Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Red Dead Religion

As Monday was technically a day off after returning from a pleasant and relaxing week skiing up in the wilds of Western Maryland, I kicked back and...after a few chores...settled in to play the PS3 game I'd been given for Christmas.  It was Red Dead Redemption, a wild-west open sandbox game, in which you can roam about the barren arroyos and tattered towns of the American West.  Or at least the American West as it was imagined by Sergio Leone.

It's been a remarkably well-reviewed game, one I've been eager to sample ever since I first read about it on the gaming sites I feed.  Even though it's a product of Rockstar, the game studio responsible for the intensely popular but basically evil Grand Theft Auto series, I was still eager to give it a look.  For some reason, setting things in the Wild Wild West makes the gunplay more distant and more palatable.  The existence of a morality system in which you aren't obligated to just be a thief or a thug also made Red Dead Redemption seem like something I might be able to get into in a Have Gun Will Travel sort of way.

After a full morning of gameplay, I find myself having a variety of reactions to the game.  It's gorgeous, of course.  The dusty trails and mountains of New Austin are stark and lovely.  Character modeling isn't the best I've seen, but it's still really solid.  The action...meaning the plenty fun.   The sense of immersion is great.  It's a really well put together sandbox.

It is also way too profane and splattery-unpleasant to let my boys anywhere near it.  This I expected.  It can get way, way negative.  But as I 1) don't gamble, even in-game and 2) won't randomly kill and skin every animal I see to rack up points, 3) make a point of not robbing or frequenting virtual prostitutes, I may not be putting in quite as many hours on this game as I thought.  Even playing as positively as possible, the broader ethos of the game is definitely on the adult end of the spectrum.

It's certain elements of that ethos, though, that are most striking.   The characters, pretty much without exception, articulate a view of the world that mirrors that of the Tea Party.  The Federal Government is universally described as distant, despised, and corrupt.  This is the Wild Wild West, of course, so that's not totally crazy.  Pretty much every narrative evocation of the frontier mentality includes some simmering resentment of authority.

But it seems to verge occasionally into the realm of the paranoid.  Take the core narrative of the story, for example.  It involves the wife and children of the protagonist being held hostage by Federal agents, as a way of forcing him to hunt down members of the gang he used to run with.  Kidnapping women and children?  Huh?  There were plenty of things wrong with our society back then, but I'm not quite sure that's something that happened in 1911 America.

Ah well.  It is just a game, after all.  No point in expecting too much.

More challenging for a pastor/gamer, within the worldview of Red Dead religion is inherently false and corrupt.  The opening cutscene involves the protagonist sitting on a train, listening as a minister condescendingly describes converting heathen savages to a young charge.  That same young charge is later found lost and wild-eyed in the desert, convinced that her faith will save her.   Faith is, in the world of Red Dead, just for hypocrites, or the insane, or is a Karl-Marx-Opiate tool of The Man. All that is real is you and your gun.

This isn't a factor of gaming being inherently opposed to Christianity, or faith generally.   Games like Okami or Enslaved adapt the stories of religious traditions in ways that are essentially respectful.  In other games, like Fallout 3, elements of faith are incorporated into the narrative, to the point of having central plot twists actively referencing the Bible.

But Rockstar being what it is, it's not hard to redact where the editorial bias lies in this game.   This is a gaming studio that can't visualize faith in anything other than a simplistic snickery Ricky Gervais "religion is just such bollocks" way.  Thinking otherwise would certainly get in the way of the destructive hedonism, compulsive selfishness, and relentless violence that is so prevalent the virtual worlds of Red Dead and the GTA series.

Still and all, New Austin sure is mighty pretty right around virtual sunset.  That and running down bandits should give me at least another 10 hours of gameplay.