One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
One of the biggest differences between computer games when I first started playing them, back in the 1980s, and modern computer games is scope. Open worlds of the kind that we’re used to nowadays didn’t exist on the 8-bit and 16-bit computers of yore, but these days it’s not rare for a game to feature a world many square kilometres in size. In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III let us rampage in a Liberty City that measured 9 km2 in real-world terms; Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2013, covered an area of 127 km2. Things get even more insane with the possibilities of procedural generation, so that we got a 1:1 scale simulation of the Milky Way galaxy in Elite Dangerous (released in 2015). As game worlds get bigger and bigger, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to fill them with meaningful content, and arguably Elite‘s in-game universe is several light years wide and a nanometre deep. Which is one of the reasons why the toy-box solar system of Outer Wilds is so engaging.
I’ve made a couple of posts on the subject of games, films, art, yadda yadda yadda. Boring stuff, and anyway, who cares whether Roger Ebert knows a gamepad from a Wiimote?
Rockstar, the makers of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, take a strange position in the whole game/film argument. There are few games that borrow as liberally, and as successfully, from the movies and from TV as Rockstar’s. This has never been as obvious as in their latest, Red Dead Redemption, which is in equal measures Once Upon a Time in the West and Deadwood. The ghost of Sergio Leone haunts the game’s arid landscapes. I’ve rarely seen as effective and evocative an interpretation of the West as the one Rockstar have conjured up. Yet their games never become that most frustrating of hybrids, the interactive movie. They are both grandly cinematic and great games.
More than anything else, Rockstar excels at creating worlds to explore that feel alive: the faux ’80s Miami of GTA: Vice City, the parallel LA, San Francisco and Las Vegas of San Andreas and the not-quite-NY that is Liberty City.
None of these measure up to the accomplishment of Red Dead Redemption,however. I’ve played the game for five to ten hours, and in terms of gameplay it’s nothing revolutionary – missions here, duels there, horse riding, cow herding and poker minigames elsewhere – but it creates a sense of place that is simply amazing, as the video of the game’s time-lapse day/night cycle shows:
John Hillcoat, director of Australian neo-western The Proposition and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, was asked to direct a short film using footage from the game – possibly a gimmicky way of advertising its release, but one that’s pretty gutsy, speaking not only of Rockstar’s confidence in their creation but also in their chosen medium. Is Hillcoat’s half-hour take on Red Dead Redemption an overly idealistic barrage in the Great Movie/Videogame War of the ’00s? Is it just something to do in between directing grim, gritty and depressing movies? Judge for yourselves.