The idea of Rockstar creating a subversive game is nothing new. The GTA series is an astute critique of consumer culture, Michael Di Santa’s empty life and emotional detachment despite his wealth serving as a modern-day morality tale.
It is impossible to talk about Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), Rockstar’s latest gaming behemoth, without looking back to its last one, GTA5. GTA5 plays fast, allowing the player to skip long journeys and upgrade to increasingly fast cars. The speed of GTA5 makes everything within the world feel disposable. It is tough to feel emotionally attached to a world that flies by you.
RDR2 is, if possible, even more subversive.
As has become customary, the early missions serve as an introduction to the game’s controls. You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van Der Linde gang, a group of outlaws that are on the run after a heist gone wrong. For a world that turns out to be massive, it is impressive how claustrophobic the opening of the game is, the darkness and snow immediately immersing the player in the mountains.
Red Dead Redemption (RDR) was a nearly perfect game, achieving widespread critical acclaim, so it should come as no surprise that RDR2 makes tweaks instead of wholesale changes. As in RDR, the player quickly learns how to ride a horse, make camp and shoot. The controls are familiar but feel more intuitive than ever. A good example of this is Dead Eye, which has returned with a small but valuable tweak. The addition of a critical hit area on a target is exceedingly valuable, especially if you go hunting some of the bigger game.
Horses play a more important role in this game as well. The more you bond with your horse, the better and quicker it rides. This means spending time feeding it, brushing it and reassuring it. If your horse dies (absolutely crushing when it happens hours into playing the game) there’s no bringing it back.
In this game, your actions have consequences. If you return to an area where you have killed an animal, you might find vultures picking at the remains. The honour system is more consequential in this game too. Rob a store and the next time you go in, the store owner will remember you and tell you exactly what the town thinks of you. Play it straight and you will get discounts. These tweaks make your actions feel more consequential than any other Rockstar game before it.
One thing that is noticeably different from RDR is the pace. RDR2 is a slow game. However, that lack of speed is deliberate. It forces you to look at the world around you, and what a world it is. This is a game that demands to be watched, no, appreciated. It is easy to lose hours of your day immersing yourself in the mountains, rivers and newly formed villages of this vast world. Even small things that can be passed over in other games, like looting, take time. Whilst it can be annoying, that’s the point. 1899 is a time before Pegassi’s and Nagasaki’s and so travel should feel and be longer. Morgan must do everyday things like shave, eat, change his clothes and contribute money and goods to the community (a pleasingly diverse community it has to be said). Taking the time to do these allows you to appreciate the level of detail that has gone into making this game.
It isn’t just the gameplay that leaves the player searching for superlatives. This game sounds like the Old West. Whether it is sound of the animals in nature (wait until the first time you hear a bear: if you have surround sound, I guarantee you will jump), the satisfying squelch when you traipse across mud or the score which unobtrusively rises and falls in volume in perfect synch with the game’s events, this is a game that sonically envelops the player.
But it isn’t its speed, gameplay or sound that makes it subversive.
There is a romanticism that belies the truth of nation building. RDR2’s greatest subversion is to present an America that links criminality with success. An America that is what it is because of, not in spite of, Morgan and Van Der Linde’s visions for community, for good and ill. You can argue that art imitates life a little too accurately when you consider the plight of the Chinese immigrants in the game, forced to build the railroad, in the context of Rockstar developers working 100-hour weeks in the lead up to the release of the game. In a world in which consumers have become ever more disconnected from the things they consume, RDR2 not only bridges the gap, but forces us to consider the consequences of our actions. That it manages to do so, whilst allowing you to sit indoors playing a game, is truly astounding.
Image: Red Dead Redemption 2 / Rockstar Games