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How the Western Video Game Was Won: The Groundbreaking Brilliance of ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’

Rockstar’s blockbuster new game is an immersive dive into frontier life in the late 19th century, and it gives its players all the requisite action while slowing down game play to replicate life in the Wild West

Rockstar Games/Ringer illustration

I have been to the bayou and seen alligators lounging hungrily in its steamy depths. I have been to the forests. I have ridden the plains under the glowing arm of the Milky Way, traveled down into hill country to sell furs, and then camped in a hollow. I have fought hillbillies. I have waded through waist-deep snow, high in the Grizzly Mountains, in pursuit of a creature of legend, whose pelt I turned into an awesome hat. I have looted corpses and fished and cooked my catch over a crackling campfire as my horse, Betty, whinnied and pawed the earth. I have searched for buried treasure, and found it, guided by a map I took off a prospector whom I tied up and threw off a cliff. I have done all that and more in Red Dead Redemption 2.

These experiences, in and of themselves, are not unique in gaming. There are numerous games in which one can virtually hunt and search for treasure, sell items for currency, and ride horses across an open landscape. One example is RDR2’s predecessor Red Dead Redemption, which was released in 2010 to critical acclaim and massive sales. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to that game. It’s set in 1899 in a fictionalized version of the United States. You play as Arthur Morgan, a grizzled member of a bank-robbing gang led by Dutch van der Linde. This isn’t just a hardened outlaw group, it’s also diverse, self-governing community, including black, Native American, and Latino members—men and women—in which the takes from various scores are redistributed to support the organization.

We join the story after a botched heist forces the gang to flee across the mountains and through the snow to a new hideout in the state of New Hanover. The journey is arduous and two members of the group die. With the group in need of cash, Dutch organizes a railroad heist. This puts the gang on the radar of the Pinkertons, a detective agency not bound by local jurisdictions. Like the modern FBI, they could operate across state lines. Arthur is in constant need of money and needs to stay one step ahead of the law and their various enemies, and so he engages in various missions aimed at keeping the gang solvent and enriching himself.

The very first thing I noticed about the game is its beauty. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a cutting-edge feat of photo-realistic lighting and audio-visual design, and is teeming with granular details that make you want to look closer. I spent much of the introductory chapters just marveling at the snow, the small piles of powder lining the furrows that characters make while wading heavily through it. I would often stop Betty mid-trail just to drink in the sun sinking into purple froth behind the mountains. Upon returning, days later, to the spot on a riverbank where I skinned a deer, I found a buzzard picking clean its bones. There are some 200 species of wildlife in the game—gila monsters, coyotes, bison, cougars, and on, and on. Simply sitting at camp and listening to conversations is rewarding in ways that feel, for a video game, courageous.

The second thing that struck me is the game’s uncompromising controls. Games of RDR2’s pedigree aim for a transparent control scheme; the goal is for the player, after a brief acclimation process, to think as little as possible about the controller. Instead, Rockstar has created a scheme that is purposefully slow and consciously unwieldy. In most games, picking up an item is as simple as a button press, maybe two presses, and, bingo: The item appears in your inventory. RDR2 asks players to press and hold a button in order to do everything from pick up an item, open a drawer, or bring up Arthur’s inventory.

With certain actions, like rifling through the pockets of a corpse (something you will be doing a lot of), that long press and hold is followed by an animation of the task at hand. This is unusual! In game like Fallout 4, for instance, in which the acquisition of loot plays a central role, Bethesda Games opted for getting players in and out of inventories as quickly as possible, without any animations, so they can return to doing the cool stuff (namely, shooting). A button press brings up the inventory to be looted, and another button press can either accept or decline to take the item found therein.

In the early hours of playing RDR2, this was, frankly, annoying. Then something magical happened. After becoming attuned to the game’s rhythms, I began to appreciate what I was doing in a way that felt almost Zen-like. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, except with virtual six-shooters. This subversion of player expectations and desires is thematically brilliant. This is a story set in 1899, after all. The world was slower then, before smartphones and app notifications had us looking into the screen in our palms. Rockstar didn’t just create photo-realistic setting and characters, it approximated, as much as video game of this kind ever has, the banality of real life. Less sexy events that other games might speed past—like grilling a piece of meat over a campfire or cleaning a rifle—require a level of attentiveness that one might expect to give to a set-piece gun battle.

Take, for example, brewing coffee. In RDR2, coffee refills Arthur’s core, the meter that allows the player enter what is essentially bullet time to better accurately aim at multiple enemies. In order to brew coffee, Arthur first has to kneel over his campfire with his coffee pot. The player holds the action button until the coffee is brewed. During this time, your eye will naturally wander to whatever else is on the screen—the trees swaying in the wind, deer threading through the tall grass, and clouds sweeping across the sky. Once brewed, Arthur pours himself a cup. The player is then prompted to pull the right trigger in order to have Arthur drink the coffee. This is repeated several times until the coffee cup is empty.

The effect of this enforced mindfulness is an uncanny attenuation to the game’s day-night cycle. This is amplified by the RDR2’s circumscribed version of fast travel, a staple of open-world games. Fast travel allows players to instantaneously move to places on the map which they had previously discovered. In RDR2, fast travel is available, but unlocking it is by no means straightforward or easy to figure out without a Google search. And even when active, Arthur can only fast travel to a location from the gang’s campsite. To get back, he has to ride. This forces the player to explore, to engage with the geography, and to reckon with time and distance. How will you get to a place? Will it be hot? Cold? What clothes should you bring? If it’s a long journey, where on the map will you set up camp? Most open-world games give players the option to avoid tedium. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes it integral to the experience.

The Western, throughout its 20th century period of relevance as a genre in literature and film, was a celebration of the taming of the continent and the birth of the nation. A new generation of filmmakers plugged into the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s reimagined the Western with movies like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The uneasiness with our country’s origin story permeates contemporary Westerns. These are the laments of the destroyer for the destroyed. The buffalo are gone; the Native Americans have long ago been shunted onto reservations and their civilizations crushed; and the railroad, once a symbol of the might of industry, has passed into irrelevance. The modern Western looks back on the field of victory—with its highways and truck stops and natural gas derricks flapping—and wonders about the things that were lost, questions the world carved out by its forefathers.

In that sense, Red Dead Redemption 2 is not just a great Western in the modern style, it’s also a startlingly subversive one. The game is a paean to a natural world that is being spoiled, and a self-aware product of the industries and systems that are right now doing the spoiling. It’s a game which required 100-hour work weeks to produce, in which you can find a camp of Chinese immigrants, kept in line by armed guards, laboring under grueling conditions to build the railroad. RDR2 depicts, in startlingly straightforward fashion, how criminality often acts as the vanguard of capitalism to open emerging markets. And it’s a game that asks you to stop, slow down, and pay attention to what you’re doing, while what you’re doing is sitting inside playing a video game.