Red Dead Redemption Is the Game of the Year

Welcome to the fourth annual Slate Gaming Club—which I’m sure fans will soon begin calling SGC IV, not long after they grow weary of the club’s demands that readers take each of us out on dates to play darts and eat burgers. For the second consecutive year, we’ve shaken up the lineup. This year we have one professional game critic (Seth), one author of a very fine book on video games (Tom, 2010’s Extra Lives), and one novelist/journalist who has taken video games seriously in, of all places, the London Review of Books (John). And, of course, there’s me. If nothing else, I’ve proved hard to get rid of.

What was the year in video games 2010 all about? For me, it was one thing only: Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar’s Western was so much better than everything else I played this year that I hesitate to say that other video games released in 2010 belong in the same conversation. The score and the scenery have been rightly praised, but the writing is equally superb. Before I played Red Dead Redemption, I had begun to subscribe to the commonly heard critique that cutscenes are antithetical to the nature of video games—a futile effort by game makers to ape the conventions of cinema. Red Dead Redemption offers a powerful rebuttal: The problem with cutscenes (in other games) is not that they contradict the nature of the medium but that they’re mediocre.

Yes, the game can be buggy. Yes, it sags a little bit when John Marston heads to Mexico. Yes, the Spanish dialogue is not written with the same care as the English dialogue, at least to my rusty, and pretty much untrained, ears. But it’s not a game I would be embarrassed to show a space alien—or, more likely, a colleague or a friend—as an exemplar of the form. A magazine writer e-mailed me the other day, saying that he feels like he’s missing out on an important cultural phenomenon by not playing video games. He wants to know how he should get started. If I were forced to suggest only games from 2010, I could offer him only one suggestion that would be worth his time.

To be fair, there might be two games released this year (that I played) that would be worth considering by newcomers to the medium. But I wasn’t familiar with the second game until it was proposed by a member of this conversation a couple weeks ago. I’ll let Tom introduce our readers to it, too, before I say anything more about it.

I should make a ritual disclosure here: I have not played everything, including games that someone summing up the year in games really ought to have played. I have never touched, for example, Angry Birds, or Starcraft II, or Minecraft, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But I played a lot. I made it through Limbo. I played me some DeathSpank and some Super Meat Boy. I was pleasantly surprised by games like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. I was shocked to learn what an incredibly bad writer Alan Wake is. (He really ought to think about another profession.) I’m not calling out the games I’ve listed here when I say this, but all that playing has made me a little cranky. For the first time in years, I felt a little bit bored with video games in 2010. Like Mitch Krpata, a Gaming Club alumnus, “I have played so many lousy games this year, especially those which were supposed to be great, that I’ve started to wonder if I even like games anymore.”

But sometimes, video games redeemed themselves. The Little Sisters level in BioShock 2 was as wonderful an occurrence as any that I’ve had the pleasure to play through. So was John Marston’s arrival in Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, scored as well as any movie or television show, to the sounds of “Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez. And the scene—it feels unfair to call it a “level”—in Heavy Rain in which Ethan must assemble the implements required to cut off his own finger, in order to save the life of his son, gave me something that no video game before it has: a pleasing feeling of excruciation.

Those are three gaming moments that will stick with me forever. I’ll have a lot more to say throughout the week, about Kinect (a sweaty joy that I still find a little bit worrying), about Call of Duty: Black Ops (I found it rage-inducing), about Alan Wake (I have a theory about his unexplained obsession with coffee thermoses). But I’ll let the three of your get your licks in first. John, as someone whose first encounter with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City left him “convinced that gaming has the potential to be an artistic medium comparable to film or television,” what did you think of Rockstar’s latest?