I've played thousands of games over the years. And only once has a game ever given me a bonafide outbreak of goosebumps. Head-to-toe. It was during this past console generation, and it was while I was riding a horse.
If you've played Red Dead Redemption, you already know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, let me set the scene.
Red Dead Redemption is a game about a man on an epic quest, to both atone for past misdeeds and also to save his family. Your journey takes you all over the American West, from dusty one-horse saloons to bustling, modern towns emerging into the 20th century.
It's a long, lonely ride. But there's one point in the game where it gets very lonely. See, in the opening sections, you're always working with someone, or around other people. Your hand is being held as you learn the ropes and get started on your adventure.
But after those initial encounters are over, you're off to Mexico. That's not the next town over. That's the next country over, which in those days may as well have been an intercontinental flight. Gone are your comrades, your instructors, your easy beginning to the world of Red Dead Redemption.
You're alone. Far from home. With nothing but the shirt on your back and the horse under your butt.
And then this song begins to play.
Called Far Away, it's by Swedish folk singer José González.
From the haunting guitar to the melancholy vocals, it's perfect. In an incredibly rare moment in gaming, you're being manipulated not by explosions, or camera angles, or a flow of enemies, but by a...song.
It's Rockstar's cinematic ambitions reaching their zenith.
I mean, it's so simple. In terms of gameplay, you're just riding a horse towards a waypoint. That's what you spend 90% of the rest of the game doing. But the narrative context, and the perfect choice of song, transform something mundane into something truly emotional.
It's the perfect microcosm of Rockstar's catalogue, from Bully to Grand Theft Auto. Chaotic, confused, violent and often broken games elevated into classics through a deft use of wit, style and soundtrack.
Following the success of Red Dead Redemption's use of the trick - it repeats it to lesser success towards the end of the game - Rockstar tried it again several times throughout Grand Theft Auto V, most notably during Michael's return to the Midwest.
No doubt they'll use it again in future titles. But they'll never make an impact like they did on that lonely ride into Mexico.
Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku's look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we'll be celebrating the Heroes—and the Zeroes—of the last eight years of console video gaming. More details can be found here; follow along with the series here.