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My childhood fantasies were always divided into three categories: being either a pirate, a cowboy or an astronaut. I suppose this is reflected by my career choices fifteen years on: studying Sociology is tantamount to intellectual piracy; the film industry is probably harder to get a foot on than the Moon; and journalism nowadays is like a less tame version of the Wild West. But even if these mostly satisfy (or sublimate, as we Sociologists would say) my childhood fantasies, it’s always a joy to get to experience them fully.
Of all three, the Western fantasy is without a doubt the hardest to satisfy. This has less to do with bank-robbing and cattle-raiding being prohibitively illegal nowadays, mind you, and more with the genre having been in a sort of stasis for the past forty years. I suspect this has to do with the pains of cultural maturity: after Vietnam and 9/11, we’re much too cynical for innocent American exceptionalism. The genre seems to be making a comeback, nevertheless, and this time thankfully clad in more self-aware clothing – from the uncompromising, unromantic grittiness of Bone Tomahawk (2015) to the beautiful critique of the escapism inherent to these stories in Westworld (mostly squandered in the recent second season). Even more exciting, videogames are not falling far behind, with the release this past October of Rockstar Studios’ Red Dead Redemption 2.
The particularly unique quality of the Western is that it lends something special to each medium: in print, the loneliness and isolation of the frontier is perfectly impressed on the reader’s imagination; film and TV capture the visual language and aesthetics of the genre best, with flamboyant and gritty details telling stories within a story. Videogames have the mostly-untapped potential of recreating the West as a walk-in diorama and fully immersing the audience in the setting, instead of trying to recreate the feel of the books and movies that preceded them. Red Dead Redemption 2 realizes this, with attention going by the boatload to making its setting a believable and, even more importantly, liveable arena for the player.
Much of this, of course, has to do with the insane amount of detail infused into the game and the technology that supports it. The first Redemption was already famously held together with duct-tape, so to speak, in attempts by Rockstar not to make the then-aging Playstation 3 catch on fire when running the game simply because of the technical load placed on it (this was also mostly the reason the game never made it onto PC). The sequel takes this even further on the visual level, with perhaps the best lighting and shading system in any game, period (lamps at night look stellar, you can sometimes see sunlight through people’s skin (!!!) and the simulation of light refracting through water is simply surreally good) and some of the best physics-based animation work courtesy of the Euphoria engine. It’s a technical achievement on every level, and Rockstar doesn’t waste any time in showing it off – opening with a slow-paced and atmospheric chapter in the mountains that showcases the game’s excellent snow physics and weather effects.
Details by themselves do not, of course, form an immersive experience (horse testicles shrinking in cold weather do, however, grab headlines). Instead it’s each minute detail working in tandem that make the world feel like a living place. Horses are a good example of this compromise in that the amount of care they need – feeding, brushing, petting, calming them down, generally not pushing them off cliffs – is not dictated by the ‘just-like-in-real-life’ philosophy many games lose themselves in, but by a system of challenges and rewards: take care of your beast, and it’ll grow stronger, faster and more reactive to you. Treat it poorly, on the other hand, and you’ll more than likely spend a quarter of your time on an exhausted horse (a definite detriment in Rockstar’s largest map to date), being thrown off your horse, or having to find a new horse after yours keeps dying. Naming my horse after a flatmate provided some hours of mean-spirited fun and quite a bit of subsequent heartbreak when it tragically died following me at full gallop as I robbed a train (you’ll be forever in our hearts, Theophania).
Games paralleling this scale of detail and scope tend to be simulation games, and Red Dead Redemption 2 by all rights should be just that: a deep and layered assortment of hunting, equestrian and camping simulators set in 1890s America. It’s all the more insanely impressive, then, that Rockstar managed to add one of their best and most complex narratives as the top layer of the cake. Without many spoilers, the game’s greatest achievement in this area is reducing ludonarrative dissonance (i.e. the disconnect between story and gameplay, as with Lara Croft gunning down armies of goons in Tomb Raider minutes after being ‘traumatized’ by shooting someone) by marrying the writing to the tiny details in the world. Citizens in towns react to our protagonist, Arthur, if the player turns him into an excessively violent person: going for a drink at a saloon, the barman once told me in no uncertain terms that any trouble on my part would be met with extreme prejudice (a.k.a. I’d be promptly shot in the face). The gentler members in our gang of outlaws will sometimes sit Arthur down and reproach him for his recklessly brutal behaviour, with Arthur himself reflecting that he’s ‘going mad’. A shop clerk that tragically died by our hand in a botched robbery attempt was replaced by someone else the next time we visited: and the list goes on, and on.
These moments and touches are not the main attraction of the writing, however: Arthur is written in such a way that his actions in the defined story are completely coherent with either a dishonourable, villainous playthrough and with a more civic and level-headed one. I suspect this is largely because he’s not the driving force of the story, but more of a spectator – with the tragically deluded figure of gang-leader Dutch Van Der Linde, another of Rockstar’s best characters, as the author of the gang’s fortunes and misfortunes (mostly the latter). This level of polishing is only possible, of course, with the investment a studio like Rockstar is able to make on these projects – Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat speculates a whopping $944 million dollar budget for Red Dead Redemption 2 (for a sense of scale, this would be enough to remake James Cameron’s Titanic three times, 2001: A Space Odyssey ninety times or Gone With the Wind two-hundred and forty-two times).
Adding to the realism is the sensation that, up to a point, the world doesn’t wait for you: you’re just one more denizen in the frontier. The immediate effect of this is levelling the relationship between player and game – it doesn’t feel so much a ‘toy’ to use as a parallel world to lose yourself into. A great example of this took place in the early hours of the game, when a flatmate and I chased a witness through the woods to stop them reporting us to the law: the madman spurred his horse on towards a cliff, but the animal would have none of it and threw him off the saddle, leaving him hanging off the cliff. At this point the game offered us a choice: throw him down and silence him, or rescue him with the expectation (but nothing like a promise) that he’d stay quiet about what he’d seen. It was a choice we spent too long making, because – almost without us realizing – the man slowly lost his grip on the ledge, and fell to his death. Oh well.
It is this built-up realism which, curiously, makes all the minigames and side-activities open-world games are famous for feel less like busy-work or like slot-machines at a theme park. I never cared much for the tennis or golf minigames in GTAV, and the hunting in the FarCry games always felt like a colourless chore (I might as well have been picking mushrooms, for all the impact it had), but somehow Red Dead Redemption 2 has the potential to enthral me for hours on end tracking down deer in the forest or playing poker in a saloon. It’s not that these minigames are substantially different in terms of mechanics from those in other games (they’re not): it’s the realism coating them and the immersion they cause, whether it’s the gory detail of skinning a rabbit without a knife (do not Google this) or the reactions of saloon patrons after a particularly disappointing round of poker.
Redemption 2 is easily the best-written Rockstar game to date, which is not too little praise in a portfolio that includes GTAV and the first Redemption. The angle here is one of fresh and quiet realism, unafraid to abandon the Western tropes the first game deconstructed in favour of grounded and unromantic character studies. One reviewer described Redemption 2 not so much as a videogame Western but a diorama of America at the turn of the century: you spend less time bounty-hunting and becoming a stylishly reluctant anti-hero, and more dealing with European immigrants in the East Coast, exploring the social effects of adolescent capitalism (with no small dose of hypocrisy) and dealing with the messy aftermath of the Civil War. (One particularly unexpected and atypical chapter in the game has you stranded in the Caribbean and helping natives fight Spanish colonists – close enough to a pirate story for my seal of approval).
A shift in tone is felt everywhere from Rockstar’s past, more satirical outings, such as the Grand Theft Auto series or even the first Red Dead Redemption, but without ever quite reaching the sombre (tiresome) moodiness of LA Noire. Where GTAV was the model ‘Rockstar experience’ (with zany situations between hopelessly flawed characters underpinning a grounded drama) and the first Redemption placed Western tropes and characters in the setting’s dying days, Redemption 2’s story feels almost like a sobering experience. No longer are we insane characters in an insane world: instead, Arthur is the last sane man in a world going insane. Acting as a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption, this downward spiral should not surprise anybody who played the first game: it’s here that we see the disintegration of the gang that we hunt down as John Marston in that game. This in itself is another achievement for Rockstar’s masterpiece – we know the end-point of our journey from the start, and still we wish it lasted forever.