A train pulls past a horse on its way into what was once a lonely frontier town. Inside of a dim passenger car, John Marston leans forward, cowboy hat on head, protecting his eyes from sunlight that can't pierce the train's roof anyway.
Sometimes, a trailer for a game still early in development will showcase only a "target render:" not the game running in real time, so much as a goal the team hopes to reach by shipping. The opening image of the Red Dead Redemption debut trailer is a sort of thematic target render, offering players (and, maybe, the dev team itself) a prospectus of the game's key motif: the death of the wild west, the making-obsolete of people like Marston.
The trailer's narrator delivers a speech that signals this, too. "You know, we've lived here for 30 years now," he says before unfolding what that decades-long history looked like: Disease, outlaws, starvation, cold winters, armed conflict with the native tribes who they'd killed and driven away. In the game itself, this speech is delivered to Marston by rancher Drew MacFarlane, sipping coffee in his well dressed home—it's a scene that would fit right into probable RDR inspiration The Proposition. "I've seen strong men live and die under that sun. But I've never once doubted my life here."
He should doubt his life, of course, because the lesson of Red Dead Redemption is that those sent westward to conquer and colonize would, themselves, be inevitably replaced. The tragedy that Rockstar wants to tell is that people like John Marston "won the west," but they didn't win it for themselves. RDR doesn't necessarily spend enough time tangling with the fact that they won it through genocide and cultural obliteration (and then built railways through it using near-slave labor), but it does live up to the thematic promise that the initial trailer made.
And that is why I was disappointed by the most recent Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer. To be fair, it's pretty in line with the follow-up trailers for past Rockstar games, which subtly drape new gameplay features in familiar genre tropes—think of Niko receiving an ominous phone call, carefully moving alongside cover, and dangerously dangling off of speeding vehicles in the second GTA IV trailer. But neither this new RDR2 trailer nor my impression of the first trailer presented a clear idea of what big picture idea the game would be centered on.
So I sat down to write this piece. I dug up all of the major Rockstar game trailers, and at first, I found what I expected.
Grand Theft Auto IV's slow shots of Liberty City's Brooklyn stand-in turn into Koyaanisqatsi time-lapse, capturing the people, places, and energy of the city. Then, Niko's voice: "Life is complicated. I've killed people. Smuggled people. Sold people. Perhaps here, things will be different." GTA V's is a mirror, a visual love letter to LA while career-criminal Michael explains that he, like Niko, hoped to leave his past behind—before his associations drag him (not exactly kicking and screaming) back in.
"Wanting to escape his past, man flees to illusory American paradise," is not a novel story—and it's not one that either of those games fully sticks the landing on—but both trailers emphasize it clearly. When I thought about the original RDR2 trailer I mostly remembered quiet, wide shots of nature and western life, stuff that felt pulled from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or There Will Be Blood. There was no thematic throughline, novel or otherwise.
With all my notes in front of me, I set out to do the easy part: Re-watch the first RDR2 trailer, find some more specific criticisms, and move on. But instead, I saw something I'd missed before.
The trailer opens with a rider's silhouette against the sunset, and for the next 30 seconds, stays focused on other independent figures, changing shots along with piano chords: a solitary camper by night-time fire, a hunter with his kill across the back of his steed. Even the animals are alone here: a lone deer in the valley, a raccoon on the hunt, a shot of birds at twilight, not in a flock so much as vaguely sharing the same sky.
Then, 34 seconds in, the music rises just so, and a canoe slides across the screen from left to right, with both paddler and passenger. We'll never get a single figure again: A train cuts through the space between a traveling herd of buffalo. Then a carriage and a storefront, and then a whole town—vultures pecking away at road kill as a prospector and a nearby dog watch.
The piano picks up as a rider moves out through a burning oil field. He is accompanied, not only by his horse, but also by a voice: "Listen to me: When the time comes, you gotta run and don't look back. This is over." The figure looks down, embers around him. But the rider doesn't look back. Accompanied by a defiant, Morricone guitar twang and battling snare drums, seven riders charge on screen, guns held high, eyes on the horizon.
That transition from rider in solitude to one-among-many happens so quickly, so subtly, that I'm not surprised I missed it the first time through. Its pace might be appropriate though: It mirrors the surprising speed with which Rockstar became a developer of one of the world's most popular multiplayer games. I can't help but think that this overlap is intentional.
While Rockstar first offered open-world multiplayer in Grand Theft Auto IV, it was Red Dead Redemption which made obvious the potential of sharing these worlds with friends. It offered special combat challenges, unique hunts to go on, surprise encounters with enemy players. And like GTA IV, it simply let you cohabitate in a beautiful place. If GTA Online built on anything, it was RDR's multiplayer design.
So, while RDR2's campaign will likely put heavily focus on the benefits and costs of sticking by your crew—something made even clearer by that second trailer—revisiting this trailer has also left me with high expectations for RDR2's multiplayer component.
As nice as it was to spend time with friends in the hills of Los Santos, GTA Online's success came only after an incredibly weak launch: It felt latched on, lacking the clever mission design of later multiplayer expansions, and featuring groan-worthy writing that felt like it was picked up from the cutting room floor. In turning all of that around, Rockstar should now have a better understanding of how to build as similar mode for RDR2.
Though, if I'm being honest, I don't just want a similar mode. I want something ambitious. Audacious. I don't know if that's full campaign co-op or something altogether new. (Maybe Rockstar will be the ones to finally bring The Crossing's hybrid multiplayer campaign to fruition.) I just know that I don't only wanna ride with my real life crew for team deathmatch and special online-only heists.
Red Dead Redemption was a picture of Rockstar in a less cynical (though, still perhaps a bit nihilistic) mode, and I'm curious to see how RDR2 can extend that in 2017. It has its missteps, but John Marston's story was not filled with gross-out puns, transphobic shock humor, or confused caricature. The same seems true for RDR2: There is no sneering irony in the narrator's voice—he means it when he says to run when the time comes. And the rider means to ignore him.
Has a trailer ever stuck with you like the first Red Dead Redemption trailer stuck with me? Ever revisit an old one only to see something you missed before? Let me know in our forums in today's Open Thread.