Cowboy Zirconia In A Plastic Ring Pop; Dazzled By The Pow-Pow Glamour
of Red Dead Redemption 2

jakec / 14112018

Red Dead Redemption 2 is Westworld. Who’s Dolores in this analogy? The player. First, you marvel at the world. Then, you notice the reflections aren't quite reflections. Things feel almost as heavy or as light as they should, but only almost. People repeat themselves, unaware. Finally, you set out to murder absolutely everyone, because nothing here matters. Finally, you believe you're exercising your freedom, but really you've just begun a new narrative written for you. “These violent delights have violent ends,” which was Shakespeare predicting Rockstar Games’ new Homerian epic and the fact that although it’s sold on its apparently infinite expanse, sooner or later, everyone reaches the end of the maze.

The trappings here are delicious genre gristle. You are Arthur Morgan, one gravel-munchin’ sumbitch who’s seen the light go from so many eyeballs he’s beginning to lose sight of it himself. Lead by the charismatic Dutch (a man’s name, if you can believe it, and not the people of the Netherlands), you are one among a group of gunslingers and free women on the run from the law. A job went south in the fictional town of Blackwater and now the Pinkertons are aimin’ to gun you down. After, maybe, losing them in the mountains, your errant family finds itself in southern North America in the year of our great Lord 1899. Civilisation is coming to the New World thick and fast, leaving little room for dangerous libertines — even well-meaning ones. Maybe you can live out the remaining days of lawlessness on the few dirt roads left here on the not-quite-frontier. Oops! You can’t.

This premise earned more money its opening weekend than any other entertainment product in history. We measure things in these terms. Somewhere, another large ‘W’ is marked next to Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser’s name.

The prologue drops you in the world with a trail towards a series of One Last Jobs in the hope of stealing enough to retire. You can follow these leads, but you can also fish, hunt, play poker, stick up shops, murder, see the country by train, and do other things resembling a real life. You can pat dogs. You can take baths. You can eat stew and chat up your camp mates. Enthusiastic game-enjoyers crave banal experiences like these to tell them it’s not just a game they’re enjoying; it’s a world. As a human who spent more of my thousands of hours in World of Warcraft gathering herbs and making bags than doing anything else, I relate.

To these violent ends, Rockstar has summoned something resembling life into a golem of excruciating detail. The studio is known for its god-like aspirations, so much so that the Westworld showrunners were inspired by Red Dead Redemption: The First as well as Grand Theft Auto in conceptualising the beyond-a-game world of the series.

There are too many examples to list although they’re hungrily reported in the subreddit. My favourite was one redditor posting a tip for a particularly good fishing spot, another replying saying they’re from Alaska and fish a lot and that geography is actually where fish would be and why, and the OP saying “I’m Alaskan too, that’s why I checked this place out originally.” Whoever spent their 100 hour work week learning everything there is to learn about the migration habits of hinterlands fish is relishing these threads.

The jury is out on whether the same detail applies to the world’s human population. Frankensteinian tragics, everyone is perfectly hospitable right up until the second they reveal their terminal brain disease and do something inhospitable, if not downright self-destructive. They are determined, for example, to draw down on your superhuman deathbringer for no greater slight than bumping into them on the way through town. Sometimes, it be the other way: you will go to get on your horse and Arthur will have a full body spasm, tackling some bystander to the ground in front of a police station and leaving you to pick up the pieces.

This has the effect of making the player less the inhabitant of Arthur Morgan’s pineal ghost, more a babysitter condemned to manage the lifespan of a homicidal toddler on the warpath towards a nap. You hope one day he just might grow into a fine man, but you doubt he’ll live long enough.

You can also wear a skull mask. This almost makes up for anything else.

There are complaints that the population are too wary and bounties are awarded upon your avatar too easily. But Rockstar have really baked into this system the long-running sort-of-joke of playing GTA and abiding the road rules. Those games never incentivised abiding laws (except with psychic armies of cops that will kamikaze their squad cars into you by the carrier full just to snag that collar) but Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a world where causing even slight rot on the civilised face of society bears expensive fruits. Some of the criticism supposes the FUN in this game is located between how many heads I can cherry pop in five seconds and how cool I can look doing it. The game as it is wagers that fun has moved to a different county: the margins between building heaven (via the capitalist machinery encroaching on the lawless and liberated West at the time of the game’s setting) and raising hell. The sheriff doesn’t care who drew first, just that there’s you with a six-shooter, a body on the ground, and a bunch of folks now too scared to be buying drinks and pawing women. That’s just bad for business, pardnah.

There are slightly Deadwoodian moments littered through this game, but no Al Swearengen to offer prayers for the dead and half-price pussy.

Life is cheap on the frontier. So cheap folks will embrace the opportunity to die over a breach of etiquette, and sometimes just for mistaking your intentions. There are a ridiculous number of possible interactions you can have with the world, but no “Sorry I accidentally shot my pistol in town while trying to pat my horse.” The gulf of ambiguity provokes bystanders to react with the limited set of emotions with which they’ve been programmed: silence the noisemaker with lethal haste.

Some antipodean can let me know if I’m way off base here. I’ve seen videos that suggest this isn’t an entirely un-American way of dealing with disturbance. But I get the sense this is more the case of marvelling at the breadth of the ocean before diving in and getting a mouthful of mud two inches beneath the surface. Don’t feed me the tagline and tell me I’m immersed. I know what real life looks like, baby, and it’s the exam revision I put off to write this essay. I am engrossed, though, and this is an important distinction.

Part of this is on the control scheme. The combinations of buttons required to allow so many possible interactions is confusing and sometimes inconsistent. There are a few defined action buttons, but what they do changes; sometimes you’ll choke someone to death instead of opening a box. The only way to get around this is to keep an eye on the legend in the lower right corner. Awaiting a list of instructions from the game feels less than the most reactive way to be in the world.

Some things are elaborate for inscrutable reasons. The hunting system, for example. The minigame hungers for pelts and other viscera and tempts you to satisfy its lust with something vaguely resembling Real Hunting. As in, you Follow Tracks, and anything less than the cleanest of kills will degrade your flesh harvest from Pristine to merely Good (or, gulp, even Poor.) These ratings are denoted by stars (three for pristine, two good, one poor) but it’s unclear why. Why not diamonds? Why not different colours? If this seems pedantic to you, note that We (the human race) have collectively agreed that rating this game anything less than Literally Perfect is warrant for mass harassment; if Red Dead Redemption 2’s perfection is the hill we’re dying on, I’d like to see a little more design. Even at the expense of polish.

What any of these metrics mean is sort of anybody’s guess; the game is inconsistent with how much its tooltips give away, so you’re left to suppose some animals take their vitamins in the morning while others roam the same countryside on six-day meth benders, and you might glean that the latter are the ones to avoid (your tailor will only accept the freshest of skin frocks (this is not a joke; anything less than Pristine is useless to the game’s crafting system (is this a conservation metaphor? (thus encouraging that only the most mangey survive, I guess.))))

In this way you’re encouraged to hunt with a bow and arrow instead of shotgun blasting every deer in gory-glorious slow-motion — you know, like you could in a lesser game. The hunting system tricks you into perceiving a causal link between having The Right Stuff vis a vis I Nailed That Deer Right In The Eyeball and earning the evergreen satisfaction of Phat Loot. But David Hume would say all you did was press a button, and at some point, you also received loot of the phat variety. And for once, he’d be right. To pile on the analogies like so many skins on the back of one’s belaboured horse: Red Dead Redemption 2 makes you feel like you could hunt for real in the way Guitar Hero at first made you believe you could be Herman Li for real. The truth is, you can’t get hair tonic IRL; Li grew that shit himself.

What you can get is a basket full of extraneous gear meant to burden the minigame with the weight of realistic concerns. Like: different baits for different predators (carnivores or herbivores (no omnivore bait listed; it was the 1800s)) and a lotion that covers your scent. The upper left hand corner of the screen will scroll through several pages of tooltips in order, cementing these accoutrements as necessary for any faux-real hunter-player. You wanna kill that black-tailed jackrabbit The Best? Lather up, sonny, and make sure you activate Eagle Eye (a sort of neutral slow-motion detective vision power in contrast to the slow-motion shooting vision Dead Eye power uh wait isn’t this meant to be realistic am I a super-cowboy or wait uh never mind.) And check you’re down wind of the varmint else he’ll smell ya and high tail it plus make sure you craft some Small Game Arrows at your camp for which you’ll need shotgun shells for some reason and make sure right before you loose the Small Game Arrow you press X to Call the animal so it’ll raise its head for a second so you can get it square in the cranium.

That way when you watch Arthur Morgan’s gruesome anus-yanking skinning of this former oxygen-breathing ecology-feeding creature of Earth, it’ll be for the promise of a new pair of gloves, and not just 15 cents and a snide remark on your talent for spoiling game.

You can also ignore most of this, sprinting the countryside like a maniac video game character instead of an honest-to-goodness outdoorsperson, spittling the woods with your arrows, and hustling corpses back to your horse with the grit of a Survivor contestant playing for the family visit. A lot was made in the early press that Red Dead Redemption 2 forces you to take it slow. In reality this amounts to watching small cutscenes where Arthur Morgan rifles through every homicide victim’s pockets, an innovation the Assassin’s Creed franchise already visited and since abandoned.

Every time Arthur Morgan loots a body, he does it in exactly the same way, in the same amount of time. Between the 15th and 20th time watching this prettified slideshow, you remember you’re playing a video game.

And sometimes you get fun bugs like this.

The design philosophy of the game itself is exposed through the hunting minigame, or at least the design’s flaws. A horniness for realism haunts how slowly Arthur opens cupboard doors, chugs beans, skins animals, cooks meat, bathes himself, etc. “Wow, he’s just as ponderous with his chores as I am!” is probably a sentence Rockstar had on a fluorescent flashcard pinned on a board headlined “Things We Want The Player To Say” (right under “Dude, I Freakin’ Blew That Dude’s Head Clean The Heck Off!”) But the ambition to mod the player’s expectations of reality into a 1:1 cowboy sim conflict everywhere with the constraints of video game making. Like: in some games (again Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher) you can call your horse from anywhere and it’ll teleport 20ft behind you and trot a little to catch up. This is a nice compromise that isn’t so immersion-breaking as it just snapping into existence in front of the avatar. In Red Dead Redemption 2, you have to be in whistling distance of your horse. It will run to you from there in real time. Just like a REAL horse! You can even brush your horse and feed it and pat it. This is a depth to pet interactions I haven’t invested so much in since Sonic Adventure 2.

But then there are these bars. Four of them. Each one is a level of Bond you have with your horse. Pet it, feed it, brush it enough and your Bond will go up one Level. When it goes up a Level it learns a new Skill, like rearing up, or strafing, or horse drifting(?) and so on. Every horse also has its own Attributes represented by more bars divided into several segments like Acceleration.

On the one hand, the game attempts to foster an organic relationship with a creature it wants you to believe is also organic. On the other hand, I’m playing Need For Speed: Underground chucking blue neons on my Lancer Evo. Feeling like I’m having a real moment with a real being is hard when these artefacts of gamedom are welded onto every interaction. Bizarrely, my real life bonds with organic creatures (“friends”) are actually the synthesis of a complex web of interactions weighted variably by the depth of shared experience. Uh, no matter how much I pat my friend Paddy, he still just likes me the same amount (I maxed out our Bond, I’m saying.)

Like hunting, the horse relationship is a minigame. So are the various gambling games (poker, blackjack, the knife game (which is essentially DDR here), dominoes). So are the random roadside encounters like saving a man from wolves or a snake bite or a bear trap, which are all the same thing (here is a defenceless person: press X to take advantage of them, press Y to not (except when it's press Y to take advantage of them and X to not.))

(The camp party is not a minigame; there is nothing to be scored. It is only to be explored and experienced. These are pure story beats and a sort of MDMA bump to caring about the other characters. They’re just as didactic, though.)

The most familiar minigame keeps its tally on a game-long scoreboard called Honor. This appears as a bar (always bars) at the bottom of your screen with a red to white gradient. This reputation precedes you. If your cowboy icon is too far in the red, you’re dishonorable. People will be less polite, more afraid. If it’s in the white, you’re honorable. People will be kind, shopkeepers will give you discounts, lawmen will shed a single star-spangled tear when you walk past as an emblem of these great United States. If we continue with the premise that Rockstar’s ambition for this game was realism, this is maybe the most flattening metric of all.

Understanding morality on a scale is an idea as old as Ancient Egypt, but it’s rarely how people experience it in real life. Some people commit acts so vile and traumatising that a lifetime of good won’t change someone’s mind; some people live a whole life of disgust yet still expect a donation to White Ribbon will absolve their public misogyny. Hell, sometimes it’s not even as grand as that. I don’t care how kind you are, if you pop your pimples in front of me, you’re dishonorable in my book, and I for sure will not give you a discount on my wares. Westworld adopts the video game-y notion that allowing a player to make choices that would be considered immoral in real life is revealing about their true selves. This is the old Bioshock conundrum of Kill The Little Girl For A Superpower or Don’t, Because, What The Fuck? Westworld’s showrunners also took influence from Bioshock and the acclaim for that game’s alleged moral decision-making has festered in too many games to count.

(These systems always conflate rudeness with sociopathic tendencies. I know some pathologically rude people, and they've displayed as little propensity for literally ending the life of another sentient creature as anybody polite. In the imagination of the video games industry, however, a sarcastic response inches you closer towards a full-blown incel breakdown. There is so much more to explore with this mechanic, but it doesn't look as good in screenshots as ultra-high textured grass.)

Non-coincidentally, the people alleging that these are Real Moral Choices are also the ones whose reason for living depends on you buying the fiction. That killing a little girl in a video game is the same as harboring a potential or fantasy to kill a little girl in real life is utterly ridiculous, and doing so, or not doing so, will tell you nothing about yourself. The struggle isn’t whether to be a homicidal maniac or not; the struggle is between believing this decision has meaning vs understanding that artificial parameters of a decision have been forced on you as the illusion of free will even as they remove your agency. In these situations, the only winning move is, literally, not to play, and further, to send a disappointed email to Ken Levine demanding he explain what he’s wrought on the video game industry re: these cheap shots at emotional manipulation.

Which is to say, when Natalie Portman says “I’ll kill yr fuckin’ dog for fun,” I don’t believe she wouldn’t also pat the Australian Shepherd at Emerald Station for hours because he’s just so darn cute.

Which is really to say, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be 34% better if it erased all of these bars and made these quantifiers invisible. Don’t give players the option to hide the minimap; delete it. Commit to a philosophy and go all the way in. Where the game hedges is where it underwhelms.

The overworld of Red Dead Redemption 2 reveals itself as an elaborate arcade. In an arcade, your play is confined to the games provided by the arcade. Try to make your own game out of the-floor-is-lava jumping from cabinet to cabinet, you’re liable to get kicked out. There are stringent rules on the type of play allowed.

Before I bought GTAIV in 2008, I read an anecdote online about someone getting into a fight with one of the game’s pedestrians. The pedestrian swung for the player and accidentally hit a cop, and the following sequence of events resulted in a block-wide faction war between the police, random mobsters, and hostile pedestrians that had been caught in the crossfire and aggroed into the scene. This is the anecdote that sold me on the game. It seemed like there were particular responses coded into NPC reactions — a pedestrian retaliating against the player. A cop retaliating against a pedestrian. A biker retaliating against whoever had just shot at him, whether player or NPC — but rather than elaborately scripted chaos, these responses were instead free to bounce off each other to create genuine chaos. Most of the time, you might smack a pedestrian in the back of the head and they’ll run away, or take a couple of weak shots at you. Maybe they’ll even accidentally clobber an officer and that officer will instantly shoot the pedestrian dead, restoring the peace. But sometimes, the game’s great experiment would blow up right the hell in the player’s face and create something unanticipated.

No doubt there’s a lot of shit to do in Red Dead Redemption 2. But it also feels like it’s exactly the same shit everyone else is doing too.

With scripting this rigid, Rockstar have taken the strange accidents out of open world games that transform them from memorable to special. They’ve removed the capability for events to spiral off their loop — for the game to make mistakes.

To keep hammering the nail: stomaching this would be easier if the game weren’t so insistent that it’s more than a game. This is an error of perception, but one the game-makers were eager to flog. Without it, Red Dead Redemption 2 is as much a triumph as The Witcher 3, the benchmark of open-world storytelling and gameplay. Hey: not bad!

Red Dead Redemption 2 is not even really Westworld. But in as much as it is, it’s Westworld before the start of the show. It leaves the player much like William, searching for an authentic experience in an inauthentic world. This game is a monumental achievement and players will marvel at how lifelike a storm sounds as it explodes over a ridge and how realistic a horse will buckle in the presence of danger. Uh, real quick before we wrap up: the best part of this game by country gosh darned miles is the sound design. Nothing has ever sounded this good and if Rockstar ever released their ambient sounds on record I’d gladly replace my go-to Rain Sounds playlist. But these marvels of reality only make where it falls short more apparent. It is too much like reality to be as unrealistic as it is. But it sure felt good to plug a hundred hours into.

Man, just listen to that storm.