Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption, launched in 2010, has made a significant cultural impact. As a video game, it has introduced a new generation to the Western genre, a generation that did not grow up when Westerns were one-quarter of all Hollywood films in the 1950s. Set in 1911 as the Old West fades, gamers play as John Marston, a former outlaw forced by the federal government to track down his previous gang. Players can encounter all the components of the Western as he or she explores what is deemed an “open world” game – the player can ride off to discover areas as sections open up with the completion of tasks.
The soundtrack for this game is also significant. Composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, with contributions from several other musicians, a number of tracks are alternately haunting, stirring and dramatic while simultaneously being relevant to the ongoing action. There are homages to the influence of previous Western film soundtracks, such as those by Italian Western composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone incorporated into his 1960s Western soundtracks such sounds as whistles, voices, sounds of gunshots and cracking whips, the jaw harp, the newly-developed Fender electric guitar and trumpets. The sounds were used to frame the action, to signify the mood of the character and sonically represent the new approach that emerged in director Sergio Leone’s Italian Western films.
While the musical team for Red Dead Redemption drew on the legacy of such composers as Morricone, they provided their own interpretation as well. In terms of listening, the sounds and music are both background to the game and engaging at the same time.
Rockstar’s music team for this game researched the necessary instruments to create authentic Western sounds but also faced the challenge of recording a score that could adapt to the decisions a player made in the game – such would be hard to do with traditionally encapsulated and complete songs. They met this challenge by creating what were called musical “stems” – i.e. a sound clip or musical segment.
The team designed a way for the stems to be used practically anywhere in the game and to interact with other stems. All the stems were composed at 130 beats per minute in A minor, thus allowing the game to intermix stems and play them on top of one another. This process creates organic mixes of music as the game is happening. For example, when mounting a horse, a bass line starts….if you are being chased, certain guitar sounds begin.
Red Dead Redemption, in addition to winning Game of the Year at the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, also won Best Song in a Game for “Far Away” by José González. At the awards, González played that song live while a video specifically made for the song played on a screen in the background of the stage. Here is that original video:
Video game critics such as Jon Radoff have called Red Dead Redemption’s musical score one of the most influential in the history of video games….and it’s a Western.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)