In Red Dead Redemption 2, I gravitate towards the cliffs. This is where you get the best views of the valleys, plains and ravines below. You can spend hours here, watching detachedly as your horse scratches the ground with its feet, while your cowboy smokes a quick cigarette and the wind brings in with it swirling grey storm clouds and distant deer hop and jump over the bristling lowlands below.
RDR2 excels in feeling alive because of the sheer levels and layers over each view of the map when you stop to look at it: the floor and the soil and the cliffs and the dug-out river beds, yes, but also the fish twitching in the water, the rabbits startled away from your horse's hooves, the clouds moving at just the right pace, and there, off in the distance, the mountains creaking with snow.
RDR2 is a technical feat and a marvel of realism because the sun sets and the land changes beneath it, and sprinting down a street elicits hundreds of different scripted replies from the people around you – surprise, shock, anger, fear – and because you kick down your campfire with a sizzle of your boot. I've been sulking on a cliff here for 15 straight minutes because my horse trampled over a dog.
Guilt is a hard thing to feel strongly as an adult. As a child: sure, I felt guilt. My life was ruled by guilt. When you're a child, you work along a fixed binary – Naughty at one end, Nice at the other, the dark jolly threat of Santa on the distant horizon keeping you on the path of the light – and erring into the shadowy hinterlands of Naughty renders you, condemned to your room without dinner, gnashing at yourself internally and flagellating yourself with a huge, dam wall-feeling of guilt.
I once felt guilty for, no shit, about nine days because I threw a flower at someone during a Year 3 lunch break and got in trouble for it. Now, I'm an adult and pay taxes and feel less than nothing about anything. I mean, who's going to tell me off? As long as you operate within the broad confines of the law, nobody gives a shit what you do. Guilt goes far by the wayside when right and wrong merge together into a grey stodgy feeling of adult morality. I think the last time I felt bad about anything was, like, 2005.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, there are 200 species of animal, and you can kill all of them and skin most of them. If you run over a skunk you can hop off your horse and pull its skin off – the animation to do this is vivid, and seemingly involves your character, Arthur Morgan, pushing two hooked fingers from each hand into the sheer arsehole of the animal and tearing outwards, and this goes for rabbits and squirrels and such too – or you can hunt animals more carefully, tiptoe up on them with a bow and an arrow, bolt through their head and sprint down to the corpse, which you peel (again, each animal has its own animation, and it is vivid), rolling their skin up like a blanket and stowing it on the back of your horse.
After a run-in with a retired gunslinger, I beheld his lifeless body and pressed the O button again and again and again to see if kicking his head enough would compact his skull ("no" is the broad answer: you can kick and bruise the face a little, bloody the nose, but you cannot crush the skull; there are limits), then moved to behind his shack or shed, where I murdered one of his pigs and skinned it whole while it was still warm, while its sty-mates squealed around me. And then I felt really, really, really weird and bad. And I haven’t killed a single pig on the game since because it makes the inside of me want to die. Kicking the man's skull until it more-or-less caved in? Eh. Taking the skin off a pig and watching the sinews stick to its nude carcass? Absolutely not, no thank you. No.
Every time there was a new GTA game as a kid, I would do this thing that you did too: boot up the cheat codes, give myself all the Level 3 top-tier weaponry, conjure a fighter jet out of the sky, cause carnage. This can go on for hours when you are a teenage boy fuelled only by Dr. Pepper and horniness: a rocket fired into a fleeing crowd; a tank, cannoning backwards to move faster down a highway, squealing sideways into a mall; killing everyone on a single street with a machete until the police turn up; firing a helicopter out of the sky with an assault rifle; huddling down in a shop and killing, in turn, every mechanical law enforcement official that shuffles sideways to the door with their guns held out, until corpses disappear beneath the sheer number of themselves, leaving primary red blood spatters behind. Crashing a car into the back of a truck so hard the driver tips forward into the horn, dead. Remote explosives arranged in a neat line along a busy highway. Beating someone to death with a dildo. GTA creates a world with near limitless violent possibilities, and you can while away hours baiting the police out with them, jetpacking away as they try to shoot you, cackling. You can do it while feeling nothing – or next to nothing – at all.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is slower than that, not least because the control system makes me feel like I have wooden pegs instead of fingers and I keep accidentally going into stealth mode and quietly punching my horse (once felt so bad about punching my horse that I trotted her to the nearest stables and bought them out of celery so I could feed it to her, constantly, until she neighed for me to stop).
You cannot summon a jet out of the sky and cross the map in a single boost of fuel. You cannot explode people to atoms with a railgun. You have a couple of pistols you constantly have to oil, a smudgy-scoped sniper rifle, a lasso and a knife, and that means you have to be slow, and steady, and trot when your horse can't gallop, and every pull of the trigger feels weightier, somehow, and more severe. You can't grenade a beach to pieces, so you have to cock each bullet one-by-one, then stab animals in the stomach and take their skin off from there. This is a game where you have to pull the R2 button just to take a sip of coffee. It makes you perform every action as if you did it for yourself.
RDR2 is built onto a vague karmic system, which 20 hours in I am a complete slave to. Perform good deeds and a small cowboy head will inch along a spectrum at the bottom of your screen, suggesting you lean towards Good and that Santa will bring you presents this year. Murder an entire town and it will go the other way, because that behaviour is flagged as Bad. Shoot a horse in the head during a gun battle (I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! The trigger is— I didn't mean it!) (I have since developed Level 4 Dead Eye and use it exclusively to avoid shooting horses in the head) and you will clang into the red zone and, as you pick through the bodies of the battle, looting them for watches and gold, you can behold the soiled corpse of the horse you slayed, and feel real-world Bad to go along with your digital Bad. Kill too many people, ignore too many charity cases, and your karma will turn red and bounty hunters will be sent in waves to kill you: the evil man does not get any peace.
But that's not the real upshot of indecent behaviour in the world of RDR2. The people are rendered so faithfully, the animals so realistically skinned, the world seemingly so alive without you (I saved a man from a bear trap and eased him back onto his horse, then followed him for 20 minutes as he trotted from town to town, performing basic chores, seemingly unflustered by the red raw holes in his leg) (I later shot him), that your actions feel like they have weight: not just on the rail-like karma system constantly updating your score, but one the shape of the map around you and, through your hands and the plastic controller held within them, into you, on the sofa, quietly saying "shit, sorry" because you just aimed a gun at a passing priest.
The last time a video game made me feel anything was, roughly, never. I felt fear when playing P.T., which scared all of the shit out of my body and onto the sofa below; I felt glee when I first played Gears of Wars, when the duck-and-cover system hits just right and you mow down wave after wave of formless monsters. I once played Theme Park World for so many hours on a sick day off from school that I gave myself a migraine, which necessitated another sick day off school, and I suppose I felt an obscure pang of guilt around that. But, broadly, the "Are Videogames Art?" conversation has always come up against a stumbling block: films can make you have emotions, TV can and books, but somewhere in the uncanny valley it's hard to feel much of anything for faces moving just slightly wrong when they are trying to do emotions.
The original Red Dead Redemption had two moments of high emotional drama – the José Gonzalez / crossing to Mexico sequence halfway through the game, and the shoot-out towards the end – and I suppose The Last of Us did the best job yet of telling a story that scraped at the player's emotional core, but what's been lacking along the way are the day-to-day emotions – joy, recognition, fear, the grubby little feeling of guilt – and RDR2 has, somehow, achieved that. Critics are calling the game a "miracle", and to be honest it is: anything that makes me swerve a digital horse abruptly so I don't run over a digital squirrel is doing something next-level to my stupid lizard brain.
At the end of a gunfight recently, where the town's sheriffs slaughtered my horse, I saw red: I went into full Dead Eye mode, taking them all out with slo-mo headshots, except for the last guy standing, who I shotgunned in the stomach and watched as he slumped to the ground. He stayed alive, there, for a full minute: contorting, screaming, choking on his own blood, crying out in pain and for mercy, and I could have pitifully finished him with a headshot I suppose, but instead I just waited until he quietly stopped moving and died. I sort of felt bad about that one: guilt, at its core, is a form of suffering, and I had inflicted it upon myself by revenge-killing the lad who shot my horse. "But none of this is real," I had to whisper to myself, as I looted his body for his wedding ring. "This is an illusion."
Am I a good man or a bad man? Real life: hard to tell. Red Dead Redemption 2: even harder. Yes, I am having fun shooting birds out of the sky, and interacting with loopy strangers, and trotting my horse down from snowy mountains onto dusty plains. I'm enjoying the script-so-deep-it-feels-real and the way the land changes from one climate to another over the course of a state-sized map. But being able to make me feel actual, real-world emotions as punishment for my digital sins? Making me, a fey and consequence-free millennial man, feel responsible for my actions? Honestly, Rockstar Games, it's borderline rude. But well done on it, I guess.