Red Dead Redemption 2’s Superficial Beauty Exposes the Ugliness of Videogames

This post contains end-game spoilers.

Red Dead Redemption 2 made me feel sorry for videogame journalists.

Imagine absorbing weeks of excitable previews, interviews and speculation pieces cheerfully dissecting and bragging about Red Dead Redemption 2’s 60-hour campaign, map size and the bizarre (sometimes horse testicle related) details and knowing that you’re only going to have days to devour as much of this beast as possible. Not only that, before the game even comes out you’ve got to somehow break down every aspect of this overwhelming narrative and Swiss army knife of systems, mechanics and interactions into a coherent 2,000 word opinion. This is why some jerks prefer to throw their take up on Medium a month later instead.

Since launch week the discourse surrounding this monolithic release has turned into an incomprehensible hydra of perspectives that is impossible for anyone not following along to engage with. Critics and players have discussed the game’s alleged “cinematic” approach, attempts at realism, mechanics, systems, scale, narrative, technical features, aesthetic, attention to detail, mission structure, portrayal of Native Americans and most notoriously of all the issue of labor and Rockstar’s overtime and crunch culture. Day one reviews were inevitably messy and praise heavy, most people were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the production and as easy as it is to thrash journalists…expecting anyone to have a holistic grasp of this game under such conditions felt unfair.

Even sitting here writing this a month later I lack the talent to confidentially make a case for whether the game does or doesn’t come together when considered as a complete work. All I can do is direct my thoughts towards a feeling, and when considering the story behind this game, the discourse and the scale of the work itself, my feeling is that Red Dead Redemption 2 is just Too Much.

Of course, with hundreds of highly skilled developers working diligently on this game across several continents, there’s a lot of good in Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s gorgeous and Rockstar are still the best in the industry at carefully crafting spaces that are interesting on their own terms without being a background for shooting galleries. The pacing is glacial but in a way that feels considerate and purposeful, the game wants you to invest yourself in conversations with your fellow Van Der Linde gang members during missions that strengthen the game’s thematic focus on family while absorbing the geography and beauty of the crafted world around you. Once you’ve survived the first 10–20 hours of the game and begin to understand the game deeper than the hundreds of tiny incoherent interactions you’re presented with you start caring about the characters and the story threatens to become really good. Protagonist Arthur Morgan’s dry sense of humor and struggle to find a value in his own life start to shine and make him a compelling lead while events ramp up to the gang’s last desperate attempt for a huge score to escape their pursuers which is doomed to end in tragedy.

When discussing the merits of Red Dead Redemption 2 it’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing up the trite conversation concerning whether all the overtime and excessive work on the game was “worth it”, or alternatively turning your piece into a gush session and mentioning the labor issue as an asterisk so people can’t dunk on you on Twitter. For all the obvious positives that come from so many talented people working on the game, the closer your gaze is the more Red Dead Redemption 2 falls apart. Not only were all those 60+ hour weeks not “worth it”, nor is the issue an unfortunate side note on an otherwise incredible achievement, but is it an infestation that has ripped this game’s heart out of its chest and left it to rot.

The most obvious symptom of this problem is well…when you try to do anything. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a disaster zone when it comes to overlapping controls, confusing verbs and mismanaging a potpourri of confusing interactions. Not only does almost every button have multiple uses, there’s also context sensitive tap, hold and mash inputs depending on the situation. Aiming a gun at someone and looking at them to talk to them are the same button, the button to help a stranger out of a predicament transforms into the button to rob them and internet is riddled with players punching their horses, diving off wagons and shooting old ladies in the face by accident. Even to most experienced fan of Rockstar games or even just videogames in general this muddled, confusing mess of controller mapping makes returning to the game after a couple of days away akin to trying to speak in a foreign language you haven’t used in a decade. A game this huge struggles to have coherent verbs and so many different moving parts were created separate from each other that they become puzzle pieces that simply will not fit together.

Red Dead Redemption 2 also attempts to deepen the credibility of its world by giving the people inside it more personality than ever before. In a refreshing detour from the repulsive cynicism of Rockstar’s previous major release Grand Theft Auto V, this time they gave players the option of conversing with every human being you can come across in the game. This might seem like a small gesture, but it’s one that required hundreds of extra voice actors and thousands of new lines of dialogue to be recorded. Saying hello to everyone in town might seem like a nice way to roleplay as an honorable gunslinger, but Rockstar’s engine makes sure the game’s true soul always shines through eventually. As lovely as this engine is for making the world feel weighty and full of friction it has a tendency to cause characters to have drunken outbursts of rebellious limbs, and if even the slightest pixel of Arthur’s body (or horse) comes in contact with a person they will become hostile. Often the game will consider the contact a crime and within seconds attempting to say hello to the sheriff in town will end in a double dozen death count shootout in the town center.

No matter their attempts to add more humanity or what interactions they make available to the player, it always feels like the game is pushing you towards violence one way or another. Once again Rockstar have written their game around an anti-hero with the mentality of “I kill people all the time for stupid reasons but I feel bad about it” as a justification for any occasional psychotic rampages the player might feel like dabbling in on their time off the story’s clock. The problem with this is no matter whether you’re considering how to defuse a situation, make money or sometimes just walk down the street every act of roleplaying within the game’s open world is contextualised through the decision to be violent or not violent. As far as Red Dead Redemption 2 is concerned, your main options are either to act like an over the top Tarantino villain or ride through the town center screaming well wishes at every passerby for the good karma on the game’s sociopathic point-scoring honor system.

This comical quirk speaks to an inherent ugliness in how Rockstar put their games together. Every game they put out gets more detailed and more beautiful but they’re still built from the ground up with the assumption that the majority of players will want to use them as jerk simulators. There’s dozens of interactions that involve killing, kidnapping or trolling people but only a handful for people who want to be nice…and they still felt the need to include gameplay benefits for doing it. Its no wonder why the player is forced to make Arthur walk slowly in the main camp and not take his weapons out on his friends, they don’t trust anyone who plays their game to take their narrative seriously. It seems that Rockstar have given up on any creative vision that allows people to engage with their spaces earnestly.

Many critics have observed the “theme park” nature of Red Dead Redemption 2 and how flimsy the game appears upon closer examination. Some use this to rag on the game for failing to be “realistic”, but this only indulges Rockstar’s narrative to celebrate all their fetishistic details as some form of revolutionary step forward for the medium. Do not be distracted; Red Dead Redemption 2 is yet another videogame where your bullet wounds heal over time and you can get health back by eating a tin of beans in the middle of a gunfight, it is as reliant on the language of abstraction as the decades of the videogames that came before it.

The issue is the little details don’t line up or paint a systemic or mechanical canvas. The game forces you to carry weapons on your horse since Arthur can’t carry all of them on his person, but any guns you pick up will always be transported to your saddle and Arthur can still dozens of items in his bag for convenience’s sake. You’re encouraged to bond with your horse and look after it since it can be injured or killed, but it can also be teleported to you at your convenience. As mentioned earlier the game is considerate with making the player take in space, but it still eventually gives up and unlocks a fast travel option, and in the late game makes commutes to missions so obnoxiously long it feels like a punishment to not use it. These are only a handful of hundreds of micro examples where the game’s little details and intentions don’t line up; the hundreds of exhausted voices behind the scenes cry out as they’re cast away into a droning murmur.

Everything up to this point was a minor niggle that made Red Dead Redemption 2 frustrating and occasionally hilarious but it was still an interesting and enjoyable experience. This was until Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 is when Red Dead Redemption 2 gives in to itself.

In this chapter Arthur, gang leader Dutch and friends are washed up on the tropical island of Guarma after escaping a botched bank robbery attempt. After being arrested by local authorities, they are rescued by some local revolutionaries who they make a deal with to assist their escape from the island which mostly involves shooting two thousand people in the face for the next four hours. This detour is not unjustifiable narratively; throughout the game Dutch has been preaching his dream for the gang to escape to a tropical island to create a new life for themselves, and when it happens by accident the gang is fighting for their lives again and the island explodes into violence. They are the last of their kind trying to escape the oppressive American society, but they are embedded with the violence that society used to build itself in the first place, there is no escape from that violence while they continue to kill and steal, Dutch’s plan working would only condemn more innocent people.

So it’s not that the game is thoughtless here, but the excess in how this sidestep is delivered is disgusting. Guarma has its own habitat, foliage, animals, terrain, it’s a whole new location for the team to build and hours more encounter and set piece design for everyone to work on. This segment is purposeful, but it’s not essential, and Rockstar’s team essentially had to build a quarter of an Uncharted game for an indulgent scenery change that could have been written out of the game entirely with a few minor tweaks. This is only made more upsetting by the fact that this part is so boring that most people can’t wait for it to be over.

Even after the gang return to America in the next chapter the game drags out its climax in a way that goes beyond careful pacing. People can argue how necessary or valuable certain scenes or missions in the game are to the game’s narrative and themes but it would be nigh on impossible to argue that Red Dead Redemption 2 is tightly structured and justifies its ridiculous 60 hour campaign length. Again, the point isn’t to argue whether this was “worth it” or not, it’s that there was no-one to tell lead writer and Rockstar boss Dan Houser “No.” His vision could and would not be compromised, not even for the purposes of practicality, common decency or even just making the game suck less.

To be clear, as bitter as this piece might sound there was a long period around Chapters 3 and 4 where I was loving Red Dead Redemption 2. However the last stretch kept sucking that goodwill out of me, after Chapter 5 the obvious climax to the game feels like it’s around the corner for what eventually turns out to be another 20 hours, and all the sacrifice and work that went into seven years of development on this grotesque production buckling under its weight pushed closer to the forefront of my mind. Not only that, the final eight hours is an unnecessary masturbatory epilogue which tells the pointless story of how John Marston got his farm before the events of the first Red Dead Redemption. The game keeps going and going just because it can, swinging its endless resource scrotum around, and by the end of all of this I had forgotten all about how much I liked Arthur Morgan and any emotional attachment to the narrative was gone.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is exhausting. It was exhausting to play, it was exhausting to make and it’s exhausting to write about. It was already a difficult game to appreciate because so much of what is impressive about it came at an unjustifiable sacrifice, but by the end of the story I couldn’t stop thinking about how tragic it is that this monumental amount of work only ended up making the game worse. When people ask me whether Red Dead Redemption 2 is a good game or not I honestly don’t have an answer, I haven’t thought about the story or any of the missions since it ended, and my last memories of the game are a straight ten hours of begging it to end already. It was just Too Much.

When I played Grand Theft Auto IV ten years ago, I found that even though the game was imperfect it was an exciting step forward for interactive spaces and storytelling and I couldn’t wait to see what the future held. After completing Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018, I think about how the game is a clumsy, over detailed tower of jenga built on top of old ideas, outdated mechanics and blood that exposes the ugliness of both game design templates and the industry itself. I think about how Rockstar have spent the last decade churning out projects about murderous anti heroes, the corrupt side of Americana and for the second time god damn cowboys at the expense of the sanity of their employees. I think about how I don’t want a game like this to ever exist again.

In a strange way the game is a form of closure for me. Long separated from my teenage days studying Journalism at university considering a career in games writing and even further from my twenties wanting to jump in on every major discourse and dissect new releases for their value and contribution to the overall culture, Red Dead Redemption 2 now reflects the type of videogame I no longer consider to be worth the mental energy to analyse. It’s the culmination of the efforts from an industry where marketers and writers alike have always pushed the inherent excitement value in everything getting bigger and shinier, and now we’re collectively hitting the point where it’s harder than ever to not notice the thousands of electrified hamster wheels behind the curtain.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a perfect jumping on point for the conversation on labor in videogames. It’s a game that took hundreds of people all over the globe 7 years and god knows how much overtime to make and its excess and slow development has only made it a worse game with less cultural penetration. During the peak of the labor controversy hype was still building for the new Super Smash Bros Ultimate, a game that’s main selling point is that it has everything in it, and the topic of crunch has barely even been mentioned in passing if at all. Not to say the crunch on that game is necessarily on the scale of Red Dead Redemption 2’s, but if your opinions on videogame crunch begin and end with Rockstar then you’re not thinking about it enough.

Follow me to see me probably not talk about Red Dead again on Twitter!

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