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Red Dead Redemption 2 needs high-stakes poker

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If a game within a game can never mean anything, why is it there?

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur sits by his wagon, contemplating what he has done Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open-world game that’s unusually defined by its limits, and I hit one of the most frustrating limits whenever I play a round of in-game poker.

The problem isn’t with how Red Dead Redemption 2 handles the game of poker itself or how the card game is presented — both aspects of in-game poker are exemplary — the issue is that no single hand of cards can ever really mean anything. Poker is an exciting game to watch because it has stakes. But Red Dead Redemption 2 presents a version of poker in which very little can ever be won, and almost nothing can be lost.

And that means that rounds of poker might as well exist outside of Red Dead Redemption 2’s canonical timeline. You leave the story when you go to play some poker, and you also leave behind the ability to make any meaningful decisions.

The dollar amounts at risk are insultingly low, and I have yet to be put in a position where anything of note will happen if I win or lose each hand. The characters shoot the shit and discuss their play, but none of it matters. The only thing I ever changed in the game’s world by playing poker was shift my own budget a few bucks either way. Rockstar reduced poker to a secondary activity in which you could fulfill a few challenges that are also safely ignored.

I understand why risk was never added to the game. Winning a hand of poker often comes down to getting the other player, or players, to act against their own mathematical best interests. The cards matter, but skill and the control of your own emotions usually matter more.

These things are hard to simulate within a video game, yes. And it would be frustrating to lose large amounts of money or goods if the cards didn’t run in my favor, or I played my hand in a way that might have worked in practice, but not within the rules of Red Dead Redemption 2. I would get angry if I lost something that mattered in the game’s world in a way that felt unfair.

And the game’s designers may not have wanted me to be able to lose all my money due to bad decisions made while gambling, nor gain riches too early and break the progression system. There are several arguments against meaningful poker.

I just think they’re bad arguments.

Breaking an open world game in interesting ways is part of the joy of the genre, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is a meticulously designed world and experience that is disappointingly impervious to breakage. Getting rich by playing poker would break the game’s pacing. So it’s made impossible, at the cost of making poker itself meaningless.

Losing all my money would be frustrating, sure, but as long as the game gave me the choice of joining high stakes games I would only ever have myself to blame for that situation. Or the game could mess with me by having characters raise the stakes in other ways.

What would happen if someone gave me the option of betting my horse to stay in a particularly important hand? A win would mean I could gain something of equal or greater value, even if that meant I could go on a bit of shopping spree. It’s not like the game doesn’t gate the truly powerful items by requiring hunting achievements as well, anyway.

But losing would mean giving up a horse in which I had invested both time and money. I would have to find another good horse and start over. Frustrating, sure! But it wouldn’t break the game. And that hand would be remembered and talked about. Poker would mean something, in this example, while the rest of the economy would remain mostly protected.

Or maybe I’d lose too much and end up in someone’s debt, which means I’d have to work it off in some unpleasant way. Or maybe I’d win too much, and my honor, or lack of it, in the game’s world could impact whether the other characters were skeptical of my good “luck.” Or maybe I’d be put in a situation where everyone, for whatever reason, ends up betting their guns. Losing would mean I would be stuck without a weapon for at least a short time.

The biggest issue with that kind of approach would be Red Dead Redemption 2’s manual saves, however. And it’s hard to design around people who would want to just keep saving until the optimal hands were dealt. But even then, I wonder, who is hurt by letting us play in the way we find the most fun, especially in a game like this?

Not everything in a game can be meaningful, but creating such a high-quality version of virtual poker, only to ensure that nothing is ever put at risk, is a waste. It’s fine to engage in a side quest for the fun of doing so, and I still play a good amount of poker in Red Dead Redemption 2 for just that reason. But I’m never going to have a memorable hand, and that’s a missed opportunity.

Of course, there’s always the multiplayer version of the game to dream about.