Can a computer game make you feel sad?
I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption for some time now – it’s easily my favorite game of the year so far. Now, yesterday I came to a very strange point in the game. After I had been busy taming wild horses, skinning animals and fighting in the Mexican revolution, I arrived to Blackwater. Just after I arrived to the city, an odd and lengthy scene started. In this non-skipable scene I was transported to my next mission in an automobile. And strangely enough, I felt sad. Why?
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – one of John Fords finest westerns – takes place in much the same time as Red Dead Redemption. Here two men of the era are portrayed – Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), Lawyer and future Senator of the state, and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), cowboy and gunman. Stoddard is a hero of the modern USA, while Doniphon is the iconic hero of the old west. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the bad guy of the movie, also represents the old west. He challenges Stoddard to a duel – to everybody’s big surprise, Stoddard wins the duel. Stoddard becomes a legend as the man who shot Liberty Valance. Many years later, though, Stoddard reveals that it was actually Tom Doniphon who shot Liberty Valance – of course … Stoddard wouldn’t have stood a chance against the professional killer.
Stoddard may not have shot Liberty Valance, but he did kill him. Just as it was his fault that Doniphon died a penniless and forgotten man. Modern USA killed off the old west.
So, what does this have to do with Red Dead Redemption? When I rode as a passenger in the car I felt the same kind of sadness I felt when seeing Stoddard and his wife gathering around Tom Doniphon’s cheap makeshift coffin. The feeling of loss was the same. I was put in the role as James Marston - I had all the skills of a cowboy of the old west. Blackwater represents the new era, the coming of the 20th century. When I entered Black Waters I had the profound feeling of suddenly being obsolete – a thing of the past. I had become Tom Doniphon.
Earlier I explored how you could make your players feel for your characters – how it’s easier for the player to feel for the side characters than for the main character. This is also true in Red Dead Redemption; I don’t feel anything for Marston, because I am Marston. I feel obligated to some of the side characters, but nothing more than that. I do however feel as part of the Wild West and I when the West changes before my eyes, I feel this.
I can’t recall having seen this before, and as I see it, this is a major leap in interactive storytelling. Letting the player assume a role isn’t new of course. But giving the player a role to play and then make this role obsolete - that’s new.