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The job was supposed to be an easy and small one, uncomplicated. Get the doctor to open the steel door to the back room of his shop. Hold up the three criminals counting their earnings in the back. Shoot out the window and race back to camp with my takings. But nothing’s ever easy or small when guns are involved. I went in there intending for my revolver and sawn-off shotgun to be only for show. Instead the three criminals and a hanger-on were dead and I had the Sherriff knocking at the front door. Still, all I had to do was shoot out the window, circle around and grab my horse. So I gave the paper-covered window both barrels of the sawn-off but it didn’t break, not even a crack.
This is where things stop being a scene from a simple Peckinpah Western film and become a small story in a mindbogglingly complex video game. The above is an experience many players have during the early game of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. Robbing the back office of the only doctor in Valentine, New Hanover should be a relatively simple affair both in terms of what I’ve described above and in terms of the games world.
All of the windows in Red Dead Redemption 2 should break, most everything in the game world does if you hit it with enough force but because this particular window is covered with paper – an affectation to reveal the secret goings on in the office – it won’t break. So out the front door player character Arthur Morgan goes, guns blazing. It’s one of many instances in which the systems of the game – in this case graphics and physics – work against instead of with each other.
Back at the end of 2018 I listed Red Dead Redemption 2 as one of the best games of that year. I added it to the best games of the decade list in late 2019 as well. I did this not only because I admired its story and characters but because I admired the way its systems often refused to work in tandem with each other and instead often rubbed up against each other. This systematic friction, whether intentional or not, is something that matches up with the grander themes of the game itself.
It’s a big game with big ideas all told through the eyes of a man watching his way of life die under the wheels of civilisation. It’s a story of man vs man and man vs nature, of honor among thieves vs the iron fist of the law and of unbridled freedom vs the constraints placed upon that freedom. It’s a game about how far we can go, both as Arthur and as players, before all of these conflicts go against us.
I wrote before about how Red Dead Redemption 2 much like its predecessor was about hope in the face of the inevitable but whereas the original Red Dead Redemption felt like it was telling a story with tools and systems that all worked together its sequel is different. About halfway through Red Dead Redemption 2 Arthur Morgan – that lovable, malleable outlaw – is diagnosed with TB.
Tuberculosis is an old disease, easier to treat now than it was in 1899 at least. For Arthur it’s a death sentence. Of course I didn’t know that when the diagnosis was given. I thought if I did my best to keep Arthur healthy by sleeping and eating right then maybe things would start to improve. They did not and as Arthur’s bloody cough grew worse I initiated damage control; healing old wounds, forgiving debts and aiding those that might survive.
In the end all I chose was the manner and place of Arthur’s death. It was enough but in my efforts to ensure Arthur survived the game’s systems clashed yet again. This time it was all the things I was told would improve Arthur’s health and other stats but as time went on the effects of TB – necessitated by the story – became worse and Arthur died all the same, smiling into his final sunrise.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game obsessed with reality, far more than any game should be. Approaching a curb in the game will necessitate one of two responses in the game’s engine. Arthur will either confidently step up and keep walking with all the swagger afforded to him or he will sprawl flat on his face like a puppet with his strings cut. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game and an excellent one at that but it is not the epoch-shattering achievement many, Rockstar included, expected it to be.
It’s a game with incredible animation especially in the fury of combat and yet that combat offers some of the most boring shooting you’ll do outside of Fallout 3. Red Dead Redemption 2 demands you become proficient with a bow in order to hunt and acquire materials from animals but never really explains why nailing that deer in the head didn’t net you the pelt required to upgrade your satchel.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was always going to be complex and full of things to do. I doubt Rockstar knew quite exactly how all of these systems would work together until the game was out there in its millions of copies. It’s a reflection of how far game development has come that we now have games so big that they are not fully in the control of those who develop them. Still, in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 this provided a fine way of examining how its systems interacted with that world and the story the game was trying to tell. Other games may not be so lucky in the long run.