There’s a cycle for Rockstar Games trailers: hype, surprise, mild disappointment and then, of course, hype.
Today the developer released the first of many video explainers for Red Dead Redemption 2, launching in earnest a hype cycle that will culminate with the game’s Oct. 26 release. The marketing for what could be the biggest game of the year will weave itself deeper into mainstream pop culture for the next few months until its gunslinging cowboys appear to be everywhere.
But I suspect no number of promotional videos will, or can, capture what makes the series (and its sibling franchise, Grand Theft Auto) special.
The six-minute gameplay video explains, at length, some of the game’s biggest and smallest details, from animal husbandry to weapon reload animations. It’s only part one of a larger series of explainers. The format, honed during Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5 promotional push, is a natural fit for the company’s open-world games; their elaborate systems and tiny details don’t fit neatly into three-minute trailers.
But even lengthy walkthroughs fail to capture the real pleasures of the open-world genre, specifically Rockstar’s entries, which prioritize the feel of a world and an incomparable obsession with detail. The best moments of the original Red Dead Redemption involved leisurely rides across the countryside, keeping an eye out for surprising moments in the world around you. Maybe you interrupt some criminal hijinks. Maybe you stalk beasts through a dark forest. Maybe you notice the way water splashes in the creek, so you recreate that little impressive detail over and over and over ... and over and over and over and over.
Rockstar’s promotional team has been trying to capture the feel of its open-world games for nearly as long as they have existed. I remember the first preview of the original Red Dead Redemption, shown in the company’s plush NYC headquarters demo room. For what felt like a half hour, the team emphasized the camping mechanics; the stars in the sky; the way the horse swaggered about the land, bouncing its person with each trot. Then we saw a rather generic shootout.
I left disappointed and confused, but now it makes sense. At the time, every game demo focused on the biggest, most explosive set-piece. But Rockstar recognized what keeps people in these games for the long term aren’t the huge moments; it’s the vibe. It’s the extended act of existing in these spaces. The developers don’t dump millions into the tiny details for graphics nuts; they do it because, more than any other studio, Rockstar’s games hinge on players believing and feeling that they’re in these worlds.
It’s impossible to put that feeling into a trailer or a hands-off demo. That might be Rockstar’s advantage.
Unlike movie trailers that can give away an entire film, Rockstar’s gameplay videos explain what the game is. But they can’t spoil the magic, no matter how hard they try. The Red Dead Redemption 2 hype cycle will likely show us much of what the game has to offer, but what’s special about the series will escape us until October, when we play for ourselves.