I was riding to the town of Valentine at full gallop along a lush, country road when a stagecoach moved out of the treeline to block my path. I wondered if some NPC got lost on the way to town before it dawned on me: These boys were from the O'Driscoll gang, and this was an ambush.
Two more riders came at me from the east, making it a four-on-one fight. I scrambled for my rifle but grabbed my double-barreled shotgun instead, and wasted its two shots while my targets were too far away to make them count. I managed to pull out my revolver and fire a few shots, but I was out of the energy I needed to activate Dead Eye, Red Dead Redemption 2's slow-motion ability that lets me aim at enemies carefully. I was promptly gunned down.
In most action-oriented video games, which are almost always designed to satisfy male power fantasies, this confrontation would probably have gone down much differently. I would have been able to absorb more bullets before dying. I would have been able to use that slow-motion ability no matter what. I would have been able to blow the O'Driscolls away with a rocket launcher. Most video games wouldn't have ambushed me like that, unprepared, in the first place. But that's the kind of thing that could have happened in the Wild West, and unlike in video games, even the coolest, most badass outlaws are not likely to survive a four-on-one shootout.
In short, it wouldn't be realistic, and striving for realism is a lot of what guides Red Dead Redemption 2. It makes for a game that is often surprising and exciting, but not one that is fun in the way that most other big budget video games are fun.
Red Dead Redemption 2's striving for realism manifested in the type of situations I found myself in, like the O'Driscoll ambush, but also in every single, small interaction with the world. Let's take, for example, the simple act of shooting another character, one of the most common interactions in the game. To go from a neutral position to firing on the PlayStation 4 I need to:
- Choose what guns to take with me, which requires holding the L1 button while switching to one of the weapon slots, and moving right or left on the joystick to select the weapon I want.
- Draw the selected weapon from my holster by clicking the L1 button
- Hold the L2 trigger to aim
- Click the R2 button to cock the hammer while holding the L2 trigger, then click it again to shoot
- To activate Dead Eye, I also need to click in the R3 joystick first, and select my targets before firing (Later in the game, you also need to repeatedly click R1 while aiming in Dead Eye to select each target individually)
That's makes for potentially up to seven (or more) button presses to fire a weapon in a game that, in its broadest sense, is a third-person shooter. Now imagine having do all that quickly while you're getting jumped by some outlaws (I could spam the R2 button to fire from the hip, but that's no way to make an accurate shot). It's not easy, and it changed how I approached every situation. When I saw smoke on the horizon, I could assume that I'm about to come upon a camp. Is it friendly, or hostile? Should I approach it with my gun drawn and ready, or would that decision only escalate a situation that would have concluded peacefully otherwise? Am I even packing the right gear to be traveling across this wild country alone?
Compare that anxiety with one of my favorite games of all time, Doom (both the 1993 original and the 2016 version), where all I need to do to fire a BFG 9000 plasma gun that liquidates an entire room full of Hell demons is click the left mouse button once. I also never have to reload guns in Doom, whereas in Red Dead Redemption 2 I have to wait for an animation of my character loading each individual bullet into my six-shooter.
As I wrote in my review of 2016's Doom, it's fun precisely because of this flattening and abstracting of input to output. A single click results in a huge explosion. Clicking the WASD keys makes me zoom around the level at unrealistic speeds, like "Bruce Lee with a shotgun on a skateboard," as the game's director Hugo Martin said. Seeing huge feedback on screen to simple action you take with your fingers on a keyboard or controller is key to video game power fantasies, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is not really interested in that.
At times, Red Dead Redemption 2 is so uninterested in immediate satisfaction that it almost feels like developer Rockstar Games is trolling the player.
One of the first things you do in Red Dead Redemption 2 is search a small home. As a blizzard rages outside, you're tasked with searching the place for valuables, which entails walking around the incredibly detailed space, picking up items, and examining them, all with slow, realistic, and plodding animations. I could pick up a picture, zoom in to look at it closer, and read anything someone might have written on it. I could also turn it over to check if anything was written on the back. I could do this with every item in the game, and most of the time there is nothing written on the other side, but someone still had to draw up and texture the back of every photograph in the game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with these kinds of mundane details—cigarette packs, photos, bottles of alcohol, etc, and walking around, picking these items up, and looking at them is one of the most common activities in the game.
There are entire systems in the game that can, and probably should, be ignored. To name just one example, Red Dead Redemption 2 includes poker games, which don't just accurately recreate the rules of poker, but also allowed me to eyeball other players around the table and get wise to their tells, little behavioral ticks that clued me in to what kind of hand they were holding. Am I going to spend any time playing poker in Red Dead Redemption 2? Absolutely not, but knowing that it's there does sort of passively enrich the experience. Just like the real world, Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with activities, places, and people I am free to ignore because they are boring or annoying.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the biggest games of the year. It's the developer’s first new game after the release of 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, an extremely over-the-top action game and one of the most profitable entertainment products of all time. Hundreds of people across the world have spent years working on it so hard that it’s become a flashpoint for a renewed conversation around labor abuses in the video game industry. And what has all that effort gone towards? Voice acting, and new lighting tech, and realistic horse galloping or whatever, but what stands out most about Red Dead Redemption 2 compared to other big budget video games is the amount of energy spent on this kind of cinéma vérité, Seinfeld-like obsession with nothing.
It's the kind of transgressive design decisions we sometimes find in small, independent games with meta commentary about the state of video game design, but it's wild to see it offered to as mainstream an audience as can be.
At the end of the day, I will always prefer games that aim for traditional conceptions of video game fun. 1993's Doom hit me at an impressionable age, and its patterns of instant gratification are imprinted on my brain. As much as I admire what Red Dead Redemption 2 does, it doesn't convince me that the way it makes characters move, stick to cover, and shoot, is "better" than the way Gears of War 4 does it. The former prioritizes animations that fit into the world realistically and the latter bends reality to make the same movements feel snappy and empowering.
Even while I was playing and enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2, I was often frustrated with its priorities, and wished I could go back to playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, which is not transgressive, or challenging, but is much more "fun" to play.
That I want to keep playing Red Dead Redemption 2 despite it not catering to my expectations is probably the highest compliment I can give it, and I am excited to see if big budget game developers will be willing to take more risks in their games in the future if it continues to sell well.