Every once and awhile in Red Dead Redemption 2, I pick up a new gun. For fun, I guess? It’s impossible to easily compare specs, so if the name sounds cool, I’m in. It’s been a few hours since I randomly picked one up! Sometimes, if I remember, I will clean it. The game tells me it performs better if I do this, and there are lots of impressive-looking bars that fill up if my boy Arthur scrubs away, but I genuinely do not know if it makes a difference because you rarely die in this game, the shooting is not compelling, and the guns all seem the same.
It’s easy to jokingly reduce some games down to left trigger/right trigger, but the lock-on in Red Dead Redemption 2 is so aggressive and accurate that combat really is that quite often.
I am not suggesting some guns aren’t better at the business of mindlessly killing a small army of people during a bank robbery—there are plenty of guides that will point you towards the very best slaughtering machines—but I am saying the game makes no effort to make me care. My guns do not rust and stop working. They will not misfire. It just might take three bullets instead of two. Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of stuff like this, and it’s confounding.
The hunting doesn’t matter. The crafting doesn’t matter. The world, largely, doesn’t matter.
When I wrote about Red Dead Redemption 2 last year, the word I kept coming back to was “distance.” Now, having put some more time in with the game over the holidays, I wonder if the better word is “indifference” because I am genuinely shocked at how much of this game is window dressing. A game of seemingly complicated systems with no bearing on anything, whose value and worth seem mostly for the the sake of existing, rather than with purpose.
My first hours with Red Dead Redemption 2 were a little bit of everything. I went hunting, played poker, made fires in the desert, and slowly picked away at everything but the story. I cleaned weapons, skinned deer, and crafted stat-boosting foods. I eagerly searched the pockets of the dead, in hopes of finding an expensive watch to buy goods for the camp and increase morale. A dozen hours into the game, and Arthur’s pockets are overflowing with cash. I’m only halfway through the game—I just hit episode four—and there’s nothing else to buy. The story keeps telling me we’re poor and cash needy, but I’ve got thousands to spare.
This got me thinking: Maybe none of this shit actually matters?
I played a dozen or so hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 when it came out. This was both to be part of the take economy that fuels website traffic and because I was a huge fan of the original game. (When we did a Waypoint 101 replaying it, however, my opinion shifted drastically.) When it eventually became clear the game wasn’t grabbing me, I put it down, knowing full well it was possible I might not ever come back. But over the holidays, I found myself with a few days where both my wife and child were out of the house—it was a genuine vacation day. I decided to give Rockstar’s latest another shot, and punt on everything but the story.
One tip from a friend: turn on “cinematic mode” when travelling between missions. Arthur will guide himself along the path automatically, and the camera shots are more interesting. That part was true, I guess, but the game managed to undercut this in the most hilarious way:
Yeah, of course.
This was quickly followed by one of the random NPC events happening a second time. It was funny to suck the venom out of a man’s leg on the side of the road once, but the fact that the game didn’t mark that as “done” and remove it from the list of events the player could encounter again is odd, and immediately made me suspicious of any future bits.
Ever since, I’ve (largely) stuck to story missions and stranger quests. I’m no longer going off the beaten path, or pulling off to the side to track a wounded animal. Why? The game doesn’t ask me to do these things, doesn’t encourage me to do these things, and absent my own interest in seeing what happens, this game’s enormous and very expensive world slides out of view, as if it doesn’t exist at all. I’m on-rails to the next mission, missions with no choices for the player, except to follow the strictly precise logic dictated by the designer.
One time I hopped on the wrong horse during a mission, and it gave me a fail state?
I do know one of the reasons for this. I’m a player who struggles with games designed around “finding your own fun,” so to speak. When I was a kid, I loved building Lego sets, but if you put a stack of Legos in front of me, my mind would draw a blank. So while I enjoy open world games, if the game hasn’t been explicitly designed to pull me into situations, I’m unlikely to find them, and Red Dead Redemption 2 does nothing to undermine my behavior.
Breath of the Wild, with its dynamic weather systems and constantly breaking weapons, repeatedly pressed me into unexpected territory. Same with Far Cry 5, a game I didn't even like, but one in which I was always worried some goddamn bear was gonna maul me. (Or a turkey!) Or how about every time I ran into a dragon while quietly exploring Skyrim, minding my own business?
It’s not hard for me to imagine a version of Red Dead Redemption 2 that nudged me in different directions, but it’s not the one I’ve been playing for 20-plus hours. I’d say that’s fine, because I’m sure some people—the find-your-fun types—are getting into wild misadventures. But it also strikes me as a massive design misfire, to have players who are explicitly following the breadcrumbs laid out to have little to no interaction with such a huge part of the game, one meant to act as a randomization layer to the more guided story stuff.
There’s a lack of thematic coherence to Red Dead Redemption 2’s overall design that, perhaps, explains all of this. It’s a game of siloed ideas that, on paper, should interact and bounce off one another, but in reality, there wasn’t enough work done to make sure they have reasons to exist alongside one another. Put this here, put that there. Yeah, but why?
It’s a good question, but the game doesn’t have any answers.
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