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Games of 2010: Red Dead Redemption

First great western.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.