McGinnis: ‘Red Dead’ redundancyWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On Dec. 11, cable network Spike TV hosted its annual Video Game Awards. From the goofy production numbers to the host’s overwritten jokes and even the palpable disdain from knowledgeable fans, the VGAs are the closest thing to the Oscars that interactive media has.
The ceremony — rather a big word for this event, to be sure — saw the usual level of fluff and gaming hype, with videos promoting upcoming games sprinkled throughout, and awards presented in a haphazard manner with little consistency. (How can a game win “Game of the Year” and not win “Best Game” on any individual console?)
But one thing struck me as I looked at the results of the show — if gaming really is making strides to be taken seriously as an art form, why are there no awards given to best scriptwriting or storytelling on its most prominent show of the year?
Granted, the VGAs are hardly the most comprehensive platform for awards, and other interactive media ceremonies do give prizes for script. But here is the industry’s most prominent televised show, meant to celebrate excellence in the field. What does it say when prizes are given for “Best Graphics” and “Best Downloadable Content” but no acknowledgment to a game’s narrative?
Maybe it says something that video game fans, myself included, don’t necessarily want to hear — that to the industry, storytelling isn’t nearly as prominent as we’d like to think it is.
Take the game which won the VGA’s “Game of the Year” award, “Red Dead Redemption.” Made by acclaimed (and controversial) publishers Rockstar Games, “Red Dead” is a Western set in the early Twentieth Century. Using the same open-world philosophy that made its “Grand Theft Auto” series gaming blockbusters, “Red Dead” gives players free rein to travel in a vast landscape. It is beautiful, it is visionary, it is groundbreaking.
It is also one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had as a gamer.
I wanted to love it so much. There were so many fantastic elements, from the look of the prairies to the numerous mini-games which captured everything from playing poker at the local brothel to herding cattle. So much imagination was clearly used to create this world and I loved walking around in it.
But then, the story began to intervene. The plot of the game is dirt simple, really — the hero’s family has been kidnapped by nefarious government agents and he has to take out members of his old gang to get them back. But as I played, it felt like the game was doing little but making me run in circles, like a lab rat trying to earn a food pellet.
“If you help me with this task,” a character would tell me, “I’ll help you find who you’re looking for.” I would help them. So, where is my target, I would ask? “Patience, and I’ll help you later,” they would say. Then I’d have to help them again with another task. Lather, rinse, repeat — this would happen over and over again, until the game decided I was ready to face my first target. Then, of course, my target escaped during the attack and I had to chase after him all over again. A new set of tasks, a new round of running in circles and a new level of frustration soon followed.
Most every game design is some variation on this theme. You have to do A, B, C and D before you get to E. But few games have made it feel quite as arbitrary as “Red Dead.” And yet, ever since its release, critics and fans have praised its “engrossing and powerful story” and it seems a shoo-in to win game of the year honors from almost every source.
If “Red Dead’s” story was published in any other media, it’d be laughed at as simplistic and redundant. But because the game play is fun (which it is), fans tend to overlook its storytelling flaws.
The game’s issues are not uncommon in the industry. There are many games tht=at have incredibly compelling stories, to be sure — ones that stretch the limit of what can be accomplished with interactive media. But even the best of them still are chained to the requirements of a traditional gaming structure. Until their design has taken a leap of evolution, freeing it from such arbitrary standards, storytelling in games may continue to be constrained.
Perhaps game publishers really don’t want to spotlight storytelling just yet. Maybe they know it’s not quite ready for prime time.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.