It is every Cowboy-and-Indian-playing child’s dream to travel across the West, be a gunslinger, and face the perils of an untamed landscape. Those children grow up and become adults with responsibilities, yet the sense of wonderment for adventure lingers. Video games offer an outlet without the tangible danger of the West.
Gunslinging onto the scene in 2010, Red Dead Redemption (RDR) offered the experiences of the West with gore and the chance for glory. Set in 1911, the game follows John Marston during his struggle to retrieve his wife and son who have been taken hostage by the U.S. Government. Marston’s life had not always been on the straight and narrow – he had been an outlaw before settling down. The prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), blazed onto the market in 2018, serving to build a lore foundation on the Ver der Linde gang from RDR. In RDR2 you play as the character Arthur Morgan, fellow gang member of Marston.
Most of the fantasy stops with the creation of the plots, as many aspects of the games are true to the time. Though there is discussion on which gun won the West in real life, there is no interpretation for which guns win in Red Dead Redemption. Classic guns like the Cattleman revolver, Mauser pistol, Volcanic pistol, repeater Carbine, Springfield rifle, and sawed-off shotgun join the ranks to help players tame the fictional West.
“The guns in the game are almost expected to be found in the West. The C96 Mauser might seem out of place, but it was advertised in the U.S. in the 1890s,” said Cody Firearms Museum Curator Danny Michael. “However, historically, the West also had some guns that ‘shouldn’t’ have been there. In one photo of Buffalo Bill’s hunting party an Argentine Mauser engineer’s carbine is visible, how it got there, who knows.”
Part of the unruly West that is true-to-form is the wildlife encountered. Whether for reward or survival, hunting is key in the harsh, virtual world. Tussling with wildlife like grizzly bears, elk, wolves, buffalo, rattlesnakes, whitetail deer, and cougars adds an element of danger and adventure to gameplay. In RDR2, fishing becomes an additional option to engage with the landscape for sport or survival.
Critical to traversing the landscape are horses. In gameplay, horses can be obtained by breaking wild horses, purchasing from stables, or by illegal means. A bond is developed with your travel companion, and as the bond grows so does the performance of the horse. Keeping your horse fed and cared for will keep you roaming throughout the adventure.
Besides the delicate relationship between man and nature, gameplay creates a balance between infamy and honor. In acting nobly, players earn social capital which in turn provides passes on petty crimes or discounts from merchants. Falling more on the dishonorable path though is not without benefit – players tend to get rich faster and can loot better items. Changes to honor can be avoided by using a bandana during immoral actions, but that does not free players from consequences, like bounties, if their crimes are reported.
Connections to the Historic West
Several of the motifs from the games center around real conflicts of the West. The Van der Linde gang is considered to be a version of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. While events like the suffrage protest scene or running from the Pinkertons dot the plot with events that would have occurred in the West. Tensions between Native Americans and the U.S. Government are also explored during gameplay. Finally, the sweeping hand of law and order begins to settle over the land which pushes the outlaw way of life to the fringes of society. It was then up to the ruffians to either assimilate to civilization or succumb to the dangerous label of outlaw.
It would be difficult to throw a rock in this game and not hit something historically accurate to the West. The creators took care to include scenery that shows the varied landscapes of the West, not just rocks and cacti. The plots of characters follow the winding paths that many who took to the untamed West faced. Telling the story of the West is critical in the video game space; as games move away from history, franchises like Red Dead Redemption serve to immerse players in the not-so-distant past. To learn more about western wildlife, guns, characters of the West, or to see the landscapes captured in art, check out The Center of the West.