Screenshot courtesy of Rockstar

It's Worth Keeping 'Red Dead Redemption 2' at a Distance

There are moments where you can almost forget the context, both in-fiction and real-world, that inform this uneven Western.

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Nov 5 2018, 8:49pm

Screenshot courtesy of Rockstar

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

Hey Austin,

Distance. That's the best way to summarize the hours (10?) I've spent with Red Dead Redemption 2. But it's not the surprising and appreciable distances Arthur Morgan travels between big moments—I learned to love the lack of fast travel after a certain mission, which I'll touch on later—it's the distance between me, Arthur, and the experience in front of me.

Another version of this response is just me spending 500 words complaining about the controls in this game, and how often I forget what I’m capable of doing, but I'll spare you.

There's a moment in the opening sequence of Red Dead Redemption 2, where you're robbing a train. You need money. What for isn't especially important; Dutch says you need it, so you need it. Your task is to reach the front of the train and bring it to a halt, so the rest of the gang can catch up. It's no great shock that on your way to the front, some folks don't take kindly, and send a hail of bullets in your general direction. I shot back because that's the only verb the game's presented me with. I cannot hold L2 to shout "Howdy, partner. You're in a bad spot right now. Why not just lay down your arms and I'll take it from here?" Shooting is your one and only verb. So, bang. Caught up in the spectacle, these moments washed over me. (It’s the game’s opening!) But I snapped back after reaching the front of the train, where, after a struggle, Arthur takes the train operator—someone he doesn't know, has not spoken with, and is only doing their job in showing resistance—and unceremoniously tosses him off the fucking train. The man's body disappears into the dark abyss, and Arthur stops the train.

A plain and crude wooden cross rises from the short grass of a forest clearing marking yet another grave that is being left in the wake of this cowboy who stands, a lanter in one hand and a six-shooter in the other, about to move on through the gathering twilight that has cast the scene in an eerie sepia glow.

Moments later, the gang blows open one of the train cars thought to hold valuables, only to discover a handful of people. The game provides Arthur with two options: let them go, or shoot 'em dead. The Arthur from the cutscene would started firing and moved on with his life.

Me, the player, decided to spare their life.

This gulf—this distance—has proven difficult to reconcile, and constantly picks at the difference between the storytelling driven by the game's plot and the storytelling of the player's actions. The Arthur who shows up in story missions is not the Arthur who, while walking a dusty road as the sun is setting, frees a woman from bondage. It's not the Arthur who, after being forced into a fatal duel with a man living a quiet life in the middle of nowhere, tries to open the pen where the man's pigs are being held, knowing they're certain to be left unattended and die, once Arthur walks away. (I was not able to find a way to prop the door, and could not bring myself to kill and skin them, as a form of noble sacrifice. I left.)

My Arthur is not afraid of violence, and understands it's unavoidable. Violence is a tool, or the shocking and cruel consequence of choices—that friction you talked about. But my Arthur is also someone who cleans up their campfire when it's time to move on, says hi to strangers on the road, and when around close friends, spends time hearing their problems.

A masked gunman bursts through the swinging doors of some frontier saloon and the man in the foreground is unarmed but crouched with fists raised and you just know that this encounter will not end peacefully, that even if this silhouetted figure in a duster and gunbelt were just here for a simple holdup, he will not vanish back into the afternoon glare outside without having put that iron in his hand to use.

That version of Arthur fades when the story kicks in, which is why I spend my time avoiding it. But even there, I've found frustration with how the game keeps me at arm’s length.

I shared this story on the podcast, but I'll recount it here. One time, I encountered a woman on the side of the road. Her horse had spontaneously died, falling on her in the process. I said hello, heard her plight, and made sure it wasn't a trap. After heaving the horse’s corpse off her, she thanked me—and it seemed that'd be that. Out of curiosity, I tapped L2 and noticed a chance for a further interaction: I could offer her a ride home. She grumbled about my horse, aka Jessica, being full, on account of a deer hide on her back. My camp could have used the food, but there was always time for more hunting, so I removed the hide, skinned it, and returned to the horse...only to be told this lady was tired of waiting, and would find her own way home. I tried to prompt another interaction, but the encounter was over.

Another time, I overheard a woman protesting her arrest. I approached the stage coach, hoping to get the lawmen to slow down and be reasonable, but they pulled their guns—and so did I. After a brief exchange, I shot the lock off the woman's cage, and she stepped out. As I waited for my heroic thank you, I made the mistake of accidentally pulling out my gun. The woman panicked, called me a maniac, and ran off down the road. You're welcome?

A gang out outlaws gathered around the warm orange glow of a campfire

(Side note: Maybe it's my sound system, but I'm constantly confused on where the action is happening. Whenever I hear idle noise—dialogue, a gunshot, whatever—I'll spend a full minute trying to figure out where it came from. Sometimes I never do, and it’s aggravating.)

The simulation falling apart isn't shocking. But given how little I'm getting from the "story," watching these sequences buckle only makes it harder and harder to connect with the game.

This distance is informed by events outside the game, too. You mentioned the extensive discussions we've had about the labor conditions at Rockstar, and how every moment of awe is partially robbed because it's possible that awe was created by people under physical, emotional, and psychological duress. There's no way to know? But it's possible, and it lingers. Thing is, we don't know the labor conditions under which most games are made. Ignorance is creatively convenient; without credible access, we're allowed to spend our time focused on what the game is, not the foundational labor.

There's every reason to be suspicious about how games, especially big-budget ones, are made, but absent evidence, it can feel like a fishing expedition. We have no such convenience with Red Dead Redemption 2, and it's uncomfortable. It would be easier if the story was simpler, that you could point to one compromised feature, and move on. We cannot. For as much specificity as reporting at places like Kotaku and Eurogamer have provided, it only goes so far, and we're left to consider the whole, tainted work. In contrast, we're told by developers (and developers on this game) to play and enjoy their work.

Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. I don't know if that feeling will pass, and maybe it's for the best if it ultimately doesn't.

Two of the Van der Linde gang's members, Mary-Beth and Tilly sit side-by-side in the back of a wagon looking somewhat sardonically back at the viewer, dressed in the well-worn but still stylish and cared-for clothes that give them an air of frontier glamor and sophistication that turns even that old wagon into a fancy carriage whisking its passengers to some new adventure.

And yet. And yet. And yet. There are moments of the sublime, where it all works in concert. Far and away, by favorite mission involved hanging out with Lenny Summers, one of the game's few black characters, at the bar. You're only supposed to get "one or two," but you can imagine where it goes from there. From the tiny touches, like the ability to pick and choose when you sip from the drink mid-conversation, to the jump cuts representing a blurred night out, to the sudden shift to first-person when Arthur needs to take a piss, to the player’s main interaction becoming shouting loudly into a crowd while you look for your friend—all of this is layered on a montage of interactive bits and sharply directed cutscenes, where few lines of dialogue are exchanged, but what’s reflected is a genuine friendship. Show, don’t tell.

The mission ended with Arthur waking up in the middle of a field. He stands up, pukes, and groans loudly. His horse isn't nearby, and Lenny is nowhere to be found. All of my stats, stamina especially, have been wrung dry. When I pull up the map, it becomes clear I stumbled miles out of town. Because there is no fast travel, I can't just whisk my way back to town. Instead, I need to make camp, sleep off this hangover, and use my own two feet. My long journey back to Valentine felt like the walk of shame anyone who's drank too much is familiar with at one shameful point in their life. Thankfully, my horse was where I'd left it.

It was charming and weird in the right ways, and helped me come around on the game's slower pacing, and how it tries to make you fully appreciate the notion of, well, distance. If I’d been able to tap a button on the map and warp to Valentine, it wouldn’t have been the same. I may be singing a different tune when I’m 40 hours in and waiting for the credits, but for now, I’m trying to respect what the game’s asking of me, and meeting it on its own terms.

In fits and starts, I like Red Dead Redemption 2, but I don't know if I like Red Dead Redemption 2, if that makes sense. And, yes, we need to talk about the lighting. The moon!

Rob, I'll toss to you, and pose the same question Austin asked of me. When you think about your hours with the game so far, what word comes to mind?