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Rockstar paints the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 as one of messy underdogs and flawed heroes. It’s a story of the outcasts of society, who rise up against the system and forces that be to live life freely and righteously, or so they say. Though some characters in the Van der Linde gang may be portrayed as villainous at times, they pale in comparison to the iron grips of the government enforcers, or money grubbing capitalists like Leviticus Cornwall. Considering all the stories that have been going around, those are some really choice topics for Rockstar to go after, huh?
If there’s a AAA game publisher you know of, there’s a strong chance that they burn out their workers and abuse their labor for the purpose of profit. Rockstar didn’t manage to keep it as well under wraps as the rest of those companies tend to do though, going so far as to boast about how their workers were fighting their way through hundred hour work weeks to ship out the game “on time”. This caused a bit of a stir in the game industry, and the Houser brothers had to go out and make a couple little apologies where they went onto say further outlandish things, like:
“Sam and I talk about this a lot,” he replied, “and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.”
While the Houser Brothers would absolutely love you to ignore the fact that so many of their workers sacrificed chunks of their life and fragments of their essence to receive maybe a hundred thousandth of the profits they received, it’s impossible and irresponsible to. Games are made by people, they’re made consistently by teams that don’t need to destroy their workers, on budgets that don’t have to equal the amount of capital needed to run a small country. Games aren’t these mystical trinkets, nor are they solely the artistic endeavors that require the sacrifices so often claimed. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are vessels for the conceptualization of capitalism, and the Houser Brothers want to have their cake and eat it too.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, the villainous Leviticus Cornwall goes on a rant towards the end of the story, talking about how he pushes the gears, does the things that need to be done, and that people have to suffer because of the nature of the world. The fact that Red Dead Redemption 2 is written by the Houser brothers, who said effectively the same exact things about game development in a casual interview, is such a fun ol’ hypocritical time. It’s the heart of why I think the game fails to create a compelling narrative or immersive world; it’s a hotbed of contradictions.
To talk about this again through the lens of the game, Arthur Morgan, our lead cowman, is a character who is consistently at odds with who he is. The open world the player runs him about in, and is encouraged to whittle hundreds of hours away inside of, is one completely disparate from the one on display throughout the main narrative. Where a player can generally play Arthur as a hero, feeding the homeless and helping the wounded, his character arc will slide him into forced scenarios like beating up a disabled man, or stealing things from the poor for little to no reason. If one plays Arthur as a villain suiting these sorts of activities, they’ll still be forced into moments where Arthur is out there feeding the homeless, and he’ll still find his titular redemption.
Even outside of its core, everything in Rockstar’s Wild West is the seed of an idea stomped on by specific design ideologies. There are systems for hunting, horse riding, temperature, food, health, and all sorts of other standard concepts that have been heralded for their realism and immersiveness, but their purpose is painfully clear: to uphold a status quo. Nothing in Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like it’s there because of an artistic vision or a wild concept someone had and executed on; it’s all there because that’s what should be in a “prestige” video game. Nothing intertwines, nothing is truly realistic or has a rhythm to it that could tell a story, thus all of it ends up being a pretentious drag.
To look at one specific example of a painfully sciolistic and contrived system, hunting in Red Dead Redemption 2 is required to gather skins and food. Instead of making the act of a successful hunt require things like hiding or tracking- as the game insinuates- or setting up traps to catch an animal off guard like is common in most open-world RPGs, the procedure is consistent and dry. You find an animal instead of its tracks, check to ensure its quality label is “pristine,” find the glowing red spot on the animal, and shoot it using the “Dead Eye” ability. If you deviate from this specific and simplistic procedure, the animal that you hunt will be rendered a quality below “perfect”, which means you can’t use any of the animal’s parts for anything the game would be asking for. Wow! Just like real life!
It’s this fake and drawn-out idea of realism that infects the game as a whole. There is no actual dedication to replicating the activities of day to day life, nor is there any wiggle room to create crazy surprises or coincidences that are truly realistic. These systems are designed to be a system in a video game, a side activity, a mini game; not vehicles for experiences with a purpose. Even more egregious are the legendary animals, which are all hidden around the map like special Pokémon, requiring you to examine three to four tracks before stumbling upon it and executing it without any sort of restrictions like normal animals. Why? Again, because this isn’t intended to actually be realistic, it’s just for a video game, and it’s what makes a great marketing point.
Everything about the game feels like it’s curated for the express purpose of marketing. Put in survival elements to attract those Minecraft and Rust communities; put in dialogue choices even if they don’t matter because everyone loves Mass Effect; people are always talking about the “emergent gameplay” so put in a bunch of events that everyone will see but they just might miss, so that talking about the game feels different for everyone! The game feels like it’s made just to sell from title alone, dubbed Red Dead Redemption 2, despite being the third in the series and a prequel at that.
These craven design decisions, which seem more based on dollar signs and market expectations than actual consideration and imagination, permeate nearly every aspect of the game’s design. There are moments in Red Dead Redemption 2 that feel legitimately original, and capture a particularly fascinating realm of mundanity and interaction that feels compelling, but Rockstar feels the need to escalate everything to the most absurd degree every single time. There’s a sequence in the game where you get to build a house. You put up fences, the foundation, the walls, the roof, all that, and you do it to a jaunty montage like one would do in a movie. I was really enjoying the concept of this, because you never really get to do something as mundane as make a whole ass real house in an elegant yet lifelike way. Red Dead Redemption 2, however, is never satisfied with a mission just being that, and quickly things escalated into a full on assault against a league of cannibals who just roam around I guess.
I could use “absurd escalation” to describe most of the game too. Every town you visit will feature at least five grand shootouts where Arthur Morgan and company pretty much decimate a large chunk of the town’s populace in extravagant brutalist fashion. Whenever I reached the end of these drawn out murderfests, I had to muse to myself how well one could make an argument for how Red Dead Redemption unintentionally presents itself as a fascist utopia of 4000 police officers per twenty mile radius. Things can never just end in a quick and deadly escape, everything had to be outrageous and stupefying because that’s what games have to be right? They have to be these vehicles for nothing but bombast and epic gamer moments that make you cheer with your bros. When a sequence in your game involves a character being diagnosed with a terminal illness in a rather grim fashion, only to have that character immediately go on a wild balloon ride with a wacky old man that culminates in a shootout where said old man dies with nary a word discussed about him afterwards, there’s probably something wrong with your game’s tone.
When it comes to Red Dead Redemption 2’s nature as a prequel, the game quickly falls into all sorts of myopic pitfalls. From the beginning, you already know which characters are going to live, and which characters are going to die, but unlike some games like Halo: Reach or even the more absurd Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, there is no elegance or surprise to be had. This isn’t stumbling upon a ragtag group of unknown souls that Red Dead Redemption’s main protagonist, John Marston once rode with. The characters that ride with Arthur are a group of well known figures, whose fates and histories had already been outlined. Barring one standout, I was completely unsurprised by every one of the main story’s victims of drama, and it was hard to become invested in characters when it was clear they weren’t going to be around, or would become incredibly heinous men in the sequel.
At worst, this focus on pre-existing knowledge and events ends up doing nothing but make the first Red Dead Redemption, a game I used to really really like despite its flaws, even worse retroactively. In Red Dead Redemption we knew that John used to be in a gang led by Dutch, and when he faces off against his former father figure near the end of the game, it seems sort of like a homecoming after years and years. Now after Red Dead Redemption 2, we’re told that John had seen Dutch and done a big ol’ shoot out with him just a few years before the start of the original game. When I started up Red Dead 2 for the first time, I expected to deal with some sort of narrative contrivances- like rectifying the fact that Arthur Morgan had never been referenced in Redemption– but having the entire story of Red Dead Redemption feel far less impactful and incredibly over-exaggerated, was something I couldn’t help but absorb in awestruck disappointment.
Of course Rockstar, the company behind the piece of media that has made more money than every other piece of media ever created in the history of mankind, is looking for more and more money, even though they don’t have to. The nature of capitalism is that no matter how much money one currently has, you have to aspire to and gather more and more and more until there’s absolutely none left. Rockstar could’ve taken their time and not abused their workers to push out this product, they could’ve taken risks with their systems instead of watering them down to the lowest most acceptable denominator, they could’ve /tried/ to say anything worth saying. Instead, they didn’t. The Houser brothers and every shareholder and corporation involved with the production of the game have to take the path to peak exploitation every time, because that’s just how it has to be, right?
The way that mainstream journalism has enabled all of this to continue, just as those side characters in Red Dead allow the villains to prosper, is especially egregious. Upon release, despite knowing the circumstances of the game’s development, despite hearing firsthand reports from abused workers that they were forever scarred by the development of not only this game but its predecessor as well, the game received universal accolades and perfect scores from major outlets. It continues to be advertised as the highest rated PS4 game of all time. Some even went as far as to organize week long celebrations of content about the game which, well, I don’t even know what to say about that one.
There’s a problem in modern discussion with treating the development of a game as ancillary to criticism of the product. Every review fills a paragraph or two with allusions to the wrong that Rockstar maybe did, but swat it away with glowing praise the second that mandated bit is over. If a game like say, Final Fantasy XV is being reviewed, however, a large part of the conversation will become dedicated to discussing its long development, and how that would transform the game’s design. Just like with Red Dead’s concept of realism; it’s only the focus when it’s convenient. There needs to be more responsible and consistent coverage, and there needs to be a reckoning with the realities of the market that we as platforms are promoting.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is just one of so many games that has come out at the expense of dozens if not hundreds of individuals, only to have such petty problems ignored as the price to pay for purported perfection. It’s not the first of a new trend, it’s the depressing status quo, and if we’re to create not only better games, but a better world, we need to start being more responsible with how we discuss and engage with games.