Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite video game. Not because of the Western setting, or the storyline (which is pretty good) but because of the sense of nostalgia it invokes.
I grew up on a farm and ranch in West Texas. The farm was founded just after the turn of the 20th Century, most of the structures on the farm were built then. Big barns made of bolted-together timbers, adobe buildings, wooden wagon wheels and disused horse drawn farm machinery were the staples of my childhood playtime. Red Dead Redemptions sprawling, lived in turn of the century game world doesn’t transport me back to the Old West so much as it does to me being a kid pretending to be in the Old West.
Nostalgia is certainly a large part of the games story. John Marston, the protagonist, is almost nostalgic for his younger years as an outlaw in a much wilder, more violent West. The land he traverses is somehow old and new, full of the scars of conquest and bustling, expanding settlements. Mexico is in a revolution, all the old gunfighters are dead or eyeing retirement. Native American habitations exist as ruins, and what few Native American characters remain in the game are killed or chased away. The game even awards a trophy or hunting the buffalo to extinction. Players are constantly reminded that this roughhewn state of civilization is a transitory state, that soon, progress will overtake the wilderness and the land will be civilized. The regimented, staid world of American adulthood will overtake everything.
I was a kid playing in old barns, or riding horses across a desert crisscrossed with fences. Red Dead Redemption nails the childhood feeling of wandering around a landscape that is both old and new. It evokes layers of nostalgia for me, the nostalgia of being a kid playing cowboys and the nostalgia for a time I never knew. Players aren’t the first to discover the landscape the fictional west, it’s been worked over for so long, but somehow, the game hits all the right notes and makes it feel both worn-in and brand new.