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Culture & Religion

It Is Literature: Red Dead Redemption, The Wired of Video Games

Would days spent reading Proust make us more attentive? The Times cover story today implies, Yes. New research argues against the opposing onslaught: video games, iPods; inevitable, en masse drift from love and marriage into email. Too much is enough. But maybe: maybe the next wave of technology, and of technological creativity, will consider the risks of distraction, and work harder to develop new tools to un-distract us, to make our minds work. With five thousand pages of script going into production, Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games’s latest production, certainly seems like something worthy of the adjective “Proustian.”

Red Dead further soldered the literary link of its chosen setting (Old West, circa 1911) by hiring film director John Hillcoat to make a movie of his experience of the game. Or, that’s not exactly the right way to describe it. Hillcoat was given the chance to play the game and, with the assistance of skilled gamers, “shot” a story, a short story on film, which demonstrates the variety of the world within the game, the character of its hero, and the options one has when accepting the challenge to play. The game may be won—or played through—but the experience of Red Dead for most who try it will be closer to that of reading a novel than it is to anything more linear or reductive. Here is the creation of a world, one that owes as much to classic Westerns and early twentieth-century novels as it does to Rockstar’s celebrated Grand Theft Auto. There is tradition in this: watch The Searchers, consider at Richard Prince, and then re-assess the depth of its iconography.

Here is the Hillcoat film.

And here is an interview in which Hillcoat discusses his process.

The film is an excellent advertisement for anyone who has never heard of Red Dead, or of Rockstar, or even of the “art” of video games. As Hillcoat shows us, in this world you can do almost anything, say even more, and eat and sell animals for play or profit. The survivalist element levels the attendant moral dilemmas a bit, but in addition to buffalo skins and bloody fingers (via Five Finger Filet) you can also accrue Honor and Fame according to your choices and your actions. Help someone: Honor. Kill someone: Fame. And you can lose levels of honor and fame, too, but as long as you continue to gain them you will also gain something quite contemporary: reputation. More honor: good. More fame: even better. Like life.

There will be books written about Red Dead Redemption, dissertations inspired by its internal logic and reveals. For non-gamers and non-scholars, the game’s meaning marks another stage in one company’s re-creation of creativity: an “open world,” which mimics what avid readers have experienced for years via novels and poems. It is easy to see what is not artful in a game, but perhaps we too often take for granted what is: more than blood and tears, if still less than War and Peace. 


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