Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Spacetime Outlaws

Like a lot of folks, I've recently been playing Red Dead Redemption 2.  It's hard to say much about my initial impressions that wouldn't just be an echo of what others have already said, but I'll try.  I'm going to go into the story a bit and how it subverts certain stereotypes of the Western genre.  Don't fret about spoilers though...I'm barely scratching the surface in terms of plot here.

Typically when I think about the ending scene of many Westerns, it usually involves some rugged guy (or guys) riding off into the sunset.  Pretty much from the start the developer, Rockstar Games, flips the cliche; you're riding east toward the direct the sun rises, you're not alone, and many members of your group are women (heck, there's even a few old folks and a child in the mix).  What's more this is a gang of outlaws.

Of course, having the story focus of a Western on a gang is hardly unusual, but here those 100 hour workweek writers throw in another twist - you're a band of lawbreakers that preys on other lawbreakers.  This is a pretty original take for the Western genre, but as far as storytelling techniques go it's actually a heck of a lot older than you might think.

Nearly a millennium ago, the authors of Icelandic sagas had problem when it came to their (then multi-century-old) heroes.  How can you depict vikings in a positive light when their favorite past time was raiding innocent villages for slaves and valuables? solution appears at the beginning of Njáls saga.  Herein one of the heroes leads an attack on a longship filled with booty taken on viking raids.  In essence he's robbing the robbers.

It might seems like a stretch to draw a connection between old-time cowboys and ancient norsemen, but keep in mind that Iceland was very much the Wild West of the Dark Ages.  First settled sometime in the 9th century, the island was covered in virgin forests and pastures making it (for all intents and purposes) frontier territory.  Sure, these pioneers came by longships instead of wagons; armed with spears and axes instead of six-shooters and scatter-guns, but technological innovations aside the circumstances were surprisingly similar.  A legal code, while existent and fairly thorough, lacked strong enforcement creating an environment wherein many a dastardly deed was committed.

While I'm on the topic of disparant time periods, I want to wrap things up by saying for a game set in 1899, there's a weird amount of emphasis on the Civil War.  Just to put things into perspective, that conflict had ended more than 30 years prior.  If anything, you'd think that the Spanish-American War would be the event in everyone's thoughts.  For all the talk of burgeoning industrialization one wonders why nobody mentions the recently ended World's Fair, or the fact that Chicago had already built its first skyscrapers...or the fact that the US Navy had switched over to all steel coal steamers.

I haven't finished the game yet, obviously, so perhaps someone will pay lip service to some of the things I've just mentioned.  Regardless, I feel like certain aspects of the setting wouldn't feel so anachronistic if they moved the timeframe back a few more decades.  I guess that wouldn't have dovetailed nicely with the original Red Dead Redemption though...

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