Red Dead Redemption is the work of game makers at the peak of their powers and confidence. What defines the experience is not simply how much Rockstar has crammed into the world it has crafted, but also what it has left out.
In stark contrast to Grand Theft Auto's urban sprawl, full of sound and fury, between the flashpoints of action in Red Dead there is a poignant artistic restraint to the unfolding story of John Marston.
Outside of the towns and villages, travellers come and go, criminals pounce and wildlife endures, but the sense of space overwhelms - both the physical space of the game world and the breathing space afforded to the characters within it.
Rockstar's approach to the soundtrack is also characterised by restraint. From GTAIII onwards, music has proved one of the series' strongest assets, the in-game airwaves filled with hours of licensed music and pitch-perfect talk show tomfoolery.
Red Dead's early 20th Century narrative clearly rules out a similar approach, so Bill Elm and Woody Jackson were instead commissioned to produce an original musical score. And the result is a measured triumph.
The challenge of scoring an unscripted, dynamic experience is one games composers have been tackling for a while. Elm and Jackson's solution was to pen a suite of music in the same key - A minor - which can then be layered and adapted as the on-screen action demands it.
In keeping with the feel of the game's widescreen ambition, the twanging guitars, snarling trumpets, reverb-heavy whistles and moaning harmonicas evoke memories of the great Westerns of cinema - in instrumentation and dynamic range, it's classic Morricone.
Beyond this the experience is bookended by a beautifully sparse, contemplative piano piece, Exodus In America. It's a lovely, simple number highly reminiscent of Michael Giacchino's Life & Death theme from Lost - all yearning chords and pregnant pauses. (Compare them for yourself: Lost vs. Red Dead).
But the most inspired use of music in the game is reserved for the handful of songs it features. And the first instance is the game's greatest creative moment - and my gaming highlight of the year.
(There are major spoilers coming, so if you haven't played it you might want to click away now.)
After surviving a ferocious assault on his river craft, hours into the game, Marston finally makes it across the border into Mexico.
Saddling up to ride into the unknown, the finger-picked opening of Jose Gonzalez's Far Away kicks in and I quietly pace along, totally absorbed in the grandeur of the sequence, staring miles into the distance towards a setting sun.
So simple and yet so thrillingly effective. And a moment that highlights the unique way in which interactive entertainment can stir the senses. I could have done anything I liked at this point; but the mood change compelled me to slow down and savour every second, carefully adjusting the camera to frame Marston's iconic coolness.
The effect is magnified because it is the first song you hear in hours and hours of gameplay. Rockstar achieves more emotional impact in those few minutes with a single acoustic number than an entire GTA soundtrack.
The next time we hear a song is towards the end of the story. With a line that cuts to the heart of Marston's predicament - "Our time has passed, John" - Dutch leaps to his death. Finally, Marston is freed from Government servitude and given back his life, his family.
Again, I could have ignored the music - another acoustic track, Compass by Jamie Lidell - and skinned my horse for kicks; or I could have replicated the swagger of the earlier border crossing.
But the previous 20 hours of gameplay had been building towards this moment, where Marston would at last be reunited with Abigail and Jack. And so I galloped as hard and as fast as I could, down through the snow-covered hills and on to Beecher's Hope. Home.
While GTA games have always been artistically remarkable, I'd never call them beautiful. Red Dead Redemption is a beautiful game. And it's also one of the great sightseeing games.
Uncharted 2's vistas were stunning to behold but the linear gameplay meant you could never truly explore them - the wonders of the horizon will always remain tantalisingly out of reach.
Red Dead lacks the breathtaking fidelity of Naughty Dog's masterpiece, but it trumps it with a straightforward but powerful promise: if you can see it you can go there.
I haven't enjoyed the simple act of travelling through a game world as much since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In Nintendo's game, quietly floating across the moonlit sea beneath a sky of stars was a pleasure in itself. Similarly in Red Dead, taking a train ride or idly trotting along the bank of a river as the water burbles past is strangely consoling.
From colossal, arid rock formations to lush forests teeming with wildlife, Marston's world is full of sublime 'Kodak moments' - I routinely found myself seeking out the best vantage point to watch the sun rise.
The experience is no more vivid than when it is reduced to its essentials: one man, on horseback, riding between the long shadows of a distant sunset. Pre-programmed by a diet of Westerns the immediate response is just to marvel at how utterly cool this cowboy is.
Setting aside all the artistry on display it is John Marston, ultimately, that makes Red Dead Redemption. Brilliant writing and a superb performance by relative unknown Rob Wiethoff make a mockery of rival titles' cinematic pretensions (I'm looking at you, Alan Wake, you cloying, cliché-ridden berk).
Marston's stature becomes clear in his absence. After his death, the avenging son, whose role you assume, cuts an anonymous, uncharismatic figure in the wake of his father's turn as one of the most compelling, memorable characters in videogames.
Abigail Marston: We tried to change, isn't that what you're supposed to do?
John Marston: We did change and it's over now.