(This was originally posted at Ditching Otis)
Playing Red Dead Redemption and Final Fantasy XIII at the same time is more than a little jarring. Not, of course, because of the wildly divergent settings. Even a casual gamer can accept the transition from the early 20th century American west to a futuristic dystopia without so much as blinking. For me, at least, the deeply unfamiliar experience is playing not one but two current-generation console games so close to their release date. I am, after all, the epitome of the casual gamer. Always late to the party, mashing buttons, dependent on the strategy guide, with the slimmed-down version of the console under my television, and a disproportionate number of games with garishly colorful “greatest hits” cases sitting on my shelf. (The ugliness of the “greatest hits/players choice/whatever” packaging is intentional, a penalty inflicted upon those of us cheap, lazy, or patient enough to not buy a game until the price drops.)
All the same, due to a happy set of unusual circumstances this past holiday season, I’ve found myself with both a Playstation 3 and a Nintendo Wii, which has allowed me the fantasy of engaging in some serious gaming. In March, I purchased Final Fantasy XIII (Final Fantasy X and X-2 were my favorites out of the rather limited number of games I played on the PS2), and let it sit almost entirely untouched until the beginning of May. (I was finishing a graduate thesis, and my wife made it perfectly clear that if I valued my marriage that the thesis was going to have to come first.)
Now, after several hours of game play, I’m on Chapter 7, which depending on how you’re counting, is either about halfway through the game’s 13 chapters, or barely started. (The strategy guide—yes, I bought the strategy guide—describes chapter 10 as being about halfway through the game’s story.) There are substantial portions of the game’s battle system that I don’t even have access to yet.
This can make it feel at times like you’re only playing part of the game in the early stages, which is quite literally true but is also a sensible way to deal with one of the most substantial challenges in the current generation of console games: the learning curve. As games become more immersive and give players more control over characters and environment, the number of skills a player has to master in order to progress in a game has exploded. (Just imagine Super Mario Brothers, with the only inputs being a direction pad and two buttons, where the game opens with the character simply waiting for the player to make him run, a threat in the form of a Goomba already bearing down. I don’t really want to get nostalgic—I never actually completed Super Mario Brothers—but we’ve come light years from the first generation of consoles.)
Many games succeed or fail based on how well they teach you the necessary skills in the early stages without feeling like the only purpose of the early stages is to teach you the skills you will need in order to really play the game. This is no small trick, and a number of reviewers have argued that Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t quite pull it off. As a player, for all the aspects of the game I have yet to master (or even encounter), I feel like I’m making progress, but I have little choice but to do so. The only thing the game asks me to do is to run forward and fight the monsters that stand between my character and the somewhat arbitrary geographic goal the game has set for me.
Red Dead Redemption, in a lot of ways, is something else entirely. In the few hours I’ve played the game so far, I’ve spent a great deal of time entirely lost. (I’m nowhere near as far along as Chris Hooley, in fact, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I can’t find the poker game.) The world, as many have written, is huge, and I’ve already had my horse stolen out from under me in the middle of nowhere, leaving my character to jog to the next town. A number of reviews have talked about lassoing bad guys and dragging them in for a bounty, but I’m not even sure whether or not I have a rope yet.
More than anything else, I’m not good yet at the sort of things the game asks me to do. My own inclination is to play as more of a “good guy” than a “bad guy” character, and the game gives you ample opportunities to help people out. Just walking or riding around, I’ve stumbled upon a miner being robbed, a man being hung by a gang, and a drunk assaulting a prostitute. In exactly one of those three situations have I been able to keep the victim from being murdered. Once when I was shooting coyotes, I shot a man I hadn’t even seen sitting in the tall grass. (That was the one time I actually stopped playing and went back to an earlier save point.) I’m apparently, just not very good at helping people.
And for all that, I’m having a hard time figuring out which game I like more. I have a long and very fond history with the Final Fantasy franchise. I love the settings, the stories, and the varying levels of weirdness they present to the American gamer. I have, on the other hand, never played a Grand Theft Auto game. (And, as others have observed, whatever its setting, Red Dead Redemption is essentially and structurally a Grand Theft Auto game.) The richness and depth of the narrative of the Final Fantasy series is one of the primary reasons that I take video games seriously (my graduate degree was in literature), and I don’t really expect Red Dead Redemption to be able to compete on that front. I expect to spend a lot more time in Red Dead Redemption wandering around and doing things that, in terms of the overall story, amount to nothing at all. But to my own surprise, I’m finding that I like being lost.