Red Dead Redemption 2 is the biggest example ever of the old way of building video games. It builds on top Rockstar’s foundation, but it does nothing to shake up or question those underlying elements. I think it is the best game the developer has ever made, but it accomplishes that because it is also the “most game” Rockstar has ever made.
I’m enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2 (so is Dean, who wrote our review), but it’s also frequently disappointing. I was expecting something different. And I’m not talking about better controls — although I’d love that. What I mean is that I thought Rockstar would build a world that would react to players. But instead, the studio built an astronomical number of static, scripted events. And while that is impressive, I can’t help but feel like Red Dead Redemption 2 is stuck in the past.
Rockstar is also pointlessly chasing down realism and is trying to give players choice without building the systems that would truly make that work.
The uncanny valley of “realism”
Early in Red Dead Redemption 2, you and your gang defeat a rival band of outlaws. After the shooting ends, Dutch — your leader — orders you to ransack a nearby home. So you guide Arthur Morgan, the game’s hero, over to some drawers that look promising … and the 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 — it’s not how I look through drawers.
I get what Rockstar is going for with this. The searching animation looks lifelike. Morgan does not seem like some stiff robot like in a lot of other games. But as the person controlling Morgan, none of this feels lifelike to me.
When I search for my keys or something, it’s a messy process where I move things around haphazardly with two hands. And that’s 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’m not going to slowly hold up a pack of cigarettes like it’s some precious possession. I’m going to tear the drawers out and mess them up looking for anything valuable.
The problem is that the more animations you add to a character, the more I’m going to notice when it doesn’t match up with my experience. I think that’s why something like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey doesn’t even try to animate a lot of those kinds of actions.
To be clear, my problem here isn’t that searching through things is boring. It is. But the issue is that it doesn’t even accomplish the thing that Rockstar thinks it accomplishes. This isn’t realistic.
The paradox of choice
And you see the realism breakdown constantly. This is especially noticeable when it comes to player choice. Red Dead gives you more options than ever, and yet it is also constantly stifling me.
Interactions with animals and people are a major source of player choice in Red Dead Redemption 2. One of its most impressive features is that you can lock onto living things without pulling your gun out on them. You can then either choose to greet a person, antagonize them, or shoot them. I like this system in theory, but it doesn’t really give you that many more options for how to approach the world. And it makes me realize all the things I can’t do.
Sure, I can antagonize someone until they want to fight me, but I can’t greet them until they want to join me. At least I can’t through the first 20 hours. I can rob them, but I can’t bribe them, fool them into doing tasks for me, or get them to cause a distraction by lying to them.
Interacting with objects and buildings
A lot of the things that Rockstar has added to the game are very cool. It’s awesome that I have the option to hijack a train, kill all the guards, and then rob the passengers one by one. But then why can’t I also set the engine to top speed before jumping onto my horse so that the authorities have to try to stop a runaway train?
The paradox of choice is that the more options you give a player, the more they will notice that they can’t do certain things. And it’s not just big things. For example, Red Dead Redemption 2 has locked doors that you can’t open no matter what. You have all this choice, but Rockstar is going to decide for you about which doors work and which don’t. And many windows in the game are indestructible. So if you rob a place and want to break out the back window, chances are you can’t.
Now, to be clear, I’m not necessarily saying, “Rockstar should have added this or that.” But it’s impossible to ignore the things you can’t do in a game where you can do so many things.
The paradox is at its worst when you get to the main story missions. Rockstar has built these events to play out in very specific ways, and your job is to go through those motions.
This is especially frustrating when you get to a scene where one of your fellow gang members is rotting in a jail waiting for his execution. I was expecting to have the freedom to approach this problem however I wanted, but that was not permitted.
Nothing emerges from Red Dead Redemption 2
The reason that Red Dead Redemption 2 is disappointing and has all of these problems with intuitive design and choice is because it is not a systems-driven game. It has some systems, but the thing that drives this world is the authorial design of Rockstar.
I’ve seen a lot of people compare Red Dead Redemption 2 to the HBO sci-fi drama West World. And while I know it’s passe to even bring up that show in relationship to Red Dead Redemption 2, I think it’s important to note that this game is nothing like West World.
Both are intricate cuckoo clocks with authored stories, but that’s 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’t have that.
The most elaborate cuckoo clock ever made
Red Dead is an animatronics show. The characters get up on stage to dance and sing at specific times for your entertainment, but Rockstar limits your participation to pressing a few buttons that lead to specific outcomes.
You are the audience. You are not really a participant. And Rockstar constantly reminds you that you exist to witness the things it has created. Morgan can’t run through camp because you might miss something. Also in camp, other characters will have plenty of lines, and they’ll acknowledges your existence, but you can’t really say much back to them. They are going to do their thing, and you can’t do anything to upset that.
The good news here is that the show these characters are putting on is excellent. By far the best part of this game is the acting and writing. And it’s one of the reasons I’m still enjoying what I’m playing. On top of that, Rockstar has built so much game, that even if you are just a content tourist, you’re going to get your money’s worth.
An enjoyable let down
My disappointment with Red Dead Redemption 2 has everything to do with my expectations. I thought Rockstar was going to define the future of games with this, and I don’t think it did. This is still the same game it’s always made. And it’s not all that different than something like a Watch Dogs 2 or The Witcher III.
I’ve done well not to bring up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to this point, so I’m gonna reward myself by doing so now.
In Breath of the Wild, Nintendo built systems and a world that act as the foundation of everything else in that game. It is always consistent and fair. If you are standing out in a lighting storm with metal on, you could get electrocuted. But if you throw a metal weapon by an enemy, they could get electrocuted instead.
And everything in Breath of the Wild serves to empower your experimentation with those systems. When the world pushes back — like it does with rain or super difficult enemies — the game is inviting you to retreat or get creative.
Red Dead is devoid of those systems. Everything in that game exists to serve you more authored content. And when the game is pushing back on the player, it is doing so to get you to stop and look at more of that content.
For me, I think that Zelda is closer to the way developers will make games in the future. That said, I’m sure Red Dead is going to sell just fine. And people seem to love it. So maybe I’m wrong. But I hope not.