In anticipation of Red Dead-related news coming later today, journalist and historian Holly Nielsen explores how the first game is one of gaming's best examples of historical atmosphere.
Red Dead Redemption is not historically accurate. Rockstar’s cowboy epic is set in the early 20th century not in a real place, but in a fictitious sprawl of American and Mexican states and counties. Yet it is one of gaming’s best examples of carefully crafted historical atmosphere. Not only is it relevant to the period it is based, but playfully acknowledges layers of cultural memory associated with the wild west.
You don’t see a horse in the opening of Red Dead Redemption. You are introduced to a world of smoke, newspapers, cars, streetlights and parasols before being shown the sun-scorched landscape speckled with parched wilderness that we traditionally recognise as the “wild west”. The outlaw protagonist John Marston is presented to us as a man out of time, lost in a rapidly modernising world. This opening is a masterclass in establishing a historical environment. Think this game will be a rip-roaring “yee-ha” filled frolic through cartoonish cacti while “Home on the Range” blares in the background? Wrong.
I've given a number of lectures and seminars to both history students and game developers on the use of history in games. Not what people can learn about history from games, not the history of games themselves, but how people experience history uniquely through games and how developers can engage with the past. I've used lots of games as examples, everything from Civilization to Fallout, all of which do something interesting. Red Dead Redemption is one of the very few I say with confidence did something well.
Rockstar took themes relevant to the time period, threw in recognisable tropes and subverted them with the odd bit of awareness, just in the achievements there are references to cowboy films (How the West was Won) and phrases relevant to the period (Land of Opportunity), showing it’s not that detached from reality. With all this they made something fascinating. If they’d failed to do their history homework or disengaged with their source material on any one of these aspects then it would have all fallen flat. Creating this rich an atmosphere is no easy task. A game that is 100% historically accurate could have all the clothing and architecture meticulously recreated, but could still fail miserably in creating a feeling or sense of place.
Red Dead Redemption tackles issues of anxiety over encroaching government control, the volatility of the southern border and a rapidly dying way of life- all of which are relevant to early 20th century America. It gives us a context for our cowboy setting. It makes us aware of just how fleeting this period was, and yet how ingrained it has become into popular culture.
It also plays with public memory. Rockstar used the media its players will recognise, historical themes are filtered through our own engagement with everything from Clint Eastwood to Spaghetti Westerns. None of us actually remember this time period, it’s fading out of living memory, but we know the media it inspired. It is a delicate balancing act between portraying an atmosphere that is faithful to the setting, while also acknowledging popular culture. John Marston is a somewhat archetypal lone ranger outlaw. But, as the opening shows, he is a relic of a bygone era. While the rest of the game settles more comfortably into familiar Western territory the narrative reminds us that Marston is hunting down his past in an attempt to tie up the loose strings of an unviable way of life.
As with most things, history is soaked in politics. Taking on a historical setting or theme can potentially be a minefield for developers. Our society and cultural identities are so tied up with our past that portraying this past can lead to causing offense. By toeing the line between a fictional Wild West movie-like setting, and actual early 20th century America, Rockstar manage to have the best from both worlds. The setting is fictitious enough and so inspired by popular culture that it takes the potential sting out of critiques and negative portrayals. There is no risk of accidentally portraying someone’s great grandfather as a villain. However, the setting and themes are close enough that knowing nods to a dark past do not go unnoticed. The famous line “This is America, where a lying, cheating degenerate can prosper” spoken by a snake oil salesman, subverting the American dream, struck a chord with many. If you kill all twenty buffalo in the Great Plains you’re awarded with the “Manifest Destiny” trophy. A microcosm of the destruction caused by the belief in 19th century America that expansion was their god-given destiny. Little acknowledgements like this combined with the brutality of the game stop it from becoming a glorification of its setting, while also avoiding a myriad of potential problems in portraying an era steeped in politics.
History is more than facts. It is societal memories, public engagement and artistic interpretation. An increasing amount of people now interact with it through games like Red Dead Redemption, demonstrating that as historians we should be engaging with this medium far more often. Video games have become a hugely important facet of public history.
I doubt I would give Red Dead Redemption to anybody with the sole purpose of learning about America in 1911. You may get a sense of some of the issues of the era but without a factual grounding it might all get a bit muddled. But, in terms of games as a media exploring history in ways that go beyond the often dry subject of accuracy, it’s the best example. Red Dead Redemption showed that a historical setting in a game need not be weighed down with the burden of unnecessary facts. It showed that a game can acknowledge multiple eras of history. And, ultimately, it inspired me as a historian to turn my gaze towards video games.
- Red Dead Redemption is available now for Xbox 360 and PS3. It can also be played via backwards compatibility on Xbox One.