From tip to tail, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a profound, glorious downer. It is the rare blockbuster video game that seeks to move players not through empowering gameplay and jubilant heroics, but by relentlessly forcing them to confront decay and despair. It has no heroes, only flawed men and women fighting viciously to survive in a world that seems destined to destroy them.
It is both an exhilarating glimpse into the future of entertainment and a stubborn torch bearer for an old-fashioned kind of video game design. It is a remarkable work of game development and, possibly, a turning point in how we remark upon the work of game development. It is amazing; it is overwhelming. It is a lot, and also, it is a whole, whole lot.
Rockstar Games’ new open-world western opus is exhaustively detailed and exhaustingly beautiful, a mammoth construction of which every nook and cranny has been polished to an unnerving shimmer. It is a stirring tribute to our world’s natural beauty, and a grim acknowledgment of our own starring role in its destruction. It tells a worthy and affecting story that weaves dozens of character-driven narrative threads into an epic tapestry across many miles and almost as many months. When the sun sets and the tale has been told, it leaves players with a virtual wild-west playground so convincingly rendered and filled with surprises that it seems boundless.
It is defiantly slow-paced, exuberantly unfun, and wholly unconcerned with catering to the needs or wants of its players. It is also captivating, poignant, and at times shockingly entertaining. It moves with the clumsy heaviness of a 19th century locomotive, but like that locomotive becomes unstoppable once it builds up a head of steam. Whether intentionally or not, its tale of failure and doom reflects the tribulations of its own creation, as a charismatic and self-deluded leader tries ever more desperately to convince his underlings to follow him off a cliff. Paradise awaits, he promises. Just push a little bit further; sacrifice a little bit more; hang in there a little bit longer.
Such a masterful artistic and technical achievement, at what cost? So many hours of overtime crunch, so many hundreds of names in the credits, so many resources—financial and human—expended, for what? What was the collective vision that drove this endeavor, and what gave so many people the will to complete it? Was it all worth it in the end?
After 70 hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, I have some thoughts on those questions, though I do not find my answers satisfactory or conclusive. What I can say for sure is that the sheer scale of this creation—the scale of effort required to create it, yes, but also the scale of the thing itself, and the scale of its achievement—will ensure that those questions linger for years to come.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a follow-up to Red Dead Redemption. Let’s just start there, with the most basic and true thing that can be said of this game. Yet even that laughably obvious statement contains more meaning than it might first seem, because the new game is so spiritually connected with its predecessor. It nestles so neatly with the 2010 game that the two could have been concurrently conceived. It takes the same characters, narrative themes, and game design ideas introduced in the original and refines, elaborates, and improves on them all. Yet the two are more than separate links in a chain of iteration; just as often, they are complementary halves of a whole.
While new and improved in terms of design and execution, Red Dead 2 is narratively a prequel. The year is 1899, a decade before the events of the first game. Again we take control of a steely-eyed gunslinger in a wide-open, abstracted version of the American West. Again we are given free rein to explore a vast open world however we please. Again we meet a cast of colorful characters, and again we watch those characters contemplate the cost of human progress and yearn for the half-remembered freedoms of a mythic, wild past. Again we ride our horse across forests and deserts and plains; again we shoot and stab and decapitate untold scores of people. Again we can lasso a dude off the back of his horse, tie him up, and throw him off a cliff.
Our hero this time around is a weathered slab of handsome named Arthur Morgan. He’s a taciturn type who looks like Chris Pine cosplaying the Marlboro Man, and a respected lieutenant in the notorious Van der Linde gang. Arthur was taken in by the gang as a kid and raised on violence, but is, of course, blessed with an antihero’s requisite softer, thoughtful side. He’ll kill a man for looking at him wrong, but he’s oh so affectionate with his horse. He’ll beat an unarmed debtor nearly to death at the behest of a colleague, but he sketches so beautifully in his journal.
At first Arthur struck me as deliberately unremarkable, another grumbling white-guy tabula rasa onto which I was meant to project my own identity. By the story’s end, I had come to see him as a character in his own right, and a fine one at that. Actor Roger Clark brings Arthur to life with uncommon confidence and consistency, aided by a sophisticated mix of performance-capture wizardry, top-shelf animation and character artistry, and exceptional writing. Each new trial he survives peels back a layer from his grizzled exterior, gradually revealing him to be as vulnerable, sad, and lost as the rest of us.
Arthur may be the story’s protagonist, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is an ensemble drama. The Van der Linde gang is more than just another Pekinpah-esque clutch of scoundrels on horseback; it’s a community, a mobile encampment consisting of about 20 men, women, and children, each with their own story, desires, and role. There are villains and psychopaths, drunks and miscreants, and also dreamers, runaways, and lost souls just looking to survive. Each character has their own chances to shine, particularly for players who take the time to get to know them all. From the cook to the layabout to the loan shark, each has become real to me in a way fictional characters rarely do.
At the head of the table sits Dutch van der Linde, as complex and fascinating a villain as I’ve met in a video game. Benjamin Byron Davis plays the boss man perfectly, imagining Dutch as a constantly concerned, watery-eyed killer. He just cares so much, he is doing everything he can, his voice is perpetually on the edge of cracking out of concern. Not concern for himself, mind, but for you, and for all the other members of this family of which he is the patriarch. It’s all bullshit, of course. Dutch is a coward and a fool, and all the more dangerous due to his capacity for self-deception. He’s the kind of man who would murder you in your sleep, then quietly weep over your corpse. You will never know how much it hurt him to hurt you.
The name “Dutch van der Linde” should ring an ominous bell for anyone who played 2010’s Red Dead Redemption and remembers how it ends. Because Red Dead 2 is a prequel, those familiar with its predecessor have the benefit of knowing how the saga will conclude. (If you missed the first game or it’s been a while, I recommend watching my colleague Tim Rogers’ excellent recap video.) That knowledge is indeed a benefit, to the point that I will outline many of the first game’s broad strokes (including spoilers!) in this review. My familiarity with the original greatly helped me appreciate the many ways the sequel encircles and elaborates upon its other, earlier half.
We know that the gang will eventually fall apart; we know that Dutch will lose his way and his mind. We know that John Marston, seen in this sequel as a younger, greener version of the man we played as in the first game, will one day be forced to hunt down and kill his surviving compatriots, including Dutch. We know that John will die, redeemed, while protecting his family. And we know that John’s son Jack is doomed to take up his father’s mantle of outlaw and gunslinger. Red Dead Redemption 2 busies itself with showing how things got to that point. Our foreknowledge adds considerably to the sequel’s already pervasive sense of foreboding, and routinely pays off in often subtle, occasionally thrilling, ways.
Things look grim from the start. The gang is hiding out in the mountains, on the run from the law after a botched bank robbery left them penniless, down a few men, and with a price on all their heads. After surviving a brutal early spring in the snow, Dutch, Arthur, and the rest of the crew set about rebuilding a new encampment in the green meadows near the town of Valentine. “Rebuilding” really means robbing and looting, of course, and things inevitably escalate. The gang’s antics eventually bring the law down on them, forcing them to relocate yet again. Thus the narrative finds its structure, driven by the wearying rhythms of escalation, confrontation, and relocation. The caravan is driven east—yes, east—through grasslands and plantations, to swamps, cities, and beyond.
Each time they move, Dutch promises that things will be different. This time, they’ll find their peaceful paradise and settle down. If they can just get some money, of course. If they can just pull off one big score. You understand, don’t you? What would you have him do? His lies become increasingly transparent the more emphatically he tells them. Dutch is selling the dream of an “unspoiled paradise” without acknowledging that he and his gang spoil everything they touch. By the end, his hypocrisy has become sickening, and the many ways Arthur and his fellow gang members wrestle with and justify their continued allegiance to Dutch undergird some of Red Dead 2’s most striking and believable drama.
As you ride from place to place, you can activate a “cinematic camera” that will overlay black bars onto the screen and steer for you, provided you’ve selected a destination. These journeys approach photorealism to an eerie degree.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in a version of America that is both specific and abstracted. Characters routinely speak of real places like New York City, Boston, and California, but the actual locations in the game are broadly drawn stand-ins. “The Grizzlies” are basically the Rocky Mountains, the state of “Lemoyne” is more or less Louisiana, and the bustling city of “Saint Denis” is based on New Orleans. There are no real historical figures to meet or talk with in this game, though it is still clearly the result of copious research and attention to period accuracy.
As with the first Red Dead, the world’s fictional duality puts the story in a gently abstracted space that allows the writers to comment on American history without worrying overmuch about historical accuracy. Were Red Dead Redemption 2 loaded with cheap satire and eye-rolling commentary, that approach would come across as a frustrating bit of ass-covering. Fortunately, thanks to the game’s strong script, it instead frees the game up to paint in strokes broad enough to capture the oppressive corruption that continues to be one of our nation’s defining aspects.
Time and again I was struck by how seriously this game’s writers took their characters, themes, and subject matter. Abstract or no, Red Dead 2’s America is still a nation reeling from the Civil War, where women are not allowed to vote, and where Native Americans and their culture are being systematically eradicated. Everything in the main narrative is treated with appropriate weight and humanity, and never did I encounter a lapse into the sort of haphazard satire and “everyone sucks” cop-outs embraced—by some of the same writers!—in Rockstar’s depressingly misanthropic Grand Theft Auto series.
These characters are all people, and they’re dealing with things people dealt with at the turn of the century in America. Their lives were hard, and most of their stories ended badly. That’s just how it went. Precious moments of kindness and generosity seem all the more precious against that dark backdrop, but even those are few and far between. What starts outside Valentine as a dreamy cowboy fantasy quickly becomes a weary parable about entropy, villainy, and the death of a lie.
Dutch’s gang lives at the fringes of society, out in the sort of untamed wilderness that, in 2018, is becoming harder and harder to find. Red Dead Redemption 2 contains the most bracingly beautiful depictions of nature I have ever seen in a video game, and is happy to juxtapose that beauty with the ugly, violent human ambition that will eventually subjugate and destroy it.
There is something ironic about a technologically stunning piece of digital entertainment in which the characters constantly lament the relentless progress that will eventually lead to the development of the television and the microchip; the very progress that will allow video games like this one to exist. It reveals something deep and true about our conflicted consumer culture, that some of its finest art righteously castigates the very systems that brought it into being. Red Dead Redemption 2 may be ultimately—or even necessarily—unable to resolve that paradox, but it is more than willing to embrace and attempt to dismantle it.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is expansive and engrossing, even while—and often because—the process of interacting with it can be frustrating and inconsistent. Its overwhelming visual beauty invites players in, but its sludgy kinesthetics, jumbled control scheme, and unclear user interface keep them at arm’s length. That artificial distance goes against many commonly understood game design principles, yet also works to help perpetuate the convincing illusion of an unknowable parallel world.
I only rarely found Red Dead 2 to be “fun” in the way I find many other video games to be fun. The physical act of playing is rarely pleasurable on its own. It is often tiring and cumbersome, though no less thrilling for it. No in-game activity approaches the tactilely pleasing acts of firing a space-rifle in Destiny, axing a demon in God of War, or jumping on goombas in Super Mario Bros. Red Dead 2 continues Rockstar’s longstanding rejection of the notions that input response should be snappy, that control schemes should be empowering and intuitive, and that animation systems should favor player input over believable on-screen action.
Pressing a button in Red Dead 2 rarely results in an immediate or satisfying response. Navigating Arthur through the world is less like controlling a video game character and more like giving directions to an actor. Get in cover, I’ll tell him, only to see him climb on top of the cover. Did I press the button too late? Did my button-press register at all? Dude, get down, I’ll cry, as his enemies begin to open fire. He’ll slowly wheel around, then slide down to the ground with an elaborate stumbling animation. GET IN COVER, I’ll command, pressing the “take cover” button for what feels like the sixth time. He’ll haul his body weight forward, then finally crouch behind the wall.
Arthur’s horse adds yet another degree of remove. With a press of a button, Arthur coaxes his horse forward. Pressing it rhythmically in time with the horse’s hoofbeats causes him to urge the horse to a gallop. But you’re still controlling the man, not the horse. Mind your direction, for it is perilously easy to broadside a passing civilian and instigate a firefight, or to collide with a rock or tree, sending man and horse careening catawampus to the ground. Red Dead 2’s horses are meticulously detailed and gorgeously animated, and move through the world like real animals, right up until they don’t. Get too close to a boulder or crosswise to a wagon, and the realistic facade crumbles, leaving you with a grouchy, unresponsive horse with its head clipping through a tree.
Almost every interaction must be performed through the same gauzy, lustrous cling-wrap. Firefights are chaotic and random, and aiming often feels wild and unmanageable. Rifles require separate trigger-pulls to fire and to chamber a new round. Enemies move quickly and melt into the world’s overwhelming visual milieux, and my resulting reliance on the heavily magnetized aim-assistance turned most fights into pop-and-fire shooting galleries. Arthur moves slowly, particularly while in settlements or indoors. It’s also possible to make him run too fast, crashing through doors and into civilians. Navigating this world is arduous, heavy, and inelegant. Even the simple act of picking an object up off the floor can require two or three moments of repositioning and waiting for an interaction prompt.
In a Rockstar first, every character and animal in Red Dead 2 can be interacted with in a variety of nonviolent ways. Usually that means you look at them, hold the left trigger, then select to “greet” or “antagonize” to govern what Arthur says. After antagonizing, you can antagonize further or “defuse,” and see where things go from there. Characters may ask you a question or request your help, after which highlighting them will give you the chance to choose a response. Like Arthur’s physical interactions, these conversational systems feel awkward and unknowable, yet introduce another fascinating avenue of unpredictability. If I antagonize this guy, will he cower or attack me? If I try to rob this lady, will she acquiesce or, I don’t know, kick me in the nuts?
Break the law even mildly while in view of a law-abiding citizen, and they’ll run off to report you. Tarry too long, and a posse will show up and accost you. They may not immediately open fire, instead drawing their weapons and instructing you to keep your hands up. Might they let you go with a warning? Might they arrest you? Or might they shoot first and ask questions later? I’ve had different outcomes in different towns, with different sheriffs, after commiting slightly different crimes. Which was the variable that changed things? I can’t say for sure. By and large that ambiguity enhances the experience, rather than detracting from it.
The entire game can be played from a first-person perspective, which is impressive and often overwhelming.
Unlike so many modern open-world games, Red Dead Redemption 2 does not want you to achieve dominance over it. It wants you to simply be in its world, and to feel like a part of it. It’s a crucial distinction, and a big part of what makes it all so immersive and engrossing. The thrill of playing Red Dead 2, like with many other Rockstar games, comes not from how fun or empowering it feels on a moment to moment basis. It comes from the electric sense that you are poking and prodding at an indifferent, freely functioning world.
Every interaction in the game, from gunfights to a bar brawls to horse races, feels fundamentally unknowable. The slightest mistake or change in course can lead to wildly variable outcomes. That unknowability gives every undertaking an air of mystery that, combined with the incredible level of detail in every square inch of the world, stoked my imagination to begin filling in the gaps. Did this character in town really remember me from the last time I visited, several hours ago? Or was that just the result of a clever bit of scripted dialogue? Is there some hidden system governing who likes me and doesn’t like me, or am I imagining things? Will it really lower my chances of getting arrested if I change my clothes after a bank heist, or is wearing a bandana over my face enough? If I go out in the woods with blood on my clothes, will it attract bears?
Those types of questions lurk behind every moment with Red Dead Redemption 2, igniting the game world with the spark of the player’s own imagination. Most modern video games are eager to lay it all out in front of you. They put all the abilities, ranks, levels, and progression systems in a spreadsheet for you to gradually fill out. With Red Dead 2, Rockstar has ignored that trend, opting instead to obfuscate numbers at almost every opportunity. When the game does embrace numerical progression systems, as with the newly expanded leveling system tied to health, stamina, and “dead-eye” slow-mo aim, those systems are often confusingly laid out and poorly explained. Those weaknesses emphasize Red Dead 2’s greatest strength: that it is less an easily understandable collection of game design systems and more an opaque, beguiling world.
Here’s a story. It’s dumb, and short, and could stand in for a hundred other similar stories I could tell. After Arthur and the gang came down from the mountains, I found myself finally set loose in the open meadows outside the town of Valentine. I guided my horse away from camp along the road, stopping at the post office outside town. After hitching up and dismounting, I saw a prompt in the corner of the screen indicating that I could “search saddlebag.” Not knowing what that meant, I pressed the button, only to realize with horror that Arthur was reaching not into his own saddlebag, but into the one draped over a stranger’s adjacent horse. I scarcely had time to react before this happened:
I almost fell out of my chair with surprise. Arthur hastily backed away from the horse, his left half freshly disheveled and covered in mud. I had only just gotten to town, and I already looked a mess! Thrown for a loop and unsure what to do next, I wandered toward the post office. I watched a passing man pick his nose and eat it.
As I walked through the post office, I overheard a woman remark, “I hope that’s only mud on you.” Looking at myself more closely, I wasn’t so sure. I left the building and headed up toward town, still bathed in filth. I went into a bar and instigated a cutscene, throughout which Arthur remained covered in now-slightly-dried mud.
I left the bar, only then realizing that Arthur was no longer wearing his hat. A wild west gunslinger needs his hat! Of course, it must have fallen off when the horse kicked me. I rode back to the post office and yep, there it was, lying in the mud.
I picked up the hat, put it back on, and rode back to town. Was that experience fun? Not exactly. Was it rewarding or empowering? Quite the opposite. It began with the game violently reacting to an action I hadn’t intended to take. It ended with some backtracking to retrieve a hat that I later would learn I could’ve just magically conjured from my horse. But was it memorable? Was it something that could only have happened in this game? Did it make me laugh, shake my head in amusement, and wonder what small adventure or indignity I might stumble into next? It sure did.
At every opportunity, Red Dead Redemption 2 forces you to slow down, take it easy, drink it in. Try to move too fast, and it will almost always punish you. Its pace is outrageously languid compared with any other modern game, especially in its first half. I spent a good chunk of my time just riding from place to place, and once I got where I was going, often went on to engage in extremely low-key activities.
Geralt, is that you?
Over and over it favors believability and immersion over convenience. Looting an enemy body instigates an involved animation that takes several seconds to complete. Washing your character requires you to climb into a bath and individually scrub your head and each of your limbs. Skinning a dead animal involves a prolonged animation during which Arthur carefully parts the creature’s skin from its muscles before carrying the hide, rolled up like a carpet, over to his horse. You can also choose not to skin the animal and instead cart its entire corpse to the butcher. Don’t leave it tied to the back of your horse for too long, though, or it will begin to rot and attract flies.
That consistently imposed slowness forced me to slow down and take in what is arguably this game’s defining characteristic: an incredible, overwhelming focus on detail.
Red Dead Redemption 2 lives for details. Were you to create a word-cloud of every review published today, the words “detail” and “details” would almost certainly feature prominently alongside “western” and “gun” and “horse testicles.” It’s impossible not to obsess over the level of detail in this game, from the incredibly detailed social ecosystem of its towns, to the ludicrously elaborate animations, to the shop catalogues and the customizable rifle engravings and on, and on, and on.
Let’s start with foliage. I mean, why not? We could start anywhere, so let’s start there. The foliage in this game is fucking transcendent. It is hands-down the most amazing video game foliage I have ever seen. When you walk past it, it moves like foliage should. When you ride through it, Arthur reacts like a person on a horse would probably react to foliage. Even after all these hours, I am still impressed by the foliage.
I could talk about the foliage for another four paragraphs, which illustrates how difficult it is to capture the volume and variety of astonishing details in this game. Every weapon and every outfit is accompanied by a fully written, lengthy catalog entry. The fantastic (entirely optional!) theatrical shows you can attend are performed by what appear to be actual motion captured entertainers—the drummer in a proto-jazz band moves his sticks realistically, matching snare and cymbal hits flawlessly to the music, and I am convinced that Rockstar hired a professional fire dancer to come and perform in their mocap studio.
Seemingly every minute reveals yet more surprises. Once a man picked my pocket, so I shot him in the leg as he fled. He carried on, limping, until I caught him. Once I randomly struck up a conversation with a disabled Civil War vet who said he remembered me from the last time we talked, which led to an extended, apparently unique conversation concerning Arthur’s life and feelings about what was currently happening in the story. Once I shot at a bandit who was chasing me and accidentally hit his horse, then watched in horrified awe as his horse flipped over onto its face, tripping up the man riding behind him and leaving them in a tumble of limbs and blood.
Above: Kotaku video producer Paul Tamayo highlights more of the game’s amazing details.
Once, while riding alongside another character in a snowstorm, I realized that if I drew further away from my compatriot, both characters would begin to yell; as I got closer, they returned to their regular speaking voices. After Arthur finished butchering a turkey, I noticed that his right hand remained covered in blood. “I hope that’s not your blood,” a man subsequently said to me as I passed. (Later it rained, and the blood washed off.) Another time, Arthur took off his gun belt before boarding a riverboat casino, and the entire process was fully animated.
When other games would crop the difficult-to-animate thing out of the frame, Red Dead Redemption 2 shows it in all its glory.
Those are all examples of something I’ve come to think of as “detail porn.” Video game detail porn is huge on the Internet. People love to share tiny, amazing details from their favorite games, holding them up as praiseworthy evidence of the developers’ hard work and determination. I’ve indulged in my share of detail porn-mongering over the years, mining page views and Twitter likes from Spider-Man’s voiceover work, Tomb Raider’s weirdly impressive doorway transition, Horizon Zero Dawn’s amazing animations, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s ridiculous helmet physics, and even the absurdly detailed revolver hammers in a Red Dead 2 promotional screenshot. This game will inspire more detail porn than any since Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto V. Its incredible focus on minutiae plays an integral role in making it such an overloading and engrossing experience, and often left me marveling at how such a feat of artistic engineering could be completed at all.
How did they do this? I asked myself, over and over again. There are answers to that question, of course. Each one raises many more questions of its own.
It has long been an open secret in the games industry that Rockstar’s studios embrace a culture of extreme work, culturally enforced “voluntary” overtime, and prolonged periods of crunch. The “secret” part of that open secret evaporated somewhat over the past week, as a controversial comment by Rockstar co-founder and Red Dead Redemption 2 writer Dan Houser set off a cascade of revelations about work conditions at the notoriously secretive company.
Over the past month, my colleague Jason Schreier spoke with nearly 90 current and former Rockstar developers, and his report on the matter paints a picture of a vast and varied operation that, for all its talk of change, has clearly spent years embracing and profiting off of a culture of exorbitant overwork that even many who say they are proud to work at Rockstar want to see changed.
Play Red Dead Redemption 2 for just a few minutes, and the fruits of that labor will be immediately apparent. This wonderful, unusual game was clearly a titanic logistical undertaking. Every cutscene, every railroad bridge, every interior, every wandering non-player-character has been polished to a degree previously only seen in more limited, linear games. If Naughty Dog’s relatively constrained Uncharted 4 required sustained, intense crunch to complete, what must it have taken to make a game a hundred times that size, but with the same level of detail? As critic Chris Dahlen once put it while ruminating on how much easily missable, painstakingly sculpted work is included in the average big-budget game, “That’s some fall of the Roman Empire stuff right there.”
I sometimes struggled to enjoy Red Dead Redemption 2’s most impressive elements because I knew how challenging—and damaging—some of them must have been to make. Yet just as often, I found myself appreciating those things even more, knowing that so many talented people had poured their lives into crafting something this incredible.
Watching Red Dead Redemption 2’s 34-minute credits sequence was a saga all on its own. I’ve watched (and skipped) countless lengthy credits sequences in my years playing video games, but this time I decided to really pay attention, to try to get a real sense of the scope of this eight-year production. First came the names one tends to associate with a game and its overall quality; the executive producers, the studio heads, the directors. Right at the top were the writers, Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth and Rupert Humphries, whose substantial efforts resulted in such a fine script filled with such wonderful characters.
Soon thereafter came the technical credits, which began to give a fuller sense of the many, many people who brought this game to life. Here was the “lead vegetation artist,” JD Solilo, joined by 10 other vegetation artists. Becca Stabler’s name was in a bigger font than Rex Mcnish’s, but which of them was responsible for that bush in the GIF I made? Maybe they’d tell me they weren’t responsible at all, and that it was really the engineers who rigged it up.
After that came Rod Edge, director of performance capture and cinematography, atop a list of directors and camera artists responsible for making those cutscenes so lifelike and believable. Then came audio director Alastair Macgregor, whose team created a sonic landscape that occasionally inspired me to just close my eyes and lose myself, and who stitched Woody Jackson’s pitch-perfect musical score so seamlessly into the world around me. Who made the rain; who crafted the thunder? Was it George Williamson or Sarah Scott? I don’t know, maybe Matthew Thies was the weather guy.
Page after page of names passed by, far too many to read or internalize. Camp & town content design. Animation production coordinators. Horse systems design. (Maybe one of them designed the horse kick that sent me flying into the mud?) Development support. Player insights & analytics. The soundtrack switched to a folk song about the hardships of life. “I’ve been living too fast, I’ve been living too wrong,” crooned the singer. “Cruel, cruel world, I’m gone.”
The credits kept rolling, and the fonts got smaller. Some pleasant instrumental music started playing. Soon came the quality assurance testers, the names of whose rank-and-file members were listed in massive blocks spread across four pages.
Those people, 383 in all, were responsible for helping make the game as smooth and polished as it is. Many of them were employees at Rockstar’s QA offices in Lincoln, England, reportedly home to some of the most brutal overtime crunch of all. Those testers’ work, like the work of so many game developers, is invisible but no less vital. How many of them caught a gameplay bug that might have destroyed my save file and forced me to start over? Did Reese Gagan, or Jay Patel? Which of them made sure that every plant my character picked from the ground believably flopped over in his hand? Maybe that was Okechi Jones-Williams, or Emily Greaves? And which names weren’t on that list at all? Who were the people who burned out and quit, only to be cut from the credits because, per Rockstar’s stated policy, they didn’t make it across the finish line?
It is nearly impossible to answer any of those questions, just as it is impossible to assign credit for this marvelous and unusual game to any one person, or even any team of people. That’s just the way entertainment of this scale is made: vast numbers of people spread around the globe, churning for years in order to make something previously thought to be impossible. It’s a process from a different galaxy than the lone artist, sitting quietly in front of a blank easel. It has as much in common with industry as with art.
For years, Rockstar—or at least, Rockstar management—has built and maintained a reputation for being talented, successful jerks. We make great games, their posture has always defiantly communicated, so fuck off. It’s a reputation bolstered by many Rockstar products, most notably the cynical Grand Theft Auto series, with its asshole characters and nihilistic worldview. Yet how to reconcile that reputation with Red Dead Redemption 2? Could a bunch of jerks really lead the effort to create something so filled with humanity and overwhelming beauty?
“I suppose our reputation as a company was that we’re profoundly antisocial, histrionic and looking to be controversial,” Dan Houser told the New York Times in a 2012 interview promoting Grand Theft Auto V. “And we simply never saw it in that light. We saw ourselves as people who were obsessed by quality, obsessed by game design.” Of course, it is possible to be all of those things at once, and given how antisocial and willfully controversial GTA V wound up being, it was hard at the time to take Houser’s comments at face value. Taken alongside this vastly more earnest, heartfelt new game, those comments assume a slightly different cast.
Intentional or not, Red Dead Redemption 2 can be read as a meditation on failed leaders, and even as a potent critique of the internal and external cultures that Rockstar has helped perpetuate. Dutch Van der Linde is every inch the manipulative boss, frightening not only for his violent nature but for his ability to marshal people to work against their own self-interest. Time and again he reveals his shameless hypocrisy, and his promises of a new life are consistently shown to be empty maneuvering. “This isn’t a prison camp,” he says at one point, uncannily echoing every supervisor who has ever coerced an underling into a technically optional task. “I am not forcing anybody to stay. So either we’re in this together, working together to get out together, or we’re not. There simply isn’t a reality in which we do nothing and get everything.” I half-expected him to promise everyone bonuses if they hit their sales target.
The parallels between game development and gang leadership aren’t always so readily apparent, but Red Dead Redemption 2 repeatedly sets its sights on the systematic damage enabled by irresponsible leaders. It does not celebrate Dutch’s actions or his worldview; it repudiates them in no uncertain terms. Dutch is a failure and a disgrace, arguably the game’s truest villain. Thanks to the first Red Dead, we already know that he fails. We even know how he dies—not in a blaze of noble glory, but alone and cold, with no one left to stand by him. Rockstar Games, one of the most successful entertainment purveyors on the planet, will never meet the same fate, but the people who wrote their latest game sure seem aware of the risks of ambition.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is primarily a story about nature. Human nature, but also the natural world, and the catastrophic ways the two intersect. It is an often unbearably wistful homage to a long-lost era, not of human history, but of the Earth itself. It pines for a time when the wind carried only the scents of animals and cookfires, when the world was rich and its bounty seemed limitless, when the night sky was thick with stars and unmarred by light pollution. We do not live in that world, if we ever did. Every year it gets hotter; every year the storms are worse; every year it gets harder to breathe. We are careening toward ruin and no one seems able to stop us. Those with the power to lead appear too blinkered and self-interested to care.
I was moved by this video game. I was moved by its characters and their sacrifices, and by the lies I heard them tell themselves. I was moved by its exceptional artistry, and by seeing yet again what is possible when thousands of people drain their precious talent and time into the creation of something spectacular. But above all that, I was moved that so many people would come together to make such a sweeping ode to nature itself; to the wind in the leaves, the mist in the forest, and the quiet hum of the crickets at twilight.
Midway through the story, Arthur and Dutch arrive at the city of Saint Denis. “There she is, a real city,” spits Dutch. “The future.” The camera cuts away for our first look at this much-talked-about metropolis. The men have not been greeted with bright lights or theater marquees; they have been met with smokestacks, soot, and the deep groans of industry. An ominous, keening tone dominates the soundtrack. After hours spent freely riding in the open air, it is shocking.
Several hours later, I departed Saint Denis and made my return to camp. As Arthur rode, the city outskirts gradually gave way to thickening underbrush. I began to see fewer buildings, and more trees. Before long Arthur and I were once again enfolded by the forest. It was twilight, and the wind was shushing through the trees. A thick fog rolled in, and emerald leaves swirled across the path ahead. I heard rumbles through my headphones; a storm was brewing. Alone in my office, I took a deep breath. I wondered if I would ever taste air as clean as the air Arthur was breathing at that moment.
It is human nature to pursue greatness, even when that pursuit brings destruction. It is also human nature to pursue achievement as an end unto itself. Red Dead Redemption 2 is in some ways emblematic of those pursuits, and of their hollowness. The game is saying that progress is a cancer and that humanity poisons all that it touches, but it was forged at the apex of human progress. Its gee-whiz technical virtuosity has a built-in expiration date, and in ten years’ time, the cracks in its facades will be much more apparent. At unimaginable cost and with unsustainable effort, it establishes a new high-water mark that will perpetuate the entertainment industry’s relentless pursuit of more, accelerating a technological arms race that can only end at an inevitable, unfathomable breaking point.
But there is a pulse pumping through this techno-artistic marvel. This game has heart; the kind of heart that is difficult to pin down but impossible to deny. It is a wonderful story about terrible people, and a vivacious, tremendously sad tribute to nature itself. There is so much beauty and joy in this expensive, exhausting thing. Somehow that makes it even more perfect—a breathtaking eulogy for a ruined world, created by, about, and for a society that ruined it.