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Red Dead Redemption 2 takes a serious look at sad, macho booze culture

Saloon scene shows binge drinking in all its ugly glory

Red Dead Redemption 2
Arthur and Lenny drinking

Rockstar has long incorporated drinking into its gritty series of games. From Grand Theft Auto to Bully to Red Dead Redemption, the developer has used alcohol to augment worlds that feel edgy.

Rockstar games are inhabited by hard-living individuals who like to paint the town red, or with people damaged by addiction. It all feeds into the company’s machismo self-image.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar has created a drinking mission that leaves its previous work way behind. The mission is called “A Quiet Time,” and is basically a montage of idiotic drinking escapades, as well as their grim consequences. It manages to capture the sordid abandon of a drunken night, but also the frightening reality of blackouts and of dangerous behavior.

In previous Rockstar games, drinking has mostly been a side activity or a novelty. In Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5, players can enter a bar and order drinks. Each game has some variety of the protagonist wobbling around while the game camera sways. The player falls over and wakes up elsewhere. Occasionally, dialog is intensified as characters become belligerent or loose-tongued.

Rockstar’s Bully is set in a school and features a mission in which a teacher is seen drinking on the job, while facing disciplinary action. The game’s main character, Jimmy, goes in search of the teacher’s bottles which hidden around the school, and disposes of them. In the original Red Dead Redemption, players can order a shot at a bar. They will soon fall over, dead drunk.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Arthur heads to the bar

Minor Spoilers Follow

“A Quiet Time” is entirely dedicated to drunkenness and has something to say about the activity, which was core to the historic Wild West, and to its subsequent macho mythology. Westerns are most famous for fight scenes in drinking establishments.

Arthur takes gang-mate Lenny to a saloon with the intention of getting drunk. The two of them begin by shooing away an annoying drunk.

Soon, they too are cavorting around the bar, singing and behaving foolishly. When Lenny goes missing, Arthur staggers around the saloon looking for him. At some point Arthur is so drunk that everyone looks like Lenny, including a couple who are inhabiting an upstairs bed. Arthur is by now almost blind drunk.

He becomes incoherent. Amusingly, on-screen dialog prompts no longer make much sense, taking on the form of slurred nonsense.

The entire scene plays out like a flashback, even though it’s happening in the here and now. We see a series of disjointed events, such as Arthur pissing against a wall, fighting a man, watching Lenny puke, dancing on the bar. In between, we get blackouts. The night ends when the law shows up. Arthur either winds up in a jail cell, or collapses outside. The next morning, he is whiskey-sick and can barely function.

Red Dead Redemption 2
The morning after

What I like most about this scene is that it incorporates so many elements of drinking culture in a short period of time. It also creates narrative points that are grimly recognizable to a certain kind of man (and here, I mean men like me) who has spent too much time in bars. I found the scene where Lenny and Arthur get into a moronic slapping fight to be especially cringe-worthy. We’ve all been there, right?

The boys are having a great time, while simultaneously having an awful time. Drinking robs Arthur of his good sense, and of his ability to defend himself. There’s an ugly sort of glory in the whole mess of an evening, which plays into macho ideas about getting wasted that are just as potent now as they were in the saloons of the 19th century.

This is a step up from previous efforts, which relied more on staging an effect, rather than any attempt at real storytelling. The game also features a sad character who is ruined by drink, and helpless in the face of its temptations. I haven’t finished his story yet, but he’s a convincing recreation of addiction.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of those games that throws up tons of things to share and debate. Polygon’s writers will be discussing the game’s details and its themes in the days ahead. Here’s our review.

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