Table of Contents
This feature was originally published on April 22, 2019. We’re placing it back on the front page due to the game’s release on PC.
1. Olive & Forest
One of the brightest people I ever met once handed me a book. He said that it would be one of the most important things I would ever read. That book? The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. And he was absolutely correct.
I hadn’t heard of it at the time, but within many industries, it is considered the seminal text for understanding not only the importance of design, but the core ethos behind it.
Norman identifies two main problems with humanity’s collective approach to design. The first is the brazen way designers often ignore user experience while chasing the goal of creating endless capabilities. The second problem is the way those designers capitalize on human beings’ natural instinct to blame themselves for not understanding an object or interaction with an overly complicated design.
But making something easier to use should not just be some placating act of kindness; it should be the actual point of the design itself. It’s no accident Norman ended up working for Apple to help establish the company’s user-friendly approach to tech products. His landmark book still gets me to think endlessly about the way I look at design, which of course changes how I think about the way we interact with the world around us. Most of all, Norman’s book has taught me to constantly ask questions about the everyday things we take for granted.
Let’s use an exaggerated example to explain why design is so damn important. There is an emergency eyewash station in every lab and chemistry classroom to use if you get dangerous chemicals in your eyes. Now, let’s pretend you’re in a lab that is also studying sulfuric acid and thus using it constantly in your experiments.
Let’s also pretend that the dispenser for the sulfuric acid is right next to the eyewash dispenser, and the two dispensers look exactly alike. The only difference is that one has a forest-green button and the other has an olive-green button.
The designer could sit back and be like, “What? The forest green is for the eyewash and the olive green is for sulfuric acid! How is this not clear?” And the designer would technically be right. You could receive perfect instructions about which one to use, but it’s easy to imagine the number of accidental baths, burns, or worse that would occur because it’s so easy to make the mistake. Putting the two dispensers so close together and making them similar in shape and color would be a downright baffling design choice to make.
Many people might dismiss this example as being outlandish, but it actually isn’t that far off from the absurd design decisions that are made all the time by people who just aren’t thinking about what they’re doing. Don Norman talked about his work studying the 1979 nuclear disaster at the Three Mile Island power plant and how much dangerous design like this was to blame. There were buttons that could help cause critical failures right next to buttons that needed to be pushed daily, without an immediately obvious way to distinguish between them. It’s the eyewash station example writ large.
What this really highlights for us is the staggering gulf between the intent of the design and the end result, which is all that really matters. If the design makes sense — if it’s logical — but you still end up blasting your eyes with acid? It’s bad design.
And I couldn’t help but think about this as I played Red Dead Redemption 2.
I want to be clear about two things. The first is that I understand making video games is an insanely difficult thing to do, and I have huge amounts of empathy for the process and those at Rockstar Games who brought forth this effort. And the second is that I more or less ended up liking this game, and I’ll be getting into every little aspect of why, from its story to characterization to themes and more.
But I had a complicated, bizarre, and frustrating relationship with the game itself throughout my experience of playing it — one that I think many others shared, if public response across the spectrum of social media is accurate.
And while there were certainly many others who loved it unequivocally, I believe that delving into why both groups felt the way they did provides a unique opportunity to explore how video games really function within our hearts and minds. I hope this essay can shed light on your own feelings and help you understand them, whether you agree or disagree with my individual arguments.
But in order to get there, we have to start with ...
2. The One Question
Jonathan Gold was a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and probably the best critic of any medium in the entire world.
His work made a number of lasting impressions on me, but there’s one quote I think about all the damn time when it comes to the field of criticism. The moment actually comes from a deleted scene from City of Gold, the documentary about his life and influence on Los Angeles, and the offhand quote is this: “[In criticism,] the only question is why.”
As in, why this dish? Why this ingredient? Why this bowl? Why this color? What do the answers to those questions all come together to do or say? And I’ve learned that if you have a good, strong answer for the “why,” then you probably have a good, strong, cohesive result.
At the same time, if you have a bad or shortsighted answer for the “why” that’s incongruous with your overall goal? Well, then you’re probably making a bad choice. And the crux really can be that simple.
Forgive me for using another hypothetical example, but I think it will help illustrate this shortsighted choice thing quite aptly. Let’s say you are making a nice savory miso soup, and then you say, “I added chocolate ice cream to it because I like chocolate ice cream a lot.”
Now, that could certainly be true. You like chocolate ice cream, and that’s a valid piece of singular isolated logic. But adding the cold ice cream would turn the soup lukewarm. It would dull the intensity of the flavor by adding cream, and the chocolate and sugar notes would sabotage the complex saltiness of the delicate miso flavor. In short, it wouldn’t work or add anything to the dish.
Which means that your “why” would be shortsighted and incongruent with the entire point of making miso soup. And in art, as in cooking, we honestly have a lot of metaphorical “chocolate ice cream going into miso soup.”
To be clear, I’m not knocking the inclination for experimentation, which is critical to the artistic process. Maybe putting chocolate ice cream into miso soup could be unexpectedly delicious. It’s not, but it might have been.
And maybe there’s something solid behind the instinct, and it’s the execution that’s wrong. I’ve actually made chocolate ice cream with bits of a really dark red miso paste, and it was good! It brought out an interesting complexity to the flavors and added a little spice and sourness to the ice cream, which made it sort of an Asian variation on what so many people like about Mexican chocolate. But that was a refined result that worked out because I constantly figured out ratios before I served it. I didn’t just serve miso soup with chocolate in it 30 times to people while saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to this garbage.”
Again, it all comes back to the “why” and how that “why” fits into the overall purpose. This process is true of cooking, movies, and television. And it might even be the most true of making video games.
As I said before, that’s because video games are incredibly complex and difficult to make. That’s especially true at the AAA level, where hundreds of people, from artists to coordinators to tech-focused engineers, have to share a clarity of vision to create something genuinely compelling between them.
What makes it harder is that the medium is also a burgeoning art form where developers are constantly trying to invent the new mechanics, language, and understanding of affectation that make games so effective. The game industry has made incredible collective strides, even just in the last few years. The intelligence with which most designers come at the “why” is leaps and bounds better than it used to be.
But the most difficult challenge of all is that games require constant consideration for how the audience, a variable like no other, will interact with it. Because the audience isn’t sitting in a dark theater watching a play or movie; they’re having an interactive experience with the production being put before them. This is why we call game makers “designers” and the audience “players” or “users.” They will be using a tool that they, you know, have to be able to understand.
So it is actually a huge problem if you’re constantly hit in the face with counterintuitive design in a game, because it literally acts as an obstruction to experiencing the game itself. And good granola, does Red Dead Redemption 2 have so many obstructions in this regard — to the point that I have written down hundreds of stunning examples. But in the interest of time, I will only list the three most egregious examples that have to do with button proximity. Feel free to skim these examples; I’m just being exacting in describing them to make a point:
1. The targeting system uses the left trigger, but the game uses the same mechanism for targeting someone to talk to them as it does to shoot them. The only difference is whether your gun is equipped beforehand. It would seem “simple” in this regard — you have to get your gun out if you want to shoot someone — but it’s such an awkward mechanic to get used to at first, especially in the many out-of-town interactions where you don’t know if you’re going to be doing one or the other. And that’s especially true in the heat of the moment.
I know what you’re thinking: “It should not be as easy to kill someone as it is to talk to them,” but lo and behold, it is, just like the “forest/olive green” example. And actually, in this case, it’s as if the acid and the eyewash come from the same fountain; you just have to flip a switch first.
2. Likewise, you can attack people even if your gun isn’t out. Say you are in a conversation and you are trying to just hit “decline.” But you’ll push the other person if you are not holding the left trigger while doing so, which means you’re starting a fight and suddenly they and all their friends draw their guns and kill you.
3. But let’s pull away from these mortal errors and look at something simpler. In this game, the difference between baiting your fishing rod and completely putting it away is whether you tap or hold the same exact button, meaning you constantly put away your rod when you’re trying to bait or vice versa. This happens while other buttons remain completely unused in the fishing minigame.
And keep in mind that these are just the big in-game interactions. The problems with the menu system go deeper.
1. There are two or three different “circle menus” you can access, depending on whether you are near your horse, to determine your equipment. On the first weapon menu, you quickly tap in a set direction to select the weapon you want. But on the second equipment menu? For some reason, you have to hold the direction and then release the L1 button, a deeply awkward maneuver I literally never got used to in playing the game for 100 hours. We’ll talk more about why later.
2. You get a prompt to hold the Options button to see neat details about how well you did when you finish a mission. But if you hit it too early or just tap the button instead of holding it? It goes to the start menu, which then makes sure that the results menu never comes up again. This also brings up the weird situation of never knowing what the game is testing you on while you play. You can only see the goals after you’ve finished each mission.
3. Going into a gun store is important in this game because it’s the cheapest way to get all your guns cleaned without using up your precious gun oil. But the menus in the store tell you everything about the weapon except whether it needs to be cleaned. So you literally have to select each weapon individually, put it in front of the shopkeeper, and see if they’ll clean it to even know, and by the end of the game you have a lot of weapons. This process is deeply laborious.
I could list hundreds of examples of this stuff. I also genuinely understand that it would be easy to call these things nitpicky, and I’ll get to the discussion of why they’re not later.
But what I want to make clear is that I don’t understand why any of these choices were made. Because that’s what they are: choices. These are carefully selected design and control schemes that are meant to help the user play the game, but they often do exactly the opposite.
And I am not alone in this estimation. When I first started playing, I took to Twitter and joined a chorus that wasn’t reflected in the majority of reviews I’ve read, which is another thought I’ll return to later. But the best quote I read said, “I keep trying to do things, but the game seems to have other plans…”
When it comes to big design flaws, the conversation keeps coming back to the “why.” Because Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game where I don’t have a button to quick-draw a favorite weapon or even assign one, but don’t worry! I do have a button that automatically tells me the temperature outside and whether or not I have good karma! This was apparently a more pressing issue that needed controller space, at least compared to all the useful things I wanted the buttons to do.
And please understand that everything I am talking about is not a simple matter of “bugs,” which are usually the result of conflicting code and rushed development. I usually end up enjoying the funny glitches that pop up because they provide a fun meta-level of gaming enjoyment. But I’m not talking about glitches.
The control issues that bedeviled me are design choices, not bugs.
The most brain-shattering example happens when you play dominoes. You can see neither the board nor your hand from the main default screen while playing dominoes. And I have a big TV, so please, it’s not the TV. But the game is designed so you can zoom in on the board, then zoom out, and then zoom back in on your hand. It’s designed to mimic what it would actually feel like to be realistically playing dominoes.
Not only is this a really obstinate decision, but the board view is actually worthless because the view of your hand is even better and closer than the view that shows you the board. That means you have to hold the left trigger basically the entire time you play to properly see the board. This is a ridiculous choice to me, on every level, because it so readily creates an exhausting experience.
And that exhausting experience is symbolic of how all these little choices add up.
3. Memory Plus Time
I never knew what gun I was going to pull out, nor why, throughout the entire 100 hours of playing and eventually completing Red Dead Redemption 2. Depending on the prompt or circumstance, it could be the revolver, the last weapon I used, or a random weapon from another slot. My loadouts switched constantly for no reason I could ever understand, as if a single interruption could reset them.
This inconsistency was frustrating because it messed with my sense of expectation, along with so many other design choices in the game. And it just so happens that expectations are the most important part of the user experience.
Simply put, if you press X to jump, you want the character to jump. If you press Circle to punch, you want them to punch. It seems simple, but that simplicity is the point. Because the entire goal of gaming control schemes is to create “muscle memory.”
That phrase means, as a user, you don’t want to even think about the controls; you just think about what you want to do. And then your body should naturally react and your character does it.
Designers really do want the controller or mouse to feel like an extension of your body, even if people may joke about that phrase in gaming. But Red Dead Redemption 2 includes huge hindrances that keep that from happening. The game constantly messes with your expectations and often does so with big consequences, like the aforementioned example with the basics of talking and shooting. I shouldn’t be scared of shooting someone in the face while I’m trying to help them out.
And this problem is made worse by the fact that there are not only dozens of different control schemes for the different activities, but those schemes are often in direct conflict with one another.
For instance, you could argue that the main reason the designers wanted to keep the “talk to people” or “aim your gun” actions mechanically similar was for the (misguided) purpose of uniformity. But if that’s the case, why do the controls change when I play the Five Finger Fillet minigame? A minigame where you actually use the right trigger to zoom in, for some reason, instead of the left?
These contradictory controls and communications are everywhere in the game. Sometimes the game will tell you that you have to hold a button with the word “hold” written out in the instructions, and sometimes the game will put a circle around the button to indicate you have to hold it instead of tapping it, and sometimes the game won’t tell you that you have to hold it at all.
The game will sometimes give me a quick instruction to tap L1 to quickly put on my bandana, and I’m like, “Okay, this is how I will do that from now on.” But that instruction is only for a one-off situation that doesn’t apply to the rest of the game. The problem isn’t the function of the controls in and of themselves; the problem is that all of these things create mixed messages that constantly scramble our ability to build muscle memory.
These contradictions are why I was still fucking up the “hold L1” action on the second menu, even though my brain could remember to do it by now. Why? Because my muscle memory had already completely adjusted to the quick tap of the first menu. My brain and muscles were actually more scrambled with practice because of the contradictory design. There simply is no cohesion between the two systems.
Designers often talk about “integration testing,” and the video below is a funny example of why it’s so important, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much a game where the things that work by themselves turn into a mess when they all have to work in concert as I play the game.
Unit testing without integration testing pic.twitter.com/Xw5KUKipEq— Julie Hubschman (@juliehubs) December 27, 2018
I was constantly in a state of going “oh yeah” and then having to try things two or three times to perform ritual actions in the game as a result. There are also game mechanics built for specific minigames that are used so infrequently, I can never remember them. Overall, this created the sensation of constantly reading instructions instead of just playing the game.
Designers should create controls that become muscle memory as quickly as possible if the goal is immersion, because that sensation of being able to interact without conscious thought is the single most important aspect of that immersion. The pretty textures are nice, and the character animation is impressive, but it’s seamless interaction that makes us believe that a world is real.
So I am left with the simplest question yet again: Why did the designers make these choices?
II) Ninety-Nine to One
I genuinely think the Rockstar designers wanted to make the game simpler, remove errors, and address frequent complaints about their past games. But there’s a principle of design called the “99:1 ratio” that says something that works 99 percent of the time is actually a failure.
That’s because something feels broken if we use it 1,000 times in a day and experience 10 failures. Designers try to eliminate the errors that lead to failures of this scope, even if it looks like the interaction works on paper the overwhelming majority of the time. Our brains focus on the few times things go wrong, not the larger number of times things go right.
There are other guiding principles involved in design to make sure you don’t make errors that break what’s already fixed. This is where the other, much less talked-about “99:1 ratio” comes in when we discuss user error. If 99 people can properly intuit how to use an interface, but one can’t, do you completely undo a mostly functional system to solve things for that one person?
Let’s start with this example: It’s common for players to say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to hit that button,” and yet hitting that button starts a chain reaction, like a cutscene they can’t return from. And so the person is frustrated because they didn’t mean to make that choice.
This is why so many games force you to hold a button as a visual indicator fills up before the decision you’ve made is put into action. It’s the same reason fire alarms are designed with glass cases over the toggle or button. The design is essentially asking you whether you’re suuuure you want to do this. You didn’t just bump into the button? There’s actually a fire?
This design makes the most sense with high-value decisions in games, such as save game menus and critical decisions that may lead to branching paths in the story. But Red Dead Redemption 2’s designers want you to be sure of almost every single damn action you take. It makes sense to make sure you really want to hit a fire alarm, but you would get angry, and rightly so, if your toilet’s design kept asking if you were absolutely sure you wanted to flush it.
I have never seen a game take the “are you suuuure?” mechanic as far as Red Dead Redemption 2. You even have to hold a button to open your satchel, which is an action you need to do constantly throughout the game, to the point of annoyance. You also have to hold a button to close shop menus and many other common activities. And not for short times, either! It takes a few dang seconds. Combine all these with the laborious multi-step processes of doing simple things like making coffee or grabbing guns from your horse, and it makes for one of the most tiresome gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Compare this with how easy it is to shoot strangers you don’t mean to in the early part of the game, and you’ll see the crisis of contradiction immediately. All these conflicting signals and instructions make for one giant catch-22: The design of the game is so scared I may make a mistake that it gives me more chances to make mistakes. Meaning Red Dead Redemption 2’s design is so busy making it hard for you to do the wrong thing that it makes it impossible for you to do anything. And the cumulative cost of these decisions is extraordinary.
III) The Weight of Time
That cost is so high because the designers added so much unnecessary time to the experience. Think about what it takes to loot a body: Your character grabs the body, flips it over, goes through the pockets of the dead person, takes some items, and then stands back up.
Sure, it takes just a few seconds, but those seconds add up so damn quickly, especially when you are doing this action again and again and again. Looting takes so much time that it becomes a monotonous prospect, and I don’t want to do it at all. The problem is that all those lootable silver clamp belt buckles go a long way in the game’s economy, especially in the early hours of the story when money is so precious. I’m very quickly forced to decide whether I want to continue doing something monotonous for moderate benefit. And that decision has to be made every time I’m in a gunfight.
Searching the game’s many forms of furniture is just as painful. Do you want to search a dresser? You have to open every drawer. Do you want to grab a single item, or a bunch of them? You have to go through each item individually. There is no shortcut. Even when you hold down the grab button, it still makes you go through the slow grabbing motion for every item and piece of furniture. And I genuinely can’t believe Rockstar left this mechanic in place after the choice was savaged so heavily in L.A. Noire, another game where all these small pauses added up to ongoing frustration.
Again, why? Why has Rockstar made this choice when every other game has learned to avoid these pitfalls? Why did the designers adopt all these complicated systems? Why did the team spend so much time animating these mechanics in such a way that the action of the game is broken up so frequently by complicated yet mundane activities? Why was the Red Dead Redemption 2 team so interested in making everything take so much time while being needlessly difficult? Why, why, why?
I believe the answer, partially, lies in horse poop.
4. Realism Schmealism
The horses poop in Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s pretty damn graphic, too. Sometimes it happens during a funny moment. Sometimes the horses poop during a dramatic cutscene. But usually it seems to happen right at the moment I’m trying to take a bite of food in real life.
The male horses also have detailed scrotums. The horses get tired and need to be fed. They need to be brushed, and they need plenty of rest.
The same level of care was put into the game’s main character, Arthur Morgan. You have to maintain his weight and wear warm enough clothes in the cold weather, and the game will penalize you if you fail to do so. All these horse pooping and clothing design choices answer the “why?” question with what might be a well-intentioned answer: because it’s realistic.
And boy howdy, is Red Dead Redemption 2 ever dripping with the pursuit of realism. The game’s development team tried to pour realism into every ounce of the game, from the beautifully textured outdoor environments to the many details about life in this period of America’s history.
The comically large array of guns you could theoretically hold on your back during previous games is gone. But complicated and niggling inventory management has been added. Which, admittedly, is more realistic.
The realism is everywhere. You make coffee in the game the same way you would have had to make coffee in real life back then, damn it! You have to eat and sleep and do all the same things you would normally have to do in order to keep your human body healthy.
Some game designers might argue that this pursuit of realism is all about the noble goal of making games “an experience like real life,” but my counterpoint to that argument will be blunt.
I) Games Have Grown Past Realism
The pursuit of realism in video games, even when it doesn’t make the game more enjoyable, was largely built on the fever dream of young minds who wanted to completely “disappear” into a gaming world. They believed the virtual world should be just as complicated and filled with possibilities as the real world.
This approach doesn’t work in practice. The endless capacity to interact with equally endless items ends up creating endless, but meaningless, interactions. Those meaningless interactions then numb the player to the meaningful aspects of the game.
That happens because these choices don’t actually achieve the feeling of “realism” in our brains. Cooking food in a video game can take one button press or 20, but more button presses won’t fool your brain into thinking you’re actually cooking a dish. Game designers tend to confuse “complicated” with “realistic,” and our minds aren’t wired to think something is real just because it takes a long time to happen and requires many small actions on our part.
The illusion of realism is achieved when games match our expectations and move at the speed of our intentions. The most “realistic” way for me to check a drawer in a game is to quickly see what’s inside it, decide if I want it, and then either take the items or leave them as quickly as possible. That’s what we do when we look into a drawer in real life; we don’t break the task down into dozens of small movements or actions. We just look into the drawer.
And this is how games should approach the same tasks. Ease of functionality is much more “immersive” than a series of button presses and animations that mimic the real thing. Adding more button presses and steps to basic tasks takes me out of the game, in fact, because it makes me impatient as I’m forced to fuck with something that should be moving as quickly as my brain.
Striving for a false sense of realism can create other obstacles, as well. Some players called the way horses ran into objects in 2010’s Red Dead Redemption unrealistic or even silly, but I can barely stand to watch the way my horse breaks its neck on trees in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Watching a horse trip over a log or run into another horse is agonizing, but I don’t feel like I’m watching the real world when it happens. I cringe, I feel sad, and it seems like the game is unduly punishing me for not seeing the branch coming. It’s needlessly cruel.
And that’s the only question that matters with video game design: What is the emotional impact of a given choice?
Rockstar’s devs must understand these issues, because there are many points during the game where they don’t strive for realism. Tuberculosis is incredibly contagious in real life, but that doesn’t need to be written into an ensemble story. The same goes for the minigame in which I “suck venom” out of someone’s snake bite.
The minigame is based on an old myth — seriously, you’ll just end up ingesting the venom yourself — but at least it’s a fun myth. I could point to plenty of other examples of Rockstar’s design team choosing enjoyment over realism, but why didn’t they do it in all the other places that sucked the fun out of the experience?
An emphasis on realism can often highlight all the ways the game keeps me from having the “immersive experience” that I actually want, not the one that Rockstar’s team wants me to have. I once got the jump on a dude to lasso him during a mission, but the game’s rules wouldn’t let me do so because the cutscene had to happen later on.
This approach pushes me away and makes me go through the motions of doing something, rather than letting me just do the thing the way I wanted. I’ve had other situations in which I was able to improvise a different way to solve a problem, but that only means Red Dead Redemption 2 rarely conveys the right set of expectations and understanding on the part of the player. I still didn’t know exactly what would or wouldn’t work the way I expected it to by the end of the game.
Which leaves the most complicated fact of all: Sometimes this kind of overly “realistic” design works.
II) The Savvy and the New
I did find moments in Red Dead Redemption 2 in which I felt immersed in the world. I was able to settle into the Wild West from time to time, and it didn’t just happen with the breathtaking vistas where you can sit atop your horse and take in the splendor of nature.
I’m talking about the moments that happened after I’d spend 50 hours in the game and I was somewhat more comfortable with the controls. These were the hours when my expectations finally lined up with the way Rockstar’s team wanted me to interact with these systems.
These moments make it easier to understand the game’s review scores, because reviewers were likely remembering those lovely highs that happen near the end of the game as they were writing their often loving reviews. But this brings us into another huge and complex question about the ethics of design, and whether players are even going to be interested in adapting to the game in the same way that many reviewers did.
There’s a great plotline in Silicon Valley where the tech-savvy leaders of the company Pied Piper finally test their product internally and with friends, and they get rave reviews. From this small sample size, they decide to go ahead and launch the storage service with confidence ... and over the course of the next few episodes, they end up falling flat on their faces.
What went wrong? Their incredible product was also complicated, did a poor job of explaining itself, and few potential buyers even understood what the product was supposed to do. The creative team, who were already totally familiar with every part of the product, didn’t understand why people were having trouble finding their way “in.” The characters only tested the software on people who think like software developers, not the people who would be using the service themselves.
The fictional product was a victim of poor testing and poor design. This sort of thing is common in the world of video games, where developers always have to think about how the player will approach a situation, not how the designer assumes the player will approach it. And every video game is some player’s first video game, which means they won’t know how something is “supposed” to work.
I launched a Twitter poll to see how far people were in the story about three weeks after Red Dead Redemption 2 was released. According to the poll, 19 percent of respondents had finished already, but 74 percent were still in the first half of the game.
Question: About how far are you in the story of Red Dead Redemption II?— FILM CRIT HULK (@FilmCritHULK) November 16, 2018
More tellingly, 53 percent of the players who responded to my poll were still in the first quarter of the game. This isn’t a scientific result, but it does give us some data about Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest problems with design.
Red Dead Redemption 2 tests players in the first 30 hours, and it tests them especially hard in the first five to 10 hours. This section of the game is laborious, and many players are going to stop there and never continue. You can blame the control issues we’ve already discussed, and I’m going to talk about problems with the story’s pacing in a little bit, but I continued to have a complicated relationship with the game even after getting over that initial hump. I only continued because I decided to stop fighting the inanity of the game’s design and let myself be okay with hitting the wrong button three times even after playing for dozens of hours.
But that doesn’t mean the game works for me. It just means I made the conscious decision to forgive something I shouldn’t have to. And neither should you.
Maybe the people who quit the game early were right.
III) Feats of Non-Engineering
When talking about the design of games, it’s often important to think about literal engineering as way of understanding the deeper issues.
For instance, so many houses have little things wrong with them, and the way people learn to simply just deal with these flaws often boggles my mind.
“Oh, don’t worry, that door jams sometimes. You just have to push it hard.” Or, “Yeah, the key sticks in that lock a bit, you just have to jiggle it.” Why not just grab a file and file down enough of the door that it works correctly? Or grab some powdered graphite for the lock?
People deny the opportunity to fix these “little” annoyances they deal with every day because it sounds like a lot of work, even though they could take a few minutes to remove a frustration from their home. They are genuinely happy to keep avoiding the issues or just putting up with it because they’ve come to see it as no big deal, even though they have their time taken up by the jammed door or the sticky lock every single day of their lives. They tolerate with major design issues because they see their ad-hoc solution or work around as “easier.”
I received a surprising amount of support from people who shared in my frustration when I started talking about Red Dead Redemption 2’s design issues on social media. But there were also dissenters who were telling me that all my complaints were just “nitpicks,” or more bluntly, that I was just “bad at video games.”
The idea that you can be bad at video games at all opens a conversation that’s so important to all of this because it taps into the notion of hive-mind expectations of certain groups. Video games, as a whole, can sometimes feel like they’re based on rules and expectations that are internally consistent within video games as an art form, but exist nowhere else.
You can get a sense of how video games operate by playing many different video games, which then gives you a sort of fluency in video game logic. A fluency that isn’t shared by people who haven’t spent years playing a wide variety of video games.
This creates a situation in which strangers, for whatever reason, become very proud of how good they are at dealing with the challenges of what is often bad design. Meaning they’ve become really proud of how good they are at jiggling the lock or pushing on jammed doors. They see it as a skill. They see it as being “good at video games,” instead of seeing it for what it is: Dealing with problems that shouldn’t be there at all.
5. Qualification & Consumer Identities
Who can talk about video games? Who is allowed to review them? What gives people the perception necessary to understand the real issues that are plaguing an audience across the board? Or is that even possible?
There isn’t a single correct answer to these questions, but none of those concerns speaks to the real issue behind the “you’re just bad at video games” comment anyway.
Because people aren’t talking about criticism when they claim someone is bad at video games. They’re talking about identity.
Most hardcore video game fans use the term “gamer” to self-identify, and it has become a loaded term. Gamers can’t use it as a badge of pride without also having a means to separate themselves from the packs of people they see as casual players. The earlier, uglier days when hyper-toxicity, misogyny, and shock humor were common and unremarked upon are seen as a time of innocence and good fun. Look no further than this attempt to define hate speech as just using a “gamer word,” thus divorcing the terms from every other context for which they can only be viewed as horrific.
Plenty of people consider themselves hardcore gamers without being guilty of this behavior, but they sure as hell are subjected to it anyway. And attempts to fight, challenge, or change this culture are met with intense vehemence and disdain. If you think I’m kidding about any of this, please read this infamous Reddit post, which, while certainly extreme, highlights the underlying psychology of “real gamers” to a T.
The argument that “gamers” are uniquely able to fight back and hurt other people because of how they’ve been trained to adapt to and maximize poorly designed systems and work hard for little apparent benefit is common among certain people online, which brings us back to the “you’re just bad at video games” comment.
It’s a laughable thing to say to someone because it serves no other purpose than to uphold the same gatekeeping bullshit. Because any response about how much you know or understand about video games just comes out as a defensive measure that feeds into tired preconceptions about how we engage with this hobby.
It all comes back to the simple, obvious, and inescapable truth that everyone who plays video games is a “real” gamer. And when you accept that reality, you accept the other reality that creating control schemes and user-friendly design is critical. The fact that a hardcore user base will adopt a bad design scheme as a badge of pride to keep others out is a problem, not a benefit. The gatekeepers want to preserve their identity, while designers want people to play and understand their games. Those two goals are often directly at odds with each other.
Only gamers talk like that man. That is insane.— Aaron Fisher-Cohen (@AaronMFC) October 30, 2018
I kept using the word “baffling” on social media to describe Red Dead Redemption 2’s controls, goals, and intent. Someone from Rockstar eventually wrote to me, and I want to be clear that they were very kind and were trying to be helpful.
“It’s not baffling,” the developer from Rockstar replied. “Just not what you want.”
That’s the crux of these problems. I could list all the things I want, but instead, I’m talking about the inherent problems with what’s been delivered. The forest- and olive-green buttons from the beginning of this piece were perfectly clear. The combination eyewash station/acid dispenser is not “baffling” design. Any creator can say that any criticized game is just “not what someone wants.” But all I wanted was purpose, clarity, and understanding of the experience. That sounds complicated, until you boil those ideas down to their essence: I don’t want to burn my eyes with acid when I’m trying to find the water.
And I do fine with just about every other video game system on the market, but I struggle with navigating Red Dead Redemption 2’s menu after spending 100 hours with the game. That’s a genuine problem, not a matter of taste or “want.” It’s a problem that so many people I know and speak with online love video games but get pushed away by Red Dead Redemption 2’s design.
And the fact that the original Red Dead Redemption was so utterly beloved? Well, that leaves me with yet another big question …
How the hell did Rockstar take such a giant step backward?
6. Games & Goals
Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto is one of the greatest game designers of all time. He created and/or worked on the Mario series, the Legend of Zelda series, Donkey Kong, the Star Fox franchise; the list goes on.
Miyamoto remains famous for his innovation and his willingness to avoid trends, embrace failure, and ultimately find rousing success. But he was also an industrial designer and artist when he first began working on games, not a “technologist,” as he put it. And he brought the sensibilities of industrial design to everything he created.
Miyamoto got straight to the point when he was recently asked how he does it. “First is that a game needs a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “And you have to have a sense that you have done something, so that you get that sense of satisfaction.”
Miyamoto’s advice sounds obvious, but he’s describing the core mechanic of gaming. You beat a level. You collect a power-up. You defeat a boss. You make your character better, faster, and stronger. The designer makes sure the difficult parts of the game feel challenging but not impossible, so that the rewards feel even more rewarding. Almost every game is built upon these simple ideas.
But the way designers introduce these mechanics to their audience is so crucial.
“When I approach the design of my games, what I have to think about is how I’m showing a situation to a player, conveying to them what they’re supposed to do,” Miyamoto continues. He’s describing how he introduces each new idea to you with user-friendly simplicity and how he wants to build on your intuition to help you understand what to do next.
Miyamoto breaks down the first level of Super Mario Bros. in that video, and what seemed simple at first begins to reveal its design. You don’t have to read a single word of instruction when you begin playing Super Mario Bros., and the simple mechanics of the level design make it easy to see and understand what you can’t do, show you what you want to do, and then help you learn how to do that thing.
Miyamoto doesn’t talk about realism when he finally talks about immersion in games. He instead talks again about that feeling of accomplishment. He describes the player’s desire to feel “that you’ve become a hero, that you’ve become brave.”
He correctly identifies the fact that it is the purposeful creation of feelings that grounds us in a game, not a false commitment to overt realism. It’s about making the player feel invested in whatever they’re doing. And when the end of the video describes Miyamoto’s design philosophy as a desire to “make fun games that everybody can play,” there is a very important caveat to make clear during this discussion:
There is an astronomical difference between accessibility and difficulty.
I) Souls and Stardews
You might assume my favorite games are easy, fun platformers or bright, shiny minigames from what I’ve described above. But my favorite game series is actually Dark Souls, including Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, and these are considered to be some of the most challenging games on the planet. The enemies are a nightmare, the bosses are challenging, and the games are filled with dastardly traps. Each one is designed to be difficult.
The most important thing about that difficulty is that the controls themselves are actually simple and intuitive. You don’t have to think about them for long when you begin playing. The designers put in a simple grouping of moves like quick hit, power hit, block, use item, and a few more, and they’re all laid out in a way that makes sense. You’re supposed to be fighting the monsters, remember, not the controls.
So it’s easy to master the controls, but it’s very difficult to learn how to use those simple controls effectively within the game. And I could talk about the incredible design of these games forever. But I’ll try to be as brief as I know how.
The enemies in the Dark Souls series evolve in terms of difficulty, and each monster or character you fight has its own series of movements and attacks. You need to constantly study new enemies you encounter to learn the perfect timing necessary to hit them before they hit you, and it usually only takes a few hits to kill you.
The weapons you use require you to learn specific timing as well. A light weapon can be quick, but it might do so little damage that you’ll need to learn how to roll out of the way of the enemy’s counterattack before hitting them again. Heavier weapons are more powerful, but they take longer to swing. You need to make sure you have time to finish the attack before committing to the big hit.
And the games’ hitboxes — the area of the monster that will register as a successful attack if you hit it, which may be different from how the monster looks on the surface — are so perfectly tuned that the experience often feels like a game of inches. Precision, in both placement and timing, matters a great deal. A few inches or a few seconds can mean the difference between a devastating attack on a boss and instant death.
So these games are punishing in terms of difficulty, but that difficulty usually seems fair, despite the often cruel traps. The game’s design team expects these traps to kill you the first time you encounter them, which is how you learn where they are so they can be avoided. They’re using that consequential loss to teach you something about that area in the game.
And that brings us to the “hardest” part of the Dark Souls games, which makes up their most important mechanic: the act of dying itself.
Developers in general are finding ways to make in-game death increasingly rare, as death is often a frustrating setback that wastes the player’s time by making them repeat meaningless tasks they’ve already mastered before returning to the challenge that killed them. People don’t like losing time once they’ve already accomplished something, especially if the task wasn’t enjoyable the first time around.
But the developers of Dark Souls embrace death. You are resurrected at the last bonfire you used, and you have one opportunity to return to the place of your death and collect the souls you dropped. And since the designers of the series use failure and repetition to teach you how to actually progress, this happens all the time. The goal is for you to learn the positions of traps and to master your enemies, their attacks, and the timing necessary to defeat them.
Every boss feels like an impossibility, at first. But I master my countermoves and the weak points of the enemy until I can confidently beat them. It just takes time, and a lot of failure. I’ve never seen a game that’s better at gamifying my failure than the Dark Souls series.
But what about the fact that these games rarely explain themselves to the player and require a complicated understanding of what you need to do to advance? Doesn’t that make them similar to Red Dead Redemption 2 in terms of confusion and frustration?
Nope! It’s all part of the incredible design of the Dark Souls series. Every nook and cranny seems like it’s full of secret purpose and endless strangeness, much of which can be connected somehow for rare items and in-game bonuses. The lore in these games is not only full of odd, macabre stories, but also unique opportunities and information to help you on your way. You can zoom past these odd corners of the game without knowing it, and you can also go online and research the secrets behind the deeper quests and hidden items. But it’s all there to discover, and the way you discover these things, or miss them altogether, is part of the experience.
And Dark Souls inspires deep feelings in me and other players; those feelings are why the games are so beloved by so many. I feel terror, confusion, and satisfaction when I remember these games. But I also feel the deepest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever had in a game. Those feelings wouldn’t exist without the initial difficulty and confusion that were purposefully placed into the game in order to elicit those reactions from players. I can answer the “why?” question when it comes to just about everything the Dark Souls series does in terms of design, difficulty, and death.
But these sorts of mechanics work in many different kinds of games. Stardew Valley comes to mind when I think about “evolving discovery.” Stardew Valley is a game in which your character moves to a small farming town to do exactly that: farm. Just like your character, you don’t know how to do much of anything at first, and the game can seem overwhelming. The controls themselves are clear and easy to understand, but it takes some time to learn how things work. At first, I couldn’t imagine ever having a nice, beautiful farm.
But I became a great li’l ol’ farmer through repetition and study. The developers also filled the game with amazing bits of lore and discovery; Stardew Valley is the kind of game I play with a million internet tabs open for reference. But I’m not confused about what’s going on, nor am I frustrated. I feel like a farmer who is looking things up in books and benefitting from the game knowledge that others accumulated over time.
My sense of accomplishment was massive while playing these games, once I understood what I was doing. Dark Souls and Stardew Valley are very different games, but they are both so good at gamifying the ways in which they are difficult. They are both difficult in different but specifically designed ways in order to get specific emotions out of the player.
Neither game forces me to practice the controls, but they both force me to practice the game. I always feel like there’s a good reason why I die or fail at a task, whether it’s a matter of forgetting an attack was coming at a certain time from a certain enemy or losing track of time in Stardew Valley and not tending to my crops properly. My mistakes make sense to me, and I learn from them.
Even cruelty in game design can be fun if you know to expect it and it’s internally consistent. But my failures in Red Dead Redemption 2 usually feel like they come from nowhere and happen for no reason. The Dark Souls series might be punishing as hell, but that cruelty is easier to deal with than Red Dead Redemption 2’s sense of randomness and confusion. Red Dead Redemption 2 is built on a set of rules that shift like sand, and can be contradictory.
So when we talk about the difficulty of Red Dead Redemption 2 in comparison to those other games, what we’re talking about are two very different forms of difficulty. That’s because Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with endless forms of …
II) Artificial Difficulty
One of the core activities of Red Dead Redemption 2 is the shootout. Nothing about the main dynamic of finding a target, finding cover, and then shooting at your target is inherently challenging or novel. It’s actually a little hard to believe that Rockstar hasn’t tried to innovate in this area at all, especially when you compare the gunplay in Rockstar games to the much more enjoyable third-person combat of shooters like the Mass Effect and Gears of War series.
But the biggest problem is that there’s nothing about the difficulty of enemies that makes things more challenging. Rockstar just throws more of them at you, often to the point of repetitive dullness. An important bad guy is absolutely no harder to kill than a random enemy you face at the beginning of the game, other than the fact that important enemies are usually surrounded by meaningless people you’ll need to kill to get to them.
Rockstar created a game that wants to seem “real” but reduces combat to an endless stream of enemies you must kill and then loot. My worst insult to the quality of Red Dead Redemption 2 is that I never felt like I became better at gunfights as the game wore on.
A gunfight near the end of the game is going to be basically the same as the gunfights I had at the beginning of the game, although my Dead Eye meter is going to be slightly bigger after playing for dozens of hours. The addition of the Dead Eye meter and its health core even makes the action itself seem like a much less enjoyable version of the same mechanic from the prior game. The gunfights never really get harder or more interesting; Rockstar just adds more characters you have to kill if it wants a battle to feel like a big deal.
But Red Dead Redemption 2’s artificial difficulty is most noticeable in the constant minigames that are designed to fill out the experience and give the player some interesting games to play within the core game itself. Playing poker is fun on its own, but Red Dead Redemption 2 lets you play poker inside a game that’s already set in the Wild West. That’s what a minigame is in this context.
The minigames in Red Dead Redemption 2 are awkward and clumsy. I had to follow a set of instructions early in the game to put a wagon wheel back onto a wagon. This is a set of skills I never had to use again. Later on, I had to hold a button in order to raise my hot-air balloon at a steady rate. I had to play a minigame where I hit a button to lower dynamite, but there were no consequences involved in my potential failure. These minigames don’t require any skill to beat. They don’t teach me anything about the game or how this world works.
Without any emotional payoff, good or bad, there’s no drama or pressure involved in playing these games. I just pressed the buttons the game told me to press, and things happened that neither taught me new skills nor gave me any new understanding about Red Dead Redemption 2. My time was being wasted, and there was no reason for it.
But these minigames do sometimes become difficult in strange ways, like the time I had to find an awkward rhythm to push my little cart past an oncoming train. I didn’t feel accomplished when I beat these minigames, particularly given how unclear the instructions could be. I just failed at them several times and then felt like I barely figured out a bit of stupid game design when I finally succeeded. And, again, I never used these skills anywhere else in the game. I was taught nothing of use in exchange for my time and frustration.
This is all part of why the core feeling of the gameplay in Red Dead Redemption 2 is not one of difficulty and accomplishment, but constant monotony or frustration. Those feelings followed me throughout the entire game. It’s as if these minigames only exist because Rockstar thinks people don’t like going too long without touching their controller, but Rockstar can’t think of another meaningful reason for you to tap buttons in a brand-new way after playing its game for hours. And this approach led to a game in which things that should be easy often feel difficult, and things that should feel difficult often feel too easy.
What makes this situation even more telling is that it’s all done in the same false pursuit of “immersion,” which, again, works much better when players feel immersed due to their investment in what they’re doing.
Instead, I’m immersed in frustration as the game’s confused motivations pile up, even during the most accomplishment-driven parts of the game. My favorite aspect of the Red Dead games are the challenges, because of the way they fuel that sense of accomplishment. But I remember the exact moment I decided to abandon the challenges, and it was because of a minigame.
Gambler Challenge 8 asks you to win a hand of blackjack by hitting three times without splitting. This is a completely absurd goal, and it must have been designed by someone who understands nothing about the game of blackjack. I’m not the only person to have caught how bizarre these challenges are within the context of the games being played.
The problem isn’t that winning a hand in this way is a rare event; the issue is that no one in their right mind would ever play blackjack with this strategy unless they were trying to win a random challenge that did nothing to test their knowledge or skill in blackjack itself. The challenge can be boiled down to “play hours and hours of blackjack with bad strategy and get lucky at least once.” The difficulty is artificial and backwards. Finishing this challenge not only won’t teach you anything about blackjack, but it will also reward you for having played blackjack poorly.
Is there some amazing thing that happens when I finish all the gambling challenges? I’ll never find out unless I decide to look online. Am I supposed to just go through the motions to be able to say I’ve done it? Shouldn’t the tasks themselves feel rewarding without some big payoff at the end? Or are we going to acknowledge the irony that games are the only art form that can’t be fully experienced unless you’re “good” at them? How do you make hard things feel worthwhile, and how do you turn mundane activities into something that’s fun?
And most importantly of all, how do you put all of this together in a meaningful way?
7. Space-time in the Sandbox
We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the “space” that our art exists in, but it’s crucial to the experience of any medium.
Books are reprinted objects, and every word is the same for everyone who reads them, as long as they have the same edition. Sure, the interactive space lies in our interpretation of those words and our ability to read them, but we all read the same words. Movies are similar, but add another wrinkle as they exist in a determined length of “time” that plays out before our eyes. Film theorist Andrei Tarkovsky famously called filmmaking “sculpting in time” and discussed how artists must respect the space of experience.
But what about games? Let’s start with the basics.
I) Metaphor and Purpose
Meanings in video games are often very simple and tied to your core goals. You need to move through these levels in order to rescue the captured person. In a zombie game, you may be asked to survive an onslaught of zombies for a set amount of time. Everything exists at the surface level.
But games as an art form have gotten better at giving narrative reasons for these gaming tropes and conventions, while trying to imbue the meaning into the play itself.
Watch this great explanation of “mechanics as metaphor” in this Extra Credits video, where the indie game Loneliness is used as an example of the concept. You are a little dot that can move around in Loneliness, but all the other dots move away when you try to get close to them. That’s the entire game.
The metaphor is obvious: This is meant to feel like the very real situation of trying to connect with others without being able to. But our reactions to this mechanic, such as whether we stop quickly or keep trying even if things feel hopeless, also provide meaning and commentary about what the game is trying to say. Loneliness wouldn’t work as well in any other medium; it uses interactivity to create its meaning.
Take a game like BioShock, which is often considered to be one of the best games of all time. It would be easy to say that it’s just another shooter — 99 percent of your problems in BioShock are solved by shooting someone in the head — but the shooting takes place in a hyper-libertarian setting, so your battles can at least double for a commentary on the dog-eat-dog world of Rapture.
BioShock also inverts many common tropes in games that deal with how goals for your character are set, and it is able to turn that inversion into commentary about the illusion of choice in video games. It beautifully calls your attention to the inherent problem with the “space-time” of these kinds of shooters.
The creative team behind Red Dead Redemption 2 ostensibly wants to show us how hard it was to live in the Old West, but that difficulty has very little impact on the game itself.
Compare Red Dead Redemption 2 to a game like Rust, where survival is driven into the core mechanic of the gameplay itself. You are stuck in the wilderness and have to build shelter, find weapons, and protect yourself from animals and other humans in Rust. This hardship is the core purpose of the game and is deeply felt at all times while playing.
I get to flirt with these kinds of moments in Red Dead Redemption 2, but the desperate nature of my situation rarely feels baked into the game’s core mechanics — or rather, the mechanics that go into my character’s literal power cores. I have to eat, drink, and consume different things to keep my cores healthy and filled, but it almost always feels like a distraction instead of an imperative. I may get annoyed if I don’t eat or drink enough, but I’m not given the sense of being so thirsty or hungry that I can’t function. My survival rarely feels like it’s at stake in a direct way.
II) Menus and Mind Palaces
Red Dead Redemption 2’s designers try to immerse you in the feeling of living in the Old West. The final game is outrageously good at achieving certain aspects of this goal.
The minimalist interface design of the main screen is one of the best examples. There is a little compass with four little health meters on the display, but most of the screen is taken up by a wide-open vista. It’s easy to let reality slip away as I gallop around the world, taking in the natural splendor.
But that dedication to one very specific kind of immersion comes with problems, as I’ve discussed before. I don’t ever “break” from reality to go into a menu screen, as the game presents inventories as labor-intensive books that you have to ruffle through, page by page. It’s yet another example in which a standard action has been turned into busywork.
The shopkeeper takes up most of the screen when I enter a store, with the menu information kept on the left- and right-hand sides of the screen. I also continue to hear nearby conversations and the small talk of the shopkeeper at all times, and in real time, as I’m shopping.
These menu decisions are completely wrongheaded.
The way Rockstar Games thinks about the emotional experience of menus themselves is completely wrong, in fact. They seem to think that menus in and of themselves disconnect the player from the world, so the world has to stay front and center during every in-game interaction or transaction.
But menus don’t break my reality whatsoever. I have no problem with going into a menu system, because I am effectively stopping the reality of the game of my own volition to go into my own “mind palace,” much like Sherlock does in the BBC series. Menus are the places I go when I want to figure out the simple, rote actions of buying items or looking at the things I have in my inventory, when I try to figure out what to keep, what to throw away, and what I might want to use.
Our minds want menus to be easy to use, and we crave quick access to the information we need in the game. We don’t crave realism when we go into a virtual shop, especially when that realism slows down the pace at which we can do things in the game. A good menu should move at the speed of my thoughts.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 fills most of the screen with a gross shopkeeper dude I have to stare at while buying and selling items. Other characters speak loudly around me as I’m trying to read and concentrate. I have to click a button to see what I need to construct something, and then click a different button to see what that object actually does. It all adds up to an experience that’s insufferable, and it was done to further the misguided goal of complete immersion. The worst part is that the menus fail to make me feel immersed because all these distractions and added steps break my “reality” far more than any convenient yet less literal menu system ever would have.
These misguided menu designs are everywhere. Rockstar tried to keep the main screen clear except to share pertinent information, but the strangely complicated health core system means that “perfect” interface is broken up by a message saying, “Your Dead Eye Core is empty. You can sleep, smoke cigars, eat food, or drink coffee and alcohol to refill your Dead Eye Core.” This message pops up in the top left of my screen again and again. It seriously never goes away until I do something to refill my core, and I don’t want to waste my cigars.
The design choices of Red Dead Redemption 2 may seem like they’re there to help you get lost in the game, but they’re constantly being undermined by the game’s own design and limitations in feeding you information. The “conform to reality” approach completely fails to understand how our brains are actually processing the games we are playing.
It reminds me of the much-maligned decision Bethesda made to get rid of the dialogue options box in Fallout 4. Originally, the Fallout games allowed you to select the exact wording your character would use in a given situation. Now, you could only choose from a list of approximate responses, which meant you never knew what exactly your character was going to say when you made a selection. This could be frustrating when you were trying to communicate one thing and the game’s actual dialogue didn’t seem to match up with the description you had selected.
I understand why this choice was made, or at least why the team at Bethesda may have thought it was a good idea. They presumed that the dialogue box ruined the fun of hearing a line spoken out loud by the actor, that reading all the possible responses in their entirety took you away from the “immersion” of the game.
But the new system hampered things for the player. I was disconnected from my actions and characters, since I might select “make a joke” as a response, and my character would say a line that was much harsher than what I expected or wanted. I was watching my character act slightly out of my control instead of having my choices guide their actions and reactions.
This new system also ignored the actual fun of seeing all those dialogue box options. I had the experience of reading all the possible hilarious lines in my mind palace and imagining how the other characters might react when I played the previous games, even though I knew I could only choose one. And I knew exactly what my character would say when I did make my choice, which made my decision feel meaningful. I wasn’t guessing at what my character might say; I was deciding what they would say.
The Dark Souls series deals with the mind palace menu situation from yet another angle. The games offer no ability to actually pause the game when you’re using menus, which is terrifying. You have to defeat whatever is around you and then find what you think could be a perfect little safe area in order to “pause” and look at your inventory.
FromSoftware gamified the menu in a different, much more difficult way, because I’m not in a mind palace space at all when I’m playing Dark Souls. Instead, it feels like I’m going through my bag as quickly as I can because I know my attention is on what I’m trying to find, not the monsters who might be getting ready to attack me. I’m literally never safe. The emotional payoff matches what the game’s designers tried to achieve, and they didn’t need to make the menus more annoying to use in order to find the emotional truth of the interaction being modeled in the game.
But the menus in Red Dead Redemption 2 aren’t gamified in a meaningful way, nor do they introduce any inherent danger. They just present obstructions and frustrations.
Every game has rails, but the goal of a sandbox game is to make the player feel like they are free. And the best way to accomplish that is to feed into the things the player wants to do, because immersion is an emotion that’s facilitated when you have control over your actions and responses.
So while Red Dead Redemption 2 may try to show us how hard life was during this time period, the only emotional experience the game was able to create in me through the menus was to show me that life back then was annoying.
How can we do better in sandbox games?
III) The Call of the Wild
Let’s talk about level design.
I want you to think of what makes Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare so good in comparison to its sequels. What did that game do so well that was lost in future versions of the series?
I believe the answer is largely tactical. The missions in Modern Warfare are gamified, and I spent much of my time in the game learning the locations of enemies and using memorization to get better. But the teams behind the series also chased the bug of “realism” and later threw me into chaotic war zones with swarms of soldiers fighting with and against me as entire cities exploded around me.
It looked cool, sure, but the gamification of the space-time environment was lost in the pursuit of a game that looked more real and chaotic while actually giving me fewer tactical options and requiring less interaction during many scenes. I realized, like others, that I didn’t even have to fire my gun to beat certain levels in the franchise. I could just run from place to place as my fellow soldiers killed the enemy for me. There is no actual “game” in the simulated chaos.
This is the challenge of good game design: How do you make the player feel free while still controlling, to some degree, where they go and what they do? Every game needs rails of some kind, but good design makes those rails feel invisible.
There is no more stunning example of this than Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I consider to be in the running for the best-designed game of all time.
The world of Breath of the Wild isn’t striving for naturalism. It’s overtly designed, in fact, and is full of picturesque, otherworldly vistas and environments. Every nook and cranny fuels at least a little sense of discovery. You might find a corner where monsters are playing a game, or an area uniquely suited to hunting foxes. If it looks like something interesting may be happening over the horizon, you will likely find out that something interesting is, in fact, happening over the horizon.
But, most importantly, you can interact with almost all of this world in meaningful ways. Those mountains you see off in the distance can be climbed. The trees that fill each forest can be chopped down. Snowboarding is possible wherever there’s a hill and some smooth snow. These interactions don’t take place during specialized sequences where you perform a task by hitting button prompts in order; they fill every moment of the game.
And this capacity to meaningfully interact with everything around me at all times makes Breath of the Wild feel much more “real” than other, more natural-looking sandbox games. Nintendo didn’t just craft a beautiful world for Breath of the Wild; it also gamified that world so thoroughly that when the game’s environment somehow suggests I can do something, I know that I’ll be able to do that thing. Nintendo knows where I’ll go and what I’ll want to explore, but it still feels like each of these ideas came from my own organic thoughts and desires as I played. The rails have disappeared.
Rockstar tried to create something similar with Red Dead Redemption 2. You can pick flowers, hunt animals, and even discover pretty little areas and sketch them in your journal.
But most of the time, you are just relegated to looking at it. I constantly find myself blocked or thrown off my horse by debris when I try to take a shortcut or explore a part of the map away from the road. I constantly fall down the sides of mountains like a wet baby in the grass if I try to climb them in the “wrong” areas, although the paths that allow me to climb or walk up them are clearly marked.
All I can do is curse Rockstar’s commitment to realism as I fall and slide all over the place in Red Dead Redemption 2, because this feeling is annoying as hell. Not only do the limits of where I can go seem inconsistent and needlessly punishing, and not only is there no “game” to any of these limitations, but the end result is that I’m taught to stick to the roads instead of exploring the beautiful environment around me. Just because something looks interesting in Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t always mean that you’ll be able to interact with it or even reach it. The rails are so visible that they smack me in the face, often when I’m trying to reach something that could be interesting.
The designers of Breath of the Wild made every new area I encounter make sense through my own abilities, or lack of abilities. I’ll discover if I have enough in my stamina meter to climb a cliff or not, and it feels fair. I can always work to become more powerful or capable if an area is too dangerous in my current state.
I could compare and contrast the two games all day. My falls felt random, senseless, and often strange in Red Dead Redemption 2, while my physical limitations were conveyed to me in Breath of the Wild and I knew how to overcome them. Breath of the Wild’s fast travel system is immediate and freeing in how it allows me to spend my time discovering new areas. What passes for fast travel in Red Dead Redemption 2 is time-consuming and costly, while still forcing me to tread over the same areas again and again.
Breath of the Wild sometimes makes me obtain new clothing to reach certain areas, or the story pushes me in a specific direction, but I’m still starting most story points organically through my arrival at that place and my interactions with the people around me. Red Dead Redemption 2 lets me visit Lemoyne on my own, but the story catches up with me 20 hours later, and my character acts as if it’s his first time there when I return.
These examples are all part of the endless cognitive dissonance of a game that doesn’t storify its sandbox, but instead installs distracting rails that fight against the freedom presented by the game’s visuals. Red Dead Redemption 2 is designed in such a way that I’m almost forced to “stick to the roads,” which is a shame when the rest of the world looks so inviting and clever. This sense of containment keeps me away from the feeling of accomplishment that other sandbox games provide, until playing Red Dead Redemption 2 begins to feel more like punishment in general. Rockstar is never able to balance the game’s sense of punishment with my desire for accomplishment, so the two game dynamics are always fighting each other.
Cooking is fun in Breath of the Wild. I can create new recipes that are actually critical for refilling my health. Yes, there’s a little animation that plays whenever I cook, but it’s cute and makes a rewarding noise that reminds me of the satisfaction of winning at a slot machine. Nintendo made cooking feel like a joyful act of creation.
Cooking is laborious in Red Dead Redemption 2, however, and this is largely because the benefits you get from cooking aren’t improvements, but are instead maintenance. You have to sustain the “core” dynamic of your health system, which means cooking the right things and making sure you have them on your person at all times. I cook in Red Dead Redemption 2 because I sometimes have to, and never because I want to. This turns what might have been a rewarding activity into an obligation, and sometimes an interruption from the part of the game I’d rather be playing.
And as I’ve pointed out already, the game is filled with these obligations. Your horse can’t get too dirty. You can’t lose too much weight. And when you get sick later in the game, you’re punished again because suddenly everything works half as well as it used to. Which means more obligation and more work. The game will punish you if you don’t constantly strive to maintain the status quo for your character, but these systems rarely do much to reward you for handling them well.
I’m continually stunned by how often Rockstar gets the gaming component of all this backward. Take the notion of collecting horses in this game, which is supposed to be integral to the experience.
You are supposed to buy or tame new horses so that you can move faster, but the difference in speed is so minimal and the rewards for bonding with your horse are so much stronger that it often makes more sense just to keep using the one you have. It takes a comically long time to bond with a new horse and level them up, giving you even less reason to ditch the horse you already have a relationship with.
I don’t understand the point of the horse “system” whatsoever; it encourages you to rarely, if ever, switch horses, because it’s so time-consuming to build a trusting bond with each horse, and yet it’s relatively easy to lose a horse to a random death if you’re not careful. Again, it feels like Rockstar is more interested in random punishments than it is in empowering the player to make the most out of these rules.
There’s a moment near the end of the game when the narrative finally builds toward the notion of accomplishment while Arthur is building a house. I have no choices when it comes to how to build the house or what I’d like to do to upgrade it; I just have to play yet another minigame where I hit nails into boards to continue. Then I sneezed and stopped hitting the button, and the game continued without me.
I realized you don’t have to hit the button at all; Arthur will hit the nail regardless. The minigame was just an illusion of participation. That should be enough for a quick rant, but remember that little “see how you did” options menu that comes up after a mission to tell you how well you hit goals you didn’t know until that point existed? In this case, the game was testing me to see if I could hit all the nails on time.
This is a metaphor for everything wrong with the game. I don’t have to play Red Dead Redemption 2, but if I choose to, it will always be secretly testing me without telling me the rules or what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m invited into a larger world that I can see but I can’t touch. And the things I can participate in within this world rarely seem to serve any cohesive purpose when it comes to helping me feel something about the story or characters. It’s a sandbox game in which you sometimes only learn the rules after you’ve failed at a task. Rockstar wants us to believe that this is a huge, realistic world, but there are so many limitations that it feels like I’m in a straitjacket.
In short, the game is a lie.
And it’s a punishing lie in which all the sandbox elements come up way short. These flaws would kill most other games, but somehow that’s not quite how it works here. I like something about this game, and that makes me at least want to try to fight back against all the flaws in the experience. Because Red Dead Redemption 2 is not actually a sandbox game at all.
It’s a story.
8. Space-time in the Story
A story lends motivation to a game. It makes me care more about the actions I am taking. A story can help set goals, even in games without much story to go around. Think of situations like Mario going after Bowser to rescue Peach.
But even those little details help to make a connection with the player. I like Mario because he is silly and fun to play with. He’s a squat little goofball who jumps and hops about. And this matters because the way we feel about the characters we see on-screen impacts the decisions we want to make about them.
Video games have evolved with time, and designers have come up with more ways to bring the player deeper into these stories, which means more moments in the game get pushed toward the narrative.
Players have unfortunately drawn a lot of unfair conclusions about narrative in games to date. Some fans are against cutscenes, implying that taking control away from the player and telling a story through a video can’t work. This isn’t true at all.
The problem is that there just weren’t many good cutscenes for a long time, because it’s very difficult to make good narrative cinema. We watched the most misguided, surface-level efforts for years, with many cutscenes that were mostly chasing kewl action shots. So of course people would skip them. Those players wouldn’t miss anything by ignoring the lead character striking a pose.
There were many storytellers in video games who thought that story was accomplished by adding lore. But putting a good story in a game requires the same understanding of dramatic principles as all narrative. You have to know how to create drama, create characters with internal logic who have wants and needs, and then use those elements of the work to draw out meaning as the player experiences the game.
The exact mode of expression doesn’t matter within gaming. The Last of Us puts rich drama into the central relationship of a story that’s heavy on the cutscenes. But no one minds. The Portal series leaves the story on the edges of our interaction with the environment, using the conceit that a character within the game is creating these challenges for us as we play. It’s all part of the “tests” we have to pass to survive.
Video games are difficult to make, but the artistic capacity for video games is endless. Designers and artists stitch together mediums, mechanics, story, and character into a beautiful collage. The key is to use the elements to the best purposes they possibly can in order to make the player feel whatever it is they’d like the player to feel. And games can be so damn powerful when those purposes are properly lined up.
Which is exactly why the original Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite games of all time. Sure, it cared about creating immersion through realistic, beautiful environments, but it didn’t so much care about realism of experience. Hell, the clunkiness of my interactions was almost part of the fun. I was able to run around in the Old West and get in shootouts, but it was all part of the lark. I got to put nuns on train tracks while keeping up the “howdy, ma’am” nice guy act. The cognitive dissonance was part of the draw, not a weakness.
Rockstar used to be so good at letting us have fun. And we could have fun while still getting those beautiful, immersive rides with our horse as we galloped through the stark desert in the dead of night. The story helped it all click together.
Because Red Dead Redemption was an odyssey: the story of one man going through the world all by his lonesome, having adventures and helping strangers along the way. I always knew my goals. I was going after Bill, Javier, and Dutch from my old gang, and the game paced out those goals admirably.
Rockstar also made room for the characters I would meet along the way. The team understood that you could mix tones from broad archetypes on these adventures. There were goofy old-timey doctors, slimy slumlords, and the ethereal danger of Stranger missions.
The first Red Dead Redemption wasn’t very careful or nuanced with these depictions, but it wasn’t trying to be. It was loose and broad in ways that made sense, while also being precise and targeted when it needed to be. The simplicity of the core game made me feel like I could control my time and space instead of the other way around. And this was all before the story moved into its haunting series of final climaxes that helped to elevate the whole experience into something remarkable.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes its cues from the game before it while offering something very different. The same commitment to environment and texture is admirable. And I do understand that Rockstar tried to grow and evolve. The company was successful in some ways, especially when it comes to the game’s motion capture and acting. I can see how they were emboldened by the success of the first Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption 2 tells a serious, somber story for most of its massive running time, but the creative team also made some baffling choices about what to keep from the first game and what to change for the worse.
The team found two critical successes with its new approach, and I’ll get to those in a bit, but it also left us with three critical failures when it comes to the integration of this design into the player’s sense of space-time.
I) Random Encounters
Many video games are obsessed with randomization. After all, it might seem easier to create a thing that itself perpetually creates than to create a large number of custom environments, characters, or interactions.
Everyone is starting to realize that randomization can lead to a lot of emptiness and problems. Witness the debacle of No Man’s Sky’s initial release for a good example of how this approach can go wrong.
The random encounters in Red Dead Redemption 2 bring their own problems. Players kept talking about the hilarious KKK scenes that appear randomly throughout the map. I played this game for 100 hours, and they never happened for me. I even looked them up online and went to the spots where they should spawn. Still nothing.
The same thing happened when I was looking for the Treasure Map Guy who randomly spawns on the map and sets you off on an adventure to find the last three treasures. I went to all the spawn locations and spent way too much time searching for him. He never showed up.
Again, I played this game for 100 hours. I probably spent a couple of those hours wandering around, waiting for these events to happen. And that also means I probably saw a random event that you missed.
But why did Rockstar make this choice? Do random encounters make the game more difficult? Do they make you feel more special, knowing that you’ve experienced something that was denied to me?
I know how they make me feel, because these random encounters are likely another part of chasing “realism.” Real life is often random, after all.
But randomization often creates frustration, and in Red Dead Redemption 2, it often serves as yet another way to increase the game’s artificial difficulty. I’m kept from doing the things I’d like to do and seeing the things I’d like to see because someone who helped make this game decided that these things should happen randomly.
II) Cinematic Gaming
Rockstar also has a problem knowing when a cutscene should stop; many of these scenes go on for far too long. A number of problems go along with this overuse of the “time” part of the player’s space-time.
The first issue comes from Rockstar’s continuous use of missions that consist of jumping into your car — or onto your horse — while having a long conversation with another character on the way to a certain location. Often these conversations fill in a bit more detail and texture about how characters feel, and there is sometimes value in this approach. But most of the time, these long sections add little value while taking up a large amount of the player’s time.
It’s time for this mechanic to go, or at least be lessened dramatically. Rockstar even does this a few times in Red Dead Redemption 2 by cutting to a location that is too far away for the characters to walk or ride, but the studio needs to be doing this much more often. The “drive and talk” scene is radically outdated, and most other games have moved beyond it while finding more interesting ways to explore their characters, but Rockstar keeps stubbornly hanging on.
One of the ways Rockstar is trying to solve this issue is by doubling down on “cinematic mode,” which breaks up the single “follow behind the character” angle that makes up most of the game. A pair of black bars frames the screen during cinematic mode, and the player is shown the journey from a number of seemingly randomized camera angles. This is meant to break up the monotony of the journey by bringing some variety to the visuals as the characters ride and talk.
The problem is that there are other people and objects on the roads, and cinematic mode leads mostly to a lot of this:
When cinematic mode goes wrong pic.twitter.com/F23PxHaMye— Will Potter (@thequiffisdead) October 27, 2018
It’s a functionally useless mechanic. Moreover, it implies that adding some black bars to create a wider aspect ratio and cutting between camera angles is what makes something cinematic. I’m not exaggerating. The addition of the black bars was reported in this story about the working conditions at Rockstar Games, and they allegedly created a horrible work crunch for the studio, which we’ll come back to.
So again, I come back to our question of “why?” If this mode doesn’t really do anything functional besides make the game seem texturally more like a movie, then why do it? What does this mode make you feel? Are these conversations moving the story or the storytellers’ goals forward in any way?
I don’t think Rockstar understands the needs that cutscenes fill in some interactions, or why they’re not always helpful and can, in fact, kill the pacing of certain scenes. And there’s one choice that speaks to this confusion quite plainly.
I was playing the game over Thanksgiving while my mom was on the couch, and I had gone into the Lemoyne theater to watch a play. “Why are we watching the play from this angle and not close-ups?” my mom asked.
I can understand the goal the designers had in mind. Rockstar likely wanted to make you feel like you are a theater patron, sitting in a theater to watch the play. But the end result is that I can’t see the show as well from this point of view, which is not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were watching a cinematic representation of the same show with cuts and edits.
“You don’t feel like you’re there?” I asked my mother. It was a leading question, but I trusted her intuition.
“No,” she answered. “I feel like I’m watching someone who is watching something.”
And there it is, the crux of so many of Rockstar’s cinematic problems in a perfect reply.
III) Tone plus Time
I powered through a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 to eventually get to some of the really good story stuff, but I did so largely out of my completionist instinct and a desire to write about the game. I would have stopped long before the ending of the game if I were just going by my “fun” meter.
Which leaves me wondering: How many other people will be fortunate enough to have the time to marathon those 40 to 100 hours? While there are a lot of young gamers with limited financial resources who will literally measure out their cost per hour of gameplay, there are many older working people with huge, time-sucking responsibilities that crush the availability to play altogether. And that’s why those early hours are so crucial to keeping those players involved.
When you look at the overall picture of what Red Dead Redemption 2 is trying to do with its story, you see that Rockstar falls into the common trap of thinking that being serious means you have to uphold a singular tone throughout the story. It should be said that directors and editors make the same mistake in movies, often because they believe that a moment of levity can undo tension. But it doesn’t. Moments of levity and likability can make the hard and gutting moments all the more crushing, in fact.
To be clear, there are definitely some bright spots of humor and verve, like the drunken night with Lenny that makes you care about the characters, even if it also goes on too long. Not to mention the hilarious turn where our Tesla-like character is trying to build a Franken-bot. But the goofy scenes are both far fewer and far less goofy than in the previous entry in the series. And it’s not even like the story is reaching for something darker and more fucked up. It’s working for a sadder tone, explaining the pained troubles of characters saddled with demons, disease, and regret.
What makes so many of the game’s missions click is when you realize they are genuinely trying to dramatize futility. And at times, that really works. But the ultimate problem is less in the instinct to capture this emotion within the game; the problem is that layering a singular tone is far more punishing in long games like this one. People have a hard enough time sitting down to feel sad for a two-hour movie. Asking them to do the same thing for an 80- to 100-hour game? Oofa doofa.
It’s just a whole different kind of space-time with a different purpose. And sitting with a game that I’m not into at all on any other level? Being enveloped in sadness for a whole day? It can genuinely throw me off, emotionally speaking, and I don’t think I’m alone.
This is where I admit I’ve dealt with a lot of mental health stuff over the last few years, which is actually why I like playing video games so much. It’s a great hobby for the cathartic release of the earned accomplishments, along with the ups and downs of each story that can actually be a steadying force in my life.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 is a frustrating experience, and that’s a hard sell when it’s coupled with the futility inherent in the story. Playing Red Dead Redemption 2 means that every day, I’m finding the will to pick up the controller to throw myself into the slow slog and dissolution of the game’s story. And the game’s endless delays and interruptions drag me down even further. The game can actually remind me of the toxic way I’m feeling, the feeling that I’m trying to fight against with an immersive and dramatic virtual experience.
Which means I don’t want this:
Rockstar desperately needs to rethink how it approaches the structure of conflict, because it’s trying to apply two-hour movie-length arcs to 100 hours of story, which leads to a ridiculous amount of wheel-spinning.
I go through the same conflict with Micah over and over and over and over and over again as I play through Red Dead Redemption 2. I trust Dutch again and again, despite having so many reasons not to. It’s just like the saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 500 times without giving me a chance to learn, and what the hell is this and what am I doing? Make it stop!”
It’s a grind, just like TV shows that endlessly repeat their basic conflicts without any of the characters learning how to avoid making the same mistakes. I feel it everywhere when I play Red Dead Redemption 2. Especially late in the game, when there is just so much coughing. I understand the intent here and Rockstar’s commitment to realism. But, because of the effect of space-time, the tuberculosis plotline feels a lot less like the dramatization of tuberculosis and a lot more like actually having tuberculosis.
The problem is that Rockstar thinks that being a “tuberculosis simulator” is the correct goal. And sure, I can find some meaning in this, but the game forces me through so much repetition to drive that anti-message home.
Polygon’s own Chris Plante asked me the single best question about the heart of the experience I had playing Red Dead Redemption 2 when we were discussing these issues: “Does it need to be fun?”
I’m going to answer this question in full at the end of this piece. But for now, I’ll say that I wouldn’t call the Dark Souls series fun, either. But it is haunting, dramatic, and thrilling. And it is definitely not a slog. Of all the possible things one could dramatize in this world, I find the desire to dramatize a slog to be the most counterproductive goal possible. Not just because of the weight of those 80 hours, but because that length actually undermines the moments where “feeling the slog” of futility would be most emotionally effective.
Thus, I can’t help but feel like the ultimate problem with Red Dead Redemption 2 is structural. Because it’s a game out of balance with all the things it’s most trying to be.
To best address that, we must dive into the story, figure out what it was aiming for, and answer two important questions in the process: What is this game really about? And how could that goal have been communicated in a more effective way?
9. To Live and Die in Lemoyne
Trying to assess the whole of Red Dead Redemption 2’s storytelling is extraordinarily difficult. There are around 100 hours of main quests and side quests, all with endless permutations of experience, all of which need to be built to a single purpose of creating the game’s intended emotions.
So it’s hard to whittle the “story” down to a sentence, but I can say this: The single most important story moment in Red Dead Redemption 2 works pretty damn well, but the rest of the story around it, the story that is meant to support that moment, does not.
Let’s look at what I believe are Red Dead Redemption 2’s central narrative goals, which I think are both well-intentioned and well-aimed. The game wants to:
- Tell the story of a traditional Old West-type cowboy who is wrestling with his changing identity in a changing world, especially as he is going to face both his metaphorical extinction and literal doom. In this case, this means both the figurative death of the outlaw lifestyle and the character’s literal death from tuberculosis.
- Simultaneously tell the story of a group of bandits falling apart as they mislead and double-cross each other and destroy their “family.”
- End with that lead character dying in a noble attempt to save another character and set them on their path to goodness, or possibly to die in vain in the foolish pursuit of money. This ending also sets up the original Red Dead Redemption, as Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel.
That may all seem like a tall order, but so is any story, really. And I’d argue that this is a really solid foundation for building an epic like Red Dead Redemption 2.
So let me start by discussing the first goal, since every good story starts with character.
I) The Dying Cowboy
Arthur Morgan is ultimately one of the best characters that video games have yet to offer, and much of this strength comes from the amazing central performance from actor Roger Clark. He continually finds little bits of humanity and conflict in just about every line reading, and it’s an incredible performance. When he speaks, I believe him. And Rockstar’s animators bring those vocal subtleties to life with plenty of their own hard work and skill.
But it takes a while for the characterization to fall into place due to the writing. Sure, I sort of get a sense of his place within the gang and a bit of his general backstory early on, but it takes far too long for his distinct personality to click into focus. Hours and hours pass before I learn what sets him apart from the rest of the gang, or what he wants out of life or even the present situation.
Introductions are absolutely critical, so withholding this information from the player for so long is a baffling choice. You don’t want to tease out someone’s character when you tell a story; you want to introduce them efficiently and let the character grow and evolve from that point forward. This is why, in movies, we spend more time on the first 17 pages of a script than we do on everything that follows. It’s critical for the developer to perfect how the player comes into a story and how that story is framed in a game’s opening hours.
Do you remember the way the original Red Dead Redemption gave us that lovely opening credits sequence on the train? It told us John’s mission and his central conflict, and then just let us go right on our way. It was a perfect way to dive into the world.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t so much introduce anything or anyone as much as it obstructs the player and then begins to ploddingly layer bits of character into the story in confusing ensemble scenes.
Rockstar spends a lot of time telling me about these relationships, but so little time actually showing me how they work. I remember getting however many damn hours into the game it takes before finally going fishing with Hosea and Dutch. “Wait, where has this been the whole time?” I asked myself. I finally understood the relationships in the game and the affinity that exists between these three men. Why does that scene happen so far into the game? Shouldn’t I understand that relationship much sooner?
I also remember the exact moment I started liking Red Dead Redemption 2 on the whole. It was, of course, a simple character moment. I go up to a door with my gun drawn, and suddenly get slammed to the ground by a gunfighter who runs past.
Arthur doesn’t get up. He just stares up at the sky and deadpans with perfectly delivery: “Ow.”
This comic moment may seem slight, but this is when I get a handle on Arthur’s disposition and when he starts making sense to me. I suddenly believe his reluctant gruffness, his stubborn irritability, and particularly his ironically amusing lack of amusement with the idiocy around him.
Rockstar also isn’t afraid to make fun of Arthur’s own uneducated nature. Someone rails insults against him and exclaims, “I know you think I’m some effete buffoon!” Arthur responds with a big, confused “Whaaaaat?” having no idea what that word means. Between these two dynamics, Arthur Morgan really has the perfect disposition to get through the world of this game.
But Arthur’s journey has to effectively complete an arc to be satisfying. We certainly see what the end of that arc looks like, with Micah having sown the seeds of discord and Arthur, the loyal right-hand man to Dutch, begging the gang’s leader to see the truth. Micah is the rat, not Arthur.
The scene that culminates in Arthur’s death is sad and fated and beautiful and haunting and everything you could ever want. The dramatization of Arthur’s death alone is the moment that makes the entire game worth it. It is a genuine success, but it could have had an even more devastating impact if only it had been the finale to a properly dramatized arc.
Because I question the way the story built up to that moment and how I got there as a player. So much of Arthur’s affection for and history with Dutch is just told to me, which is a crucial violation of the storytelling rule to “show” instead of “tell.”
“If you have a problem with the third act,” Billy Wilder famously said, “the real problem is in the first act.” Which brings us right back to the opening of Red Dead Redemption 2 and all the problems that come with it.
II) Introductions and Endings
The biggest problem with Red Dead Redemption 2, dramatically speaking, is that it begins in the same exact place it ends up. Seriously.
The game begins as the gang is trudging through the snow, reeling after a job that has gone wrong. They’re stuck in a terrible place, and they’re searching for some kind of hope. The game ends with the characters facing the same dilemma. Heck, the characters face that dilemma in most chapters.
Rockstar is likely trying to make a point about the cyclical nature of conflicts and how people can face their demons again and again without learning how to avoid their own weaknesses or repeated mistakes.
But there are two core problems with that theme. One is that, as a player, I want Arthur to do something different. Good design guides the player without the player feeling guided, or it fools the player into thinking they’re making their own decisions, but I felt uncomfortably guided through the majority of Red Dead Redemption 2. I was forced to repeat the same mistakes within the story because I didn’t have a choice to do anything else. I wanted to leave Dutch and get the hell out of Dodge immediately, and that feeling grew stronger as I played. I was just never given an opportunity to do so.
I don’t sympathize with Arthur, because it’s easy to see his mistakes and know where they will lead him. I understand something Arthur does not, and that makes my experience so divorced from his that it’s hard to feel connected to his fate at all.
The second issue with Red Dead Redemption 2’s story is even more important, because one of the first things you learn about writing for an audience is that you simply cannot repeat conflicts without losing them. You have to evolve the kinds of conflicts your characters face, even for 22 minutes of television, let alone 100 hours in an epic video game.
Otherwise, the audience will feel the grinding of the gears in the worst possible way. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes this worse by giving me so many reasons to doubt Dutch immediately. “I feel like he’s descended into the kind of man he told us never to be!” Arthur yells during the climax, but Dutch was acting that way in the first damn scene in the game.
And yet I was forced to put my faith in Dutch again and again throughout the game. I also let that asshole Micah be a rat the whole damn time because I wasn’t given any other choice. There is almost no growth. There are no twists and no inversions of what I expect. I spend 100 grueling hours inside the same core conflicts, where I have to deal with the contradiction of wanting to make the choice I make at the end from the very beginning of the game. I didn’t have to go on a journey to learn that lesson; that lesson was clear from the opening moments of the game. And this absolutely robs Arthur’s death of the weight it would have had if I understood any of his decisions instead of being forced to stick with the gang because that was the story Rockstar wanted to tell.
The writers and developers simply misunderstand how much story they actually have to tell with this one central conflict. This issue can be improved by either paring down and focusing on the most important story beats so things don’t become repetitive, or learning how to create new conflicts in the story. And with a game this massive, where there need to be as many things to do as possible? Well, then the creative team has to learn how to grow and change the nature of that central conflict. And to do that, they have to identify the things that hold the story together to better understand how to achieve those core goals.
Arthur’s death introduces the game’s oddest narrative choice: the two-part epilogue. Because there is no doubt that the game could have ended on Arthur’s sacrifice as John gets away, running toward a fate familiar to anyone who played the first Red Dead Redemption.
But instead, Rockstar took the time to follow up with John to show exactly what his journey looks like from that point forward. And the game spends a lot of time doing so. What’s behind this choice? I can’t know what Rockstar’s designers and writers were thinking, but I think this is the part of the game where they wanted to give me everything I emotionally wanted during the previous game.
I feel a sense of accomplishment and growth in the epilogue. I finally get my cathartic revenge on Micah. I’m able to truly explore with no handcuffs or limits. The relationships between characters change and grow. To put it simply, the epilogue feels good. And it feels earned in a way the rest of the game often doesn’t. It likely even pleased the most pedantic players obsessed with canonical logic, because it takes the time to set up so many plot points from the original Red Dead Redemption.
This section of the game isn’t really an epilogue; it’s the final quarter of the whole dang story. It strikes this uneasy balance between how much it’s trying to wrap up versus how much new story it would like to tell. And it completely messes with my expectations with that balance.
Simply put, I have never seen a story grind to a complete halt and force me to rebuild like this, especially in something that’s being called an epilogue. Thus, it feels like a long exercise in “and then this happens!” until I get to the point where everything is finally in place.
This is ultimately just another misunderstanding of the effect of the story time in Red Dead Redemption 2 — or at least Rockstar’s misunderstanding of what it was trying to sculpt with the sequence itself.
So let’s try to understand the sequence as it exists and what it requires to provide an ending to the story.
III) Re-sequencing and Relationships
The game wants to accomplish the following goals, stated earlier:
- Show Arthur’s arc and approaching death.
- Show the dissolution of the gang and the relationships within it.
- Make Arthur’s choice and death worth it while propelling John forward.
Given a 100-hour timeline of a game that wants to accomplish these goals, designers and writers have to ask themselves a simple question: How do they make sure these moments are as meaningful as possible? In other words, how do they sculpt this story to do all the things they want and make the largest emotional impact on the player they can?
First, let’s take apart the structure of the existing game, which is as follows: six chapters with a two-part epilogue. Now, I don’t really care how many chapters there are or what the separation looks like; I often knock the institutional reliance on three-act structures that we see in so much art.
The creative team behind Red Dead Redemption 2 opts for a structure that makes the most common rookie mistakes. There’s the “Act II: We’re in a different location now!” trick, as if a change of setting does all the work.
But good stories are always the stories of relationships, and Dutch and Arthur’s story is at the core of Red Dead Redemption 2. The closer I can get to Arthur’s emotions, the more I experience the story through his eyes, which means that final haunting moment will mean much more to me.
Which brings us to the central problem in this conflict: I know all the reasons Arthur has not to trust Dutch, but I don’t know, dramatically speaking, all the reasons he does trust him. I’m told about the glory days and the magnificent Dutch from the beginning of the game, but I don’t really get to see that in action as the player.
I never get to see Dutch as Arthur sees him, and that matters much more because the “out of control” Dutch that exists at the end of the story doesn’t seem that different from the Dutch I first met in the snow. Arthur talks about him as if this huge arc has taken place, but I didn’t see or experience those changes as the player. Arthur and I see Dutch through very different eyes, which lessens the emotional impact of anything he says or does.
I know Arthur muses that the version of Dutch he believed in “maybe never existed,” but it’s hard not to scream, “Duh, motherfucker; we saw that from frame one!” as a player.
It would have made the change in Dutch much more powerful to me if the game had let me experience Dutch the same way that Arthur did. I’m told why Arthur thinks of Dutch in a certain way, but I’m never shown anything that allows me to share that point of view.
Looking at it all holistically, I think the story that Rockstar actually wants to tell with Red Dead Redemption 2 is either the classic “rise and fall” story, or the classic “rise, fall, rise” dynamic. Because if you’re gonna give me 100 hours of time-jumping story and you want it to feel fresh and not repetitive? If you want to give me an epic? Then give me an epic that shows it all.
That means I want to see the glory days and the key gang figures coming together. Seriously, this has nothing to do with the prequel instinct. Everything in the main character’s story is built on allusions to the past. So why not see Arthur’s choice to leave Mary? Why not see Arthur get suckered away by the charms of Dutch? This is where the epic story they’re already telling actually begins. We are just seeing the conclusion.
To be clear, it’s OK to begin stories in medias res, just as it’s OK to have characters keep talking about the past and let us into the story that way. But that decision makes a lot more sense for other shorter, non-repetitive narratives that aren’t so dependent on the events of that past. If you have the space, particularly if you’re already grinding your gears with repetitive conflicts, go for it! Embrace the elements of “show, don’t tell,” especially if it feels necessary in making the ultimate tragedy that befalls Arthur as brutal as possible. More importantly, it will change the dynamic of the conflict. Because I just don’t want to spend 100 hours feeling like things are treading water or slowly getting worse. I want the sadness and deeper conflict to mean something beyond their ubiquity and cyclical nature.
So let’s pretend someone asked me to pitch a loose outline for a game that would capture the goals of this story. The following isn’t me saying what Rockstar should have done, by any means. A good story takes a lot more time to break down than this. So the following is simply an attempt to dive into an alternative structure for Red Dead Redemption 2 that would let us change the status quo and the nature of the conflicts, create plot twists, and ultimately dramatize the arcs of these characters.
Chapter 1: Young, rebellious Arthur makes the decision to leave Mary and the rest of his home after getting seduced by Dutch’s gang. We need to understand our character’s headspace and why he’d want to follow this man to the ends of the earth.
Chapter 2: Dramatize the gang’s rise to infamy and show how Dutch earned the trust of his friends. Micah shouldn’t be an obvious villain this early in the story; his choice to inform on the gang makes more sense if he’s depicted as a sycophant, someone who is eager to please others. We don’t want to telegraph the truth; we want to create false leads by telegraphing incorrect assumptions.
Chapter 3: Move the story ahead a few years, when things are starting to turn south. This chapter would end with the first major hiccup that Dutch has to smooth over. Oddly enough, this is effectively where the game actually begins as it exists now.
But this updated structure would mean that the player’s trust in Dutch is affirmed from their own experience, which would allow them to throw their own mistrust at another character. This should also be the place where the player is given a good psychological reason for why Dutch is starting to lose it. Maybe another character betrays him, but there has to be some internal reason for Dutch’s motivations and behavior to shift.
This is also the time to bring Mary back, along with the first rumblings of Arthur’s regret. But the player would hopefully understand why Arthur made his decision. We’ve shown them that Dutch has done many things in the past to cement his role as the gang’s leader and moral center. The player, in this situation, isn’t told that people are loyal to Dutch; they’re shown it, and they’ve seen the reasons why that trust exists.
Chapter 4: But of course, it all goes doubly wrong. And this should culminate in a reveal that Dutch has lied or hidden something, which changes the nature of Arthur’s original seduction, showing how his trust was originally misplaced.
Again, we need to show a shift in actual understanding of the plot as it happens. We don’t just want Arthur to wake up to the idea that “maybe he was this person all along,” especially when the audience could tell from the outset that he was always, in fact, this person. We want this realization to come as a dramatized change of understanding that mirrors that of the player. We want the audience to be in the same headspace as Arthur during this part of the story.
Chapter 5: This is the reckoning, where the conflict finally comes to a head and Arthur has to make his grave sacrifice. We can also have Dutch’s paranoia take over as Micah is revealed to be a rat.
Again, this is the climax that already works in the game, as-is! This outline just reorders the story that comes before that ending. And it’s not actually far off from the story that is told to us; it just dramatizes it with more clarity and shows us how the characters went through this journey together so their decisions make sense to the player, even if the player doesn’t agree with them. Seeing the glorious rise of the gang would also make the “fall from grace” section much more powerful. We want the player to know how far the gang has come and how much they have to lose before it is lost. The stakes should feel real, and earned.
Epilogue / More Chapters: John’s story could either be wrapped up in a genuinely short epilogue or get the full two- to three-chapter “rise again” treatment. But these should just be called “chapters” if they’re indeed the last huge part of the game, since that would more effectively communicate expectations about what kind of story progression to expect from this section of the game.
Again, this is just a quick breakdown I came up with on the fly, not a genuine offering. And maybe you don’t want to see a younger Arthur at all, which is understandable. Heck, there’s a litany of better choices you could probably make than the ones above.
But remember that the real point of this exercise is to showcase how to track the arc of a character so the player can understand the nature of the changing conflict. You can’t tell the tale of a character’s disillusionment without dramatizing the seduction; you have to build something up in the mind of the player in order for these characters to have something to lose.
And, truth be told, the above outline would at least capture the rise, fall, and re-rise that Rockstar seems to be going for in the final release.
I also understand that, in the process of looking at the story in this game, there are a number of other, more granular problems that deserve consideration. So let’s discuss them.
IV) Granular Gaffes
I keep talking about the beast of story repetition, but there’s one instance near the end of the game that is the most critical. This is when Dutch returns in the final standoff between John Marston and Micah.
The problem is not so much that this event doesn’t somehow “fit” into the final story beat. The problem is that this situation inherently undermines the power of Arthur’s sacrifice that comes before.
Dutch realizes the huge mistake he’s made in that moment, and rather than face it, he runs away. It’s such a powerful moment. And it’s a moment that builds a perfect bridge to his fate at the end of the original Red Dead Redemption, where he’s gone off the deep end.
So to bring Dutch back in the epilogue and imply that he just went back to working with Micah? And, on top of that, that Dutch finally does the right thing and shoots Micah now, of all times? I get the allure of making this choice because it ties a neat little bow on the story, but it also completely runs counter to the points that the story makes. Dutch leaving the narrative at Arthur’s sacrifice is a much more powerful and meaningful event if Dutch never comes back.
But bringing back Dutch is par for the course in a game where the story has the perpetual chance to strike out and do something different, but the writers always choose the status quo.
An example of this happens in Chapter 5. The whole gang has been scattered by the storm after their failed mission, and Arthur himself becomes stranded on the shore of the island Guarma.
My mind immediately began racing with the possibilities: I’m alone on a desert island! This is going to be new and different, and I’m going to have to try to survive! This is going to be a metaphor for the independence Arthur needs to find, away from the gang! Maybe he can come to understand decency in some sort of journey with whoever lives on this island!
Those would all have been interesting places to take the story, and they would have fleshed out Arthur’s character. But instead, I immediately discover that the rest of the gang is alive, and I’m suckered into Dutch’s schemes once again.
I was so disappointed, especially when, after that feeling of possibility, I was put in chains and had to play the “game” of “walking” along my chained path. It’s the perfect symbol of how little the writers actually want to change the nature of the story, and how often they hit me with the same conflict, over and over again.
I was walking through the gang’s camp early in the game, and Dutch yelled, “I know you’ll betray me, Arthur!” as I walked past him. The sentiment comes from nowhere in particular, as Arthur hasn’t done anything to warrant the suspicion, and the line is so problematically placed in the game’s timeline. Why did Rockstar deliver this message as a random bark and not in a dramatized cutscene? It’s hard to tell if the team was trying to plant a false notion of fear or simply draw a logical line from the beginning of the story to its end. It felt strange at the time and only seems worse in retrospect, now that I know how everything ends up.
And this is just part of a larger problem with how Rockstar approached the themes and tone of Red Dead Redemption 2.
V) Tone Drones and Lean Themes
Rockstar became well-known at least partially due to its ability to provide snark.
The absurdist satire of the Grand Theft Auto games was juvenile, but it was also irreverent, goofy, and pretty darn functional. The series never took itself very seriously, and that snark would serve an important purpose when Rockstar started to find surprising emotional moments and depth later in the story. But as the Rockstar writing team has aged — and the games are reportedly mostly written by the credited trio of Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth, and Rupert Humphries — the games have aged in odd ways alongside them.
The satire of Grand Theft Auto 5 feels far more cynical and jaded than its predecessors, for instance. The jokes are no longer poking fun at the viewpoint of the old dad in his 40s as much as they sound like they’re taking the point of view of a dad in his 40s. South Park has suffered the same fate in the past few years by turning to many of the tropes it used to lambaste. At some point, the thing that used to feel like punk rock gets popular enough to join the establishment, and different properties and companies deal with that inflection point with differing amounts of grace.
Rockstar’s games, particularly the original Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, sometimes show the merits of this aging with bits of storytelling that reveal genuine understanding and insight, but there is no doubt that Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most successful “grown-up” Rockstar game to date, however you want to define success.
Much of this is due to Arthur Morgan himself, that quiet shell of a man, hanging onto the sins of the past and all his missed chances at building a better life. I think about the little gestures, like when he looks at the ground rather than speaking. Or when you know he’s troubled by something but only adds his elongated “suuuure” to the conversation. He pronounces it more like “shoah.” The game is filled with little bits of introspection like this. One of my favorites comes when Colm O’Driscoll realizes that he’s not going to be rescued and is about to be hanged for real. I saw the tiny bit of emotion well up in him as this terrible man finally faces a fate he thought he’d be able to run from forever.
It’s all part of how much better this game handles momentary evocation and affectation than the deeper mechanics of drama. Granted, the deeper mechanics of drama are really hard. But I do think the writers have an implicit understanding that they can’t just keep taking the piss out of the world with these stories, thematically speaking. The issue is that, thus far, they don’t seem to have enough insight into the psychology, politics, or history of the stories they want to tell in order to transcend them and say something profound. The story sometimes offers commentary on the historical South, racism, or women’s rights, and that’s when things get pretty damn messy.
There’s also Rockstar’s bizarre affinity for torture, and the false belief that beating people for information is a perfectly reasonable and functional thing to do. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game that somehow finds its moral heart on the subject of loan-sharking, but the player is still forced to beat up a man with obvious mental and physical disabilities during a mission. You read that correctly.
It’s actually part of an ongoing homage in the game to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). And the depictions of little people and other characters are cringeworthy. They don’t even carry half of the humility of the film that their presence is referencing, and that movie came out nearly 90 years before this game. These fumbling, basic insensitivities are glaring in a game that came out in 2018.
I could almost feel the creative team stretching for some kind of inclusion that doesn’t always involve the victimization of women, while still trying to convey what they think is the essence of the time period. It’s a delicate line to walk, but Rockstar falls back on the same demonstrative, monotonous tropes like “showing you are a good guy by saving women from rape.” This story decision shows its true nature when the writers include diatribes against prostitutes that may have been meant to exhibit empathy, while also sexualizing scenes in which a woman comes in to wash you as you bathe.
These dueling narratives and sympathies reinforce the myopic, masculine belief that it’s okay for prostitution to exist, as long as it is for you. But it’s bad for everyone else, especially the women you know. This patronizing view of femininity is rarely interrogated, even when Arthur tells Tilly she’s a “good girl,” despite her being a grown-ass woman who has already been through more hell than he can imagine.
There is also the way these attitudes stand in stark contrast to how Rockstar handled the character of Sadie Adler. Adler is more or less a success dramatically, largely due to the funny, irreverent performance of actor Alex McKenna, who I could swear is a dead vocal ringer for Pamela Adlon.
Adler goes from a woman seen as a victim to a take-no-shit bounty hunter I liked more than any other member of the gang. There are just some bumps in the road along the way, such as the way the narrative bungles her first few scenes in the camp, not making it clear enough that she was the woman the gang found in the cabin during the opening scenes.
Twitter poll! In Red Dead Redemption II, when you start doing missions with Sadie did you realize she was the kidnapped woman you rescued from the cabin in the beginning...— FILM CRIT HULK (@FilmCritHULK) January 4, 2019
I didn’t even realize they were the same character until much later in the game. Over half the people I polled on Twitter had the same issue, and 32 percent of the polled players never realized she was the woman from the beginning at all.
I was also troubled by the little bits of dramatization that take place during her growth as a character. The sexism she encounters is likely meant to show “the laughable attitudes of the time,” but it’s still advocating the drama of her staying put. Movies like Wonder Woman show that not staying put can become a source of strength, but that’s not the message I received from Red Dead Redemption 2. There are countless times when Adler is being reckless and Arthur is forced to either lecture her or just shout, “Shut up, woman!” The whole point seems to be about proving that the player is the man who knows better and will eventually “help” Adler reach the point where she is your equal. Arthur often speaks in patronizing tones and tells suffragettes that it’s too much to be willing to die for the right of women to vote.
And that’s the whole problem with this thematic depiction: The creative team can’t just mean well when these situations ultimately serve the fulfillment of the guy at the center of the story, not the identities of the characters the game is supposedly advocating for.
This dynamic is most evident in the writers’ inability to grapple with the dark heart of American racism. They instead take the all too familiar cop-out of demonizing the South. It’s not that the South doesn’t deserve to be demonized for its racist past; it’s that focusing solely on the South helps spread the lie that these attitudes weren’t everywhere.
The West is apparently the place where black people were free, and the game’s depiction of racism reeks of the ignorant idea that racism wasn’t intrinsic to society at the time. Racism is instead the fault of anyone who “participates” in it, but characters who are meant to be sympathetic are blameless because they don’t take part in it — as if they could take a step away from society’s racism and wash their hands of it on a personal level.
This is especially galling due to the way Arthur himself is depicted as someone who doesn’t care about racism. He takes part in the South Parkian lie that he’s doing okay as long as he hates everyone just the same, or that maybe “both sides” are wrong and should learn to get along. He sticks to, and never questions, the grand lie of individualism when it comes to racism, which allows him to happily sit in ignorance of a systemic reality that might otherwise force him to take action if he wants to continue to feel like a good person.
This goes hand in hand with Arthur’s performative demonstration of his colorblindness, specifically his relationship with “the kid,” Lenny, and how much he enjoys riding and drinking with him.
This is a plotline that doesn’t do much narrative heavy lifting outside of making us feel bad when Lenny is the first to be taken down. Arthur also often takes part in false equivalencies between his own struggles and those who suffer from racial injustice. He outright tells a Native American chief that “like you, I’ve been running ever since I was born.” And the writers never address the dangerous claim that “choosing to be a cool renegade due to my own decisions” and “being a member of one of the most systemically erased and oppressed ethnic groups in American history” are basically the same thing. None of this flies in 2019. It just doesn’t.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s writers also forget how the original Red Dead Redemption largely avoided these issues by leaning into the pulp details of the genre without trying to mine them for philosophy or gravitas. It was meant to be fun and funny, with a touch of soulfulness when it benefited the story.
That’s the problem with trying to tell a “serious” thematic story with serious issues: You have to bring your A-game and show a real sense of nuance and sensitivity to those issues. Rockstar instead mostly repeated the texture of cinematic depth without understanding the meaning behind it. The writers don’t dig deep enough, or structure the game well enough, to find the organic truths within these characters and their relationships.
But I get to see the game at its best in those moments when meaning is communicated well. The stolen moments between Arthur and Mary, or the dire fortitude of a man grappling with a terminal disease, show me what the game could have been.
Think of one of the most obvious moments of symbolism in the game. I saw flashes of a deer appearing to me in dreams and images throughout the story, and the vision comes again at the moment of death. But the true power of the symbol only comes from the meta.
You see a wolf instead if you play the game immorally and make “bad choices,” which clarifies the metaphor: Did you live your life as a wolf or a deer? But you’ll only understand this aspect of the game if you played Red Dead Redemption 2 both ways or Googled the endings. That’s just about the biggest antithesis of immersion and singularity I can imagine. It’s the perfect contradiction of space-time, and it shows just how many of Rockstar’s choices got in their own damn way.
My favorite moment in the entire game is actually in the epilogue, when I, now playing as John Marston, go to visit Arthur’s grave on the mountainside. There is no cutscene. No fanfare. Just me in the space and quiet of an overcast day, with the time to reflect on my own feelings. It’s one of the few times the game lets me have my own meaningful space-time. As such, the moment carries such strange and understated power. It was a moment that was crafted for me with that space in mind.
Which brings me to my bittersweet conclusion.
I cannot help but think about the 100-hour workweeks being bragged about by the man in charge of Rockstar when I come back to the question of “why?” with Red Dead Redemption 2. I don’t want to get into the troubling ethics of that statement now, although I have in the past, but the statement gives me much more empathy for the sleepless nights and weekends that the development team went through in making this game.
There are many things to offer in gratitude, whether it’s an understanding of the hell that comes with being overworked or a supporting note of congratulations now that the game has shipped and is a financial success.
But the inherent problem with criticism is that it can seem like there isn’t that appreciation for the work that went into the art being discussed. Instead, the best thing criticism can offer, or maybe even the only thing, is mindfulness of the great “why?”
As in, what is the point of the sacrifice? What was it for? Who was it for? And, in more concrete terms, what decisions can we uphold to honor the work that went into the game, including the audience’s time? What did we learn from the finished product, and how do we move forward? Because I don’t just want to complain about the missing stair.
I want us to fix it.
I understand that video game design is a labyrinthine process. But having clarity about the “why” matters most when creative projects get big and involve hundreds or even thousands of people. Because you really do have to find a way to steer the damn skyscraper. You have to communicate the purpose across the entire team and survive the pitfalls that come along the way. A brilliant storyteller once told me that getting your point across in a commercial piece of art is “like a messenger bird surviving all of World War II.” And I want to convey here and now that despite my criticisms, I believe the messenger bird of Red Dead Redemption 2 survived its own World War II … but it was a close call.
And the reasons why it came so close to failing are cumulative. Each of the criticisms I’ve leveled at the game would more or less be forgivable on its own. The problem is that they all add up. The basic design problems, the monotony of its minigames, the repetition in the story, and the obfuscation of accomplishment all work together to chase players away. It’s death by a thousand cuts.
Which brings me back to Chris Plante’s remarkable question: “Does it need to be fun?”
The answer is no, it doesn’t. But I do think it needs to be better at all the ways it is not fun. Red Dead Redemption 2 needs to be better at the way it’s dramatizing a story about the way things fall apart, without simply repeating the same story beats every few hours. It needs to be better at knowing when to interrupt the player and when not to. Better at gamifying both accomplishment and failure. Better at giving you a mind palace instead of intrusive and baffling menus. Better at building an interactive environment. Better at thematic messaging. Better at understanding what matters, and what doesn’t.
I was playing one evening and trying to take in a sunset, because sunsets are always one of my favorite parts of open-world games. As I watched the sunset turn from yellow to pink before disappearing completely in the dark, I couldn’t help but think that even the sunsets are too quick.
It’s yet another example of the development team choosing “realism” over enjoyment. And the timing is only realistic due to the relativity of the game’s own shortened hours. It’s a punishing choice that didn’t need to be made in this manner; internal consistency isn’t always the most important thing. This is why The Witcher 3 took place in a world with a prolonged magic hour and sunset. Why did the team behind The Witcher 3 do that? Because it’s beautiful, damn it. There doesn’t need to be another reason. I don’t think the player is worried about realism while time dilates for a bit when the lighting is at its most beautiful. The player is likely enjoying the sunset.
The developers behind Red Dead Redemption 2 may say they want the player to slow down and get into the natural rhythm of hunting deer and exploring the prairie, but the game includes endless obstructions and obfuscations that keep me from savoring any of it. All the moments of joy in Red Dead Redemption 2 are so damn fleeting.
That may have been part of the point, but I question the point of a futility simulator. Of all the emotions to experience through gaming — including shock, terror, awe, affinity, joy, and love — futility is the one I definitely get enough in real life. It’s not even an emotion, really. It’s an obstruction to one.
I understand that there are some people who enjoyed this experience wholeheartedly, but I think there is a reason so many others joked about whether this game would make us fill out our tax returns, too. I don’t understand why Rockstar wanted to make a game this long about futility, let alone one that can’t engage with the topic in a meaningful way. There is a big difference between games that teach you patience and those that demand it.
“It’s just not what you want,” they said. That’s fine. But the problem is that I’m finding a lot of people didn’t want this, either. And it’s an odd response to give to someone, a response that is at once patronizing and insulting. It’s a reduction of all the endless thoughts and queries discussed within this essay and the world at large.
Rockstar’s Dan Houser said he was “on a mission to entertain” with Red Dead Redemption 2, and so I can’t help but say that I don’t think this is the game he wanted, either.
When you write something, you have to understand that you are the person who actually understands your story the least. Everything that exists in your head might not exist on the page or in the final product. So you need people to tell you what your work really is and what they’re getting from it. Anything else is myopia, and it’s easy to get so involved in designing a system that you can’t see it from the outside.
There’s this scene from the golden age of The Simpsons where Homer is trapped in a tar pit and is sinking quickly. He tells everyone not to worry. “First I’ll just reach in and pull my legs out,” he says, before sinking deeper. “Now I’ll pull my arms out with my face,” he says, before putting his head under the tar. A well-intended, confident solution does not matter if it just sinks us deeper into the same problem. It feels like an apt metaphor for the endless contradictions of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Because Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to offer to let you stop and smell the roses, but there are a thousand roses with five buttons to hit every time, and it won’t tell you that you were only supposed to smell the yellow roses until you’re finished with the task. It’s a game that constantly tries to explain a complicated approach to things that are simple in every other game I’ve played. Rockstar spent a surreal number of man-hours to get the light to glisten just so as it hits a realistically rendered horse scrotum, but it couldn’t figure out how to create equipment menus that I could understand after dozens of hours of practice. It’s a game that requires the self-punishing dedication of a hardcore gamer without actually being a hard game or giving me any sense of accomplishment.
It’s a story. One whose writers ultimately knew what they wanted to say, but who also piled on so many of these same ideas over and over that it begins to feel meaningless. In short, it’s a game that wants to pull itself out of the tar pit with its face.
Red Dead Redemption 2 leaves me with a simple, wistful sense of mourning that my grand adventure in the Old West just wasn’t fun this time. Which leaves me asking the same “why?” question I ask all the time when it comes to befuddled artistic purpose: “Why didn’t anyone say no?”
But I can only assume someone did. And that they argued over it. And someone won out. My empathy for that journey can hopefully come adorned with a two-sentence truth:
Making games is so damn difficult … but it shouldn’t be futile.
And neither should the games themselves.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated some players may avoid the mission in which Arthur contracts tuberculosis. We’ve edited the article to reflect its mandatory nature.