Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is no mere videogame. Likewise, this is going to be no ordinary review. Buckle in!
This is arguably the most ambitious and costliest entertainment product of all time. Coming off the unprecedented success of Grand Theft Auto V (also, the most successful entertainment product ever), Rockstar North were given carte blanche. The first thing they did was roped in every single studio under the Rockstar Games banner, all operating as the largest game studio there is. The entire workforce under Rockstar banner - over 2,000 developers including contractors - was deployed for this one, singular title. Oh, and it took them over 5 years to get it done. We don't know how much it costs, but one look at Take Two's financial reports suggests at least $500 million.
Everything I have mentioned above, conventional wisdom would suggest this would be a bombastic, highly commercial product targeted squarely at the mainstream. But... It just isn't. This is work of intense drama and intellect, a game with a distinct and singular vision, an experience that's meditative, shying away from instant gratification at most turns. How, then, could this be the biggest game ever made? It's truly one of the great anomalies of modern capitalism, a unique combination of big money meets passion project.
RDR2 has its own rhythm. Every single movement, mechanic and action is painstakingly animated. The wildlife, the water bodies, the NPCs, the various systems, the plot, activities in the open world - pretty much everything moves in a particular way that could be considered much "slower" than most other games. However, RDR2 doesn't care about games. It does its own thing, and does so remarkably consistently. Of course, it's not for everyone, but for those of us that feel most modern games are too fast-paced, a game like RDR2 can end up being incredibly immersive.
It all starts with the open world, of course. As you'd expect from Rockstar, there's meticulous detail poured into every aspect of the world. It's a masterclass in open world design, in too many ways to mention, while cleanly avoiding many of the issues with most open world games this generation. I have two major criticisms for most open worlds this generation - they are simply not confident enough. Every 30 seconds, there's some random event or activity that's just there because the developer thought the player will get bored in 30 seconds. There are too obvious signposting across the world, to make sure the player doesn't get lost, but instead ending up with a formulaic geographic structure. Not so with RDR2. There's definitely some inspiration from Bethesda Game Studios - RDR2's open world has a greater depth of environmental storytelling than previous Rockstar Games. There's are several interesting locations with an intriguing story to tell. You don't need random events - the world itself is interesting enough to keep you engaged. RDR2's open world is geographically diverse, with plenty of undulation and unexpected geographic features. Yet, you'll never get lost - because the world has diegetic signposting. Identities are built through interesting landmarks, natural and man-made, wildlife ecosystems and so forth. You won't get lost because every region of the world is memorable. Indeed, the game is best played with the map turned off, it's a thoroughly immersive experience.
A special mention to the wildlife simulation in the game. It's absolutely nothing like any other game, with hundreds of unique species living their own lives, interacting with each other, and behaving in characteristic ways. While few of us are going to go into RDR2 expecting a David Attenborough documentary - you can absolutely stand still and observe the wildlife. You can observe crocodiles stalking their prey, snakes fighting it out with mongooses, bears shooing off deers, etc. And then there's the sound, RDR2 features some of the richest, most vibrant, most diverse soundscapes ever committed to a game. Going from RDR2 to another highly rated AAA game just kinda sounds.... Empty. You'll hear what I mean.
But it's not just the wildlife, of course, every NPC has their own schedule, and often chance upon unexpected scripted events. You can absolutely be a stalker and discover interesting stories along the way.
By now, you're probably thinking - who cares? These Rockstar folks are just nuts. But it does matter. Besides the fact that some of this simple observation can be surprisingly engaging, even if you don't care, it all helps situate you in a world that's living and breathing. Subconsciously, or not, it has an impact that needs to be experienced to be believed.
RDR2 does suffer from a bit of a split-personality, though. While the open world is absolutely breathtaking, and clearly pushing the medium forward, the moment you enter a mission, RDR2 becomes a familiar linear game. Granted, the missions are extremely creative, with several memorable moments. Almost every mission has some bespoke element, rather than a generic quest structure. As a result, unlike most open world games, missions never feel repetitive. Perhaps that's the trade off - to create such variety in mission design, one needs to keep them linear. But it's still disappointing that this aspect of Rockstar's formula has not evolved, given the excellence elsewhere.
RDR2's narrative follows a rather unexpected structure - that of a 19th century novel. Perhaps the pacing of the world, its mechanics and everything else was dictated by the literary material? Could very well be. The writing is excellent throughout, with some of the best dialogue I've ever seen in a game. Of course, it's aided by also some of the best voice acting I've ever seen in a game. Particular mention for Roger Clark's virtuoso performance as Arthur Morgan - truly one of the iconic acting performances not just in videogames, but also cinema in general. There's a surprising depth to characters. There are beautiful, poignant moments, tragic moments, from start to finish. Combined with Red Dead Redemption, this is simply one of the finest narratives in modern entertainment. Criticisms? The old school narrative structure contains several ellipses which seem a bit old-fashioned and repetitive today. I imagine the narrative could have used some editing, particularly in some of the later chapters, without losing much of its vision.
There are moments of pure magic, like the campfires after a successful mission, where you can speak with the characters, dance with them, celebrate with them. It's in these quiet moments that RDR2 achieves a sense of being, a sense of belonging, that no game has quite done. This is the interactive medium at its very best, elevating narratives to new heights.
And then there's the music, with quite the star cast assembled. While not every song is excellent - and none quite reach the pinnacle of Red Dead Redemption's waltz into Mexico - it's all great stuff throughout. The ambient soundtrack by Woody Jackson shines at every moment, infusing the perfect blend of minimalism and melody. There's also something special about the dynamic AI system - a lot of modern games have such systems which modulate music according to your actions on screen, but RDR2's does it with a finesse and subtlety I haven't experienced before.
By now, I'm probably just sounding like a wide-eyed fanboy. I haven't even mentioned the graphics, or the wonderfully whimsical strangers, and so much more. So, let me just be clear - this game takes some bold and deliberate creative decisions that may not be for everyone. But it is exactly what I want from games. Barry Lyndon is perhaps my favourite film of all time. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the only game that combines a certain meditative, immersive quality; a tragic, dramatic narrative; with subtle but still uproarious humour.
Yet, I want more. I've seen a glimpse of the future of gaming, and I want more. I want even more rich open worlds, I want more dynamic missions that are as free flowing as the open world, I want narratives that branch in unexpected ways. Red Dead Redemption 2, then, isn't quite the perfect game, but it stands tall as this generation's defining achievement in blockbuster gaming. It's a miracle that this game even exists, and I fear there'll come a time when gaming will go the way of Hollywood - and such passion projects will be relegated to low budgets. For example, The Irishman could never have been made in Hollywood, and so too many "dream projects" for some of the world's best filmmakers.
(Crossposted from Hive Gaming)