Red Dead Redemption 2. Seriously?

I just failed at them several times and then felt like I barely figured out a bit of stupid game design when I finally succeeded. And, again, I never used these skills anywhere else in the game. I was taught nothing of use in exchange for my time and frustration.

This is all part of why the core feeling of the gameplay in Red Dead Redemption 2 is not one of difficulty and accomplishment, but constant monotony or frustration. Those feelings followed me throughout the entire game.

Source: Red Dead Redemption 2: one year after the hype

This is the article I’ve been longing to read about Red Dead Redemption 2. Someone finally had the guts to tell it like it is about this game. I saved this article as a PDF for posterity, and it weighs in at ninety pages. This, in fact, is a perfect indication of how subtly, how deeply, and how ironically the problems with this game run.

First Aside

I’ve never wanted anything to do with the Grand Theft Auto series of games. I don’t want to role play a gangster, or a drug dealer, or a murderer. I don’t want to spend hours grinding out despicable and immoral actions. On top of this, being “wanted” is a critical core mechanic to the game, and that doesn’t sound like fun. I happen to hate the feeling of being hounded. For me, one of the worst feelings in all of “video game-dom” is being pursued and overtaken in a Battlefield game, when I’m trying to evade and get away. So, after taking in all the reviews and reading all the press controversy about GTA, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I’ve never bought it, or played it, or even seen more than a minute of it on a video. I’m not here for the moral controversy. It’s not that I think it shouldn’t exist because of “think of the children;” I just don’t care. It’s not my type of game.

Second Aside

Historically, I’ve been into CRPG’s. I’m using the old acronym, because that’s where I started. With the Bard’s Tale series on Commodore 64. And Tomb of the Ancients. And Pool of Radiance. Et cetera. Et alia. I’ve spent literally thousands of hours with the Fallout series. As gaming progressed, and fighting games became de rigueur, I found that I sucked at them, and so I generally avoided them. When the Arkham series came along, I just ignored it, thinking that it was a “fighting game.” But the endless parade of impressive reviews of the game were relentless. After a couple years, I noticed that it never fell off the radar, and I finally bought it on a Steam sale. Wow! Arkam Asylum, and it’s successor, Arkham City, are two of my all-time favorite games. And I never would have tried it except that the reviews were so consistently amazing.

Another genre I’ve historically had no interest in is turn-based strategy games. But, again, never-ending raving over Civilization V caused me to pick it up in another Steam sale. And now I’ve got more hours in Civ V than probably all the Fallout series combined. It is my most-favorite game of all time. My obsession with it caused to me to delete it from my Steam library, so as to try to stop playing it so much. Twice. So I’ve bought the game 3 times on Steam. And then when macOS recently dropped support for 32-bit binaries, I lost Civ V in my library, so I bought the macOS-native version on the App Store. And now Aspyr has upgraded the Steam version to 64-bit, and I’ve gone back to the Steam version for mod support. At the time of this writing, it’s a 10-year-old game, which I’ve bought 4 times, and still play every week. All because of the reviews.

Asides Aside

So when Red Dead Redemption 2 came along, and even though it was clearly reported as being based on the core ideas of GTA, because of the absolutely REDONCULOUS review scores, I bought it. And, because I had the money, I bought the full, deluxe, extras-included version.

Like an idiot.

I was thinking that they would be doing DLC for the game, and, if I like a game enough to buy it at all, I’m usually down for the season pass, and like to get it bundled to save some money on the whole package.

This factors in later, and makes the whole thing sting doubly.

My Issues with the Thing

One of the main issues I have with the game is basically with the whole “wanted” system. Not so much with the idea that, if you commit a crime, people will see you, report you, and try to exact some sort of punishment, but with the fact that there are so many people around that you can hardly ever get away with anything. For what is supposed to be a sparsely-populated area of the country, there’s always someone just around the corner. And, as soon as they see you doing something sinister, they’re about 5 seconds away from alerting law enforcement about it, who apparently are lurking just on the other side of them. Even on dirt paths in the mountains, every road seems like a highway, with a constant stream of travelers, who can see nefarious deeds from a mile away. The net effect of the system is that, usually within 5 seconds of committing any crime whatsoever, you have a posse converging on your position.

For a game that not only encourages committing criminal acts, but also forcing you to do a lot of them as part of the story missions, it’s a bad choice to make evading fine, capture, and/or death — so as to have the time and opportunity to commit more crimes — so much of a chore. It’s not a game any more; it’s work. I suppose they wanted to make committing crimes feel onerous, because it should be in real life. But this is precisely the main point the author of the quote above is trying to make. It’s laborious, tedious, and frustrating. It’s not fun, which is, ostensibly, the point of playing games.

This section sums up one of my main gripes pretty well:

I realized you don’t have to hit the button at all; Arthur will hit the nail regardless. The minigame was just an illusion of participation. That should be enough for a quick rant, but remember that little “see how you did” options menu that comes up after a mission to tell you how well you hit goals you didn’t know until that point existed? In this case, the game was testing me to see if I could hit all the nails on time. 

This is a metaphor for everything wrong with the game. I don’t have to play Red Dead Redemption 2, but if I choose to, it will always be secretly testing me without telling me the rules or what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m invited into a larger world that I can see but I can’t touch. And the things I can participate in within this world rarely seem to serve any cohesive purpose when it comes to helping me feel something about the story or characters. It’s a sandbox game in which you sometimes only learn the rules after you’ve failed at a task. Rockstar wants us to believe that this is a huge, realistic world, but there are so many limitations that it feels like I’m in a straitjacket. 

In short, the game is a lie.

The Problem is Hubris

If I could use only one word to describe the entirety of the production of this game, it would be “hubris.” The Rockstar team created this admittedly-remarkable world, with the models, and textures, and animations, and voice overs, and art work, and weather, and trees, and birds, and fish, and reptiles, and mammals, and fishing and hunting, and missions, and strangers, and quests, and crafting, and on and on and on. And, truly, it may be the most remarkable video game world yet created. But then it feels like they stepped back, looked at it, and said, “Guys, we’ve been at this for 6 years. Let’s ship it.” And, along the way, a lot of the various subsystems developed internal conflicts with each other, and no one ever went back over the finished product to sort them out.

The controls for that thing, I wanted to do then, overlap with the controls for this thing, I want to do now, leading to terrible outcomes if you make a mistake. And people said, “That’s OK. Have you seen the game? The sunsets are beautiful!” Sadists decided what the challenges would be, and then, clearly, never tried to do them. And people said, “That’s OK. Have you seen the game? The horses are anatomically correct!” The story moves from place to place, yet repeats the same themes and plot points in each locale. And people said, “That’s OK. Have you seen the game? You can engrave your guns!”

Over and over again, the game inarguably nails the mechanical details, the audible and visual elements, but misses the larger idea of a game being fun. You’ll always be looting bodies, and picking up items. You’ll also need to do a lot of crafting. For that, you’ll be doing a lot of foraging for ingredients. Every time you loot a body, scrounge an item, forage an ingredient, pluck a bird, skin an animal, apply cover-scent lotion, craft a throwable weapon, cook a tonic, feed your horse, eat something, oil your gun — every time you do anything whatsoever in the game — you have to watch an animation. For picking up items, this is a couple of seconds… for every item on the table or in the container. For skinning and foraging, it’s five seconds. Sometimes, as a bonus, you’ll even get a little half-step while Arthur lines up juuust perfectly with what he’s taking, taking another couple of seconds. For skinning large animals and cleaning your guns, it’s more like ten seconds. These are never skippable. Watching them just gets old, and wastes time. And someone said, “That’s OK. Have you seen the game? The animations are fluid and natural!”

I can only ascribe this unavoidable requirement to watch these animations to hubris. In the Far Cry series, where you also do a lot of foraging and skinning, you can just turn off the harvesting animations after you’ve had enough of them. Not with this game. No, no! That would ruin the purity of the experience they’ve so lovingly created for us.

Lots of people have written about how the lack of a “real” fast-travel mechanic is a sorely-overlooked missing element in the game. What options do exist are one-way (map at camp), or slow-and-expensive (trains), or cheap-and-even-slower (coaches), or free-and-not-fast-at-all (“cinematic” mode). This is a weird limitation compared to other, fun games in this class, and worth all the game-trade-press ink spilled on the topic. The choice doesn’t make much sense on its own, but it does when you consider it from the point of pride. Rather than a bad, single decision, it’s a natural byproduct of the design team thinking that it would simply be unjust to their efforts if we could conveniently skip past all of the glorious world they’ve created, and potentially miss out on running into yet another beautifully-rendered tree, or stumbling over another attentively-modeled rock, or crossing paths with yet another snakebite victim.

You see a wolf instead if you play the game immorally and make “bad choices,” which clarifies the metaphor: Did you live your life as a wolf or a deer? But you’ll only understand this aspect of the game if you played Red Dead Redemption 2 both ways or Googled the endings. That’s just about the biggest antithesis of immersion and singularity I can imagine. It’s the perfect contradiction of space-time, and it shows just how many of Rockstar’s choices got in their own damn way.

My final take on the game is this: There’s a really good hunting simulator in there. And that’s about it. (Even the other half of “hunting and fishing” is pretty disappointing, because there’s no meta game involved in what you can do with the fish after you catch them, as with pelts.) I feel really, really cheated out of my $100. There’s so much in this game that teases, titilates, and tantalizes that it could literally be the most amazing game of all time, but it snatches defeat from the jaws of victory at every turn. It’s the single greatest coulda/woulda in the history of games. That’s what makes this so maddening.

I kept using the word “baffling” on social media to describe Red Dead Redemption 2’s controls, goals, and intent. Someone from Rockstar eventually wrote to me, and I want to be clear that they were very kind and were trying to be helpful. 

“It’s not baffling,” the developer from Rockstar replied. “Just not what you want.”

“It’s just not what you want,” they said. That’s fine. But the problem is that I’m finding a lot of people didn’t want this, either. And it’s an odd response to give to someone, a response that is at once patronizing and insulting. It’s a reduction of all the endless thoughts and queries discussed within this essay and the world at large. 

Rockstar’s Dan Houser said he was “on a mission to entertain” with Red Dead Redemption 2, and so I can’t help but say that I don’t think this is the game he wanted, either.

I bought the deluxe version of the game anticipating additional content. What I got was an online mode, as if that were a thing. It’s bad enough that I have to work against the shoddy control system in single player mode, where I can at least try again from the checkpoint. Now they want me to do it in a setting where there are no do-overs? It takes me 2 or 3 tries every time the game sticks me in a duel. Now they want me to go up against teenaged sweaty try-hards, who do nothing but this, all day long? Rockstar: Are you smoking something, or clinically sadistic? I’ve accidentally hit the “online” button a couple of times. Thank God it allows you to dump out of matchmaking immediately. The entire notion fills me with dread. This is what I got for my extra money. I’d rather have nothing but more stupid hats that characters in the game mock and ridicule me for.

In broad outlines, both RDR2 and The Witcher 3 purport to be the same game: enormous, open world, role-playing games, with meaningful choices, long main story time, engaging mini games, extensive crafting, and scores of hours of side quests. One has already gone down in history as one of the greatest games ever made. The other will be forgotten by next Christmas. Unlike Arkham Asylum or Civilization V or Witcher 3, this game will disappear off the radar. I’d cynically say that they purposefully dragged out the PC port to re-energize the hype a year after the console release, but that launch has been so riddled with technical problems that I think the effort has backfired. Mark my words: RDR2 will turn out to be the highest-rated-yet-least-replayed game of all time.

Grinding it out to the End

When I started writing this, I started to note some of those special things that make me hate the game so much. I have several perfect examples.

I go on a fetch quest with Sadie to capture the leader of the Del Lobos. I move to a higher position to shoot someone, but I stray too far away from her. In this game, that means she gets killed. On the second try, the bad guy we’re trying to catch is rowing away in a boat. I get antsy, and empty my gun at him. Oops! I forgot we’re supposed to be catching him alive. Third time’s the charm here.

I go on a fetch quest for tools to build my house with Charles. I go a little forward of him, which causes a rushing, melee enemy to suddenly spawn about 5 feet away from me. I get tackled before I can react, and killed in one blow. Second time’s the charm. I just have to remember to stay close to my companion, yet slightly behind.

I go into town with my “wife,” and she starts prattling on with dialog that passes for character development in this game. I slow the wagon down to take the last corner, but it’s not slow enough. And, wouldn’t you know it?! There’s a guy on a horse in the middle of the street right behind the blind spot beyond the shack on the corner. I knock him off his horse, and he starts shooting. I just let him kill me because it’s not worth the hassle of killing him and facing jail and a fine, or trying to outrun a posse. I restart back at the ranch, and have to listen to that whole stupid conversation again.

And these examples doesn’t include the constant irritation of your horse throwing you at a tree or a rock you never saw. I’ve learned to stay on the roads as much as possible, but then it takes much longer to get anywhere, and the tradeoff in frustration is about a wash. All the rest is discussed ad naseum elsewhere. These are just the illustrations of problems with the scripted mission elements. If there was a mission in the game that didn’t take me at least 2 passes to do it, I can’t remember it.

I could only take an hour or so of these examples at a time any more, so finishing the game took forever. At one point, I finally set it aside for several months until I had built up the reserves of fortitude to finish. I want everyone at RockStar to understand how deeply I feel this when I say it: I will never play through this game again, and I will never buy anything that gets compared to it in the future. I’m just glad it’s over.