Life in Canada is pretty great. I have a beautiful wife and three energetic dogs. Health care is free and the air is clean. So the only thing that really stresses me out is my massive backlog of games. For reasons we’ll leave unmentioned, I have more games still in their original packaging than games I’ve finished. These games cross all platforms and go back to the NES. Yes, the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

With this many unplayed games, it can be impossibly difficult to determine which new games will garner my attention, purchase, and ultimately, my play time. Every now and then, I’d like to update you on my backlog progress in the Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer. Some of you may laugh or cry or poke fun, but if I’m truthful with myself, I should probably be writing something to evoke some sort of reaction, right?

Red Dead Redemption – A character worth caring for

My most recent unforgivably delayed conquest was Red Dead Redemption; you may have heard of it. John Marston is our protagonist, and like Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto 4, our hero here is trying to abandon a regretful past to make for a more stable future.

What draws me in most about Red Dead Redemption is John Marston himself.

From the moment Marston appears on screen, I am captivated by him. He demands your attention like a leading man should. From the first few frames, we know John has a troubled past – he’s got the scars to prove it, and while Rockstar is typically hailed for its ability to create worlds with limitless opportunities, the team in San Diego flexes their characterization muscles here.

John is a relatable character. Not in a “I’m a lot like him” kind of way… more like “I want to be him when I grow up”. He’s polite but strong-willed. He addresses friends and strangers similarly, though saving hints of sarcasm for the truly annoying. He is goal and principle-oriented, and when evil-doers get in his way, he has a special set of skills to make sure they get out of his way. He holds his gun steady with a thousand-mile stare that’ll pierce a hole through your eyes if his bullets don’t.

Doesn’t it seem too easy to populate open-world games with degenerate protagonists? It was refreshing to play as a character where I always agreed with his decisions and, more importantly, decision-making process. I always felt like John was a rational guy. He exchanges favours fairly and never allows himself to be taken advantage of – at least for too long, anyway. Just when a swindling snake-oil salesman or corrupt Mexican government official starts to get wise, John moves on and we are introduced to a new chapter in the game. It was as if he heard me say “Oh come on John, don’t let this guy mess you around anymore” and he was like “I was thinking the same thing, Mr. Capri.”

Of course, the game offers you the choice to act honourably or horrendously. I felt John’s true nature was to better himself, so I played the positive route. In fact, I felt so strongly about Marston’s integrity that when I finished the game and put the disc back in the case, the cover art discouraged me. Why would they make him so ugly and angry? The John Marston I know doesn’t hate or judge, and if he does, I feel it is always justified. The cover art seemed too one-dimensional to fully portray this well-rounded character I got to know over the course of 30 hours or so.

If it seems like this is getting to sound a little too much like a man-crush, well, it should. My time with John Marston was truly special, and I’m glad to have played Red Dead Redemption after Grand Theft Auto V, because the character design in the latter helped me appreciate that in the former. In all likelihood, playing these games in this order probably elevated my enjoyment of GTA V because if I had met John Marston before Michael, Franklin, or Trevor, it is hard to say if I would’ve hung out with the threesome for so long.

Looks like he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip. (SOURCE: http://www.ireddead.com/)

Looks like he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip. (SOURCE: http://www.ireddead.com/)

Does Grand Theft Auto translate to Grand Theft Bronco?

Can a four-year-old game still have the aura of hype? During my first few hours with Red Dead Redemption, I felt like the accolades were a little overblown. At first, I let my experiences with Grand Theft Auto cloud my judgement in a massively negative way towards Rockstar San Diego’s masterpiece. This world is huge but there’s nothing in it, I thought. How could this be any good if there aren’t hundreds of cars to steal or people to run over? It’s the same but with only one horsepower.

But this game is like smashing rocks together to spark a flame – it takes a while to get started and you know there’s going to be a flash. And when things get going, they really heat up.

Redemption is literally the name of the game here and a revenge story taps into our most primal instincts of imposing a self-prescribed sense of justice. John Marston is wronged by some hate-worthy foes early in the game, and you quickly sympathize with our hero and anyone who genuinely wants to help, like Bonnie MacFarlane: a witty, capable, and surprisingly loving character who opposites John Marston perfectly in the game’s opening acts. She nurses John to health and even teaches him a few things around the farm in a masterful mix of storytelling, character building, and good old-fashioned game tutoring.

We learn to ride and break horses, lasso wildlife and baddies, and shoot quail. In what other game do we learn the mechanics in such a believable and real-world manner? This is actually what John and Bonnie would be doing in this situation. So I didn’t mind the camouflaged tutorial one bit; instead, it invited me into this world and I never looked back.

John is a bit of a loner, but he’s seldom alone. Really, it’s only when you venture on the completely optional challenges that Marston isn’t conversing, and while the voice acting is top-tier, it would be lost if not for the simple mechanic to “accompany” a fellow horse rider. Holding A (or X on PS3) locks your horse’s speed into cruise control – exactly matching your companions and allowing for natural conversations. As the game played out, I grew equally attached to the cast of characters and this basic game design choice.

This next point cannot be understated: the missions are fun! I’m trying to recall a babysitting or errand-boy mission and all I can picture is a modern city and a hot car – oh, that’s Grand Theft Auto. The story missions are diverse and purposeful. The side missions are intriguing and inviting. Even the completely optional challenges like picking flowers are oddly addicting.

There isn’t as much stuff in Red Dead Redemption as some open-world connoisseurs might prefer, but I feel this only makes for a leaner experience. It’s hard not to compare to Grand Theft Auto, but I’m going to take advantage of this retrospective review. Even I was guilty of praising GTA V for the seemingly immeasurable quantity of stuff packed into the same consoles that gave us Call of Duty 3 or Blazing Angels. But when I look back to my time with Grand Theft Auto V, it is now with a hint of embarrassment. Was I wowed by style over substance? Quantity over quality? After playing Red Dead Redemption, it’s difficult not to ask yourself these questions.

Should've just given them the sweetroll. (SOURCE: http://rocketoctopus.blogspot.co.uk/)

Should’ve just given them the sweetroll. (SOURCE: http://rocketoctopus.blogspot.co.uk/)

So was it worth the self-imposed wait?

Red Dead Redemption has weight. It feels substantial and important. Every story arc is strewn beautifully. The difficulty curves naturally. Our main character has character. The pacing has a pulse. Even the setting plays a role in this magnificent melange of every aspect that make video games special and worth experiencing.

We need more of this in games today. We should be demanding more from story and character-based experiences. Do we feel connected to them? Are they doing what we would do in the same situation?

Playing an old game is a rewarding experience because it helps us keep our standards in check; it builds appreciation for game mechanics and design choices derived from inspiring titles, and most importantly (in my case, anyways) it reduces stress by chipping away at a mounting games backlog.

So if you’ve played Red Dead Redemption, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for? You’re done reading this, now go play it!

On the next Diaries of a backlogged gamer: Dishonored.

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