Red Dead Redemption is a western action-adventure game played from a third-person perspective. Players control John Marston, and complete missions—linear scenarios with set objectives—to progress through the story. Outside of missions, players may freely roam the open world. Players interact with the environment and engage in combat with enemies, using various firearms. Different breeds of horses are the main forms of transportation, each with different attributes. These horses must be tamed in order to use them. Marston can utilize trains for quick travelling, but he can also stop the train by threatening or killing the passengers or driver. The game’s undeveloped land makes up the largest portion of the game world, featuring various rugged and vast landscapes with occasional travelers, bandits, and wildlife. Urban settlements range from isolated farmhouses to crowded towns. Besides the American West, the player can also traverse a fictional Mexican state bordering the United States.
In addition to following the main storyline, the player character will witness and can take part in random events they encounter as they explore the game world. These include public hangings, ambushes, pleas for assistance, encounters with strangers, ride-by shootings, and dangerous animal attacks. For example, if a group of people ride into town firing guns in the air, Marston can kill them, and will receive a bonus of honor and fame for protecting the town. The player character can also take part in optional side activities, most of which give the player money. These side activities include dueling, in which the player character must be a faster draw than their opponent; bounty hunting, where Marston can hunt down bounties on wanted posters; herb collecting, which involves gathering exotic plants from around the game map for town medics; gambling, where people can be found playing games such as poker and Five Finger Fillet; and hunting, in which the player can kill wild animals and skin their hides.
Red Dead Redemption makes use of a morality system where players have the ability to gain positive or negative honor. Honor can be gained by making morally positive choices, such as taking in an outlaw alive or saving a woman from a kidnapping. The player character’s overall honor standard is lowered for committing crimes or other negative choices. This works in conjunction with another system, fame, which affects how people react based on Marston’s honor status. If Marston has little honor, non-player characters will feel insecure around him. If he has a high amount of honor, other characters will usually greet him and feel safe around him. He will also receive discounts in some stores, more pay for jobs and other bonuses. A very low honor rating can result in a town’s establishments closing their doors when Marston arrives. To combat this he can disguise himself by wearing a bandana when performing criminal acts; alternatively, a very negative or criminal reputation warrants the player a large amount of respect and steep discounts from bandits and fencers at criminal hideouts, such as Thieves’ Landing.