Game On

Red Dead Redemption
The western is a surprisingly narrow genre. For all the expansive vistas, the range of action afforded it’s protagonists is often as linear as a minecart track. (Some would say this is a blessing, so the various films, books and now video games can explore every permutation of the myth of the Wild West).

So it’s no surprise that Red Dead Redemption plays out in a straight line. It’s the most cinematic of Rockstar’s work; there’s more cut-scene watching then bandit blasting, and the core gameplay is actually quite tame and easy. But it excels in mood.

RDR is essentially Grant Theft Auto reworked as a western. There’s the same template of a beautifully realized sandbox with waypoint missions and colorful side characters. But while GTA bragged of its amoral universe, RDR more than casually pulls the player into a moral spectrum. First off, John Marston isn’t just in it to get rich and move up totem pole of shinier cars, bigger guns and larger bankroll. He’s pulled into the story by government agents who’ve kidnapped his family and forced him to hunt down his old gang. So right off the bat the player (and Marston) is limited into a binary split: make good on the deal with the feds and complete the redemption; or fall victim to his old outlaw nature of the savage west.

One of the things that that RDR does best is getting the player to empathize with Marston, until his very grunts of anger and annoyance (both at the NPCs who are jerking him around, and at the galloping hordes of literal cannon fodder) are the player’s own. This is probably the most artful part of the game: every animated shrug, nod, flicked cigarette, nonchalant duel victory, and even the way he slaps down his poker cards paint a nuanced portrait of Marston.

Instead of GTA’s wide open streets brimming with hidden loot and tanks to steal, there’s not much else to do in RDR but go through the missions. Money is never in short supply if you loot bodies, and there’s not much to buy anyway. One revolver is as good as another, once you have Dead Eye and can essentially go Max Payne on the black hats. The toughest parts of the game are where you’re divorced from your regular arsenal, glued to a Gatling gun.

As you progress through the game, you see the closing of the west – the railroad, the revolution, the ranch, and finally the city and government dominance. The social commentary is a little thick, but I’m not faulting Rockstar. Where else do you see big budget productions that address issues of racism, environmentalism, the role of government, temperance, violence, and civilization vs the wild? All the classic literary tropes that made the western a respected genre are present, and instead of observing them in an academic or purely emotional way through a film or novel, you live them out. The thrill of violence is there, the calming beauty of the western vista is there, the mournful loss of comrades and buffalo herds is there.

The question is whether this makes it a better video game, or a better interactive “experience”. RDR is certainly cinematic. But the raw gameplay is shoehorned into a straight line. I’d go so far as to say Red Dead is more of an interactive movie than a video game. Not to say that I haven’t enjoyed playing it all summer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Minecraft. There’s no plot, narrative arc, or even explicit goals. The production quality is positively 8-bit, all courtesy of a development team of one: a guy named Notch.

Minecraft is a sandbox world in the truest sense – an enormous box filled with smaller cubes of varying types (stone, gravel, sand, iron ore, wood, etc). The world is programmatically generated (using some pretty impressive algorithms that carve the blocks into mountains, canyons and caves). Some natural rules give the world some life (grass grows on top of dirt exposed to sunshine, water and lava flow downhill, zombies come out at night, etc).

The player interacts with the world by mining, crafting and building. First, gather some wood from trees and construct some rough tools – a pick, a shovel, a sword. Next, start digging out a tunnel system for your first mine. Once you spot some coal, you can construct torches, and light the way to dig even deeper.

The really cool stuff comes once you figure out the basic mechanics and start finding the rarer ores. Iron ore can be forged into iron swords, doors, and even minecart tracks. Redstone ore can be used to make rudimentary electrical systems. Some brilliant (and obsessive) players have even created low level computer processors in game out of the ore arranged into logic gates.

The undirected play of Minecraft recalls all those childhood hours spent in the sandbox, or building with Legos. There’s really no limit to what you can construct – and yet there is a degree of challenge to the game, especially in Alpha mode. The labyrinthine cave systems usually contain the most precious ore, but also spawn various monsters (zombies, kamikaze Creepers, skeleton archers, etc). The lower levels of the caves are also swimming in lava. So there’s a certain degree of danger in mining.

But the challenge also feeds the addiction. Without the threat of death, there’d be no thrill to the resource gathering, only a grind. When you dig through a vein of ore into an expansive and pitch black cavern, there’s both an exhilarating rush of exploration and a creeping sense of dread. Quickly you plop down a few smoky torches to illuminate the expanse, but there are still black pits down into the earth, beckoning. So you rush ahead, pick swinging.

After you play a world for a while, the well-trodden pathways are rounded of annoying corners. You might add a bridge over chasms, and build fortresses to protect your stuff from the evening zombie invasion. After you get the hang of it, each individual “life” doesn’t matter as much, since you have less to lose. What matters is what you’ve built – cutting away mountains, building castles, and lighting a path through the dungeons beneath.

The “art” of the game – if you want to call it that – lives in that addictive emotion it inspires in the player to conquer, carve out and build. It’s the very same lust that drove conquistadors and pilgrims to colonize new lands. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you put the cap on a stone tower with a glass viewing platform, taller than any mountain. But each new monument requires more resources, longer dives into the dark earth, the world leeched of resources, the green mountains riddled with pathways like Swiss cheese and covered over with infrastructure.

Minecraft is still in alpha, and it has a few bugs. The polish isn’t there, but that’s part of the appeal. I’m excited to see what else Notch can come up with – what other ingenious cubical devices can be crafted, other world styles to disassemble (currently there’s the default greenscape, and snow). I can see myself playing this one months from now. There are always bigger fortresses to build, deeper caverns to mine.

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