2010 Game of the Year Awards: Number 1

We're proud to present the best game of 2010, as determined by the Silicon Sasquatch collective under the arduous sort of secrecy most commonly associated with a papal conclave:

Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption

May 18, 2010 -- Developer: Rockstar San Diego | Publisher: Rockstar Games -- Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Aaron:

It all started with the horse physics.

From the moment I saw the fluidity of a simulated horse in Red Dead Redemption, I knew the game was beyond anything I’d seen before. It’s perhaps laughable to focus on the way a digital animal moves and seems to breathe within its equally fake world, but it’s also important as it’s one of the many reasons Red Dead Redemption is the best game of 2010.

The details pop in every square inch of Rockstar San Diego’s blockbuster. Dusty desert pueblos are nests for evil and vile gunslingers, but they are also sanctuaries from the brutality of the open west and the cougars and bears which prowl it. It’s hard to believe the game isn’t a persistent online experience, because the desolate environment and its hardened travellers all exude an atmosphere that no other game came close to surpassing this year. Even the music cues, triggered by specific sections of the plot, sent a chill down my spine each and every time. No other game released this year engendered such a level of emotional engagement in its player.

The developers’ achievements are many; for one, they actually made me care about a western story that didn’t star Clint Eastwood. Who would’ve thought such a beloved film genre would translate into (and encourage) unprecedented storytelling innovation? This game proves that a perfectly paced and well-scripted narrative can still top the videogame industry’s constant attempts to inject free-form gameplay into nearly all of its releases. It’s also extremely ironic that a Rockstar sandbox title has a single-player narrative unrivaled by any other game this year.

Red Dead Redemption is at the top of our list because it has impacted every one of us with its style and haunting beauty, both graphical and intellectual. Rockstar’s team of scribes penned its strongest script ever here, and the characters are more realistic and believable than all previous attempts. Forget Niko, disregard Tommy and screw CJ: John Marston is the sarcastic everyman with an ax to grind, and for once Rockstar’s revenge tale is superbly poignant and mature instead of achingly banal and sophomoric.

Red Dead Redemption will go down in the books as the best sandbox title in Rockstar’s history, as well as the best western game on any console or PC to date. Its characters are as tragic as they are relatable, and even though they live in the turn-of-the-century wilds of a lawless America, they parallel us in our modern lives more than most players might ever realize. Such is the genius commentary of Rockstar.

Doug:

Red Dead Redemption’s critics can bemoan that the game is “just” Grand Theft Auto: Wild West, but to do so would miss the point entirely. Yes, RDR is another evolution of what Rockstar began with Grand Theft Auto III; however, it moves that formula on leaps and bounds from what we saw with Grand Theft Auto IV and last year's The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony expansion packs. This is, undoubtedly, Rockstar’s finest hour.

From John Marston’s first steps off the train to its powerful finale, this is the best story Rockstar has told to date. It’s more consistent than GTA IV, and though it leans on western story tropes and cliches, it does so with a sense of reverence and homage as opposed to a lack of creativity. The subtle difference lies in the writing, and the skill with which characters are scripted and painted in the game. Marston still has too much of the Rockstar punching-bag protagonist in him for my liking — always at the beck and call of the characters giving missions — but the end result is an interesting, twisting and turning story of treachery, politics, and the effects of civilized society on the wilderness.

Of course, we're reviewing video games, not books, and here Red Dead also improves on its predecessors. Adjusting to riding a horse instead of driving a car took time but provided a more interesting experience because your transportation no longer felt disposable. If you lost a nice car in GTA IV it could be replaced, but god forbid you get that Kentucky Saddler shot out from under you in a mission. The gunplay is tighter compared to past GTA games, and the addition of Dead Eye allows for more flexibility in a shootout. There may be a few too many missions toward the end that have you mounting a minigun, but at least they’re not frustratingly difficult. The mission designs and variety are well improved from GTA IV, too, and the various stranger missions provide great flavor and color to the game.

Speaking of color, Rockstar may have impressed with its recreation of New York City for GTA IV, but the sweeping vistas, rolling plains and dusty trails found in Red Dead Redemption blow everything else out of the water. I know it’s a cliche, but I definitely paused and watched the sunrise from a hilltop at least once. The minimalist, striking soundtrack also adds to the experience, as does the voice work, which may not be Oscar-worthy but suits the game and is strong compared with most other games.

In all, it’s just fun to play. Riding with a posse and taking out gang hideouts was a great, unique multiplayer experience, and the story of John Marston is easily the best western story told in gaming. Playing cards or dice is a nice diversion, but what cements Red Dead Redemption as the game of the year is the experience of chasing down a train, your horse’s hooves pounding and gunshots whirring by. The game’s climax is powerful; not much more can be said without spoiling the fun.

Nick:

Mass Effect 2. Minecraft. And finally, Red Dead Redemption.

Could there have been a stranger combination? Probably not. But there's something significant about the fact that these three games were considered our absolute favorites for the year of 2010. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but here's my theory: All three of these games represent the cutting edge in creating a satisfying and immersive narrative for the player.

Mass Effect 2 was notable for its expert characterization and its sophisticated ability to interpret the player's decisions and produce narrative consequences that felt genuine and legitimately earned. Minecraft allows the player to explore an open world in almost any way imaginable, to create meaningful buildings, mechanisms and landmarks, and to experience memorable encounters that are all, thanks to the game's randomly-generated worlds, legitimately unique. These games represent a different interpretation of how to leverage modern technology and enable players to influence their own stories as they see fit.

But Red Dead Redemption is nothing like that. In an age where branching dialog and multiple endings are commonplace, Red Dead Redemption is steadfast in its vision of telling just one story. It's a parable of the struggle between modernization and freedom, of crime and punishment, of loss and redemption. It seems only fitting that a game that celebrates the last dying breath of the old ways would drive its narrative with such an old-fashioned linearity.

I have countless fond memories of Red Dead Redemption, but they're all little details: small snippets of wry conversation; the way the sun rose and set over my campfire; the authentic sound of horse hooves clattering against the dusty paths and concrete streets; the empathy and relief I felt when John Marston was reunited with his family; the unfamiliar first glimpse of Mexico's expansive hills and valleys as paired with José González' haunting guitar work. Everything comes together marvelously in Red Dead Redemption to create a feeling and sense of place that is unmatched in games.

Games will continue to push forward into new and uncharted territories, and that's the way it should be. But if Red Dead Redemption is the old guard's last dance, it's one that won't soon be forgotten.