We’re thieves, in a world that don’t want us no more.
“The following is a contributor post by the Gunslinger Mage.”
Growing up, my grandfather was a laconic figure. Always in the background at family gatherings, beer in hand, overseeing the BBQ with a watchful eye and a practiced hand. A man of few words, he had a fantastic sense of humour that was usually reserved for us grandchildren. Quietly confident, he was the man to see if your car was having issues or if you needed home improvement advice. One of the earliest pictures of myself that exists is of the two of us together, in a large hole in the ground, digging out a swimming pool. He has a beer in hand and is letting me have a sip (we are Australian, after all). I am about four years old, and I am “helping”. He would go on to finish the entire pool, including mixing and laying the cement, without any assistance beyond my own.
He was born in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1930’s, long after the West had been tamed half a world away. To help support his family during the war as a child he would ride the tram down to the port and collect the coal and food rations that were issued there, hauling them home by hand across the length of the city. He and his brothers would sell newspapers to help make ends meet. He began to steal cigarettes from his father around this time, he told me, still a hint of pride in his voice for this feat of daring, nearly seventy years later. He was twelve years old when the war ended.
To me, he seemed like an unceasing workhorse of a man. He would work from dawn, and except for the occasional cigarette break, would not stop until Beer Time (precisely 5′ o’clock), when the day’s work was done. He was a long-haul truck driver for most of his life, but in his later years he would constantly renovate his own home, and the homes of our family. During all these long years of hard work, in which he enjoyed a long and happy marriage and raised a large family, he had time for only one interest of his own – he loved Westerns.
This was my only exposure to Westerns, really, before playing Red Dead Redemption 2. I just couldn’t get into them, despite sitting by him and watching the classics while growing up. I have seen The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Magnificent Seven. But it wasn’t until I finally got my hands-on Rockstar’s latest that I truly came to appreciate what my grandfather saw in these movies, and why he had spent the better part of a century immersed in them.
The story of Arthur Morgan, a hard-eyed lieutenant in the Van der Linde gang, is immediately compelling. The story gets off to a slow start but draws you in with its complex characters layered with depth. Forced to retreat into the snowy mountains of pseudo-Colorado after a job gone wrong, the opening moments of RDR2 immediately reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. As we are introduced to the core cast of characters there is a real sense of danger and despair that permeates the game’s opening hours. The men and women of the Van der Linde gang are living on borrowed time, and they know it. With the inexorable march of progress and civilization claiming vast tracts of the Old West, men like Arthur know that their time is fast coming to an end. There is nowhere left to run, and for outlaws that have never known another way of life, a violent death is an almost inevitable future.
Dutch Van der Linde himself is an incredibly charismatic leader that, right from the onset, has an almost huckster aspect to his leadership style. He pushes the gang onward, promising the gang the freedom and safety they all desire, if they can just pull off one more big job. But there always seems to be one more job, and the promised safety never materializes. The rest of the gang are equally compelling, and RDR2’s optional side missions give them all plenty of time to shine, whether it be a simple hunting mission, a night of drinking or pulling off a complex bank heist.
The West itself is a character that really pulls you in. Modern innovations like trains and industrial townships dot the vast landscape, interspersed with the quiet beauty of the wilderness. I couldn’t help but be reminded of those classic shots of my grandfather’s favourite films as I played through this game, a lone horseman riding across the range, silhouetted against a setting sun. Everything, from the overheard dialogue of NPC’s to the clothing and weapons of the era, to the music and sounds of animals, combine to make Red Dead Redemption 2 one of the most immersive experiences imaginable.
My grandfather once told me that he had seen every Western movie ever made. I pulled up a list of the best Westerns that some website had cobbled together, and he really had. He could give me a rundown of the plot or describe whole scenes, having seen some of them many times. Even modern Westerns, like Unforgiven, and 3:10 to Yuma; he had watched them all. He said that Django Unchained was one of the best Westerns ever made, which really surprised me. I would have thought he would be a traditionalist in that regard, as he always seemed so old fashioned in a lot of ways. I can’t help but see parts of him in characters like John Marston, at least the positive aspects. Hard working, true to his word, an example to be emulated.
He passed away last year. I never shared my love of video games with him, as I assumed it wouldn’t be something he would be interested in. But the more I play Red Dead Redemption 2, the more I wish I could have shown it to him. In a lot of ways, it seems to be designed for someone like him. The myriad homages to classic films that formed the Western genre mostly go over my head, but I think he would have appreciated them all. He was in his eighties when he passed, and a lifetime of hard work had taken their toll on his hands. I can’t imagine teaching someone from that era how to play a modern video game, but it would have been incredible to see him exist in a world he had spent his entire life imagining.
I think he would have loved it.
Khayl Adam, The Gunslinger Mage, has lived a thousand lives and worn as many faces. A veteran of the Total War’s, a Phantom Thief, and a Prince of the House of Lucis, he writes about his lifelong love-affair with video games on Twitter @KhaylAdam.
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