Red Dead Redemption 2Credit: Rockstar Games
The reason I’ve been returning to Red Dead Redemption 2 recently certainly isn’t the reason most people have been continuing to play this game, I’d bet. It’s actually a whole lot more straightforward than you’d imagine: my toddler keeps running into my office, pointing at the screen and yelling “Neigh! Neigh!” I ask her if she wants to see the horsey, and she nods vigorously. And so I find myself taking a lot of long, aimless rides through this beautiful map, and I’ve even been playing when there is no toddler demanding that I do so. It’s been reminding me what I like most about this game.
After the game’s main story has really, truly concluded, you find yourself with a remarkable freedom that the entire rest of the game has been denying to you for entire rest of the runtime. It’s a sort of weight off your shoulders that you might not have even realized was there, and it’s a fabulous feeling. So here’s the moment: at a certain point late in the game’s extended epilogue, you ride out to Blackwater, always visible on the game map but never really accessible. After a quick meeting there I oriented my compass West and rode. And rode, and rode, and rode. The dried out grasses of the great plains regions gave way to the glorious red rock mesas and cactuses of the high desert, and it felt like coming home. The sky towered above me, unimpeded by those hills and crags that had been boxing me in way back by Van Horn. I was, finally, after so many hours, playing a Western.
There’s not much in this part of the map: two gang hideouts, two relatively empty towns, some other points of interest and a whole lot of wildlife. It’s a stark contrast from the densely populated rest of the map, but that feels almost like the point. Much of the rest of the map was in the East: lived-in, cramped and filled-up. There’s none of that out here: just sky and animals skittering in between the cactuses. I found myself hungry on that long ride and so I pulled out my binoculars, found a dear and took it down for a camp dinner. And then I kept riding until I hit the edge of the map, just revelling in the game’s beauty and the pure joy of riding out into the sunset, something I only later realized was what I had done.
I came into the small town of Tumbleweed, where the sheriff summarily executed a prisoner on the ground: no laws but what he says, out here. He asked me to come inside and I did, but none of this came to me through those endless cutscenes that had given me the story through the rest of the game. I had control the whole time and so I walked in, met the callous man behind the revolver, took a bounty off of the wall and went to go grab it. It felt, in stark contrast to so much of the rest of the game.
Before I went to get the bounty I bought some gun oil and cleaned off my weapons. I cleaned off my horse and got a meal in the saloon, all of this little tactile actions that can feel so well-executed when they’re allowed to take center stage and so strange when you’re still stuck in a linear narrative. I made a camp and crafted split-tip bullets for the upcoming fight. When I found the mark he wasn’t all that tough, which felt strangely more appropriate than the endless waves of O’Driscoll boys I had popped hours before. I took out some Del Lobos, threw the lasso and heaved him over the back of my horse.
Later I saw a rock formation and decided to try to get up on top of it, where I found a legendary white Pronghorn. I tracked it across the mesa and took the skin. It all felt so calm and open, marked by the stunning landscape that felt in-line with the game I wanted to play for the first time in hours. It made me wish more of the game had taken place out here, but it also made me glad that it didn’t: I was just allowed to explore without the game waving plot in my face.
Last week, I wrote about my least favorite part of the game. There are heavy spoilers in that article, but you can read it here. The upshot is this: it’s the story. The story is 60 hours long and, for me at least, bad. It deals almost exclusively in pre-determined outcomes set down by Red Dead Redemption, it takes way too long to do anything and it hangs way too much of its energy on protagonists Arthur Morgan’s personal growth, which is at the end of the day so unendingly predictable that it fails to do much for me even when its pulled off reasonably well. The fact that the entire story is so unendingly bleak means that not only am I bored, I’m depressed. It’s not a great combination.
But man, does this game nail its environment. Which is not at all what I was expecting: I loved the world in Red Dead Redemption, but what really stuck with me was the story and how Rockstar guided us through the world. That wasn’t the case this time around. Red Dead Redemption 2 can’t help but feel like its looking backwards with how it presents its story: totally linear and mostly told through long cutscenes. But the open world is where the game looks forward, and not just through the beauty of its environments but through the simple pleasures of doing the chores it takes to live inside of this harsh environment. I can’t wait to keep playing, but I do wish this was the game I had been playing this whole time.