Wearing the Black Hat

Lately I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption as the bad kind of cowboy, since I played the entire narrative of the game as a good guy and, as I said, the game really makes a strong offer to you to have a go at being bad.

The interesting thing about being bad, especially in the end-game when the narrative has essentially finished, is the rather glaring lack of context for your actions. Okay, perhaps your avatar, Jack Marston, has some daddy issues and a perhaps justified hatred of the law, but I’ve been rolling into towns and slaughtering everyone in them. As is standard with this kind of game, there are no children, but I’ve been shooting men, women, and dogs, at will.

Yes, the game acknowledges my badness by sending posses of lawmen after me (who I generally also kill), but that leads to nothing worse than, well, a temporary death or going to jail for, you know, ten seconds or so. I even got the “Dastardly” achievement by capturing a woman, tying her up, and dropping her in the path of a train. She exploded into a shower of bits and pieces, but after that I was left feeling like I hadn’t really done anything.

In particular, once I’m acting outside the narrative and, mostly, outside the other explicit challenges or “desires” the game provides, the feeling of game changes – or I might say the feeling of the game absents itself. At that stage the game veers toward a state of being purely a system, as if you could more or less replace each element on the screen with a primary colored block and have a similar experience – which is to say it moves toward meaninglessness.

We either need other people (multiplayer games) or narrative (most single player games) in order to contextualise our actions and make them meaningful. Maybe it’s time for me to take RDR online and scrape a bit more meaning into play.

9 July 2010
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