Gaming’s greatest moment

by Tom Albrighton 27 January 2014 Uncategorised

I don’t think of myself as a casual gamer. It’s true that I’ve played relatively few games. But I’ve been around long enough to see games develop from nothing, and the games I have played, I’ve given real commitment and attention to. So I reckon that gives me as much right as anyone to talk about my greatest moments.

Everyone has their faves, and here are a few of mine. Despatching the last space invader as it beetled frantically across the screen. Destroying the Death Star in the cockpit version of Star Wars with Alec Guinness’ voice in my head. Felling my best mate with a crisp, perfectly timed uppercut in Way of the Exploding Fist, shoulder to shoulder at the Spectrum keyboard. Cruising Vice City in an ice-white Infernus to the sounds of Mr Mister. Emerging from the tunnels in Oblivion and surveying the landscape of Tamriel for the first time. To name just a few.

Some of these are like much-loved golden oldies that have personal significance but can’t really be critically justified. But if I had to choose one moment that objectively delivers, it would be John Marston riding into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, accompanied by José Gonzalez’ song ‘Far Away’.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of this scene when you first play it. The vast bulk of the game is scored only by snippets of dynamically mixed ambient music that heighten the quietness rather than break it. Gonzales’ bare-bones finger-picking figure could hardly be more modest, but the moment it starts up, out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, is genuinely hair-raising. When the vocal comes in, the effect is transfixing.

Wandering star

Now, some might object that, compared to the examples I cited earlier, this moment is sorely lacking in agency. In fact, it’s arguably only one step up from a QuickTime event. All you have to do is move the left stick up and guide Marston along the trail – quite literally ‘pushing forward through the night’, as the lyric says.

It’s interesting that Rockstar chose to introduce the song over a passage of play where so little seems to be happening. But the level of agency is exactly right for the mood. After all, the downbeat, emergent parts of Rockstar games have always been the most compelling. Missions are linear and artificial, alternating abruptly between complete freedom and passive spectacle, or between human drama and ludicrous ultraviolence. It’s a big challenge to your suspension of disbelief, and primarily serves to shove the ‘gaminess’ of the game in your face.

Things improve when you’re not on a mission, although the ‘go anywhere, do anything’ premise turns out to be more like ‘go anywhere, do a few things’. And the more things you try to do, the more empty the game world can feel. But just wandering around, whether on foot, horse or car, is almost perfect: simple and immersive enough to dissolve the barrier between you and your character, but with enough detail to be utterly convincing.

Existential angst

If you want, you can spend your off-mission time gambling, buying clothes or engaged in mischievous mayhem. But the getting, spending and killing soon starts to feel empty. There’s a hollowness and pointlessness that goes deeper than the amorality of the narrative. ‘Is this all you want?’ the game insinuates. (Not for nothing did Vice City allude to the story of Tony Montana in Scarface, for whom too much just wasn’t enough.)

And even when the game has been rinsed to 100%, with every garment bought, every kingpin toppled, every weapon owned, every storyline exhausted and a cash pile in the millions, your character will still be there, alone with themselves once more. And there will be nothing left to do but jack another car, or mount another steed, and ride on.

Rockstar’s games make their most profound points not in their plots, or even in their much-vaunted cultural critiques, but in the gaps between them.  Whether in present-day LA, the Old West or anywhere else, they embody an existential ache that has always been here, will always be here, at the heart of our society. The road, and the player’s relationship with it, symbolises this unchanging, unavoidable truth. The point cuts all the more deeply for being made symbolically, through the gameplay itself – rather than via crass, bolted-on ‘satire’ like GTA’s talk stations.

As a character, John Marston embodies this melancholy mindset perfectly. A man of few words, he likes very few of the people he meets in the game, finding even his own family irksome, and seems happiest when hunting or just riding alone. This being a videogame, he does have a mission – to save his family – but he wears it more like an obligation, or a curse. He can never shed the weight of his past, and as he wearily ticks off his assigned tasks, his arc seems more like a destiny than a quest. Wherever he goes, there he is – but he rides forward anyway. We can imagine him quoting Beckett’s Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Step in front of a runaway train

It’s a big ask for any song to capture such a subtle mood, but ‘Far Way’ does so effortlesly, and with the most basic elements. The lyrics fit the landscape and texture of the scene so perfectly that it’s hard to believe the song wasn’t written especially for it – but it wasn’t, as far as I can tell.

As Gonzalez’ melody paces restlessly up and down a dry, unchanging minor seventh, it echoes Marston’s own criss-crossing of the desert during the game – running over the same old ground, finding the same old fear.As we listen, we start to see the mechanics of the game in a whole new light. Optional missions in Rockstar games can seem like pointless ‘fetch and carry’ schleps. But through the lens of this song, all Marston’s travels appear meditative and cathartic; necessary duties on the road to redemption.

The verses are carried by Gonzalez and his guitar alone; only in the chorus and brief break is the arrangement filled out with Gonzales’ own harmonies and (possibly) a second acoustic. As Marston is alone in the game, so Gonzalez is alone in his song – unless talking to himself, as Marston also does from time to time.

The unnamed ‘it’ that is ‘so far away’ is, most obviously, the redemption that Marston is seeking, and his reunion with his family. But this line also evokes the physical space and distance of the West – something that the game never quite lets you forget, even when it’s letting you sleep through a stagecoach ride. RDR was criticised for having a world that was ultimately just too empty, but that was the price of the contemplative mood evoked by its sweeping panoramas and daunting distances. If nothing else, it made you think about the pre-motor car era when pretty much everything was far away.

Compromised by context

Is it perfect? Absolutely not – but the reasons lie outside the scene itself. The prelude to this passage of play is a mission where Marston must defend a raft floating down the Rio Grande from about 50 gun-toting, dynamite-lobbing Mexican bandits. In game-design terms, it’s entirely logical (if traditional) that Marston’s move south of the border is marked by a challenging ‘boss’ mission, so that reaching the next ‘level’ feels like a hard-won achievement. Emotionally, though, the effect is unfortunate, serving to foreground the most blatantly artificial and frenziedly violent aspects of the game (and gaming) right before the poignant entry to Mexico. This discord is even harsher if, like me, you need a few attempts to pass the mission. By the same token, it feels deflating to return to the standard rhythm of the game once the song ends – but that’s really a testament to just how good this moment is, rather than a criticism.

I know that my choice isn’t particularly original, and that plenty of other gamers might choose the same scene. But, in a way, that’s the point. Rockstar went for a simple, powerful gesture that would communicate with everyone who played it – and they pulled it off. As I hope i’ve argued, it’s a masterful scene, a pinnacle of achievement in videogames and a decisive blow in the endless debate about whether games can aspire to be art.

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