This article first appeared in Kill Screen’s relaunched magazine, Issue 9, which you can buy right now!
Header illustration by Christopher Black
In 2003, HBO released And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, a lavish TV movie about a Mexican revolutionary who makes a deal with Hollywood to film, and star in, his own battle. Antonio Banderas plays Pancho Villa full of preening swagger, yet a strange kind of naivete—the naivete of someone already trying on the gilded robes of myth, already saving a parking spot on Olympus, boasting like Beowulf before the fact. The battle does not go as he intended; what was supposed to be a decisive skirmish becomes a prolonged siege. But the camera is there to watch him as he smiles for it between gunshots—as he carries around an idea of the present moment, an idea of what the past will look like to an appreciative future, without much care for the present itself. The camera is there to watch him as he executes the widow of one of his enemies, point-blank, in cold blood.
The historical Pancho Villa was almost certainly one of the inspirations for Abraham Reyes, a revolutionary encountered by John Marston midway through Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, from 2010. Like Villa, Reyes is a terribly human character who basks in the light of his own potential mythology. He boasts constantly of the corridos—heroic ballads—that will be written of his battles, his exploits, eliding the fact that Marston was the one who killed hundreds of Federales with a pistol from behind a dingy barrel. The game makes it crystal-clear that Reyes is exactly like the Generalissimo he seeks to depose: selfish, autocratic, stupid, corrupt.
In a running gag that runs one too many times, Reyes forgets the name of Luisa, the woman who saves him and adores him. But we know by that point that she has a more realistic relationship to history than he does, even though she has done more to affect its course—a sense of its oppressive weight, its unharnessable vastness. “When I rule these people, I shall be fair and judicious and wise,” says Reyes, writing the Book of Reyes a priori, letting the verb “rule” (and his name) tell us already what kind of ruler he will be.
“I am living in history,” Luisa says, in stark contrast. “I am not afraid to die.”
Far Cry Primal, Ubisoft’s recent open-world caveman simulator, begins, technically, in the present. The year 2016 appears onscreen, bordered by a white rectangle, and we hear the whine of passing cars, a cacophony of languages speaking with postindustrial impatience—the sounds of our age. A second later, the number starts ticking down, and the sounds change with it: machinegun bullets zoom through the 20th century; train whistles blow throughout the 19th; Gregorian chants, snippets of Italian, the neighing of horses, the clanging of swords linger on. As the years count down, the sounds thin out, giving way to pools of silence. Only an earthy rumble heralds the coming of the game’s own era—10,000 BCE, before history began.
This 30-second opening might be better than the entire game that follows, if only for the way it works (perhaps inadvertently) as an encapsulation of the genre as a whole. By whisking us back from the high-treble nattering of the present to the deep groaning of the prehistoric past, Primal tries to make the case that it’s about something more fundamental (i.e. primal) than other videogames, many of which traffic in the sounds of bullets or slashes or hooves.
But that pivot from history to prehistory also ends up underscoring something else: that there’s been an open-world game—similar in structure, ethos, and overall design philosophy—for almost every other period you can hear in that sonic tapestry, necessitating a game both prehistoric in setting and post-historical in nature. Assassin’s Creed alone has entries that cover the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Victorian England, and the Americas more broadly throughout the 18th century. Grand Theft Auto covers ‘80s Miami, ‘90s Los Angeles, and 2000s New York. The Saboteur (2009) covers Nazi-occupied France during World War II. LA Noire (2011) covers Los Angeles in the 1940s. Red Dead Redemption covers the American West in 1910, on the verge of becoming something else. Only antiquity—and the entire history of East Asia, minus contemporary Hong Kong—remains unvisited by roaming, ethically ambiguous avatars in search of historically accurate prostitutes. We shall see what the next Assassin’s Creed will bring.
Every one of these games has attempted to recreate a different setting in loving, studious detail, with years of development spent copying architecture, combing through archives, and consulting with academics. Of course, the way Primal’s opening alludes to each era through exemplary snippets of noise—these crystallized fragments of atmosphere—is analogous to the way these games tend to present history through events, people, and places that have ossified into caricature. Like Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1 (1981) and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth, the sequence is a ride through History’s Greatest Hits. So, too, is the genre as a whole. And to be sure, almost none of these games aspire to be history texts, per se; they’re all speculative, fictional, sometimes even counterfactual (see, for instance, the sublimely ridiculous Assassin’s Creed III spin-off The Tyranny of King Washington from 2013). In many ways, you could argue that they use history as little more than a playground and a backdrop. But they’re also a lot bigger, a lot more ambitious, than we tend to give them credit for. Taken together, they compose a cohort of historical epics unparalleled in size, expenditure, and potential ideological impact since the golden age of Hollywood. It would be foolish not to take them with a grain of salt. But it would be equally foolish not to take them seriously—not to ask what kind of history they tell.
Many (perhaps even most) videogames are ahistorical, not only in their subject matter, but in the experience they offer. Many would seem to align implicitly with Nietzsche’s assertion—in his seminal 1874 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”—that true happiness is achieved by forgetting, by putting down the weight of the past. There is no time in Super Mario Bros. (1985)—only the time you have to complete the level. There is no time in Zelda, either, despite the Temple of Time; it’s a space of myth, frequently trafficking in images of suspended animation. For most of the history of the medium, history itself has been the near-exclusive province of strategy games like Age of Empires and Civilization, which represent (or remix) world events according to a model of historical change that stresses macroeconomic factors. Play Civ V (2010) long enough and it becomes hard not to see the story of the world as a story of strategic resources.
Open-world games with historical narratives are very different, both from games that try to take us out of history, and from games that try to abstract it. They still aim for escapism, but they also aim for some measure of educational value, some explanation that the player can take back to the world outside. And the way they explain history, in turn, is truly and weirdly hybrid.
On the one hand, despite the ostensible openness of their worlds, these games have linear plots that emphasize the agency of individual figures, chief among them the player. True, they never seem to put you in the position of a king or a president or a general; instead, Assassin’s Creed games (and Red Dead also) have protagonists that are like Zelig or Forrest Gump, appearing almost accidentally at crucial turning points, determining what happens in indirect, invisible ways. But you’re still unmistakably an agent of historical change, and these stories—especially Assassin’s Creed’s plots, with their focus on the elimination of significant individuals—inevitably massage history itself into a saga of Great Men and Great Deeds. One of the first historical novels in English, Walter Scott’s 1814 work Waverley, was about a disaffected, bumbling young aristocrat who—by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time—ends up affecting the course of the Jacobite rebellion. Open-world games follow a similar mold. But they’re also allergic to the idea of incompetence. There is perhaps no better Gamer Power Fantasy than the enfranchisement of the invisible badass, turning the wheels of history and being recognized not by historians, but by other Great Men.
On the other hand, at the very same time that they present what Nietzsche calls a “monumental” history of powerful individuals and willful action (however covert), these games present something like a materialist history of the mundane, conjuring the essence of an era through an authentic simulation of its objects. They strive for texture and immersion; they break gameplay into accidental anecdotes, as well as one propulsive saga. You save the world and chill with Napoleon, but in between missions, you wander the streets, visit shops, collect objects, and interact with a sprawling population of ordinary digital citizens. The nature of the period becomes manifest in the sound of a butcher hocking his wares, in the shadows cast by gas lamps, in the dust of an unpaved square. This is a history told through stuff—the kind of history practiced by Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project was a gigantic, unfinished attempt to contain the spirit of 19th century Paris in an archaeology of unremarkable fragments. It goes back to Marx. It goes back even further to Thomas Carlyle, who believed he could excavate a present-tense sense of the French Revolution by looking closely at its detritus.
Open-world games tell both kinds of history at the same time. In their central narratives, they emphasize the agency of significant people; in their extensive worldbuilding, they emphasize city life, accidental encounters, objects, architecture, and economic exchange. Perhaps the most evident example of this schizoid structure is Assassin’s Creed III, widely panned at its release for both the absurd Gump-likeness of its central plot, and the proliferation of its side activities. In the same game where you, as the assassin Connor Kenway, invisibly assist the Founding Fathers in the creation of the United States, you can go hunting, play period-appropriate board games, and carry smallpox victims through the New York streets. You can pretend to dictate history; you can also pretend to live in it.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ jaunty recent meditation on studio filmmaking at the height of the studio system, we watch as a swords-and-sandals epic about ancient Rome springs forth from the very structure of the studio that produces it. The place is run by a square-jawed exec named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who barks orders around the lot, yet makes space throughout the day for family time and Catholic guilt; the picture depicts a square-jawed Roman centurion (George Clooney), who takes charge, leads an army, and yet—in its melodramatic climax—bends the knee before Jesus Christ. Not just a Great Man story, but a Great Man story about redemption emerges from a studio culture built around the idea of its executive.
One can imagine how the duality of open-world games might emerge from the duality of the studios that create them. They arise from developer environments where a narrative vision shared by a few (directors, writers, etc.) is grafted uneasily onto the efforts of legions of talented people who are told simply to make stuff—tables, buildings, realistically animated chickens. It’s a kind of incoherence reflective both of the postmodernity of games, and the postmodernity of our thinking about history in general. The past itself is chaotic, open to infinite (and equally ideological) avenues of interpretation. Open-world games capture that, whether they intend to or not.
But this also reveals the immaturity of videogames made on this scale: the way they do so little to question, or manage, or think through their own expansiveness. The way they reach for totality and end up grabbing incoherence. The way they grasp unthinkingly for every mode of representation they can, not respecting that every mode of representation proclaims a worldview from the inside.
There is one big, beautifully coherent exception: Red Dead Redemption.
“I am living in history. I am not afraid to die.” Luisa’s line is unsettling for a few reasons. It feels out of context: she says it not at the climax of a heroic deed, but in a lull between missions, almost casually. It also doesn’t feel at all like a line written by the writers at Rockstar, who tend to make their characters (and, in a lot of ways, their games) into repositories of cynical, overwritten “social commentary.” Think of the high school-nihilism of a character like Jimmy De Santa, or GTA V’s (2013) Trevor spouting dialogue that sounds like bad Tarantino or Bill Maher’s standup. Of course, Marston responds to Luisa with cynicism of his own: “Your nobility’s almost as affecting as your naivety,” he says. But then she fires back: “I would rather be dead than a cynic like you, Mr. Marston.” And it becomes clear in this moment that the game might be cynical, but it has more than cynicism on its mind.
Luisa does an awful lot to change history, turning the tide of the revolution from a position of enormous disempowerment. Nonetheless, as she recognizes, she is a figure consumed by history, rather than an agent propelling it forward; it’s impossible to step outside, to direct without being directed. What makes Red Dead Redemption special is that it places the protagonist—and, by extension, the player—in the same position. The game’s plot illustrates this position in brutal clarity, almost at every turn. Marston is on a personal quest to locate and kill the outlaws he used to run with. His long, winding journey weaves into—and often affects—larger narratives of social and geographical transformation: political upheaval, technological expansion, the taming and assimilation of the West under the law and order of the East. But he’s also doing everything because he has to, because he’s a prisoner of the US government, and an instrument of its power. In every mission, with every gunshot, he works to destroy what he himself represents; he is not a spirit of justice, but a spirit of coerced self-corrosion. He makes history bend further in one direction, but it isn’t a direction he can ever decide.
“We can’t fight change,” his greatest nemesis tells him, before jumping off a cliff. “Our time is past.”
One of the game’s more imaginative achievements is called “Manifest Destiny.” You get it by exterminating all the buffalo that roam the Great Plains, which never respawn. It’s both a stupidly on-the-nose joke and an impressively concise encapsulation of how the game as a whole marries its pervasive air of futility—and finality—to a player experience that emphasizes freedom and endless accumulation. Open-world games are seldom about things that end, things that become lost, or expansiveness that extinguishes life; their design stresses limitlessness, both in terms of what the player can do and what the player can be. You can join every guild in Skyrim (2011); you can keep sinking other ships in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) until you have over a billion reales and you’re the seventh “Most Feared Pirate” on the North American leaderboard (this is literally true of my father-in-law). Red Dead knows. But it also overshadows every killing spree, every algorithmically-generated skirmish, every property purchased, with a claustrophobic sense of encasement: the very freedom of these movements only points toward a larger form of imprisonment. Marston is living in history, and history is ready to use him up and leave him behind.
Then again, he’s also a revolver-toting superhero who can nail six shots on horseback from 100 yards away. But even that brutal efficiency is a kind of passivity in the larger scheme of things, the larger scheme that Red Dead tries to depict in Super Panavision. The irony of “Manifest Destiny” evokes Butcher’s Crossing, a 1960 novel by John Williams (not that John Williams) that centers on a buffalo hunt in 1870s Kansas. The novel’s protagonist, Will Andrews, is a transplant from Boston who comes to the West seeking nature with a capital N—the sublime virginity of the landscape, celebrated and theorized by what characters in Red Dead call “those nature writers from back East.” He joins a hunt led by a man named Miller, a capitalist of beguiling, Daniel Plainview-like intensity. As the hunt proceeds, Andrews realizes that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the world of industrial production he has left behind. Miller shoots the bull and the others do not run; they stand in place and mill about, waiting to be culled with systematic precision, shot after shot, like the outlaws that populate Red Dead’s knee-high walls. The novel suggests that there is no escaping into the landscape from the great churning machine of commerce and exploitation. There is only bringing the machine with you.
Red Dead makes a similar argument through the constant, almost seamless shifting between its horseback riding and gunplay. In one moment, you’re travelling into a vast landscape drawn and quartered by telephone poles, yet still inviting in its inhumanity. In the next moment, you’re enacting inhumanity of another kind, dropping entire platoons with quick lever-like pulls of the left and right trigger. These are not tonally or conceptually disjunctive activities, which is what tends to happen in games (e.g. Uncharted) that try to graft shooting sequences onto exploration. Instead, they’re intertwined: systematic murder often lurks on the other side of exploration, and exploration is presented as a task never quite finished without systematic murder. The game uses its own open-world formula—in which roaming and machine-like slaughter necessitate each other like two parts of a rhyming couplet—to embody, rather than simply depict, the logic of American expansionism. Like the buffalo, Marston is a victim of that logic. But he’s also, in a sense, its avatar. It isn’t quite that history is ready to leave him behind; it’s that he can’t leave history behind—he can’t avoid being complicit in its destructive thrust.
A late mission finds Marston manning a Gatling gun in the back of a truck, driven through the streets of town by cackling federal agents who know—by virtue of the truck and the gun—where the arc of history is bending. He ends up killing a lot of people with that gun: mainly outlaws and Native Americans. But before he does, the agents drive him past crowds of people who look upon the contraption in awe and horror: “My oh my, that’s the devil’s work!” He’s in the backseat of an ugly death machine, chugging forward with grim inexorability. He can’t do anything, and you can’t either. But the game puts you, the player, in a position like Benjamin’s Angel of History, only looking forward rather than backward. For the time of that procession, you can imagine with horror where this thing is going to go. After all, it’s 1910.
One thing that late 20th century theorists of history tend to emphasize is that history is a story like any other, based not only in language (and therefore culture, and therefore ideology), but also in the conventions of genre. In his landmark 1974 study Metahistory, Hayden White pursues this larger point by arguing that many works of history make sense of their raw material—such as dates, facts, and sources—by organizing it via “emplotment.” That is, by shaping history into a culturally recognizable genre like tragedy, romance, satire, or farce.
At its most basic level, any history starts out as a “chronicle,” or a list of events organized into a chronological timeline. “The king went to Westminster on June 3, 1321,” is one such example. But a chronicle doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end, nor does it include relationships of cause-and-effect. Almost organically, the historian shapes it into a “story,” telling us why the king went there and how his arrival started a war. Almost organically, that story is shaped to fit the mold of other stories that have been told before.
In Metahistory, White notes that many historical narratives make meaning out of their source material by shaping it into romance, a kind of quest narrative that presents not only “the triumph of good over evil,” but the hero’s personal transcendence over the injustices that shape the world. Other historical narratives opt for satire, which is antithetical:
The archetypal theme of Satire is the precise opposite of this Romantic drama of redemption; it is, in fact, a drama of diremption, a drama dominated by the apprehension that man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master, and by the recognition that, in the final analysis, human consciousness and will are always inadequate to the task of overcoming definitively the dark force of death, which is man’s unremitting enemy.
This “diremption” is what Red Dead Redemption is all about. It’s at the core of the game’s narrative of coerced self-destruction; it’s at the core of the gunplay and horseplay that results, often in the word “DEAD” in all caps on a blood-red screen. It’s as uncaring as Dark Souls’s “YOU DIED,” but even more impersonal. It’s right at the surface of dialogue shouted between horses during Sorkinian walk-and-talks: as the quack anthropologist Harold MacDougal says to Marston, riding alongside him, “You know, I dreamt of documenting the last days of the Old West. The romance, the honor, the nobility! But as it turns out, it’s just people killing each other.”
In this way, Red Dead Redemption shares a lot more in common with the “revisionist Westerns” or “anti-Westerns” that first arose in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, rather than the old Hollywood Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those were products of the Eisenhower era; these were products of Vietnam. Those were about honor, justice, and the beckoning freedom of the landscape; these were about de-romanticizing the West, presenting it as a space of nihilism and brutality, in a kind of cultural reaction-formation to decades of American triumphalism. The game draws heavily on the bloody amorality of Spaghetti Westerns and the almost unbearable pessimism of Cormac McCarthy. It draws heavily on an evolved template for the genre that is itself, like Marston, self-reflexive and self-destructive. Revisionist Westerns tend to be about how the West isn’t the West you think you know—how that was a fantasy of the mythic past, a way of smearing Vaseline over history as it really was. They’re historical and historiographical at the same time, always reminding you why the kind of story they are telling is better than the kind of story they aren’t. Of course, that doesn’t automatically make the story true.
What makes Red Dead true may well be the way it puts forward an even greater, even more unremitting “enemy of the human”: history itself—or rather, the intoxicating desire to control it, get out in front of it. MacDougal is one of several characters in the game, including the Pancho Villa-like Reyes, who believes he can step outside and “document” the world he lives inside, the world of which he is hopelessly a constitutive part. Marston doesn’t believe he can, and we end up directly experiencing how right he is, with every massacre pursued at the behest of forces larger than himself. The game uses the illusory freedoms of its design to bring us face-to-face with illusory freedoms of a larger kind. It’s like BioShock (2007) in its self-consciousness about the ability of games to control their players; it’s a lot more powerful for never saying what it’s trying to do. It’s like no other open-world game in its way of preaching historical humility in the guise of simulated power—meditating beneath an experience of openness upon the enclosure of change and the gravity of time.
This article first appeared in Kill Screen’s relaunched magazine, Issue 9, which you can buy right now!