In Red Dead Redemption, the build-up to crossing over from the United States to Mexico is tangible. Up to this point you’ve been confined to New Austin, the mythical 1911 region of south Texas that is your training ground. Like Grand Theft Auto, RDR funnels movement cleverly. The player is faced with a region that is expansive but just a slice of the broader world that is waiting to be populated on the large but empty map. The brilliance here is in the tease. A blank map waiting to be populated. A glimpse of the modern city of Blackwater in the opening cinematic. Each its own kind of frontier.
When the time finally comes to explore Mexico, our hero, John Marston, procures a ferry and battles with dozens of Mexicans before arriving safely ashore. The game falls silent except for a song: José González’s stripped down “Far Away.” There’s something different about this song though; it’s a song you just don’t hear in videogames. Subtle and textural finger-picked guitar flows beneath delicate vocals packed in reverb. Ask most players about the game and this is the moment they’ll mention. And what function does it serve? The song punctuates the first and most significant border crossing of the game, a journey into foreign territory.
Along with this song and the game’s final twist, much of the larger discussion surrounding RDR focused on the beautiful landscape and the sublime sense of exploration it imbibed. But I want to take this sentiment even further. I think of RDR as a meditation on the American politics of space and territory. With keen attentiveness to what the U.S. and Mexico border region landscape signifies historically and culturally, RDR reveals itself to be not only about exploration and the achievement of a pastoral individualistic ideal, but the human cost required to maintain that myth. The narrative and mechanics of the game work harmoniously to create a deeply spatial experience that engages with the genocidal foundations of frontier expansion in early 20th century United States.
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