Red Dead Redemption (RDR2)

Just some thoughts from a late-comer to RDR2 who thought he wouldn’t like this game. (And was wrong.)

Just gonna say off the top, I'm only about halfway through RDR2's story, so no spoilers ok? Pretty please and thanks.


I played the original RDR on xbox 360 when it was fairly current and thought it was a great game. And I have played and enjoyed many open world/action games: skyrim, breath of the wild, horizon zero dawn, ghost of tsushima, the older assassins creeds, witcher 3, and others I'm forgetting. (I'm waiting for an optimized PS5 version of Cyberpunk before I play that.)

The old Rockstar formula

But a standout open world game that turned me off open world games a bit, for a little while anyway, was GTA5. In a lot of ways, I thought it was a brilliant game. But I think it came at a time when the genre was feeling a bit stale to me. And maybe more than that, I was getting tired of Rockstar's signature edginess. My first real experience with the company was playing hours of GTA3, but never doing a single story mission because I was too busy causing maximum mayhem. To me, that was the implicit point of the game and I had no interest in whatever story there was.

RDR and GTA4 are both in my book as masterpieces of storytelling and groundbreaking games of their time. To this day, I remember how I felt at the climaxes of those stories. But at the same time, and I'm gonna bold this next part because this is the crux of what I'm saying, I still felt that they were built on that GTA3 DNA: at their heart was this game engine and programming that implicitly encouraged you to flirt with your inner sadist.


I'm new to this community so I don't know if what I just said is controversial. So I just want to clarify that point. I'm not one of those haters who blindly criticizes Rockstar games for being violence simulators; I know there's always been choices to interact with the world and characters the way you want, yadda yadda. Of course. But, it's also true that being a pacifist in most games, especially R* games, isn't much fun. You get a star rating for how much trouble you're in, but not for how good of a citizen you are. I'm sure there's some example of a game mechanic that contradicts this, like the honor system in RDR2, but my point is, this is generally true: violence is fun. Conflict and action and chaos are fun. Most of the compelling game mechanics are built around these things. And for the most part, in earlier Rockstar games, doing the bad stuff has been arguably the most meaningful, and definitely the most fun way to interact with the world and its characters. (Sorry to any big fans of bowling with Roman.)

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So as I was saying, GTA4 and RDR have these great stories and characters, but when I played them I felt they had this weird co-existence with a GTA3-like game where random ultraviolence was always in the corner, just beckoning me over, daring me to get bored with the story and just do some crazy shit. Like, I was moved by John Marsten's story, and was somewhat motivated to roleplay him as a sympathetic good-guy type, but I definitely still hogtied some random women NPCs and left them on train tracks. Same with Niko Bellic and being an on-and-off again psychopath….with a heart of gold!

And there's nothing wrong with the games having those dual aspects. That's fine. It's just that, by a certain point, I was personally tired of it. Getting back to GTA5, yes it was this hugely story- and character-driven production, but something about it unsettled me that I can't put my finger on. And it's been years since I played it or even thought about it, so unfortunately I can't explain this part very well. I just know I came away from playing that game (and probably only making it about 30% of the way through the story) feeling burnt out on the Rockstar formula: here are some lovable misfits, here's a deeply cynical and darkly funny world, go forth and be a saint or sinner in whatever funky combination pleases you.

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The…new? Rockstar formula

(I ended up getting a copy of the game because someone pretty much offered to give me any PS4 game I wanted, and I already had all the games I really wanted, so I threw up my hands and said, "Might as well try RDR2 and make sure I'm right that I won't like it!" And as the title says…well, it took a little bit for it to really grab my attention, and it's competing with Valheim which my buddies and I are currently obsessed with, but yeah, I was wrong, and I love the game.)

But, ok…is RDR2 different? Does it not follow that same rockstar formula I just described? It's pretty hard to argue that it doesn't follow that "misfits+sardonic world+do as you will" blueprint.

And yet, something crucial is different. Maybe a few somethings. And…I don't even have clarity myself on what I think those things are. But one of them has to be that, probably due to a complex web of design decisions, I feel very compelled to roleplay in this game pretty much 100% of the time. In other words, I care about the integrity of Arthur's character so much that I basically don't break character, ever — at least not on purpose. (I do stupid video game shit lots of times by accident though, damn controls! Can't tell you the number of times I've held people at gunpoint when I just wanted to say hi. But that's a different kettle of fish.)

And when I say integrity, I'm not saying Arthur needs to be an angel, but I want him to stay within some reasonable boundaries based on how I interpret his character and his capacity for both good and evil. My old inner sadist who used to sometimes torture NPCs for fun has absolutely no voice here. None. And with multiple saves I could indulge it without facing consequences to my "canon" Arthur's legacy. But there's no desire there. I'm fully invested in the world and characters, and respecting them totally eclipses the call to madness that I've always felt underlies Rockstar's games, and that I've outgrown being willing to tolerate as a player.

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(And on a different, sorta meta level, I suspect Rockstar understands this. It's part of what makes the character of Micah, or what I've seen of him so far and with what happened in Strawberry, so easy to hate. He's like an embodiment of the player I was/the protagonist whose name I don't even know from GTA3.)

RDR2, with all its heart, its emotional maturity, its ability to be highly immersive, and probably more factors, strikes me as a transcendent accomplishment for Rockstar — it is evolved beyond its predecessors in ways that I thought Rockstar games couldn't or wouldn't ever manage to do. And I'm just…very grateful that I finally decided to give it a try.

Thanks for reading.


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