The Wild West is slowly being dragged into the 20th century in Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, Mature, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), the latest interactive epic from Rockstar Games, famed makers of the groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto series.
It's 1911. Telephones are replacing telegrams, the aboriginal people have lost their land but supposedly gained eternal salvation, and the government is exercising its authority to bring an end to the lawlessness of the frontier.
And yet a wilder west than the one we explore as John Marston, a gruff but intelligent ex-outlaw who is paying his debt to society by rounding up his old desperado chums - and in doing so earning the right to return home to his family- is hard to imagine.
There is no shortage of bandits, bounties, and bourbon-fuelled brothels in the game's massive, free-to-roam open world. Homesteaders live in constant fear of attack from roaming lowlifes, and there are few honest gunslingers brave enough to defend them. Strangers with sad stories - a woman with a kidnapped son, a young man whose friend has been strung up from a tree by thieves - are everywhere. And you're just as likely to stumble across a dead person in the bush as a dead coyote.
Still, the evils of the era - made more abundant to ensure players never want for something to do - are tempered by the beauty of the landscape and the wholesomeness of the majority of its inhabitants.
The vast, untamed plains and canyons of the southwestern border states lie under broad skies that are alive with colour during sunsets and brimming with dark grey fury in thunderstorms. Sitting in a saddle on a cliff at midday one can look out over the cacti- and tumbleweed-strewn wilderness for miles, seeing clearly until land meets firmament.
When not engaged in missions, we can spend hours simply living off this land. Deer, rabbits, and dozens of other wild animals offer an honest cowboy a means of survival and a livelihood. Alternatively, we can eke out a few dollars working on a ranch lassoing and breaking broncos, driving cattle, and chasing off wild predators.
When it comes time for a break we can throw horseshoes with farmers, catch a flicker show in town, or have a drink and play some poker in the saloon. Or we can head out on the trail, find a campfire surrounded by travellers, and stop to listen to their stories.
Of course, the tone with which people will greet you in many of these situations will depend on whether you've chosen to be a constructive citizen or have simply become another ne'er-do-well. Just as we are free to explore the world, so too are we free to choose how we act within it. Indeed, our protagonist may not completely escape his old ways.
Red Dead Redemption is assuredly a game. There are weapons to master, missions to complete, and goals to achieve. And that's to say nothing of its profound open-world multiplayer mode in which players can roam the plains alone, join friends to form a posse, or jump into various traditional team games.
And yet I'd warrant that when players look back on their time with this game their memories won't be framed in terms of objectives accomplished, guns collected, or multiplayer matches won. Instead, they'll remember the pleasure of riding horses, the spot-on dialects of the quirky characters they meet, and watching the shadows of clouds rolling over desert. Put another way, they'll recall experiencing this rich world rather than conquering the challenges within it.
Red Dead Redemption is, at its core, a detailed and authentic Wild West sandbox. What players make of it - and take away from it - is largely up to them.