A mythology of entitlement surrounds the American frontier of the Western genre. The genre skews towards power fantasies: stories of individual freedom, rugged self-reliance and a fresh start (and accompanying riches) at the expense of strangers, the government and indigenous people.
A similar type of power fantasy fuels many AAA games, particularly open world games. These games suggest that the world only exists for your enjoyment — that you can go anywhere and do anything, making your own fun and forging your own path, all with minimal consequences and abundant collateral damage
This year’s big, open-world western, Red Dead Redemption 2, would seem at first blush to be the perfect marriage of genre and medium if the goal was to give the player a sense of power and freedom, but Red Dead Redemption 2 — at its most interesting — rebuts the open-world power fantasy, the western genre and, occasionally, the legacy of Rockstar games itself.
The open world game as a lost cause
The gang in Red Dead Redemption 2, your surrogate family in the story, is a cult of personality held together by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde.
Dutch embodies the old Wild West myth, an outsider who has accumulated a band of like-minded outcasts to help create both his fortune and his legend. The gang, when we meet them, is seeking a new home, fleeing from a deadly mistake that cost them lives and money.
In a botched heist, which takes place just before the events of the game, the van der Linde gang had their faith in a mythical Western lifestyle challenged. Dutch had painted them as a righteous crew bound by an unlawful, but justified, moral code. Discovering what went wrong during that failed robbery, and how Dutch’s actions redefine the group’s sense of honor, provides much of the game’s tension.
Fittingly, the gang is running east when we first meet them.
From the early moments, Dutch’s personal Wild West myth — his own power fantasy — has begun to collapse. As you listen to Dutch pontificate around the gang’s camp, he bemoans the realities of the newly settled frontier as a “beautiful fantasia” and “such a beautiful dream, so poorly rendered.”
That familiar, violent Western power fantasy happened before the prologue. We’re witnessing the final days in which the characters can even pretend to be in charge of their fates, as they realize that the life they’ve been promised doesn’t match up with the reality of living by their own rules.
Freedom doesn’t always mean free
Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world isn’t like the open world of Grand Theft Auto where you can get drunk on power with minimal inconvenience or ramifications. Over and over, the game subverts the expectations established by its creators previous games, taking power away from the player.
In the game’s early hours, these former western outlaws plod through snow, constrained to a strict path, prevented by the weather (and the designers) from journeying too far into the world. The player and the outlaw gang share their predicament: they’re in a world full of promise, but they’ve been forced into a confining, tedious and dangerous scenario due to their own actions.
This outlaw gang that should be able to do whatever they’d like have run out of choices. And so have you.
The rules and limits of Red Dead Redemption 2 are indifferent to what your idea of “fun” might be. Unlike other Rockstar games, you can’t break the law without serious consequence. Being a criminal limits your ability to operate in this society in a meaningful way: crime attracts police, scares away passersby and puts a bounty on your head. Being hunted takes away a lot of the romance of the open country.
And the law is an effective antagonist. I was constantly pursued by bands of bounty hunters hoping to cash in on my infamy once the price on my head went up high enough. Characters in the game become hostile once you reach the “Wanted Dead or Alive” status in different areas of the game. These bounties create borders often too dangerous to cross — limiting your options for gathering resources, finding new missions or simply exploring the map.
Being an outlaw traps you, it turns out, while obeying the law of the open world offers something much closer to freedom. The rules are everywhere: You have to watch your step while walking or riding through crowded city streets for fear of offending someone or accidentally running them over, hunting means having to carry what you kill and manage your limited storage space, and exploring the snow-covered mountains requires dressing for the weather and trudging — even slower than usual — through the drifts. Your horse can only hear you whistle from a short distance away, and having that horse die when you’re far from civilization can mean a long trek back to the stables. Characters who think you’re an outlaw when you get off your horse and brandish your weapon may open fire, even if you were just trying to hunt some rabbit.
Ignoring etiquette, in other words, is actively dangerous. That’s a shift from past Rockstar games which often pandered to player freedom and power. Now, the world is often something that happens to Arthur rather than a playground that caters to the player’s sense of fun. Red Dead Redemption 2 moves in the opposite direction of its own predecessor, forcing the player to deal with society and the people in it in a way that almost seems to criticize past Rockstar games.
The characters of Red Dead Redemption 2 fell for the fantasy of the West in the same way you might have fallen for the fantasy of a game in which you can do anything and be anyone. Instead, you can only be an outlaw, and that life takes away more freedom than it grants. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.
And that something might have been a video game made by Rockstar.