I bought Red Dead Redemption 2 the day it came out, and I’m one of 17 million people to have bought it within the first two weeks of its release. The game made nearly three quarters of a billion dollars within its first three days. For perspective, Avengers: Endgame made $1.2 billion in its opening weekend. We’re likely just a few years away from seeing a video game overtake a movie for largest opening weekend, or weekend equivalent since games tend to release on Tuesdays. All this is to say that titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 are industry-defining, and will surely set precedents for other developers – precedents I’m worried about.
I started playing the game the night it came out, not the day because it took about eight hours for my PS4 to download it. I played for a couple hours and was flabbergasted by how beautiful the game is. Every single aspect of the game’s world has been designed with the utmost respect to detail. Every blade of grass on a dusty hill, every branch hidden deep within a forest, every follicle of rabbit fur feels like it was created with the intention of me stopping and admiring its unfathomable artistry. The graphics are impressive to the point where I wasn’t even sure how it was possible for a simple, five year old PS4 to run it. I felt that in the beginning, and I still feel it every time I boot up the game.
I don’t boot up the game often.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most impressive painting of a fruit bowl ever made. The brush strokes and colours are unmatched, and yet you step back to admire the piece and…it’s just a bowl of fruit. I suppose now is a good time to explain what the fruits are. RDR2 is set in 1899, right around the time the “Wild West” lifestyle is starting to get tired and pathetic. You play as Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in his mid-40s who rides with Dutch van der Linde’s gang. Dutch’s crew is a group of 20 or so outlaws, women, and children who drift from place to place looking for the next big score. While the rest of the world is out industrializing and revolutionizing, Dutch and his gang are robbing people at gunpoint, a last attempt at making a name for themselves before the times change for good. Arthur starts off unquestioningly loyal to the morally deteriorating Dutch due to their history: Dutch effectively adopted a 14 year old Arthur following his parents’ deaths, making him something of a son to the gang leader.
The game may seem story focused at first, but once the first couple hours are completed, RDR2 allows you to roam around Southern America as you please. And what, exactly, can you do in this gargantuan open world? Well! You can fish, hunt, discover dinosaur fossils, gather flora, meet curious strangers along the road, fight O’Driscolls, set up camp and cook some meat, shave, get a haircut, buy a dapper suit, buy a new gun that looks the exact same as your old one, clean your filthy gun, have a bath, pet your horse, play poker, play dominoes, play blackjack, do that knife thing where you stab between your fingers, hunt bounties, and – this is listed on the Wiki but I don’t think I’ve personally come across this option – do chores. Obviously, there’s an absurd amount of stuff to do in RDR2. So much stuff. Is any of it fun? Eh, not really. Not to me, at least. I enjoy the occasional game of dominoes or poker, but the rest just seems like busywork. The problem is, it’s there, it’s in the game, and that means my brain has to keep telling me to do everything; to cross everything off the imaginary checklist. This resulted in me becoming entirely overwhelmed, and it was the main reason I so seldom played over the past year.
A couple months ago I had an idea: I said to my brain, I said, brain, what if I just ignore the unnecessary side stuff? What if I focus exclusively on the story and characters many have called the best in video game history? And my brain said fine, I can deal with that compromise as long as you take a coding class this semester and, well, now look where we are. So I boot up RDR2 and make a beeline for the closest story mission. It’s a long way away. I hop on my horse and begin the journey. It’s early morning, and fog is casting glorious godrays on me and my horse. Along the way, an escaped prisoner runs up to me, begging me to shoot his chains off. He says he can compensate me greatly! But I ignore him. Further down the road, I see two suspicious men whispering about a safe. I’m tempted, but I ignore them, too. I hear an explosion as I pass, so it seems like I may have made the right choice. It was a long, boring journey, but I’ve finally made it to my destination. What does Dutch have in store for us today? Ah, yikes, seems like one of the gang’s children has been kidnapped; I should probably see what that’s all about. So I ride my horse into town and I find out it’s some powerful mob boss named Angelo. He says he’ll return the kid if I run some errands or something, I don’t remember, I think I had to pick up groceries or drop his kid off at school or something. Afterwards, I grab the kid then I ride my horse back to Dutch’s hideout to get my next mission. This is when my brain started to have some serious reservations about our new methodology. It turns out, Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually, shockingly, mind numbingly boring and substanceless.
Nevertheless, I planned to rob a bank the next day. It’s supposed to be this huge setpiece that serves as a climax to the first half of the game, and I was getting excited. Finally, all this tedious slogging I was doing for no reason other than that the game requires me to will pay off. Dutch rounds up every outlaw we’ve got and we’re off to the bank, our first hit in a big city. A big explosion is set off a couple blocks away, causing a diversion. Me, Dutch, and a couple other outlaws enter the bank, guns drawn, and immediately start yelling at everyone to get down. A manager starts frantically opening the safe. I grab some money, but the cops show up and suddenly it’s the biggest shootout yet. I pull out my shotgun – wait, where’s my pistol gone? Whatever, I’ll worry about that later – and start going to town on the cops. I’m out of ammo when Dutch calls me over to set up some dynamite; our only means of escape. I stick the stick to a wall and Dutch says “shoot that dynamite!” and this is the moment Red Dead Redemption 2 revealed itself as more than just boring – it’s a failure of game design.
I’m out of bullets. For whatever reason the game has glitched out and removed my pistol, so I’m SOL. I can’t go outside and grab ammo; the normal prompt is disabled for this mission. There’s nothing else to do, so I do what every gamer would do in this situation: I try to die. I stand in front of a shattered window, fully exposed, and wait for the cops to gun me down. I wait. And wait. A stray bullet catches me in the side, but it looks like my health doesn’t even take a hit. I’m watching about 20 cops with infinite ammo taking aim at me, a man with no ammo nor a will to live, and missing every single shot. The game won’t let me die here, I realize. In a game where I can run around a sweeping open world and do countless activities, I’m trapped in a claustrophobic bank, my character immune to nothing but the pleasure of mortality. All the agency I had out in the open world is engulfed by a story that railroads you to exactly where it wants you to go, and any deviation is met with failure or worse. This isn’t a game, it’s a roller coaster at Disneyworld. I can shoot, I can get shot, but I follow the exact same path everyone else does. This is a failure of game design, and the antithesis of the game’s other aspects, the exact aspects I sought to ignore. Those plentiful, menial activities: Nothing but distractions from the fact that RDR2 doesn’t respect you.
The illusion of choice is an idea games have touched on before, most notably in Bioshock with its brilliant narrative twisting the idea of player agency. It’s a commentary on the fact that so many games give you a mission marker and say go here, go there, but the player never bothers to ask why. The only “why” RDR2 makes me ask is “why the hell am I still playing this game?” Back when I was still trying to accomplish all the little activities around the world, I always felt like I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was free to explore the incredible world at my leisure, and the game never made me do otherwise. What I was doing was never particularly fascinating, but it was what I wanted to do, not the game. I liked that. I love good linear games like the Uncharted series because those games are designed specifically with the knowledge of how a player will feel at every moment. This knowledge allows them to manipulate the game like it’s a movie, and tune it to get the biggest player reaction possible at every setpiece. RDR2 offers you complete freedom for so long that you get used to it, then as soon as you begin a story mission it rips that freedom out from under you and forces you behind a single wall for five minutes while mindless enemies charge you. Uncharted doesn’t pretend it’s anything grander; it wants you to feel like you’re playing an Indiana Jones-style quest and it does so perfectly. RDR2 tries to balance freedom of activity and movie-style gameplay, but has no clue what that balance must involve. You go from being able to ride your horse to any point you choose in the distance to failing a mission the second you get too far away from the rest of the gang. It’s jarring and disrespectful to the player’s intelligence, to say the least.
I haven’t even talked about Guarma yet. I’m not even going to bother pouring over its multitude of problems, I’m just going to introduce it then rip it apart: Following the botched bank robbery you wash up on the island of Guarma, disoriented and probably concussed. It’s a cutscene until a prompt shows up: Walk. So you hold the left joystick to walk forward. The game picks the direction and camera angle for you, so all you can do is walk. It’s a wonderful way to make the player feel like a teenager whose parents still clap every time they take a step. It’s also a perfect – if hyperbolic – expression of how it feels to play RDR2’s story mode: A repetitive, dictative experience that treats the player like they aren’t capable of thinking for themselves, something the player almost certainly proved outside of the story mode. Games are about creativity, discovery, and problem solving, but RDR2 doesn’t seem to understand that the player wants to do those things themselves. That’s why we play games in the first place.
RDR2’s story missions are the anti-game. Imagine a TV show where every episode includes the exact same “epic” shootout with bad guys except it’s set in a slightly different (beautiful) location each time. You’d stop watching after episode two. I’m just past halfway through RDR2 and I can finally, confidently say that I regret my time with it. The characters are fine (but wildly overrated), the game is a monumental technical achievement, but it is, at its core, a video game that does not understand the nuances of its own medium, and it should never be looked upon as a paragon of storytelling.