Update #1 (11/5/18): In which I Learn to Find Joy in the Little Things.
When Red Dead Redemption launched in 2010, it was a beautiful rarity in the gaming world. Moreover, it was a stunningly coherent array of contradictions. It presented players with a deep narrative overflowing with moral gray areas; a unique turn for a genre wherein the color of a protagonist’s hat often determines their absolute moral alignment. It offered the most well-realized depiction of life in the Wild West up to that point despite the fact that the game’s hook is the idea that the American wilderness has been tamed, and outlaws are a dying breed. Players were cast in the role of a criminal but were strongly encouraged to commit no crimes. John Marsten was a bad man hunting other bad men, but the real antagonists were manipulative government officials.
This web of opposing ideas might have turned into a knot of frustrating, unsatisfying nonsense in any other hands, but Rockstar once again proved to the world that their pedigree was well-earned. It went on to be a critical and commercial success and has been called one of the best games of all time. This being the case, when Red Dead Redemption 2 was announced, expectations were sky-high.
For my own part, I felt that RDR‘s narrative was one of the best in gaming, and ran circles around the actual gameplay. The dead eye mechanic was a consistent blast that helped me live out my childhood cowboy fantasies, and hunting bounties stayed surprisingly fresh even after a mountain of repetition, but almost everything else felt like a basic platform meant to get you between wildly impressive story missions. That’s not to say any of it was bad, just more functional than impressive.
All of which brings us to Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that revels so much in the small things, demands so much patience and almost defiantly staves off anything that might make interacting with its dozens of complex systems seem optional that it blurs the line between “game” and “simulation” almost to the point of nonexistence.
Rockstar has played jump rope with this particular division many times before, most notably in their previous juggernaut, Grand Theft Auto V. Consider the stats given to each character: shooting proficiency, strength, cardio, etc. Since Michael has slowed down a bit in his old age, you can partake in activities like tennis, triathlons or running down the street like a madman in order to improve your stamina. Franklin doesn’t have the most steady hand in combat, so he’s frequently encouraged to hit up the shooting range to increase that particular skill. The game is chock-full of these subtle nudges, trying to give players an excuse to use Los Santos as their modern-day Second Life.
In RDR2, this idea is cranked up to 11, almost to the point where the experience has more in common with a well-executed version of Kingdom Come: Deliverance or playing Fallout in Survival mode. Our hero (such as he is), Arthur Morgan, must eat and sleep regularly in order to stay healthy. His beard will grow over time. Keeping him clean requires more than just waiting for the blood splatter on his duster to fade. Likewise, if you don’t make sure your horse is fed and groomed properly, his stats will begin to decline, and it could impact the level of trust you’ve built up with your faithful steed.
Sizeable animals that you’ve hunted must be carried back to camp on the back of a horse, but if you take too long, they will begin to rot and lose value. Fishing in rivers requires a different type of bait and technique than lakes or ponds. Guns must be cleaned with gun oil to prevent them from slowly losing their effectiveness. Certain outfits will be suitable for certain kinds of weather, while others will leave you exposed to the elements. Stolen goods have to be sold at particular shops, as reputable General Store proprietors won’t touch the stuff.
This hardcore approach to survival isn’t just a neat feature to help pin up a story, it’s what makes RDR2 one of the most uncompromising and well-realized games in the history of the medium. It’s also the reason that during my first several hours of playing, I realized I wasn’t having very much fun.
Animations like skinning a deer can take upwards of 10 seconds and are unskippable. Money seemed tight no matter what, and ever-increasing bounties are painfully easy to incur. My stamina would run out like clockwork, and my dead eye gauge never seemed to last for long enough. The camp that housed my fellow gang members was low on food and funds, and I found that I was unable to help, as I was barely scraping by myself. On that note, the frequent trips back to camp so I could snag some shut-eye or pick up a new quest felt laboriously long, and the lack of fast travel guaranteed that I’d need to cross the same stretch of wilderness in full over and over again. Sure, the world was beautiful and the story was interesting enough, but did I really want to spend the next 70-plus hours of my life trudging through such a slow-paced experience?
Not much later, I set about to do some chores around camp, just to help out. As I began splitting logs, I realized something interesting. Arthur would bend down and pick up a log from the ground, place it on the stump in front of him, and I’d be prompted to swing my ax. The newly separated pieces of wood would fall to the side, and Arthur would grab another. What caught my eye was the fact that not only did the split pieces stay in place, but each log he picked up was its own object, and when the pile was gone the chore was complete. In my experience, items like this tend to come from a never-ending stack that either remains the same size (a la Snoopy’s bone pile) or shrinks suddenly as each unit is removed. Here, care was put into making sure that it felt as real as possible.
Silly as it may sound, observing such diligent attention to detail in this simple, optional task changed my perspective on the whole experience. The developers at Rockstar spent so much time crafting a believable world bursting with life that it only makes sense for the game’s many systems to encourage you to engage with it. RDR2 is as much about learning to enjoy silence as it is thrilling gunfights. It’s as much about enjoying a hot cup of coffee as you slowly meander around camp chatting with your partners in crime as it is the story of the van der Linde Gang. It’s as much about finding something to appreciate in the act of taking care of your horse as it is robbing trains. It’s as much about deciding it’s time for a shave and applying pomade to your hair as it is holdups and bounties.
And so, well over 25 hours into the game, I’ve completed only 35% of the story. I’m no longer irritated by the need to oil my guns or by the strict resource management required to keep the camp in top shape. Instead, I’m loving every minute of it and beginning to consider the idea that Red Redemption 2 could be the best game Rockstar has ever made.
And now that I’ve finally unlocked fast travel, I couldn’t be happier to ignore it completely.