Red Dead Redemption 1
Image: Rockstar Games

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Ollie describes how Rockstar Games' seminal Western influenced his love for the American Frontier...

Growing up, I knew what kind of genres I was interested in when it came to books, movies, and games. I have always gravitated towards horror first and foremost (and I always will, too), but I also had a keen love of sci-fi and fantasy. That didn't mean I completely avoided anything that didn’t fall into one of those categories; I adored The Godfather trilogy, I read Lord of the Flies more times than I can count, and I’d be damned if I didn’t watch Stand By Me at least once every year. But one genre that always produced tumbleweeds for me was the Western.

For the first two decades of my life, I’d never watched a Western movie, never read a Western novel, and certainly never played a Western game. This wasn’t because I had anything against them — it wasn’t like I could claim to have any kind of authoritative opinion on the genre, after all — but I just never particularly felt like engrossing myself in that kind of world.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Image: Rockstar Games

That was until Red Dead Redemption came along. Prior to its release in 2010, I’d already become borderline obsessed with Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV on 360. For me, it represented a significant step forward in open-world design, and I was enamoured with the studio’s implementation of Euphoria, an animation tool that could allow for absurdly realistic human physics.

So of course, despite the fact that Red Dead Redemption took place in the Old West, I knew I had to play it. So I did. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

The opening of Red Dead Redemption is uniquely calm and quiet, all things considered. It starts off with the protagonist, John Marston, arriving via train to the quaint town of Armadillo. There, he meets a bearded old-timer called Jake, who rides with John to the fortified stronghold of Fort Mercer, where John will confront an old gang ally called Bill Williamson.

The encounter winds up with John being shot, left for dead, and carted off to the nearby settlement of MacFarlane Ranch. Up until that point, however, Red Dead Redemption takes its sweet time, with the only actual gameplay being the relatively uneventful journey that takes you from Armadillo to Fort Mercer. It not only serves as an introduction to some of the core gameplay mechanics, but to the world itself. Leaving behind the sliver of civilisation found in Armadillo only to find yourself knee-deep in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere, Red Dead Redemption manages to make even the most desolate of environments feel real and lived-in.

Red Dead Redemption 3
Image: Rockstar Games

It was this first horse ride that ignited a faint spark of passion in my heart. Watching the dust kick up from the horses’ hooves, the distant horizon shimmer in the heat, and a bunch of cackling coyotes munch on the half-eaten carcass of a dead deer, I instantly fell in love with the setting. It felt daunting and intimidating in the same way that stepping into the overwhelmingly expansive land of Hyrule felt in Breath of the Wild, but somehow, the harsh reality of the Old West appealed to me even more.

So I played through Red Dead Redemption from start to finish in just a few lengthy sessions. I was infatuated with it: the characters, the landscape, the wildlife, the music… all of it. And so, having watched the credits roll, I knew instantly that I wasn’t done with the genre. Admittedly, going back to Red Dead Revolver didn’t feel like an option for me, because I already knew through friends that it probably wouldn’t stack up next to its younger sibling, so I ventured out into other mediums.

I started with a trilogy of films that I suspect many fans of the Old West have cut their teeth on: Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, comprised of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and of course, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I loved each more than the last, with the finale proving to be one of the finest films of all time, propped up by killer performances from Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, and Clint Eastwood.

From there, I stuck with Leone and watched Once Upon a Time in the West, and while it certainly lacked the familiar faces of the Dollars Trilogy, folks weren’t kidding when they said that it was Leone’s magnum opus. Impossibly sweeping in scope, countless shots are forever burned into my mind’s eye.

With those genre tentpoles out of the way, I was well and truly addicted. I moved on to some more of Clint Eastwood’s classics — Unforgiven, Hang ‘Em High, Joe Kidd — before venturing elsewhere with the likes of Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Wild Bunch. Even Westerns set in the modern age sunk their hooks into me; I adore No Country for Old Men and Clint Eastwood’s own Cry Macho has its charm.

When I’d gotten through a couple of dozen movies, however, I still needed more. So, naturally, I put aside the likes of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson and picked up a few Western novels. I started with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, an epic story that, in hindsight, might have been a touch too ambitious for my first journey into the world of (Old) Western literature. Having said that, I still loved it, even if it did take me a little while to finish. I then learned that Lonesome Dove was just one of several novels set in the same world, so I read those and then moved swiftly on to Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Goodness me. If there’s one novel that I would implore everybody to read at some point, it’s Blood Meridian. It’s not only one of the finest Western novels of all time, it’s frankly one of the best works of literature full stop. It’s not an easy read, admittedly, both in terms of its prose and excessively violent content, but there are passages in this book that read like they’ve been written by some higher power. It’s simply that good.

Larry McMurtry 02
Image: Ollie Reynolds / Nintendo Life

Eventually, I went back to Stephen King with his epic fantasy series The Dark Tower. While it's a story that comfortably contains tropes from pretty much every literary genre under the sun, it consistently felt like a Western to me, with its gun-toting protagonist Roland Deschain and the harsh, desolate wasteland of Mid-World. What a ride.

The point is, I’ve watched and read pieces of work that I would consider to be genuine masterpieces at this point, and I simply wouldn’t have come across them if it wasn’t for Red Dead Redemption. It proved to be a perfect entry point into the world of the American Frontier; an accessible jaunt that, while certainly depicting a more romanticised vision of the Old West, felt otherwise remarkably authentic. I can’t thank Rockstar enough for creating such an exceptional game, and if you’re tempted to purchase it on the Switch, high price point be damned, just go for it. You won't be disappointed.

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Have you come across any books or movies set in the Old West that you think I should check out? How did you first come across Red Dead Redemption? Share your thoughts with a comment down below.