Redemption II before the review embargo was even lifted, because I knew there was no way I could not like it. Seeing the depth of this game first hand, from UFO and ghost sightings to incredibly rendered environments, is vindication. 

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