Red Dead Redemption 2
Developed by: Rockstar Games
Published by: Take Two-Interactive
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Gazing at the sunlight as it flickered off the trees in all of its subtle abundance, I thought of Vermeer. Never growing up did I imagine that games would look like this, so drenched in detail as to recall some of the exemplary painters in Western art. Thoughts like that tickled my brain during much of my first thirty hours with “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Since “Grand Theft Auto IV” (2008), I’ve come to anticipate a kind of depthless feeling when beginning a new Rockstar game. The company that did the most to popularize open-world game design makes rabbit holes like no other. How many things can you do? How dazzling are the sites to be seen? How stellar is the music? These are the questions I’ve entertained over the past decade whenever Rockstar drops a new game. In the interval before the answers come — before I fully know what my avatar can do, before I’ve more-or-less grown used to the audiovisual flourishes — I lose myself in a way I rarely do with other megabudget games. From Rockstar, I’ve come to expect the shock of the new.
Set in 1899, during the twilight of the Old West, “Red Dead Redemption 2’ (“RDR2”) tells the story of the grinding dissolution of the Van der Linde gang. The fate of Dutch Van der Linde will be known to those who played the first game, yet the story of his gang’s earlier days is as engrossing as anything in popular gaming. Whereas “Red Dead Redemption” (2010) concentrated on the wanderings of ex-Van der Linde-gang member John Marston, in “RDR2,” players assume the role of Marston’s fellow gang member Arthur Morgan, a laconic man equally prone to compassion and brutality. Though the world of “RDR2” provides ample incentive to set out alone with your horse — to sightsee, hunt, fish, gamble, or look for weirdos to interact with — the game is hyper-focused on group dynamics. Indeed, the entire thrust of its opening moments is to establish just how beholden Arthur and the rest of his cohorts are to Dutch’s charismatic leadership.
Dutch, who is prone to fits of mania and melancholy, is a dreamer who exhorts his followers to remain faithful to his vision of “living free,” beyond the tangles of civilization with its taxes and sedentary habits. Dutch fancies himself both an outlaw, committed to an ideal of personal authenticity, and a hardened realist who sees the darkness in everyone including himself. He is a trusted boss until his erratic behavior begins to curdle the affections of those around him. Arthur’s journey from vying for Dutch’s approval (he’s jealous of John Marston in the beginning) to questioning his judgment, is beautifully framed around his interaction with the other gang members.
The guiding joy of “RDR2” comes from hanging with your fellow outlaws, whether on a mission that sees you getting in or out of trouble or partaking in a bit of downtime at one of the campsites that acts as the gang’s temporary home. Over the many hours I’ve spent with the game, I’ve appreciated the attention that went into crafting the varied personalities of the Van de Linde gang. Characters speak suggestively and give the impression of leaving things unsaid. You sense the weight of history behind them.
One of “RDR2”’s technical innovations is its dialogue system. Unlike games that halt the action for conversational moments where you’re free to respond at leisure, in “RDR2,” conversations outside of cutscenes or other scripted moments are initiated by pressing the left trigger to focus on a person, then choosing a conversational prompt using one of the controller’s face buttons. I suspect other developers will implement this system because it gives the player dialogue options without pulling away from the surrounding activity. Another innovation of the game is its cinematic camera mode. Set a destination on the map for Arthur to go and then, with the press of a button, watch the picture on the screen shift into a wide-angled frame with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Although Rockstar has used cinematic camera angles in the past, the camera work here is on another level. No other game feels as natural to watch on autopilot as if it were a movie.
One of the moments I knew the game had worked its voodoo on me was when I recoiled a little at my first sight of the city of Saint Denis. After spending so much time in the countryside and in small towns, I briefly identified with Arthur’s distaste for city life. Mind you, I live in Brooklyn. Need it be said that I’ve to had to stop myself from playing into the waning hours over these past weeks? My cousin told me that the game made him feel glad to be alive. I couldn’t agree more. And yet it’s impossible to ignore the recent controversy surrounding the working conditions on “RDR2.” Kotaku and Eurogamer both reported on the labor that went into “ RDR2’s” production. It’s a multifaceted story concerning different departments, spread across different studios, in different countries; however, it’s clear that there are people who felt overworked. Given that Rockstar’s prior game “Grand Theft Auto V” is the highest grossing media product in history and that “RDR2’ enjoyed what Rockstar Games is touting as the most lucrative weekend take for any media product in history, with $725 million in sales, one should hope that the company will use its resources to better things for all of its employees and inspire the industry at large. With tremendous fortune comes tremendous responsibility, as they say.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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