2 out of 5
It’s hard to effectively rate something you don’t enjoy. Ratings are, of course, generally subjective; even if you have set criteria that factors into it, there’s likely to be wiggle room in how those are applied, unless they’re based off of clear-cut facts or numbers. …But that’s not the case with media reviews.
I haven’t “liked,” or had any affection for, many of the games Boss Fight Books’ entries have covered; for very few, I’m closely linked to the topic. In both cases, that presence or lack of emotional tie hasn’t been an indicator for enjoying the book or not, so the fact that I’m not an open world gaming fan, or much of a Rockstar fan, or a Western fan, or – more directly – a Red Dead Redemption fan, did not give me pause when cracking the cover on Matt Margini’s analysis of the game. What did give me pause upon reading through the introductory chapter is that I wasn’t sure what his intended focus was going to be. For every paragraph populated with Western movies and books references, and comparing and contrasting those to Red Dead’s direct or indirect focuses, I’d take some steps toward a thesis – to define Red Dead as its own type of revisionist Western, and perhaps a failed one – and then the next paragraph would feel like it was backpedaling on this a bit, both knocking down the game as standard Rockstar fare, and then propping it up as a study on America’s relationship with its imagined West of the Western. In short: because the game might be all of these things, there is no thesis, and the following chapters continue in this mode, of rolling out referential quotes, and then questioning whether or not they apply to the game. Do they? Yup! Also nope!
There’s something conceptually interesting about that, yes, but it’s also begging to be sharpened; it’s tuning in to someone’s impassioned rant on a topic, then tuning out a few minutes later when you realize they’re talking themselves in a circle. Margini breaks the game down into its locales, and vaguely steps through some of its plotpoints, while each chapter very generally takes an important aspect of the Western genre and compares it to its representation in the game. There is, thus, a light history of how the genre evolved over the years, from ignorant, white-power optimism to the cynical, blood-soaked reactions of the 70s acid- and post-Westerns, but all of the reference material never quite shapes up what we’re trying to accomplish here, except to point out those references in the game. But then Red Dead’s cited narrative aspects feel too open-ended to necessarily sync up in the way Margini presents, and the doubling back-and-forth on the game’s potential self-awareness in applying these references is tiresome, and unsatisfying. Like, there’s a shorter essay buried somewhere in here that gets to a point. There’s a bit of insult to injury when Matt touches on some of the purely gamey elements: death physics; “Dead Eye” aiming – the sudden inclusion of more concrete information provides an exact representation of, like, the “representation” of a genre that the book is obsessing over, but these sections are incredibly short, and we sink back in to navel-gazing directly after.
After finishing the book, I went back and reread that first chapter to see if there was a stealthy outline in there that I was missing; maybe I was trying to read a different book than I thought, and so was banging my head against different trees in a different forest. And this could very well be on me, and my competence, but I still couldn’t find a clear idea in that chapter – Margini follows a thread from one paragraph to the next, without making much with it. A couple hundred pages later, the effect was much the same.