screenshots courtesy of Rockstar

'Red Dead Redemption 2' Is a Game of Big Mistakes and Little Victories

The redeeming details in a flawed epic.

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Nov 7 2018, 7:17pm

screenshots courtesy of Rockstar

This is the third letter in our series about Red Dead Redemption 2. You can read Austin's first letter here, and Patrick's second here.

My Dear Patrick,

You asked me for a word and so I give you Excess.

It's the word I keep returning to as I play Red Dead Redemption 2. Because more than anything else, it succeeds because of the massive expenditure of human resources lavished on it. There was a cost to making Red Dead Redemption 2 into a great game, one largely paid by the people who worked on it.

It’s not that the game justifies the excessive cost. It’s that the excesses justify the game. Arthur Morgan pushing branches out of his face as he slowly rides his horse through a pine grove. Each labored step he takes as he shuffles through the snow. The play of light on a lake as a spring storm blows in from the mountains. All the tiny details that make you feel that these people—particularly this awkward, slow, and patient man that you only sort-of control—are real and alive in this beautiful and frequently heartbreaking world.

But what is equally obvious in playing Red Dead Redemption 2 is that those grace notes comprise much of the game’s greatness. They lift a game that is almost fatally weighed-down by mediocrity from the top. Its controls are resolutely poor, its systems both fussy yet uninvolving, and it fights my intentions so stubbornly that I’m frequently reminded of QWOP. You are given the run of a remarkable, vast theme park, but the catch is that you can only explore it from inside of a slightly broken bumper car.

A mighty moose stands proudly at left of frame looking toward the viewer across a sun-dappled grove of trees. In the distant background of the right side of the frame we see a rifleman taking aim.

There are also lapses that I find downright bizarre. This is a game with terrific sound effects and design that nevertheless sounds terrible. Patrick, you mention that you have a hard time locating anything by sound. Well, part of the problem is that this is one of the weirdest mixes for stereo and surround speakers that I’ve ever heard. I generally play with surround speakers, and I have to turn my speakers up about twice as loud for Red Dead as I do anything else. Because if I don’t do that, the in-game dialogue becomes inaudible. It sounds almost as if everything characters say is made camera-relative rather than character-relative, so that Arthur always sounds like he’s at least 20 feet away, and whoever he is talking to on horseback is another 30 feet away. I am constantly straining to make out the dialogue, and things like distant rifle shots or approaching hoofbeats are rarely positioned in a way that matches my intuitive understanding of where my character is located.

Then you get a cutscene and the audio mix completely changes and each line thunders from characters’ mouths like the voice of God. There is literally no other movie or game that gives me this problem on this speaker setup. And it ends up throwing away tons of fantastic work from voice actors and foley artists… unless I put my speakers on full blast and risk my eardrums.

It is also striking that even when the writing is at its absolute best… it’s not very good. It’s better at sounding good than the exchanges we heard in Red Dead Redemption, but it often falls apart the when you stop and think about it for a moment.

An example: one morning at camp, Mary-Beth asks Arthur to have a seat and tell her what’s on his mind. And he admits that he’s starting to feel like time is running out for him and the gang. Times are changing, things aren’t how they used to be. And then he says that there’s just no place for people like them anymore. Nobody wants them anymore, the country has no use for them anymore.

A barren tree juts from a hillside at the left of the frame, silhouetted against a sky turning tan and gold with the sunset, while further down the slope sits a solitary horseman.

This kind of elegaic pablum sounds good and it’s certainly delivered well. So well that you might not notice that it makes not a lick of sense. Arthur is not some homesteader, nor a lawman, nor a cavalry trooper. He’s none of the classes of people that American society found useful in its slow-rolling annexation and genocide across the continent, and who were often eventually discarded or marginalized themselves in some form or another. He’s not John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, a violent killer who has no place in the peaceable, domestic life he has hunted and murdered to ensure. He’s not Wild Bill at the end of all his tethers in Deadwood, clinging to what he knows in one of the last violent frontier towns left.

Arthur and the gang are criminals. Hardened, unrepentant career criminals. Nobody has ever wanted the Van der Linde gang to ride into town, because they were always going to start stealing shit and shooting people. It’s an especially nonsensical line coming from Arthur, who is otherwise resolutely characterized as the least self-deceiving member of the gang. This is not a character who would feel like society had turned against him. It has always been against him because he has always been both a predator and a parasite within it.

Arthur’s gloomy self-pity only really makes sense as part of an attempt to evoke the passing of the era and the Closing of the Frontier. And the whole exchange works on that level, but it’s not earned. It’s a thing put into the mouth of Arthur Morgan because that’s what one of the Big Themes of Red Dead is supposed to be. So for the purposes of one admittedly well-acted and animated scene, Arthur becomes a member of the anxious white working class, a man who has worked his whole life only to see his living vanish along with his class. Where, Arthur wonders, are the jobs for men who throw railroad engineers into river gorges?

Two slovenly but undeniably weary and pitiable-looking cowboys sit side by side in reserved and awkward silence. The one nearest us stares unblinking into the middle distance while his companion regards him uncomfortably, torn between his own reticence and his desire to give voice to his sympathy and pain.

But my God I feel the walls closing in at night when I look across the camp and see Dutch hunched over on the edge of his bunk, staring pensively at the ground as a celebration goes late into the night. A mournful figure against the glow of a moonlit forest, and that image tells me far more than all the reams of dialogue written for this game.

Or during those too-few moments when I know a posse is coming to investigate, and I’m alone with evidence of my crimes and I know there’s more treasure to be had if I just had time to look for it. I suddenly feel like an outlaw as I frantically toss a camp looking for where the real valuables are hidden, and then there is the gathering sound of men on horseback approaching and I have to ride like hell for the mountains where maybe I can shake off my pursuers, or maybe try and shoot it out with them among the rocks and streams.

This, I think, is where the scale of Red Dead Redemption 2 saves it from itself. There are so many details, so many beautiful surprises waiting for you that it becomes fascinating to explore. Taken as a whole it might manage nothing more than a vast, all-encompassing adequacy. But in its smaller moments, in its attention to the details of life in its world—attention paid by so many people who will receive so little recognition—it often achieves something like greatness.

But games have a way of feeling smaller as your play them and learn their limits. I think one of the great successes of Red Dead Redemption 2 is that it feels like it might be limitless, in much the same way Dutch himself regards this wide-open countryside he's turned into his hideout and accomplice. You crest a high ridge and can't help but turn on your horse to look back across a valley. And it hits you how beautiful all of this is, and of course of how much of it is in the process of being taken and lost at this point in history, and how much has been lost in the time between then and now.

But at other times it sometimes feels like I'm in a race between my impatience with the writing and overall game design versus my growing love for this imagined country. Austin, in your time with the game, what is winning that race?

As always, gentlemen, I remain your servant,

Rob