Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3 will always be connected in my mind. I started playing the Western after discussing the Wasteland on the upcoming episode of the Moving Pixels Podcast, so I had Fallout on my mind during my initial exploration of New Austin, and the introduction to these two worlds couldn’t be more different.
At the beginning of Fallout 3, the entire expanse of the Capital Wasteland is open to us. We can literally go anywhere and there will be something to see and do. There are locations to discover, each with their own unique history. Abandoned buildings aren’t just cookie cutter copies of each other. There are quests to discover, hidden in the far corners of the world. I met multiple characters that friends of mine didn’t even know existed. There are items to discover, ranging from the practical (guns, audio journals, computer terminals, schematics) to the pointless (teddy bears, pots, boxes of irradiated food) and being able to pick up every object that we see gives us a powerful sense of interaction with the world. All of this is true from the moment that we leave Vault 101.
Red Dead Redemption starts at the opposite end of the open world spectrum. After completing a few story missions, I decided to go exploring and quickly realized that there was absolutely nothing to discover in New Austin. I rode way out west to a group of black squares on my map only to find that, yes, it’s a town with houses and people and horses and nothing for me to do there. I rode to a lone shack hoping to find something interesting, but it was empty. I rode into Tumbleweed and ran from empty house to empty house, wondering why this town was even here: I figured it must be the future set of a shootout, someplace I’ll come to later during a mission, but for now it’s pointless for me to be here. So much of the open world felt like it was only there to support the story missions, and outside of those one off events New Austin was just a boring, vacant desert.
But in retrospect, I went into the game with the wrong mindset. I was expecting something as open as Fallout 3, but Rockstar traditionally keeps tighter control over their open worlds than Bethesda does. Many basic actions are taught to us during story missions over the course of hours: using the lasso, wrangling a wild horse, using Dead Eye, etc. Instead of having everything available to begin with, the player experiences the world slowly opening up as more abilities and side missions become available. In this way, I think that the world actually feels more alive because there’s a clear back and forth between the player and the game, I learn something new and can now use this knowledge around the world. There’s also a very satisfying sense of progression, but contrary to the nature of the world, it’s also a very linear progression. In Fallout 3 I can go to Rivet City and skip the quests involving Three Dog, but in Red Dead Redemption, it’s impossible for me to go to Mexico until I finish every relevant story mission in New Austin.
Unlike Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption is not about exploration. It’s not about discovering the history of ghost towns or previous explorers, and so there’s nothing of the sort in the game. Instead, it’s all about the story of John Marston. Everyone else, including the player, is secondary. At each gang hideout, there’s someone to help us: a captured sheriff, a man trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter, or treasure hunters. We don’t know how they came to be here or what they do when they leave, and it doesn’t matter. The moment that Marston moves on from any character the game moves on as well. The progression must be linear because it’s tied so closely to Marston’s story, and any story is inherently linear.
The Capital Wasteland is the star of Fallout 3. We play that game for the setting, not the story or characters. Marston is the star of Red Dead Redemption. We play that game for the story and characters, and the rest of the open world is just something to do in between.