Gallery: Red Dead Redemption 2 First Screenshots
“The guests don’t¬†return because of the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be. The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”
~ Dr. Robert Ford, “Westworld”
What a strange game¬†Red Dead Redemption 2¬†is, and I mean that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m having a love/hate affair with Rockstar’s latest masterpiece, and I’m okay with that. Mostly.
On the one hand, I find my jaw dropping constantly at the beauty of the game’s vast, sweeping frontier. On the other hand, I feel oddly confined by its missions and structure.
I find myself alternating between a sense of awe at the scope of it all—the gorgeous music, the snow-swept peaks and sprawling forest—and a sense of dread at having to search another cabin or loot another field of corpses.
I’m puzzled by the weird systems, the lack of fast travel back to camp (though there’s a workaround, sort of) the ungainliness of the controls, the slow pace and tedium.
Then I find myself cackling in delight at its humor. The drinking scene with Lenny was brilliant and hilarious. The dialogue and acting are so good at times I find myself completely sucked in. It’s not only one of the best video games ever made, it’s one of the best Westerns ever made, and I don’t mean just video game Westerns. It’s an epic masterpiece and a frustrating slog all at the same time.
What a strange, wonderful game.
I like that Rockstar isn’t pulling punches here. I like that they do have a strong authorial voice. I’m happy that this isn’t just a generic open world game like so many others, and that it’s filled with so many decidedly different mechanics than we’ve seen in past Rockstar titles.
But I hate that I have to walk across the camp so slowly. I hate that so many times this game railroads us into doing exactly what it wants rather than letting us explore freely. I want more of that¬†Deus Ex¬†freedom to approach everything on my own terms. I want more of that glorious¬†Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild¬†system-based gameplay that rewards experimentation and freedom.¬†BotW¬†gives you a set of tools and a sandbox to play in, then sets you free. Trial and error is that game’s most fundamental mechanic.
Of course, in that game I wanted perhaps just a little more narrative.¬†Maybe what I really want is something in-between both of these extremes. Something with a strong story and great characters that still gives me the freedom to really explore and experiment with game systems.
I think Jeff Grubb does a great job summing up the problem with the game’s¬†confining structure when he compares it to¬†Westworld:
I‚Äôve seen a lot of people compare Red Dead Redemption 2 to the HBO sci-fi drama¬†West World. And while I know it‚Äôs passe to even bring up that show in relationship to Red Dead Redemption 2, I think it‚Äôs important to note that this game is nothing like¬†West World.
Both are intricate cuckoo clocks with authored stories, but that‚Äôs not why people go to¬†the West World theme park. They go to it because they can affect it. The robot characters that make up the attraction have deep systems that respond and react to the decisions of the player characters. That enables unique experiences to emerge out of the authored stories.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn‚Äôt have that.
This is a great point. Obviously we’re nowhere near the technological advancement of¬†Westworld’s¬†fiction, but we can still strive for that kind of narrative-systems storytelling that only video games can really achieve. Rockstar hews too closely to a more rigid storytelling approach here. I want a longer leash. Perhaps that will be what¬†Red Dead Online¬†is all about.
Grubb also points out that mechanics like searching drawers and cabinets¬†aren’t just tedious,¬†they’re immersion-breaking. The realism of the action is belied by how unrealistic it actually is when you really think about it.
He discusses one of the opening moments in the game after your first shootout with an enemy gang when Dutch tells Morgan to go search the house:
[T]he game comes to a halt so Morgan can slowly open each drawer one by one. When you find an item you can take, you pick it up slowly and delicately. And then you do the same thing with anything else you find in the same drawer.
It is a painfully laborious process, but worse ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs not how I look through drawers […]
When I search for my keys or something, it‚Äôs a messy process where I move things around haphazardly with two hands. And that‚Äôs in my own home. If I were looting some shack in the middle of the mountains after killing a bunch of rival gang members, I‚Äôm not going to slowly hold up a pack of cigarettes like it‚Äôs some precious possession. I‚Äôm going to tear the drawers out and mess them up looking for anything valuable.
Immersion is a funny word when it comes to video games. Certainly the lovely mountains, the footprints in snow, the mud on your coat—all these things create a sense of being in that world. But it’s still a game and there’s always going to be a fine line between what matters for the game and what matters for our sense of immersion.
For instance, Rockstar uses your horse’s saddlebag to store weapons, limiting the number you can carry on your person at any given time and requiring you to swap them out at your horse instead. That’s immersive, sure, but as my colleague Paul Tassi pointed out recently, you can still carry tons of bottles and canned goods around—far more than realism dictates:
Red Dead 2’s issues with gameplay vs. realism are interesting. Like sure it makes sense to store weapons on your horse rather than carrying around a million with you, and yet they’re still cool with storing 11 bottles of whiskey and thirty pounds of food in my little pouch
‚ÄĒ Paul Tassi (@PaulTassi) October 29, 2018
Where to strike the balance is up for debate. I will say, I prefer quick-looting to realistic looting. I’d rather be able to just click a button and move on when I skin an animal than see the animation play out. I’d rather be immersed in the game’s vistas and story than in its every minutia. But where to draw the line(s)?
Red Dead Redemption 2¬†is such a cool, funky,¬†avant garde¬†game, at once a massive AAA blockbuster and bucking so much of what makes AAA games popular. I kind of love that about it. It feels like an indie game in some respects, but with a massive budget and sales to match.
I have a long ways yet to travel in¬†Red Dead Redemption 2.¬†I’m excited for the journey and dreading it all at once. Like travelling a very long distance. It’s exciting, but sitting in airports and long flights is draining. There is much of that in¬†Red Dead Redemption 2,¬†though it’s riding on horseback and slogging through camp rather than airports and flights.
I’ve yet to really make up my mind about this game, obviously enough, not entirely anyways. I love it and it frustrates me to no end. And that’s okay. I used to watch old Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies as a kid a lot, and even if¬†Red Dead Redemption 2¬†isn’t the groundbreaking release we hoped for, it’s still the best possible cowboy game I’ve ever played.
That has to count for something.