Red Dead Redemption

The nonprofit Jacob Burns Film Center in upscale Westchester County was operating out of its comfort zone on Wednesday night. The arthouse complex in Pleasantville, NY, is known for hosting local premiere screenings and Q&A sessions with filmmakers like Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. But last night, former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin invited representatives from Rockstar Games (best-known for the massively popular Grand Theft Auto videogame series) onto the stage for an extended demo of Red Dead Redemption, an open-world adventure game set in an Old West action-movie environment.

A sizable amount of time was spent screening a short film by director John Hillcoat (The Road) that was generated entirely inside the Red Dead Redemption game engine, but that material was superfluous next to the live gameplay, which features witty dialogue, archetypal characters, and the kind of slow-mo balletic gunplay that puts a gamer immediately in mind of Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch. It was impressive to see a tiny Xbox 360 console plugged into the wall drive all the action, generating real-time HD imagery for projection on the 30-foot-wide movie screen at the front of the room.

The crowd skewed younger than usual at the Burns, as folks brought their kids to the presentation, some of them with copies of the videogame in tow, seeking autographs from the Rockstars in attendance. But the event attracted some heavy-hitters from the film world. The first question out of the audience came from writer/director Paul Schrader, who wondered about the extent of the free will enjoyed by the protagonist James Marston as he roamed the game’s wild frontier, shotgun-blasting horse bandits, hunting and skinning deer, and playing poker in one of the many saloons — specifically, he wanted to know if it was possible for Marston to accept a proposition from one of the prostitutes free-roaming the game’s pioneer settlements. (No, it’s not — Marston is a married man, and the game’s designers wanted to create certain moral boundaries for his actions.)

Red Dead Redemption

A little later, cinematographer Frederick Elmes raised his hand to comment on the detail in the game’s environment and also the quality of its light as morning turns to high noon, which segues into dusk and finally night as players wander the landscape. He seemed genuinely impressed by the game’s use of sophisticated visual cues to immerse players in its fantasy world. (If you’ve played Red Dead Redemption, just imagine what the experience might be like in 3D.)

Rockstar dodged Schrader’s second question, about how much it cost to make the game, and what its projected grosses were. Rowan Hajaj, head of finance & corporate development at Rockstar Games in New York, cited a corporate policy of no comment on such stuff, but it was clear that the answer to both questions was, “a lot.” The movie business and the videogame industry have been, to date, very much separate walled kingdoms with little creative cross-pollination, despite the efforts of A-list filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to get involved. But events like this one raise questions about the future. Might we be entering an era of increased crossover between adventurous filmmaking types and developers of interactive entertainment?