Is it just me? Why is it that every time I sit down with some of the new games I’m flooded with waves of nostalgia — how is it that I am such a perfect target market for this stuff?
I am finally sitting down with Red Dead Redemption (thanks to Will) under the auspices of a developing project on digital narrative with Jim Bizzocchi and Josh Tanenbaum out at SFU, Bernard Perron and Jason Camlot. It’s okay… I am shelving Move while I wait for better games and Kinect to appear and for me this a piece of a project that actually started when Bernard and I played NHL 2K9 together (Sidney Crosby and I are one now) and then developed as I played though and thought about Heavy Rain.
For Red Dead I want to know what kind of story I can perform in the interstices of the story I am being told (there are a lot of cuts scenes doing a lot of standard cut scene work in this game). Its bare beginnings but already I have some things to deal with.
First off are these waves of nostalgia for watching old John Wayne flicks, Bonanza and of course Bret and BART Maverick (I am Bart Maverick :), this is followed by memories of camping in the Anza-Borego Desert near San Diego where I did my PhD… the scenery in Red Dead is stunning. I don’t actually see how anyone who has not grown up with the Western could get quite as much from the game but I am very interested now in how someone versed in Westerns reads, plays and understands this game differently from those less sub-culturally literate. I had the same feeling actually when I played the Lord of the Rings MMO (LOTRO) — how different the experience was once I was playing in a guild with a couple of chapter-and-verse Tolkien fans. Or like playing Star Wars Galaxy with Star Wars uber-fan Doug Thomas (which I never got to do). I am no Western geek but I do know “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em…”
Next — I keep getting the feeling I want this game to more like an MMO… the NPCs and their situations are mostly incongruous with the setting and the developing character of the main narrative. At times I am caring about John Marsdon (the central character that is the player) and I want to know his story to help motivate my actions and decide which ways to go in the GTA-ish sandbox (I’ll take the open range over claustrophobic urban settings and insane drivers anyday… you can get that already in Montreal) but other times I want to be set free… I hate the look of Marsdon, I’d like to design my own avatar and I hate being tied to his narrative. I want to ride off and more importantly I want to ride off with my posse… like in the opening scene of Bonanza.
Third — of course the solution to this problem is to give the game and its NPCs a little bit more interpretive charity — the player is in a position of needing to make meaningful sense of their actions even when the NPCs actually make that more difficult. Here’s a game studies/design project — just focus on bar scenes – let’s compare bar across several games and genres, multi-player and AI driven and think more about what is supposed to happen in bars, why people go and so on… indeed on a related point, there is no need to populate the desert so much with NPCs either (as if deserts were bars). Its bad enough to have convoys of coyotes to shoot (this isn’t an MMO believe it or not) but the desert trails are like highways of random passers-by — in the middle of the night!
I would like to see the environment and the sound scape do some more work in this game but that is going to be up to me — I’ll have to ride away from the trails and gun down all the coyotes around just so I have a moment to sit by the fire and look at the stars (and where’s my guitar anyway – my kingdom for a GTA radio with appropriate music)… I’ll only get a moment though because in a minute or so there will be some other random mob coming through i’ll have to shoot.