Friday, July 16, 2010

Rough Riding in Red Dead Redemption

“I’ll just chalk this up to market volatility,” I thought as the bullets raced past my ears.

Although largely uneducated, the ranch hands had attended the school of hard knocks long enough to know a scam when they saw it. Nigel West Dickens had put on a good show, but the crowd turned ugly and decided to usher us out of town. As I ran back to the wagon I heard the bloodthirsty cries from the crowd and considered taking a swig of the “miracle elixir” we were trying to sell. After all, its high alcohol content would probably dull the pain of the beating that was coming our way.

Dickens made it to the driver seat and I swung myself onto the bench, drew my shotgun, and took aim at the closest rider.

Before I could pull the trigger, something funny happened. As if by some miracle, we had been transported away from the angry mob. However, my relief was short lived as I realized that I was now viewing New Austin from an unusual perspective: 10,000 feet above ground. I admired my aerial perch until gravity kicked in. As Dickens, our horses, and I fell head first towards the ground, I couldn’t help but grin.

I don’t know much about the nuts and bolts of programming, but I know enough to understand that making a game is complicated. I imagine it is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to create a Swiss watch. Not only is the end result a combination of many intricate pieces, but each precarious tool must work flawlessly with the next one in order to succeed. No matter how hard developers work to perfect game systems and predict player behavior, humanity’s imperfection and penchant for chaos will produce unexpected results.

Regardless of how you feel about Rockstar’s signature gameplay and storytelling conventions, it’s hard not to admire their confidence. Simply making sure that the massive, intricately detailed world of New Austin runs smoothly is an ambitious project. Letting the player roam around, poking and tugging at every seam in this world borders on madness. Using such widely spaced rails to guide the player practically ensures that they will find bits of the world that don’t quite make sense.

When presented with this freedom, I find myself inclined to “play rough” by aggressively testing the game’s boundaries. Within minutes of starting the game, I began sprinting across town, randomly jumping onto things. When Bonnie was trying to tell me about her ranch, I was busy scaling the side of her porch to see if it would hold my weight. The porch was fine, but my antics did inadvertently break the game and I was automatically ported into the next mission without so much as an explanation.

Upon securing my first horse, I decided to subject it to similar stress tests. After figuring out that the horse could jump, I began running toward steep hills and cliffs to test its climbing ability. This resulted in a variety of para-normal events, but passers by didn’t seem to blink when they saw horses floating through walls and running in mid-air.

As was the case with my impromptu skydiving adventure, there are times when glitches arise unprovoked. Shortly after the game was released there were reports of cougar men and demon horses roaming the countryside. While I fear the patch I downloaded before starting my game may have exorcised these evil spirits, I still wander the hills at night in search of them. Solving the scripted treasure hunts and completing fetch quests is enjoyable, but I still have a better time trying to figure out exactly what makes a carriage spontaneously rocket into the air.

Although these things make it difficult for me to keep a straight face during the story’s serious moments, I find Red Dead’s quirks endearing. Their relative infrequency speaks to the quality of the world Rockstar has built. The fact that many of them arise only when I actively try to push the game’s limits speaks to its quality and the level of freedom it grants to the player. Finding little glitches is often more exciting than completing the official quests because it is unprompted. Stories of possessed wagons and bird-people have become some of the most enduring stories surrounding of the game, and they all emerged from player experiences rather than scripted events.

The glitches in Red Dead Redemption are rarely drastic enough to break the game, and for me they give the experience a personal touch. Like a piece of homemade furniture or a weathered antique, the game possesses some distinguishing quirks that give it personality without sacrificing its overall functionality. Glitches might detract from the story’s gravity, but they add levity to the experience.

When strange things happen in the game world, things seem less sacred in a good way: it becomes more acceptable to explore the game’s systems without the fear of “playing it wrong.” No matter how rough you are on the world, it can always be put back together and explored again.


  1. Agree with your general gist - it's all part of the experience, like continuity errors in a movie, or a dog-eared corner in a book.

  2. I imagine it is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to create a Swiss watch.

    This is the best description of game programming I have ever read. The goal, of course, is to create an elegant piece of virtual machinery, but it never quite turns out that way.

  3. A few years ago, Kenner rebooted the old star wars toy line. A few of the earlier figures shipped with lightsabers that were too long (see: out of scale). It was a mistake. And it was a mistake that many people (see: collectors) went nuts trying to find and hoard and scalp and buy from scalpers.
    I always thought that it was a bit odd for people to care so much about an error.
    I feel the same way about Red Dead's Glitches. I get that, for whatever reason, some people are takin' a shine to them, but I don't really fully understand why.
    I likely never will. Then again, I've never intentionally tried to run into walls to see which ones would glitch. Actually, I was always told that those kinds of exercises were the worst part of being a game tester.
    Maybe Scott should be a tester? Maybe Scott IS a tester. It's been a long time since I've seen Scott.

  4. Hey Alex,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I usually feel that, as long as it doesn't hurt things too bad, little quirks are kind of fun. Kind of like that chase scene in Bullitt where they pass the same green VW a bunch of times.

    Hi Chynes,

    Glad you liked the analogy! I'm no programmer, but the ones I know seem to enjoy the process of getting all the tools working almost as much (if not more) than admiring the final product those tools create.

    Hey Radewagon,

    Maybe I should have applied to be on The Tester?

    I agree that the admiration of flaws is an odd phenomenon. I can think of three possible reasons for it:

    1. People like rarity. When (relative) perfection is the norm, deviation is a scarce and valuable commodity. It's rare to find such wild glitches in such high profile games, just like it's rare to find such big mistakes in such high profile toys.

    2. People like to see mistakes. Whether it stems from schadenfreude or affection, I think folks like to know that their elites are human.

    3. People like discovery. Finding little glitches can make players feel like they've discovered something that no one else has. Since these things weren't intended to be discovered they become part of the player-created narrative. An open-world game like Red Dead is largely about the unique events that emerge from each individual player's time in the game. These glitches are the ultimate form of emergent storytelling, as they are found and spread solely by the players.

    Also, it doesn't hurt that a little in-game jankyness is hilarious. ;-)