‘Red Dead’: Rockstar warrants ‘Redemption’ for its sequel

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 The last time I remember slowing down time to a crawl to shoot a sorry gangster with a $240 bounty on his head in each of the legs before hogtieing him, putting him on my horse, and turning him into the sheriff was only two months ago. Two short months ago, when I finally finished playing a game I had shamefully started when I was still in middle school: “Red Dead Redemption.”

Looking back, I realize that not finishing it in one go attributes more to me being a lazy 12-year-old than anything to do with the game — as this is a video game that puts others to shame: a game that turns hours into minutes as you engage in a lone rider’s story for redemption in the dying American West, mowing down countless villains in typical video game fashion. But there is a key difference: These villains were once the protagonist John Marston’s best friends, meaning that even though it seems he is attempting to leave his criminal past for a moral future, the game is forcing the player to kill off people Marston once cared for — trapping us into making morally ambiguous decisions.

This is the glory of “Red Dead Redemption,” an open-world, western action-adventure game published by Rockstar Games. Following in the footsteps of the iconic “Grand Theft Auto” series, “Red Dead Redemption” was critically acclaimed by many reviewers, even earning countless “Game of the Year” awards from various gaming publications.

        But outside of critical acclaim, on its own terms, “Red Dead Redemption” is simply fantastic. Visually, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful game that portrays the American Frontier in stunning ways, with ridiculously orange sunsets and sky-reaching rock formations. Technically, the game works in the same succeeding fashion of the “Grand Theft Auto” series, with precise controls that allow the execution of fluid maneuvers. Musically, the soundtracks help create memorable moments within the narrative. There’s a mix of songs that capture the solitude of a lone rider — such as a single whistle accompanied by strings, to songs meant for exhilaration with fast drums and loud trumpets.

Beyond the game itself, there is a cinematic narrative that holds you tight by the neck and forces your eyes to stay open and experience the tragedy one step at a time, as you slowly grow attached to the story’s protagonist, John Marston, a former brutish outlaw. As the narrative advances and Marson’s violent past and troubled future begin to collide, all you can do is hope that the government holds up their side of the agreement. This agreement, coincidentally, is one of moral ambiguity, as you must hunt down and kill your former gang members in order to be pardoned for your past crimes.

This setup is deceptively cliché in most mediums, as while this story has been done countless times, it remains fascinating in the game because of an engaging cast of characters that force Marston to make morally grey decisions. And every time Marston must make a difficult decision, it isn’t just Marston: It’s you. This is why “Red Dead Redemption” works so well in the video game medium. It allows for the formation of a tight bond between the protagonist and the player, as you are not one of countless people watching his story with no control over his fate. Instead, you are John Marston, and you are the one controlling his gun, aiming it at his former buddies and killing in the name of a redemption that may create more sins than it absolves.

And so when I saw in my suggested page on YouTube a video entitled “Red Dead Redemption 2 Trailer,” my heart froze as my fingers drunkenly tried to bring the mouse to click the video. Five seconds in, I realized I wasn’t watching one of those awful fan-made trailers — I was watching the real deal. That for some strange reason, a game that needed no sequel was having a sequel. That’s what made me pause the video for a second and go off on a tangent in my head on how much I disliked big companies attempting to profit off of excellent original creations with unnecessary sequels that dilute the quality of the original. Then I unpaused and promptly forgot about those thoughts as I felt a rush I had not felt since I came to Berkeley — the rush that comes from the anticipation of being put back in the heart of the Wild West, a feeling like no other: I am okay with a “Red Dead Redemption” sequel because I miss it too much already.

I proceeded to watch the trailer several times, from the opening shot on the picturesque lone rider, to the forests, creeks and deserts, suggesting more diverse areas for exploration, to the ominous voice narrating and then, to what I couldn’t believe, an entire gang of riders, potentially implying the co-op nature to the new game’s world.

While fan theories are going wild, the only one I find to have any real validity is that this will be a prequel, in which you will control various characters from John Marston’s old gang, hopefully including a young Marston himself. This is a huge reason why I think this sequel will work, as it won’t attempt to squeeze any more out of the dying West of the early 20th century but instead turn to an earlier time, when the romanticized Wild West was at its height complete with thriving saloons, corrupt officials and cowboys galore.

By just a simple shift to a couple decades before the original game, there is already an entirely different setup that will intrigue both players of the original and new players as well. And, if the gang seen in the trailer really is Marston’s old gang, we will be able to experience him at the height of his youth, sinning away as he traverses the American Frontier. Since we are already immensely attached to the character, too, there will be a great payoff if Rockstar Games creates a compelling narrative in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” hopefully revealing things about Marston’s past that forces players to reconsider one of their favorite protagonists.

But there is more than just the sequel probably being a prequel that will make “Red Dead Redemption 2” work: the success of “Grand Theft Auto V.” Its portrayal of a complex storyline involving several protagonists makes me a believer that Rockstar Games will be able to pull this off again, in possibly even more polished fashion, with “Red Dead Redemption 2.” The gang of riders in the trailer implies that there is a strong possibility for more than one controllable character, and as much as I’d love to be in the shoes of a younger Marston, where Redemption left off, I’d just as much love to play a variety of outlaws with distinct personalities.

While this can be confusing and can easily become a complete mess, “Grand Theft Auto V” was able to balance three protagonists fairly well, allowing the player to become attached to each distinct character before intersecting their stories and creating a fascinating tale of old friendships, loyalty and the price of crime. On Rockstar Games’ second time around, I have faith that they will be able to capture this just as well in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and I truly hope that this is the case.

Furthermore, the timing is right. I’m tired, and I’m sure almost everyone is, of companies that believe that a sequel must be made every year for their successful series, as this more often than not destroys the image of some of the most beloved games. For example, “Assassin’s Creed 2” and “Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood” were both critically acclaimed and seen as amazing games by critics and players alike, including me. However, I was young and naive; Little did I know that Ubisoft would decide to pump out a new “Assassin’s Creed” every year, making it obvious that the company was just trying to cash in on the past success of the series.

However, when a game is a big hit, then given several years to flourish on its own before slowly leaving people’s radars, a sequel can be made and be seen as fair play. A whole new evolution of consoles was released within the six-year period between the first “Red Dead Redemption” and its sequel, and this will allow for an incredible graphics upgrade from its predecessor and allow the company a way to tell a new story within the established world. With Rockstar’s track record, we have assurance that the game won’t be a tired retread, but a deserving follow up to a much-loved game.

Thus, I do feel Rockstar Games will warrant its redemption for making a sequel to a game that seemingly didn’t need one, as it will do enough to make fans come back to the Wild West one more time — this time around, you’ll be saddling with a whole new gang.

Contact Hansol Jung at [email protected].