By Lu-Hai Liang
I grew up watching westerns on Channel 4, when they used to show three hour epics on a Friday or Saturday evening. None of the movies were that long but the frequent advert breaks, those sepia-toned interstitials from Stella Artois, always made it that kind of commitment.
Watching those westerns had a deep effect on my younger self, the world they made me imagine, and I am not sure why. Something about the pioneering spirit, perhaps, set against the themes of greed, survival, and retribution. Or maybe it was the wide, open vistas themselves - the expanse of natural America, and the people it contained. The mavericks and tough men slowly walking into saloons. The golden afternoon light. The music.
I was born in China but moved to the UK when I was five. I grew up in Hastings with my mother, and we would watch these westerns together. She had moved to the UK with me after political turmoil in China. My father had been a political activist in the late 1980s before escaping the mainland by swimming to Hong Kong, around a year before that democratic movement was brutally crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
I came to Red Dead Redemption a little late, and began the game in the UK but finished it in China. I moved to an apartment in Beijing, trying to make it as a freelance journalist, and my PS3 soon followed from Hastings. It became a game I lived through, a game that helped soothe me when I was going through some hardship. Trying to make it as a freelance journalist in China wasn't easy for me. The first summer felt dominated by worrying about how I was going to make rent. There was a period later in November when all I ate was roasted sweet potatoes bought from the street. I was scraping by in the real world, but would escape into the story of the great John Marston, and spend hours roaming the landscapes Rockstar had so beautifully created.
I've loved many great games, all for different reasons. The cinematic romance of Final Fantasy X. The sheer vision of Grand Theft Auto 3 and its cartoony violence, soundtracked by O Mio Babbino Caro. The precision twitches and flow of SSX Tricky. The ambition of Black & White. I've watched games mature as I've matured, from my earliest memories playing the SNES and Gameboy Color, through my teenage obsession with the PS2, and then the PS3 in my early adulthood.
Red Dead Redemption is the game that meant the most to me. John Marston, the ex-outlaw trying to go straight, is the essence of that cowboy fantasy every western depends on. Marston is a good man who once did some bad things, because of which he’s under the thumb of The Law (The Bureau of Investigation, the ancestor to the FBI). All Marston wants is to go back to his ranch and spend his days with his wife and his son, Jack, but he can’t escape his past.
It's a tragic story, and there’s real soul to Martson too - for which voice actor Rob Wiethoff deserves a lot of credit. His desperation for that quiet life constantly being stymied by his obvious aptitude as an outlaw. That awful trap of being a fighting man who, even when he wants to, can’t stop fighting.
But more than that, Marston’s story was in the simple beauty of the landscapes you roamed. The red sandstone Mesas of Nuevo Paraiso, in the game's Mexico map; the scrubland outside Armadillo; the snowy mountains of Tall Trees and its overactive bear population; the oaks and comely meadows of Hennigan's Stead. There were times when I did nothing more than walk my horse slowly across these landscapes or look out over a high point and panned the in-game camera around, cinematically, as it swept across the visage of Marston on his horse, gazing out.
The myth-making and storytelling of the western always had a hold on me. As a boy I would obsess over those sheriffs and villains, and which was which. Moral outlaws against villainous bandits, campfires and Indian Braves. The great names: Jesse James and his gang, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday.
As I grew up I realised how made-up a lot of this stuff was. It's all too easy to romanticise what was a brutal and heartless frontier. But I sometimes wonder if the elemental quality of that way of life intensified the feeling of being pioneers, and whether that energy - that raw hope - is what we so strongly identify with. The frontier held that allure for thousands of young men (some just teenagers) moving to the West in the 19th century, seeking gold or a new way of life or something else.
They called it manifest destiny. I took a different journey in a different time, going from the west to the east, UK to China, and the romance at the heart of Red Dead Redemption enraptured me. In Beijing there are thousands of Brits, Europeans, and Americans who moved here and to other parts of Asia, seeking adventure and a new way of life. The economies of Asia continue to grow, encouraging more. Go west young man and grow up with the country. Now it's go east, young men and women, and seek your fortune.
The reality, of course, is not always what it's cracked up to be. Just as the real wild west was often harsh and bitter, I played Red Dead Redemption when the life I'd built in Beijing had started to sour. The game felt like it filled a hole in my life, a place where the dream was still real. When I was struggling and had no money, when I felt hemmed in by urban mass and poisoned by pollution, I had another life as a cowboy.
In Elif Batuman's book The Possessed, she talks about a theory of the novel based on Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote: "the novel form is about the protagonist's struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experiences into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books."
The line always seemed to fit how I felt about Red Dead Redemption. Maybe the game’s narrative helped me make sense of what was in my soul at that time. Maybe because it echoes and keeps alive some childhood fantasies, even as the real world and adulthood took over.
Was Red Dead Redemption merely wish-fulfilment, then? An idle longing for childhood memories? Maybe so. But I think it goes deeper than that, into the common human need for imagination, for stories, for belonging. The truth that when we look up at the star-filled night, when we stare into a campfire, or gaze out into the horizon, we dream of something bigger than paychecks. We dream of what could be - the possible and the impossible. We once lived in those dreams.