This is the first in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Mike's book on Silent Hill 2 and Matt's book on Red Dead are funding now on Kickstarter.
You're writing a book on a game that is both inspired by and subverts tropes found in traditional Westerns. What was your previous experience with the genre? If you had little experience before, what about Red Dead Redemption made you interested in the Western setting?
Honestly, my experience with the Western was limited before I started thinking about this book. I suspect a lot of people my age absorbed the genre from their boomer dads via osmosis; mine was not the biggest Western fan. But The Searchers has been embedded in my brain ever since an eccentric old lefty named Mr. Loose showed it to us in high school film class, freely throwing around terms like "phallic symbol" and "miscegenation." He really showed us how you could look beneath the surface of the genre to find the values undergirding it (American exceptionalism, gruff machismo, gun culture, etc.), and his head kept reappearing in my mind like a foul-mouthed Obi-Wan when I sat down to play Red Dead for the umpteenth time. It seemed clear to me that the best way to understand what Red Dead does, as a game and as a narrative, was to delve into the source code of the genre that it tries to emulate, cannibalize, and ultimately outdo.
[RDR1 SPOILER IN THIS QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER] Red Dead Redemption ends in the death of its hero. As someone who also wrote about a game with a sad ending, how do you feel a game protagonist's death affects the "interactivity" of the form? How does it clash with regular gameplay in which a death outside of the narrative is curable with a restart?
To me, Marston's death scene might be the most interesting moment in Red Dead -- the way Dead Eye blankets the screen in orange and makes you scramble furiously to pop off headshots, only to watch him get pumped full of bullets. I think it's amazing because both Red Dead's game genre (open-world action game) and its narrative genre (Western) let you indulge in a fantasy of lawless freedom, yet it ends with this death that clamps down so brutally on both the character and the player. Other games have tried to wag their finger at you and be like, "No no! Not so fast! You're not so free and powerful after all, gamer! Heeheehee!" -- but because Red Dead makes you feel so free, because it has GTA in its DNA, because it makes you inhabit a cinematic and literary genre that has meditated in so many ways on the promise and meaning of freedom, the moment lands in a way that feels authentically tragic. I think the interactivity of the form makes his death a hundred times more effective as an ending. And then "respawning" as Jack, doomed to continue the cycle of violence and run into the same Big Government buzzsaw -- that, to me, is authentically tragic, too.
We both went to grad school for English, although you got a PhD and I most certainly did not. How did your academic experience reflect on your view of the game? How did it reflect the way you approached the book itself?
Somewhere on ProQuest is my 350-page dissertation on Victorian literature and the concept of species. This is not that book; this is nothing close to that book, which I think only 4 people will ever read. But I guess one thing that really fascinated me when I was doing my degree was the way that we (and by we I mean 21st-century Americans) keep returning obsessively to the Victorian era as an aesthetic touchstone: e.g. steampunk, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, these Vox sickos from a few years ago who decided to live like Victorians by bathing with a bowl and pitcher and using a letter opener made from a taxidermied deer foot. To me, steampunk Victorian England and the "West" are two sides of the same coin -- the Western is the rugged, American version of the same idealized 19th century, just as packed with stereotypes. I think my academic work made me predisposed to question why we keep returning to that period, and what we get out of reimagining it over and over.
Despite the massive success of Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, games set in the Wild West are few and far between. Why do you think that is? What do you think are the challenges of the setting for other games?
I have some theories. First of all, Westerns dole out violence at a slower, more deliberate tempo than other movie genres. They're all about tension and release -- the quick, precise revolver shot. There's nothing about that rhythm that's impossible to translate into gameplay, but it needs to be done properly, and when done properly I think it translates into gameplay that has a more niche flavor. The closest analogue I can think of is something like Sekiro, which borrows from another prominent movie genre (Samurai flicks) that isn't replicated faithfully by games as often as you would think. In a true Western video game, bullet sponges of any kind should be illegal; XP systems and skill trees should be heavily frowned upon; damage in number form -- any kind of damage that isn't completely binary, kill or no kill -- has no place. In other words, a lot of the basic design principles of modern AAA games besides the open-world don't really gel with the Western.
But also, the genre isn't the towering cultural behemoth it used to be. Critics used to say the Western was "dead" every 10 years or so, and they were always wrong; the last time it "died," which was around the mid-90s, after Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, it just ended up migrating to TV (Deadwood, Westworld), along with a bunch of other genres that used to fall within the category of mid-budget prestige pictures for adults. But it is true that sometime around the late 70s, after Star Wars and the original Superman, the Western lost its pride of place as the premiere form of pop-cultural American mythmaking. Sci-fi and superhero blockbusters superseded it, both in terms of box office and in terms of cultural importance. And those are the genres that videogames borrow from, more often than not.
If you couldn't have written about Red Dead Redemption for your book, which other game would you have chosen? Why?
Someday I will write the definitive critical study of Banjo-Kazooie and everyone will laugh at me for defending collectathons and toilets with googly eyes. But by God, I will do it.
Rockstar games has been criticized in the past for its working conditions, especially during crunch. While this is a common problems in the games industry, how does this knowledge affect your view of the game?
It's a problem throughout the industry, but what gets me about Rockstar's particular brand of crunch is the level of irony and complete lack of self-awareness. Every Rockstar game -- including this one! -- has snarky things to say about evil corporations, capitalism, and an authoritarian state bureaucracy that consumes and coerces ordinary people. Every Rockstar game starts to seem a wee bit hypocritical when you peel back the curtain and look at Rockstar itself. I generally try to keep that curtain in place when I think about games, because I tend to look at them -- like books or movies -- as cultural artifacts. But it's impossible to ignore the disconnect between the values Rockstar espouse in their games and the values embedded in their corporate culture, and that disconnect casts a shadow over the games themselves.
Pre-order your copy of Red Dead Redemption by Matt Margini.