As I mentioned last week, I’m devoting myself to compiling a catalog of moving experiences from video games in aid of adding a few of my own bricks to the mountain-sized edifice of evidence for the obvious fact that video games can be art. After that post, my friend Ben Mack sent me this: “Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You has great quantitative data to suggest video games as Hegelian art objects, ‘An art object is anything that is a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness from which one never fully returns.’” That’s pretty damn good, and plus it references Hegel, so clearly we’re on solid philosophical ground here. It very much applies to the game that I’ve been playing most of late, Red Dead Redemption.
Next week I’ll talk about the ending of the game, which I view as a clear artistic triumph, but I want to give everyone more time to finish it. Additionally, we talk about it at length over the next two Moving Pixels Podcast episodes. However, Red Dead isn’t a perfect game by any means, even setting aside the bugs and occasional open world weirdness. The narrative is far from tight and focused, and the story is meandering and occasionally self-indulgent to the point where I know that some players were turned off by it. But even in the places where the game takes false steps, it still creates multiple moving moments that very much fit into the above definition.
Let’s start with the main character, John Marston. I liked him more than any protagonist in a Rockstar game. He’s good-hearted but badass, he often has trenchant comments about what’s going on, and he’s a committed family man with a goal that seems worth striving for. He’s well written, well acted, and fun to play. I also really liked that you could, for the most part, play him as a pretty good guy. I went through the whole game without ever breaking the law and earning a bounty except for the one mission where you’re forced to do just that. I generally prefer playing good people to bad, so it didn’t come up, but I do wonder what playing him as an evil, casual murderer would be like. It doesn’t seem like it would mesh well with the cinematic story scenes, but there’s enough ambiguity in the character that maybe it would still play. Either way, Red Dead does a good job of getting me on Marston’s side. Part of the reason that I liked Marston is because other characters in the game who I liked also liked him. Bonnie, the rancher who saves him in the game’s opening, is very likable, as are a handful of others that you meet along the way. Likewise, I tended to hate the people that hated Marston or whom Marston hated. If you judge a man by the quality of his friends and enemies, John Marston mostly comes out looking pretty good.
The problem with making a well executed, likable character is that, when you’re forced to do things that you don’t like or that don’t match what you’ve come to expect from Marston, the game can raise hackles. He may not suffer from the pure psychopathy of other Rockstar leading men, but Marston does play the Grand Theft Auto role of “guy who does whatever people suggest” pretty well. He might bitch and moan about it, but there are multiple moments where Marston seems to undertake a mission because that’s what the game needs him to do. It’s a phenomenon common to novels and movies as well—plot points where the hand of the creators shine through and a character’s common sense gives way to the greater goals of the story as a whole.
One moment that got me particularly riled up came early on was in a mission for the annoying and unscrupulous Nigel West Dickens. The snake oil salesman needs your help fleecing some decent rancher folk out of some hard earned cash. I personally have an almost fetishistic hatred for purveyors of nonsense masquerading as medicine. Homeopaths, energy healers, and other alt-med woo-meisters get my outrage generators working at full capacity. Yes, I think that murder is much, worse (although in some cases, fake medicine is synonymous with murder), so it’s kind of silly to be upset about snake oil given the genocidal level of gunplay in the game, but we’re talking about what moved me in Red Dead. The fake killing is old hat. The helping fake people sell fake medicine to other fake people, for whatever reason, that really got to me. And when later I had to save the charlatan’s life from angry customers, I felt just plain dirty.
I felt dirty. It got to me. I was outraged. I decided to write a whole post about it. That’s art working even when it’s not working as well as it could. By this point in the game, I’d come to identify with Marston and to like him. It bothered me to endure him making what I felt was a bad decision to help a bad man. And clearly we’re not meant to like Nigel West Dickens—I know some find him just plain annoying, while I could see some humor in the character even as I disliked his actions, but either way, the negative feelings that we have towards him are evoked by design. Here we have a section of the game that could have been better and yet still rises far beyond any reasonable threshold for what is and isn’t art. Of course it is.
And what makes it a kind of art that’s unique to the video game is my own feeling of complicity. I had to pull off the trick shots that convinced the gullible crowd to buy that nasty ass tonic. I went and pulled the trigger. Movies and books can’t do that. I think that it would’ve been better if I could (as I tried to) fail the test and thus cost Dickens his sales. That would’ve been more moving to me, but that’s not the game that Rock Star was making here, and I didn’t expect it. Like almost any time that an author inserts a poem or lengthy song lyrics into a novel (looking at you Mr. Tolkien), it’s not the choice I’d have made, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not artful.