Once upon a time on a prairie far, far away, I was a cowboy. I don’t mean that I simply bought a Stetson and some tight jeans and hung around the back of school with country music blaring from my truck; I mean that I rode a stubborn bay gelding that no one else could handle, I spent hours with abandoned calves as I tried to milk them back to health with a gigantic bottle while they thrashed around on weak legs, and I used to be cocky enough to offer to gun break horses for the other men on the ranch I worked on. Even now, I bear a scar from a time when I almost cut my finger off while ear-marking a cow (I ripped off a piece of my sock, tied it up, and went back to work), and I occasionally still have flashbacks of the time an unbreakable horse threw me into barbed wire fence and brutally kicked me in the chest and thigh.
Red Dead Redemption makes me miss all that. Almost immediately, I recognized the brittle yellow grama grass of my early childhood and teenage years and the sound of spurs as they scraped against a warped and aging wooden porch. I recognized the near-perfect imitation of the twang of my people and distinct glow of a Southwestern morning. It was enough that—flush with the excitement of obtaining a copy on the first day along with Best Buy’s exclusive War Horse—I found myself unable to play for a couple of hours because the game made me hopelessly homesick. Set in the dawn of the twentieth century, Red Dead Redemption captures the West in transition, a situation that I found similar to my own life almost 80 years later.
Above: A portrait of the gamer as a young buckaroo. Circa 1995-1999.
I’m often surprised that so few people in the Midwest are aware of the cowboy poetry movement that—in my view—reached its height in the late 1990s, particularly since so many of the listeners I encountered at gatherings were Midwesterners. Possibly inspired by an impressive Western revival that may have sprung from popular productions like Dances with Wolves and Lonesome Dove, much of the country suddenly took note of the rich oral poetry tradition in cowboy culture, and gatherings appeared all across the country where cowboys fresh off the range would recite their peculiar brand of poetry to audiences, the most notable of these being in Elko, Nevada. Much of this was silly stuff (think: “My horse slipped in the poo/ And I did, too”), but there were some truly great works that came from poets like Buck Ramsey. Many of the poets, myself included, took the opportunity to capture a quickly dying culture much more so than what we encounter in Red Dead. Even if the West largely lost the outlaws, it had at least kept the cowboys. Now even they are in danger.
After rattling on Midwesterners above, though, I’m reminded that I myself didn’t know anything about cowboy poetry at first. True, I worked as a cowboy on the ranches surrounding Bastrop and Goliad, Texas, but that was a long ride from the sweeping vistas of Trans-Pecos Texas. For extra credit in a high school English course I wrote a poem from the point of view of a cowboy seeing the land on which he used to work being “developed” by firms in Austin and the stars disappearing from the sky due to the sprawl. It was a depressing little piece, and not a little inspired by Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” At any rate, my teacher suggested that I try publishing. I was published by the very first magazine I submitted to, beginning a long and rather successful career in writing poetry of all things. From the time I was 16 until about 21, I traveled over virtually every single highway in the American West (and a hefty chunk of Canada), reciting my poetry at gatherings before increasingly larger crowds. When I got out of high school, I turned to cowboy poetry full time, working lightly on friends’ ranches from Arizona to Montana, sleeping in lonely tents by hidden streams in mountain valleys instead of hotels, and very briefly working for the Forest Service in the Elkhorn Mountains.
It was all truly an adventure, and I still sometimes joke that I’m going to write a book about it all and get rich. Red Dead Redemption‘s landscape is a combination of that found in several different states I encountered–from the saguaros of Arizona to the yellow grama waves of New Mexico and West Texas–and my first ride in the game was like a ride through these memories. In one moment you’ll be in the hardscrabble catclaw and huisatche brush of South Texas; the next you’ll be in the strange and otherwordly desert landscapes of southern Utah. In my “cowboy days” I believe I was privileged to see some of the last vestiges of the true cowboy life, whether in lonely Nevada line camps or more locally in Texas’ King Ranch, and in many ways I experienced the tail end of what’s starting to emerge in Marston’s West. I saw ranches carved into subdivisions, pristine nature marred with houses and roads, and the ranching culture fall further into obsolescence. Unfortunately, as one of the characters in Red Dead says early on, “Change is only good when it makes things better.” Lawlessness may have been largely eradicated, but so much more has been and continues to be lost.
Above: Just think, son, one of these days this will all be a Wal-Mart parking lot.
So far, I’ve found no poetry in Red Dead Redemption. To be sure, the game would lose much of its edge if John Marston were to suddenly break out reciting or singing “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail.” But from the very first scene featuring a car being unloaded from a steamboat, Rockstar has taken great care to capture this moment in history when the legends of the Old West were giving in to the tedium of modernity. Details, such as a phone in a sheriff’s office and the rudimentary electric lights surrounding a ranch home, have been given great love and care and, indeed, research. We find hicks and layabouts, but these are portrayed as essential parts of the western landscape. The voice acting is generally spot on, and the combat situations often take on a brutal reality.
Early on (ever the good guy), I tried to help a distraught rancher rescue his daughter who was stuck inside his ranch home with a bunch of bandits. I took care of the men outside, but upon entering the building the bandit killed the daughter suddenly and finally without any drawn out decision-making or negotiating before I even aimed. Bam. That was it. I physically felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I killed the bandit right afterwards (and looted him), but what was done was done and it had been a long time since I’d saved. In simple moments like this, Rockstar has caught the true brutality of the early West, unbound by the pretty dramatic situations of Hollywood directors.
I admit that I wanted to see Red Dead Redemption as a tragedy of many sorts, and perhaps it will still be so, but the game also reminds us of the bad things that were thankfully lost in the transition. Like the Old West itself, the game is rightfully ambivalent about how the legacy should be approached. Red Dead Redemption wholly captures this colorful period, however, and in its breathtaking attention to detail (be it in voices, dress, environment, or the muscles on the horses) accentuates that one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult to make a truly good western game is that the normal people were as every bit of part of it as the action. Aside from the predictable attention to gunplay, players are able to take part in mundane cowboy work (largely ignored in both movies and games), ranging from extremely realistic recreations of cattle drives (remember, I’m speaking from experience here) to breaking horses, although, obviously, the actual process for the latter takes a few more days. Marston assists ranchers in the most normal of ranching situations, and he comes across the lonely souls in the West who have gone out to the middle of nowhere to find themselves. Largely abandoning stereotypes while keeping the most enjoyable ones close at hand, Rockstar has done its best to create the West as it actually was, while the character of an outlaw makes it enjoyable and fun as a game. (This, too, has personal relevance: one member of my family changed his name around 1900 to stay clear of the law, and another assumed the name of a man he killed so he could marry his wife. Score!)
I do have some issues with the game, but they’re negligible—including an annoyance with the thinly veiled references to contemporary political figures. For immersion, I find the Expert targeting mode (which must be switched on) much more fulfilling than the default lock-on method. Also, the game isn’t nearly as serious as I’ve made it out to be, and I never get tired of laughing at the overly bloody skinning process—complete with the precise sound animal flesh makes when you cut it with a knife. Overall, though, I must say that I’ve seen many, many tributes to the Old West in various media in my day, but in capturing this region and period just as it was fully changing and in providing such an immersive world, Red Dead Redemption may very well end up ranking toward the top. My journey with Red Dead is just getting started, and I look forward to seeing the last days of the Old West on my trusty War Horse.
And now it’s time to hurry home through downtown Chicago so I can play the Gamespot-hosted multiplayer. I’ll see you there, PS3 side!