Red Dead Redemption II: The Best Game You'll Ever Hate
On the surface, I look more or less the same as I did when the first Red Dead Redemption released in 2010: a mildly overweight, scruffy bearded coffee drinker who - for the most part - enjoys keeping to himself.
This is the real me. Not a cowboy, not a gunslinger. Sure, I’ve lived in the west, and sure, I’ve ridden horses, and sure, I can pet a muddy donkey at a pumpkin patch without cringing.
I’ve fired rifles, corralled goats into their pens, gotten mud in my teeth, and even carried a pistol in a holster for a while as I lived in the high deserts of Afghanistan.
All of that just to say: I might not be a cowboy - but I’ve done some cowboy things.
“So what do you think of the game?” a friend asks me one morning over text, offhandedly, not knowing any better.
“It’s something else,” I type back.
Red Dead Redemption II currently holds a 97/100 on Metacritic. This makes it the highest rated game on PS4. Yet somehow, no matter which way you slice it, boiling Red Dead Redemption II down to a number feels like a disservice. You can see this for yourself as you read veteran reviewers from reputable outlets easily awarding the experience high marks while simultaneously being at a loss for words and - frequently - being very frustrated about their experience. The complaint that returns most frequently is that the game is difficult to play.
Yet the question remains: why are so many reviewers so conflicted about a game that they score so highly?
To answer this, we have to go back in time.
There have been a few comparisons drawn between Red Dead Redemption II and 2016’s masterpiece, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This interests me, seeing as these two experiences couldn’t be more different. One is starkly mature, whereas the other is appropriate for basically anybody from the age of eleven and up. One is colorful and sweet, whereas the other is...colorful, sure, but brutal.
What these two titles share - aside from both being watershed moments for gaming, 10/10 game experiences, and the products of near decade-long development cycles - is a sense of infinite possibility. Setting out into both game worlds feels like anything can - and will - happen.
One of the cleverest things Breath of the Wild did, however, was limit the ways in which a player could directly interact with the game world. When you think about it, there were only a few such ways: on the super-powered side of things, you could lift things with a magnet, freeze things in time, conjure up ice pillars, and drop bombs. As for the more mundane actions, you could hit things, carry things, drop things, shoot things, and climb things. This adds up to about eight “levers” the player could pull via their gamepads, yet the myriad of ways these interactions combined and manifested in the world felt limitless. It was, in a word, brilliant.
Red Dead Redemption II offers something like 25 of these “levers” at the outset (with more added as you move along, ranging from the unbearably cool flourish with which the protagonist, Arthur Morgan, can holster his revolver, to the inexplicable way picking up a gun requires a different button press than picking up a hat), sometimes with trigger-button combinations that evoke the archaic claw-grips of old Street Fighter arcade games.
Something as simple as speaking to somebody without accidentally shooting them in the face proves difficult at first. This results in frustrating - if occasionally hilarious - moments. Yet this only explains part of the mystery of the agonized reviewers. Usually, when it comes to games with difficult controls, you either push past it, or you move on to the next game. What’s different about RDR2? Why do people keep playing - why do they still give it a reluctantly high score?
As best as I can figure, it comes down to two factors.
1. It’s hard to be a hero in Red Dead Redemption II.
An observation I’ve made while watching play throughs is that most players want their Arthur to be good (with the notable, hilarious exceptions), despite his situation as an outlaw in a train-robbing gang. In most games, it’s a matter of selecting a “good guy” or “bad guy” conversation option. You read your options, select your choice in your mind, and execute that choice on the screen.
In Red Dead Redemption II, you might hop off your horse to speak with a civilian and accidentally gut him in the process. This wouldn’t matter if it was a one time thing that affected your overall “Paragon” or “Renegade” scores, but your actions almost always bear consequences, and we don’t like paying the consequences (or bail) for our accidents. We want to be heroes in our games - or at least, to choose our own fate. Sure, sometimes we want to be a villain - but there’s nothing worse than wanting to play as a hero and accidentally playing as a villain.
I’m reminded of the Mass Effect games (pour one out for Shep), when I’d make a dialogue choice I thought was the “good” choice, only to fat finger the buttons and accidentally select the wrong option. Such fumbles warranted a reload, even if it meant going back an hour in the gameplay. We don’t get to be heroes in real life. If we want to be heroes in our games, we get angry when that proves difficult to do.
2. The game abandons established game structures.
When I first introduced my wife to gaming she said, “This is the only thing school prepared me for.” A biting - if honest - assessment. Life is unpredictable, and most gamers go to their games for comfort, for something predictable, for something we can control.
We are so accustomed to gaming experiences that are essentially aggressively helpful glorified checklist simulators (go gather x number of herbs, hunt x number of things, collect x number of artifacts) that when we’re given a world of minimal HUDs and a map with a handful of icons, it can feel alienating and - dare I say it - lonely.
Yet there’s another effect at play here, just beneath the surface: the game lives on in your mind long after you’ve powered it down.
So. All of that comes down to this: how can you enjoy Red Dead Redemption II to its fullest?
Simply put, forget everything you know about playing games and play the game Rockstar has built for you. Stop trying to beat the game quickly. You’re not going to. In fact, the faster you move through it, the worse of a time you’ll have.
There’s a reason there aren’t fetch-me quests, a reason the fast travel system is archaic and inconvenient. It’s the same reason one of the challenges in the game is to ride your horse from the town of Valentine to the town of Rhodes in under five minutes. It sounds easy enough, but proves immensely difficult. The developers want you to feel the scope of their world.
I haven’t been able to play as much as I want. In some ways, I count this as a blessing. I only get to go through this game for the first time once, and only being able to play for an hour or two at a stretch goes a long way towards me being able to really sink into Arthur and his adventures.
“You know what I love about Red Dead Redemption II?” Amanda asked me one day. “You can play for just 40 minutes, but when I come home and ask if you have a story, you always do.”
It’s true. I always have a story, and these stories are best experienced in short, magnificent bursts. “Living” in this game like we’ve grown accustomed to living in other games in the age of Ubisoft (God bless ‘em) ends up being an exhausting experience. This is because, unlike its competitors, Red Dead Redemption II is an experience for the ages - one which shrugs off the trends of loot chasing, battle royal victories, and character cosmetics for a parade of stories.
Will Red Dead Redemption II change how we play games? Probably not. I’m holding off on my final thoughts for my thousand word review (which I will release once I finish the game), but I think it’s safe to say that this is a game which boldly goes where no game has gone before...and perhaps for good reason. We as a community learned something valuable from Red Dead Redemption II - that while we think we might want a totally immersive experience a la Huxley’s “feelies,” we might not actually like the experience all that much.
It comes down to control, I think. We’re not in control of our lives, but generally in video games, we are in control, and that’s what makes them...well, fun.
Red Dead Redemption II isn’t very fun, but it may be necessary. An antidote, if you will, to the Battle Royales and Errand Boy simulators of 2018.
Now if you’ll excuse me: I’ve got to go feed my horse.
All images in this article are screenshots from Ries’ play through. No copyright infringement is intended.