Rockstar’s sequel to the 2010 game, Red Dead Redemption, was possibly 2018’s biggest release and had fans hyped to dive back into the wild western world. The first game made a huge impact on me personally, so I was excited to jump into number two. On release, the game seemed to divide fan opinion, and like many people, I found myself unable to really connect with it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a huge, beautiful world filled with diverse characters. It follows the story of lifelong outlaw Arthur Morgan as he gradually begins to rethink his life and attempt to leave behind a positive impact on the world when faced with his own mortality. It is a narrative game with a stunning ope world to explore. On paper, it ticks all of the boxes that I want in a game, but in practice something was missing. After a lot of thought, I think I now understand what.
It’s a common thing that players need to suspend their disbelief when playing games. It is also a common occurrence for certain games to suffer from ludo-narrative dissonance, the idea that the narrative tries to present one thing while the gameplay mechanics show the opposite. The current aim of many AAA games is realism. Realistic graphics and characters that players can relate to. Games want to be movies even though movies already exist as a separate medium, and will often do everything they can to distance themselves from the interactivity and potentials of the gaming medium to chase Hollywood trends. But where games such as Naughty Dog properties such as Uncharted and The Last of Us try to achieve this by being linear experiences with a heavy focus on cutscenes, Red Dead Redemption 2 attempts it by the hyper-realisation of its gameplay.
Several people have pointed out the obvious examples of this such as the detailed but time consuming animations that play after every action such as looting, or how whistling to summon your horse only works if you are within hearing range of your horse, or how most of your weapons are stashed on your horse and need to be manually collected and equipped from there before you can use them. These are all realistic things yet they create roadblocks between the player and their engagement with the game. Being able to quickly search bodies or pull out any weapon when needed are quality of life improvements that most games accept as something necessary for facilitating the enjoyment of playing games. In most games, your character is a walking armoury who carries more than would ever be possible, while your horse is only ever a button press away. In The Witcher 3, you could leave Roach on an island a hundred miles from your current position, but she’ll always be back at your side within seconds. Is it realistic? No. Is it convenient? Very much so, yes.
But the problem of realism runs deeper in RDR2, seeping into the core aspects of the world design and narrative. As mentioned, the world is massive, and everywhere you look could be a desktop wallpaper for how stunning the vistas are, but the more I played, the more I felt that this was a detriment to the game. It is a beautiful world, but it is also an empty one. Sure, there are plenty of cool things to find, but it is all spaced so far apart and can be difficult to spot. Games like The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild have nailed open world design by rewarding exploration. I never felt lost in Hyrule, even without a map, because there is a constant chain of interesting things to find. Clime a mountain then spot a stone circle that leads you into a cavern where you see a dragon fly past which takes you over a bridge to a statue, each place rewarding you with Korok seeds or cool items to help you on your adventure. The Witcher 3 has a similar, though less seamless, world design where you are never traveling for more than five minutes without stumbling across something cool.
RDR2’s wild west is empty and quiet. You spend a long time traversing the countryside of the world while just soaking up the atmosphere. If you do stumble across one of the many secrets of the world, it’s mostly luck or determination since the scale of the world is so large that little things are so easily missed. Exploration often feels like it punishes the player too. Smoke from a campfire in most games is a sign to investigate, but in RDR2 it is the more realistic sight of another traveler sitting in their camp. Approach them and they threaten to shoot you. Wander around and find yourself in an ambush, and with the clunky controls of the game, it is all to easy to die suddenly. Find an abandoned shack and explore it only to get an apple for your effort. The world feels real, but real is often boring.
The scale of the world also bleeds into the narrative. With a map so massive, the developers needed to utilise it in some way, so the story centres around your gang’s escape from the federal law enforcement. You run from one camp to another, slowly working your way across the map as the story progresses. Because of this you never really feel connected to any one place and aren’t given the time to become really familiar with any one area. This further pushes the empty feeling of the world since the player isn’t given the time to feel attached or knowledgeable to the settling like is seen with smaller, more intimate maps in other games.
Speaking of the narrative, RDR2’s narrative is all theme, no story. What is the story of RDR2? A man who has done a lot of bad in his life tries to right those wrongs in an evolving world where his way of life is being completely erased. It is a game about the death of the wild west and the redemption of the protagonist. These are powerful themes that the first game was also built around, but that’s all they are: themes. RDR1 is a story about a man hunting down his former friends in order to save his family. The goal and objectives to achieve it are clearly laid out and the motivation is obvious and relatable. Players can relate to wanting to protect loved ones, so John Marston’s journey is one that we are easily invested in and want to see him succeed at.
What is Arthur’s story? What are his motivations? He was raised as an outlaw so never really chose the lifestyle, and has spent his life following Dutch’s ambitions. He doesn’t really have any of his own. Since he was raised to do bad things from a young age, his redemptive arc also feels slightly hollow and is more of a realisation that there are other ways he can choose to live rather than an inner conflict between someone who chose to do evil and now wishes to do good. The whole game is spent with Arthur following orders without any real stake in anything. The first half of the game is just Arthur following orders, and even in the second half, he still doesn’t have a goal in mind beyond doing right by people to clear his own conscience. Again, it’s realistic for people not to have a grand overarching goal in life, most of us coast by just trying to make ends meet, but as a character in a piece of entertainment, audiences require something that they can get invested in and support. It is only at the end of the game when Arthur decides that he will get John out of the gang so he and his family can live happy lives that he really has a clear purpose that the player can get invested in.
This issue carries through to most of the side characters too. For game game that places such an emphasis on the gang and their little community, I never felt a real connection with most of them. Maybe there are snippets of dialogue here and there that fill in their stories, but mostly they seemed like bland characters caught up in Dutch’s vision, just like Arthur. They’re just normal people doing what they can to survive, people like you might meet in the real world in those circumstances. And if you had the time to really engage with them, this might work, but I found that for as much focus as the game wanted me to place on the members of the gang, it was mostly just lip service. For the most part they had a few words to say around camp, or were in the middle of a firefight. Most of the characters don’t have narrative arcs, and you don’t get the time to bond with them enough to make their individual paths have an impact on the player. The characters of RDR1 can be very cartoony, but they are memorable. I can remember more about Seth from the first game, which I haven’t played since release, than I can about most members of the gang in RDR2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 tries to be deep and wide simultaneously in a realistic manner and simply doesn’t manage it because realism isn’t entertaining in an interactive medium. Game design is a balancing act between character, narrative, world, and mechanics. In Breath of the Wild, Link isn’t really a character, and the narrative is barely existant, but the world is fun to explore and the mechanics are interesting and engaging, synergising well with the open world exploration. God of War has incredibly strong characters, Dark Souls has super tight mechanics, and some of the worlds in Final Fantasy games are beyond belief. Realism needs to be balanced with fun and engagement for a fulfilling gaming experience.
Most days spent playing RDR2 involved me riding along a dusty road without a purpose in mind. It is a slow paced game, and I did begin to appreciate it. I’d make camp at night, cook up food to refill my stats, and just enjoy the journey rather than the destination. But then the game counters this with ambushes and brutal story scenes as you mow down hundreds of dudes and lose friends. I found myself reluctant to play story missions because they tended to be generic and unhappy. I didn’t have a strong character motivation or narrative thread to encourage me to play on. I knew there was no happy ending and the gameplay is clunky and frustrating. The game wants to show off its locations and characters, but also rushes through them to get to the next set piece. The game wore me down and made progressing feel like a stressful chore without any rewards. Arthur actually grows weaker as the game progresses, the community of the gang breaks down and becomes despondent, and the idea that you can break free and live a happy life is non-existant. This is all realistic, but it doesn’t make for a compelling gaming session after a tiring day.
I think on reflection that I would have enjoyed RDR2 if it was either a smaller, narrative focused game, or a looser open world to immerse myself in. A dark, hopeless tone is better suited to shorter experiences, and I’d have loved to spend more time with the character to get to know them rather than all of the non-related side stuff. The scale is too wide to be deep, and the focus on realism drains away the very concept of fun that could have propped up the other aspects of the game.
Games are a form of escapism, and while they can be utilised to tell serious and realistic stories, to focus on realism at the expense of engagement and fun is to produce art without the true soul of the medium. Games can be art, but we still play them, and to play is to interact and be entertained.