Oh God, another opinion about the cowboy game.
I know, I know, and I’m (mostly) sorry. But this is my corner of the internet, and if you’ve found your way here, you’re at least partially interested in my thoughts about Red Dead Redemption 2.
Before we start, assume that the end of every single one of these paragraphs ends with “I can’t believe Rockstar did this with all that exploited labor.” Assume that I don’t think you should buy this game at all based on this point. I got this game as a gift, but I honestly would have liked the My Hero Academia game instead if I had been asked (or Soul Caliber 6. Did you hear 2B is coming to that game? Lit).
So anyways you shouldn’t buy RDR2 because of the labor practices, but even putting that aside this game isn’t worth playing. I’ve been sitting and waiting for a game that would dethrone The Witcher 3 in terms of games that I’m not allowed to have a contrary opinion about without being harassed by “the gamerzzz” and buddy…we’ve made it.
We’ve made it because Red Dead Redemption 2 is such a dreadfully unfun experience built by a AAA studio that has managed to manhandle its way into being a high-reviewed game for no reason other than “it’s a Rockstar one.”
I have a lot of things I could say about this game, but I am lazy and also pretty much vowed myself away from pop culture critique because I find it so exhausting and boring and unpleasant and ultimately useless. But RDR2 pulled me out of retirement like a cowboy chasing one last bounty. So I’m going to focus on how the cowboy game feels a pressing need to have you exist in its world but not let you have any fun in it.
Immersion vs. Realism
One time in Red Dead Redemption 2 I got into a brawl outside a bar. We threw fists at each other back and forth, stumbling in the mud. My hat fell off at some point. When the fight ended, I could see the mud on individual parts of my character model, and bruises on my character’s face. I shrugged the fight off and hopped onto my horse, clip-clopping into the wilderness. I could hear the wind whistle through the trees, and in the distance, a gun crackling in a nearby mountain range. I could nearly feelthe chill clinging to my character as he rode, the sun setting on the horizon.
These are details that made the game feel immersive. So did seeing snow billow and pack realistically, or watching my character’s beard grow over time. I point these things out because Rockstar seems to miss where immersion ends and realism beings.
Another anecdote to illustrate: I had a bounty I needed to bring in alive. I went to find the man hiding under the crook of a cliff. A scene initiated where I jumped onto the man’s horse and chased after him. It was all very thrilling. By the end of it, I slung the man over his horse, lassoed up, and trotted into the town, where I delivered him to the sheriff.
Satisfied with the night’s events, I walked out of the jail and whistled to my horse.
I whistled a few more times. “Not again!” my cowboy lamented. A popup appeared in the top-left corner of the screen. Your horse is too far away. Get within range before whistling again.
I pulled my map out and realized that my horse was still at the cliff where I had first found the bounty. The only way to get to him would be to steal someone else’s horse to find him, potentially triggering a bounty, or walking. Both were options I wasn’t particularly looking forward to, so I shut the game down in frustration.
This isn’t fun. It doesn’t immerse me. Is it realistic? Sure. But it’s also boring. The term “immersion” has been thrown around so often at this point it barely means anything. Any and every element that exists within a semi-realistic world’s systems leads to it being considered “immersive.” But immersion isn’t supposed to be based entirely on realistic elements.
To compare, a game that came out before RDR2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, does a better job of showcasing immersion without sacrificing gameplay that feels fun. Odyssey feels lived in. Its terrain is majestic and a joy to explore and take screenshots in. But I can also whistle for my horse to spawn behind me, even if he’s on the other side of the planet. I can carry a sword and a trident on my back, even though those are both extremely heavy objects. I can run without bumping into somebody and getting into my 400th fist-fight.
I’m not trying to say that the cowboy game needs to be the lesbian spartan game (although I’m not not saying that I’d rather play a lesbian cowgirl). I’m just saying that it’s possible to create an enjoyable game with sim elements to it that doesn’t require me to adhere to the exact limits of the real world. The real world is boring, it’s partly why I’m playing a videogame.
But okay. RDR2 does not entertain your notion of fun! It is a very serious, purposefully sullen and realistic cowboy simulator. Fine. But it’s not the biggest problem with the game. Which leads me to:
Lest there be any confusion, the above is what it feels like controlling your character in Red Dead (sidenote, I keep saying ‘character’ because I actually can’t remember the boring white guy’s name that you play as, sorry).
Let me give a few choice quotes from Kotaku’s review of the game:
- The physical act of playing is rarely pleasurable on its own. It is often tiring and cumbersome
- Pressing a button in Red Dead 2 rarely results in an immediate or satisfying response. Navigating Arthur (EN: oh! Arthur. That’s his name) through the world is less like controlling a video game character and more like giving directions to an actor.
- Almost every interaction must be performed through the same gauzy, lustrous cling-wrap.
The game went on to receive extreme praise for its foliage because…well, of course it did.
There is a difference between oppressive gameplay and gameplay that’s simply unfun. The Last of Us is also a story about sad things, and while that game has its own myriad of issues, at least it feels good to actually move around in the world. RDR2 does not feel like that. At all. It is so much more interested in its myriad of systems, but not so much whether you can even interact with those systems with any sense of consistency.
The simple act of running requires you to click the left stick to sprint, or mash/hold the X button. It’s 2018. It baffles me that Rockstar continues to get away with its archaic, PS1 Horror Game control scheme just because you can see the individual footprints in a muddy pathway. This game is a cinematic marvel, but it just doesn’t feel good to play. I tend to not like focusing on these minute, physical mechanics that come with playing a game, preferring to speak on broader and more interesting topics, and how the mechanics of a game can interact to deliver some sort of message to the player. But it’s impossible not to. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a bad videogame, because it can’t keep up with the advances in game design that have existed since the creation of a second analog stick.
ALL THIS, FOR WHAT?
In any other industry, a thing that takes 8 years to be made, that requires 100s of hours of overtime and exhausting the human willpower of its team, would be considered an abject project management disaster. The fact that Red Dead Redemption 2 exists in the state that it does, after hearing the stories about how it was made, is a disgrace that the gaming industry will always need to answer for, but never will. Instead, it will (and has) receive a shower of praise because…it’s supposed to? Because game criticism can’t not give a Rockstar game a high score? Because gamers will lose their shit if it isn’t given a high score?
It is games like these, that are made and released and hyped up and reviewed with glowing praise the day before release, without any consideration towards its creation, or even whether the game is good, that makes me want to completely disengage with the conversation that surrounds games as a whole.
And with that, I’m going to play Gravity Rush 2 again, just because.