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Frontier, Conquest: How Gaming Can Provide Us With A New Horizon When We Need It Most

On 02/25/2013 at 02:54 PM by Justin Matkowski

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Human beings need frontiers. Be they physical, technological, intellectual, or ideological, frontiers help life retain its luster and spark, and inspire us to seek out the best in ourselves and in the world.  They enrich life with a sense of grandeur, adventure, and discovery. There is an element of the human psyche that needs this; we need to look out at a landscape, marvel at it, and see a bit of ourselves, or the person we wish to be, reflected in it. Frontiers are a pivotal cornerstone of life: they raise our spirits and our intellectuality, and provide a sense of adventure in today’s oft mundane first-world life cycle of work, eat, bills, sleep, repeat. Never are frontiers needed more than when our life is shaken to the core, and we feel our world shrink around us.

Several years ago, a relationship I was in for almost 5 years came to an unforseen end. Many people use the analogy of being punched in the gut to explain the feeling of such a suprise, but I find this allusion to be inaccurate. In my experience, it feels more like your world is blown apart but somehow leaves you intact in the middle of a vast, vacumous space.  It is both haunting and liberating, terrifying and silent as a cemetery. It was the beginning of Winter, and having felt like I just lost my best friend, the horizon looked bleak, dark, and cold. Thankfully, I have amazing family and friends in my life, and one of them gave me some particularly poignant advice. The Creative Director of the advertising agency I worked at and I had become close friends, and when I relayed what had happened to him, he told me “Now is the time to get addicted to something that you cannot sip, snort, or shoot. Find something positive to lose yourself in.”

Several days prior to my relationship ending, I had received Red Dead Redemption as a Christmas present from my family. Having heard great things about it, and knowing that it included a vast world to explore, I decided this would be my horizon for the time being while I regained my footing amidst a tumultuous emotional state. As I explored the bucolic fields around Hennigan’s Stead, the snow-covered forests of Tall Trees, and the vast deserts across the San Luis river, I began developing emotional reactions and associations with the environments I was discovering. The act of playing a video game was metamorphisizing into a journey through the psychology of how one deals with grief, loss, acceptance, and finally, begin to move forward.

A particularly poignant aspect of this was that the world of Red Dead Redemption is enriched with many wide-open, seemingly-undisturbed natural landscapes. My ex lived in the country, and that association hit me immediately upon traversing this digital world. I associated nature with her - hiking through the country side, staring up at the stars, and peaceful nights beside a fire. The haunting guitar strums and whistles while riding through Tall Trees felt like biting winter winds, forcing me to confront my own loneliness and feelings of emotional isolation and abandonment. Moving a videogame character from point A to point B became melancholic, introspective horseback rides, staring up at the night sky and trying to understand why bad things happen to good people in a seemingly unjust world. The importance of this game helping me to confront these emotions cannot be overstated, especially by allowing me to feel as though I was not facing them alone, because another conflicted soul named John Marston was along for the ride.

I immediately felt a sense of emotional kinship with Marston: a good man, struggling with maintaining an unwavering morality in an immoral world. Marston simply wanted to pick up the pieces of his life, and return home, and anyone who has ever dealt with the hardship can attest to how far from home it makes you feel.  Marston and I shared that sense of being haunted by your past, wondering how your own actions led to the state of your life, and occassionally, knowing exactly what you did to put yourself there. Red Dead Redemption, along with Silent Hill 2 in my opinion, is one of this medium’s finest examples of the realization of internal conflict within a complimentary physical space. As I rode from province to province, I related the amorality of the West to the amorality I felt confronted with in our world. While reflecting on my situation at the time, I learned two imporant lessons about the world and life while playing through RDR. The first of these being: having strength of character is maintaining dignity, steadfastness, and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardship. The second, and possibly more important lesson, is that we can often decipher why our lives are suddenly changed by certain external factors, and sometimes we cannot. The natural world can be cruel, but sometimes that cruelty isn’t inherently malicious; sometimes, the bear just has to feed.

What I did not expect was how I, or John, would react when coming into contact with a soul in need, such as an NPC stranded in the desert, or running for their life while being chased by a mountain cat. Experiencing resounding hardship in life can jade you, make you self-centered, and influence you to push others away for fear of further pain. However, when I came across those struggling amidst this harsh, western landscape, I was shocked to discover that I sincerely wanted to help them. Even though I was enduring an overwhelming emotional pain, and that such an important part of my life fell apart, this experience hadn’t changed the person I was. It gave me hope that I could find a way home, and it reinforced the fact others are struggling with their own hardship, and the better angels of our nature allow us to see through our own pain and help to ease someone else’s plight. It was a light in the dark, and even the tiniest of lights can help illuminate the beginnings of a path to home.

As I played through the main quest and side-stories of RDR, the parallels between Marston’s positive effect on the world around him and my getting to a better mental, physical, and emotional state materialized. Marston didn’t always know if what he was doing was right, and I felt uncertain about my personal baby steps towards recovery coming to fruition, but the philosophy of doing “the best you can” under given circumstances seemed beneficial to both myself and to the provinces of New Austin, West Elizabeth, and Nuevo Paraiso. With demons from his past finally vanquished, it seemed Marston had finally made his way home to his family. However, his story was not over and neither was mine. It seemed that life and the world of Red Dead Redemption had one more lesson to teach, and that lesson was Kharma.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not played through Red Dead Redemption, and do not wish to know its ending, please skip ahead to final paragraph.

Death can come in many forms, yet a sense of being robbed, of being deprived of time spent in happiness, is always a constant in its wake. When John Marston was callously gunned down by agents, shortly after finally making his way home to his family and to happiness, I saw my own feelings once again manifested in Red Dead’s narrative. I deeply empathized with Marston, for the fact that I was experiencing the feelings of knowing the happiness found in a place in life where you can set your roots and grow, and then having that ripped away from you. John had fought so long, and so hard to get home, only to have come to the realization in his final moments that his dream of a life of happiness with his family would remain just that, only a dream. This forced to finally accept that the life I had known was gone, never to return, and yet the world still moves so I must move with it.

When I took control of Jake I knew exactly what I had to do - to settle a debt, and not all debts are comprised of the repayment of an act of charity. When I dealt justice to Edgar Ross, it reaffirmed that Kharma does exist in the world; that the deeds we do can indeed come back to either haunt us, or as I would come to learn a short time later, bless us in life. By the time I had finished Red Dead Redemption I was feeling hopeful again for the first time in months, and life would just so have it that in my journies I would come across another lost soul in my own life. An old acquintance from college contacted me and we met up for coffee. When I saw her, I could see a pain behind her massive, crystal blue eyes, along with a resounding strength. I knew in that instant I just wanted to take care of her; to let her know she could battle away her demons and find happiness again. Our friendship grew as Winter gave way to Spring, and blossomed into a romantic relationship.  We are together to this day, and she has tought me lessons about life and love I could have never hoped to learn. She is my best friend, and proof that life can lead you to true happiness if only you have the conviction to ride through the dark night to get there.

The best advice now that I can possibly give to those enduring hardship is this: chase the horizon. Know that there is more to life and to the world than your own strife, and that a frontier calls to you. People do not undertake journies so far from home when they are feeling content and comfortable, they pursue them when they feel they have nothing to leave behind. There is an overwhelming amount of beauty and wonder in the world waiting to be discovered if you’ll only seek it out. If you’re feeling hurt, defeated, and lost, simply pack a bag, look to the horizon, and resolve to live. The question of “Are video games art?” is a topic for another blog, but what I do know is this: that one of the most noble things art can do is to provide hope to those in need of it, and Video Games can do this as decisively as any other medium and as this blog can attest, even moreso.

So here we stand, both the community and the creators of PixlBit, on the dawn of a new day. It's a time when we can all dream of what this site can become, and watch as those ideas come to life. To the staff at PixlBit - Thank you for welcoming us all with open arms, and we all look to this new horizon with enthusiam and a sense of wonder.



Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/25/2013 at 03:06 PM

hey great blog, man.  I too enjoyed Red Dead Redemption's landscapes, and lust after aching frontiers.  Too bad there aren't that many left in the natural world anymore.  

When I lost someone I loved a couple years ago I too journeyed into the world of games to lose myself.  And then I found blogging.  Now here I am.  :)

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/25/2013 at 03:50 PM

Thank you! It's one of primary reasons why I love open world games such as Red Dead and Skyrim; they truly transport you to what feels like another world, but not wholly alien. In games like that, I love just the act of traveling throughout the landscape and discovering new places, and finding things I've missed as I re-discover past locations.

It is remarkable how games can be so cathartic in those situations; was there one game in particular?

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/25/2013 at 05:20 PM

Hmmm, I don't know if there was one game in particular, but mostly gaming in general.  I had gotten out of a bad time and moved from NYC back with my parents, and the love of my life had passed away, so I was feeling pretty down.  I hadn't been so crazy about games for a while, and only played them intermittently.  But then I found them again and started blogging about them on 1up, and here we are.  :)

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/25/2013 at 08:01 PM

My god man, that's some personal strength beyond words right there. Glad you found your way back to them :)


02/25/2013 at 03:55 PM

I skipped the bottom spoilers because I've yet to play this magnificent marvel. However, I had much the same feeling with Nier. Akin to RDR, it really is a story about fragile humanity's struggle and how it helps to have integrity & character in the face of adversity.

Great blog, by the way!

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/25/2013 at 04:02 PM

Thanks man! I envy you that you still have yet to experience RDR; it's fantastic, and there is TONS of content to explore! I would recommend saving the Undead Nightmare DLC until after you are finished the main story, as well.

I haven't played Nier myself, but I've heard great things about it, especially in the music department. I love hearing about which games are particularly poignant to people, it is such a personal thing and when a game really hits the nail on the head for someone, it's a truly awesome experience. Thanks for sharing!


02/25/2013 at 03:59 PM

I know I said this before... but awesome blog Justin. Even though I had already read it, I really felt moved by it. I think I'll go play some RDR now lol. I still need to get that Undead DLC for it.

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/25/2013 at 04:10 PM

Thank you my friend! Writing stuff like that is always an interesting process; it's kind of like mental spelunking, and it's always nice to hear your writing was able to convey the emotion of what you were trying to encapsulate.

Undead Nightmare is AWESOME. It could have been such a cheap cash-in, but it is definitely sizeable, stands on its own, and retains RDR's sideways sense of humor by merging it with a B-Horror scenario. I particularly enjoyed the side missions, and the Journal requirements portion - tracking down and taming mythical creatures. Let me know what you think when you play it!


02/26/2013 at 11:34 AM

Great blog! I never played RDR and I may never play it fo r some reason it doesn't really seem like a game I would enjoy playing myself but I have watched a Lets Play of it from Insomniac Gamers and it was an interesting watch!

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/26/2013 at 01:57 PM

Thank you! Open world games are an aquired taste; I find myself most drawn to sandboxes set in an unfamiliar world (I worked in a shitty section of my city for a few years, so random acts of violence and drug deals in GTA don't exactly "whisk me away" so to speak) and classics from the 16-bit era.  A game's overall tone, mechanics, and aesthetic are such a personal thing in terms of what we find captivating and compelling as individuals.

Glad you enjoyed the Let's Play of it; it is cinematic in all the right ways, while never wrenching control from the player with set pieces or QTEs.


02/26/2013 at 11:49 AM

I was going to give this yet unplayed game to my big brother, but now...I don't know. Thanks for sharing this well-written piece with us. Personally, I lose myself in music when I have disasters in life, but everyone has their own way of healing.

Justin Matkowski Staff Alumnus

02/26/2013 at 02:00 PM

You're welcome! I'm glad I could peak your interest in RDR.

Music is another big component for me too, both for artistic inspiration and to draw strength from during hardship. As I stated in my blog: I believe one of the most noble things art can do is provide hope when it is needed, and that transcends the medium which provides it.

Thanks for reading!

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