red dead remembrance
songs and memories of a wannabe cowboy
1 – “Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez
Exposed breasts—his sworn enemy. The countless executions, f-bombs, and depictions of drug use are fine in my father’s eyes. No, it’s the threat of exposed breasts—virtual ones, for chrissakes—that makes him recoil from the pre-owned copy of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption I clutch to my chest. Despite my efforts to hide it, he’s seen the content warning: His eyes found “nudity,” and all hope was lost. My babbles and whines are ignored as he orders me to return the box to the shelf. Damn ESRB. You’re worse than the MPAA.
You see, these were the olden days. Back then, physical copies were an adolescent’s only option for game purchases; the impending trip to GameStop meant young gamers such as myself had to extensively research the titles available, carefully consider their length and quality, and, above all, defeat the worthy adversary that is parental supervision. Lack of a credit card made the virtual store inaccessible, so when a title was finally chosen—within the range of your parent’s budget, or your allowance— it was a momentous occasion. Imagine the heartbreak when this entire process was rendered for naught by the cruel rigidity of parental law.
There I stand, a broken man, in the annals of a now-closed GameStop. My father senses my disappointment; he asks if there’s another game I want. I shake my head, as determined as before. My loyalty to this epic cowboy fantasy will not be drained so easily. He scans the shelves, selecting a random Guitar Hero sequel he thinks is a worthy replacement. Is he serious? I don’t bat an eyelid. It appears he and I have reached an impasse, with me on the losing end.
Then, salvation arrives. Thank God for post-release content—that glorious eventuality when developers decide they want more money and release needless additions to their games, often horrifyingly overpriced and devoid of narrative coherence. Enter Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, a zombie-infused “what-if” scenario crafted by the main game’s developers and, conveniently, sold separately. I lunge at the box and scan the ESRB rating. No nudity in this version. Well, it’s better than nothing.
I give my father the box. He smiles.
2 – “Compass (Red Dead on Arrival)” by Jamie Liddell
I cannot answer what my favorite film is. I find so many elements, scenes, and performances worthy of mention across the medium that I frankly cannot fathom a proper answer to the question. Yet, when it comes to video games, I have always known the answer. I think it always will be the same. Maybe it’s because finally getting Red Dead Redemption (sans zombies) signified a turning point in my childhood; being exposed to virtual breasts is a major kick in the pants toward adolescence.
I still remember the sky. A lone man, lost in the prairies, the stars scattering the heavens in a sort of compass toward…something. It was all fake, of course—tiny pixels composed of even tinier pixels. But nothing felt more real.
I remember my rage at the heartbreaking brilliance of the ending. The sigh of returning to an old save despite knowing the inevitable fate awaiting my hero—the scarred and desperate John Marston—rendering dozens of hours meaningless (unlike John, Mario was never shot to pieces in a vain attempt to save those he cared about). This gaming experience was something else entirely, impossible to replicate. For this soon-to-be-teenager, childhood wonder lived on. I was getting older, to be sure. But even on the hundredth time I descended my favorite mountain slope, my trusty steed galloping toward the desolate town of Armadillo, the Western whistles accompanying my travels reminded me of the power of stories. Where they could go. What they could be. What I could make.
3 – “Cruel Cruel World” By Willie Nelson
Eight years. That’s how long it took to make a sequel. Prequel, technically—my beloved Marston would now be a supporting character in a story set before the events of the first. A part of me never thought it would arrive; the countless delays kept dashing my hopes. And now, here it is. New protagonist Arthur Morgan stares up at me in muted rage, his posture a deliberate mirror of the original’s cover. How would he fare compared to Marston? Only time would tell.
Were my expectations too high? Perhaps. They were bound to be. The mythical status I had given the original made it untouchable. The old me would have beaten this new game in a week, would have dropped everything to discover the new additions to the Red Dead mythos. Not today. I am, after all, twenty years old.
I wish I could tell you I jumped into it and played to my heart’s content. I wish I could tell you I fell in love as I did with the first. That it reminded me yet again of the power of stories and enveloped me in the possibilities of narrative, of gameplay, of story and structural mechanics. That I felt like a kid again.
Instead, I played a video game.
I spent hours investing in something that felt…irrelevant. I had friends outside my door at every moment’s notice, assignments I should have been doing but neglected for that extra ten minutes, lines I should have been learning but put off for the mere possibility of stumbling across a secondary mission far off the beaten path. The world I had loved was still there, refined, beckoning me. But conquering it felt like an obligation. A nuisance.
By the time I approached the ending, I felt relief. It was nearly done. I had honored my commitment. The twelve-year-old in me was happy. But was I?
4 – “Unshaken” by D’Angelo
It was over. Arthur Morgan’s tale had been just as bittersweet as the first—and the graphics, gameplay, and sheer amount of content had nearly quadrupled in quality—but I was done with his tale, both literally and figuratively. Any sadness lingering from the loss of his character would be forgotten to make room for the next big narrative death. Perhaps Avengers: Endgame. Yet I didn’t regret playing the game for a second. I had learned a tough but important lesson:for better or for worse, video games were behind me. I was moving on.
And then, a funny thing happened. The credits didn’t roll; the game transitioned from a black screen to a view of a run-down farmhouse. I sat back, confused. Arthur was gone. What would this post-ending content be?
The barn doors opened up. A familiar face exited the stable, hopped aboard his trusty steed. The in-game world had opened up again, calling to me for one last ride.
And John Marston did ride, far into the night. The starry sky above. A refurbished world of old lay again at my feet. My mountain path. My legends.
I know the wonders of that first childhood experience can never be replicated. I’d be silly to think otherwise. But God, you can come so close. Thanks, Rockstar.