'Red Dead Redemption 2' Is Defined By Its Rough Edges
From reported labor abuses to a total dedication to its languid frontier fantasy, 'Red Dead Redemption 2' is messy as hell.
All screenshots by author.
It’s been a week since Red Dead Redemption 2 released. In lieu of a normal review, the editorial team has decided to share their thoughts with each other and you in the form of a letter series. For previous letter series from Waypoint, click here .
The word I keep coming back to when I think about Red Dead Redemption 2 is friction.
I mean that in a few different ways, some that are about my enjoyment and some that are about my frustration. But more than that, for me, RDR2 is “about” friction, not only in the sense of its plot or themes (though that too), but in terms of what it is both internally as a work and externally as a cultural object. In this way I suppose I mean that RDR2 is about friction the way I think football is about impact: Not every play is a characterized by an especially noteworthy tackle, but the crashing together of players, the long lasting effects of those tackles, and the cultural collisions that have followed the sport since its inception are core to its identity. When I look at Red Dead Redemption 2, that core seems to be friction.
Central (and primary) to this overarching friction for me is the tension I feel between my (generally positive) experience of playing the game and what has been reported about the labor conditions that went into its creation—which we’ve spoken about at length over the past few weeks, but which we should not forget now that the game is out. I am regularly brought out of whatever reverie the game’s intense devotion to detail and its many interlocking systems are intended to put me in. In fact, I talked about this friction on Monday’s Waypoint Radio:
But friction also runs through the game’s design ethic and through much of my play experience, too. And when I talk about that I generally mean it as a compliment.
As open world games have continued to increase in both scope and density, one way that they have adapted to keep players engaged is by sanding down anything that might keep them from moving forward. Sometimes, this is just about creating a smooth, untroubled gameflow. For something like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey this means, for instance, that there are no animations for picking up resources like bundles of oak logs from trees and that paying off a bounty on your head is both cheap as hell and something you can do from your menu. You have places to go, people to see, and because there is so much of it, Odyssey wants to make sure that there aren’t any speed bumps along the way.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is, by contrast, all speed bump.
In the game's story, those speed bumps are the many antagonists gunning for the Van der Linde gang. Protagonist Arthur Morgan and the rest of the outlaw gang he runs with are pursued by law and capital both, with US marshals and an oil tycoon’s army of bounty hunters nipping at their heels from the very start of the game. As such, every roadblock you hit, from the literal blockades set up by rival gangs to a request for help from one of Arthur’s old flames, is framed as a troubling distraction on your long, twisting route towards freedom (whatever that means).
When the game’s main plot plays around in these themes—especially when it’s pushing back against modernization in its most elegiac mode—I’m not sure it works for me (and more on that later). In the open world though, where (as I described on Monday’s podcast) stumbling onto a roadside robbery can turn into a 45 minute long spiral of chases, gunfights, and a race against time to save a man’s life. A system of witnesses, investigating lawmen, bounties, and fragile horses means that your heists and hold-ups can break bad even when you secure the bag. So much of this is enabled by the game’s willingness to qualify your successes or even let you fail outright. (That is, so long as you aren’t in a story mission, where diverging from the pre-scripted outcome will shoot you back to a loading screen).
To be clear, I don’t think that these little mini-quests (the man with the snakebite, the wagon with the broken wheel, the woman whose horse died miles from home) offer any interesting choices. But friction doesn’t need to be about choice, only effect and resistance. And like Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra, I think that, despite all of the marketing pretense about the game being a hyper-detailed wild west simulation, Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually more of a theme park totally all centered on you, the player. Unlike something like Crusader Kings 2, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series (especially when modded), or Dwarf Fortress, RDR2’s NPCs aren’t independent agents operating on the same “level” of the game as you are. If the game is a theme park, they’re the ride attendants. The thing is, the rides they operate are all about getting you into trouble, all about causing friction.
This is all underscored by RDR2’s often meandering pace, which makes every speed bump that much more imposing. Odyssey’s world-traveling Kassandra—light as a feather, impervious to falls from any height, able to instantly split a tree into perfectly usable log units—just just wouldn’t work for me here. Whether skinning a deer, shopping a general store’s shelves and catalog, or cleaning his gun, Arthur takes his damned time.
I get the frustration from some players, but these animations allow for my favorite bits of any session of RDR2 I play: Slowly walking through town, exchanging bromides with whoever I pass. Chopping wood and brewing coffee back in camp. Petting dogs and cleaning my horse. Arthur’s animations are what we might call “deliberate” or “purposeful.” It is fair, also I think, to call them luxurious to the point of ponderousness .
Sometimes this bleeds over from background activity into the game’s core system design. Did you know that you can craft “split point” bullets at any point, which are just 100% better ammo, increasing damage and decreasing dead eye energy use—but that Arthur needs to make them one at a time, each one taking a button press and a two second animation? (If not, then one more thing to blame on that terrible menu design. For a game all about “polish,” RDR2 has a large number of usability issues.)
I’m “only” 20 or 30 hours in at this point, but all this detailed animation makes Arthur seem like even though he has to if he wants to stay alive (and “free)” he just doesn’t want to move quickly. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, and with the qualification that I just don’t know if it fully works for me, let me still say that I think this is “the point” of RDR2—the central thematic friction it wants us to think and talk about. The world is modernizing, speeding up, and that means that if he wants to stay alive, Arthur needs to speed up with it. But he’d rather brush his horse and cut little Xs into his bullets.
And I’m not sure how to feel about that yet.
In the same way that music isn’t only lyrics and that movies speak as much with the camera as the dialog, games communicate through their mechanics. For instance, because RDR2 wants me to know that Arthur’s first instinct isn’t violence, hitting L2 doesn’t aim down his gun’s sight (introducing more friction (!), since that’s what so many other games in the genre do), and instead it locks onto someone or something in the world allowing me to speak or interact with them. In doing so, that mechanic actually responds to a complaint about (non-RPG) open worlds for years: Stop making games where all I can do is hurt things.
But with all the focus on slowness, preparation, camp-making, etc., I’m less convinced by the message.
If you’ve heard me talk about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or The Witcher 3 or Dragon’s Dogma, you know that, when done right, I love it when games ask me to spend time getting prepared for my adventures. Though it isn’t as blatant or explosive as the power fantasies offered by something like Grand Theft Auto or Doom, it is still absolutely a power fantasy. The world is dangerous, these games say, and you can overcome your disempowerment not only through the immediate execution of your skill, but through research, preparation, and knowledge. Hell yeah, sign me up. Let me check the bestiary, do some scouting runs, and listen to that cool cooking jam.
But here, in RDR2’s turn of the century wild west, where words like “frontier” and “freedom” are thrown around with abandon, the melancholy fantasy of slowness and care becomes especially charged. Shucks, says RDR2’s focus on languid, manual labor and campfire hangouts, wouldn’t it be easier to go back to the way things used to be?
And again: This is about mechanics, not about story, and it’s about the fact that I do like them, not that I don’t—if they weren’t effective, I wouldn’t care. So, it doesn’t matter if the end of this game is Arthur saying “Actually, the old days were really bad too!” and then devoting the rest of his life to making things better for the folks who spent their lives under boots like his. So long as that comes after dozens of hours where I, as a player, am reveling in the tranquility of the past—the joy of carrying sacks of flower or chopping wood, the ease of fireside singalongs and lackadaisical fishing trips, the pleasure of hunting down a three-star Buck to feed your camp—then the game is sending a different message.
This is all the more fraught because when you start to work through the genocidal reality of that past, whatever attraction this quiescent pastoral fantasy offers falls apart. Again this may change in my next 25 hours with the game, but in the first few acts of RDR2, the motivating animus for characters like Arthur Morgan and Dutch is a sort of resentment: It was men like them who “won the west,” they say, and now they’re being pushed out. It’s all so totally in line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s outdated and ugly “frontier thesis,” which mythologized and defended the imperialistic expansion that furthered the genocide that the eastern colonies had begun centuries earlier. Which makes me more than a little nervous about the back half of the game, which I know touches on the mass killing of indigenous peoples—a topic I’m sure we’ll talk more about as this letter series continues.
In any case, all of these frictions—thematic, mechanical, historical, aesthetic, laborious—totally characterize the external response to the game, which currently sits at 97 on Metacritic but which has received a great deal of aptly-earned criticism and a decent amount of disdain, too. They also characterize my own experience, which I think is right, somehow.
There’s a version of the beginning of this letter series where, instead of wrapping my head around these conflicting feelings, I just talk about the writing, or the combat, or how good the lighting is (and we should, at some point, talk about the lighting). But I don’t think we could start there. We had to start here, where things are messy: Red Dead Redemption is unique and frustrating and incredible and sometimes down right bad. And the risk of not recognizing and addressing that messiness is vast.
Already, you can see the argument being made across social media (and even in some professional reviews, sometimes even from critics that I otherwise respect) that given the game’s strength, the conditions that RDR2 was reportedly made under were either unavoidable or worth it. But this characterization elides a dozen or more major blemishes in order to make the case, in order to hem and haw over the calculus.
...when we ignore the ways in which RDR2 stumbles as a work, it gives ammunition to those who want to argue that “perfection takes sacrifice”...
Ignoring those issues is a failure twice-over: First, when games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and studios like Rockstar ask to be taken seriously, take them seriously. If they want to push the medium forward across technological, artistic, and narrative fronts, then we cannot simply pat them on the back for doing better than they’d done before. We need to identify the particular moments of success with clarity and insight, and we must also identify and contextualize the failings, even when our general impression of the work is positive.
Second, this line of thinking—that such high ambition made crunch unavoidable or even acceptable—misses a fundamental truth of creative work: there is always more work to be done, more detail to be added, more “polish” to be pursued. Finishing any creative endeavor (whether a song, an essay, a sculpture, or a game) requires moments of arbitrary resignation: Fine, yes, it is done. I could add more to this part or that, but this is it.
When we ignore or undersell the flaws in a work like RDR2 (which is not unique in the reported conditions of its production, but which is a flashpoint for games culture to work through our understanding of labor rights), we help in the hawking of a neoliberal myth about artists: that all great creation requires the volunteer destruction of the self. The truth is the opposite. In its best, least alienated form, creative work is rejuvenating and fulfilling, connecting us to each other and to the deeper parts of ourselves.
All of which is to say that when we ignore the ways in which RDR2 stumbles as a work, it gives ammunition to those who want to argue that “perfection takes sacrifice,” or some other bromide that fails to understand that “sacrifices” in the labor market aren’t evaporated into the air, but deposited into someone else’s bank account.
So, let me put the question to you, Patrick: Back when we first considered doing reviews for the site, we had this idea that we would have a single word descriptor for every game. Not just a superlative like “good,” but something descriptive. For me, my one word review of RDR2 is (obviously) friction. What’s yours?