From tip to tail, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a profound, glorious drop of bitterness. It's the rare blockbuster video game that tries to relentlessly force players to face decay and despair, not by strengthening gameplay and cheering feats. There are no heroes, only defective men and women who viciously fight to survive in a world that seems destined to destroy them.
It's both an exciting glimpse into the future of entertainment as well as a stubborn torchbearer for an old-fashioned type of video game design. It is a remarkable work in game development and possibly a turning point in our comment on game development work. It is amazing; it's overwhelming. It is a lot and it is also a lot.
The new open world western opus from Rockstar Games is extremely detailed and extremely beautiful. A mammoth construction in which every nook and corner has been polished into an annoying shimmer. It is a moving tribute to the natural beauty of our world and a grim recognition of our own leading role in its destruction. It tells a worthy and moving story that weaves dozens of character-based storylines over many kilometers and almost as many months into an epic tapestry. When the sun goes down and the story is told, players have a virtual Wild West playground that is rendered so convincingly and full of surprises that it seems limitless.
It is defiantly slow, extremely inappropriate and completely unaffected by responding to the needs or wishes of its players. It's also captivating, moving, and sometimes shockingly entertaining. It moves with the awkward heaviness of a 19th century locomotive, but so the locomotive will be unstoppable once it builds a steam head. Whether intentionally or not, his story of failure and doom reflects the difficulties of his own creation as a charismatic and deceptive leader tries more and more desperately to convince his subordinates to follow him off a cliff. Paradise is waiting, he promises. Just push a little further; sacrifice a little more; stay tuned a little longer.
Such a masterful artistic and technical achievement, at what price? So many hours of overtime crisis, so many hundreds of names in the end credits, so many financial and human resources, for what? What was the collective vision that drove this endeavor, and what gave so many people the will to accomplish it? Was it all worth it in the end?
After 70 hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, I have some thoughts on these questions, although I find my answers unsatisfactory or conclusive. What I can say with certainty is that the sheer scale of this creation – the scale of the effort required to create it, but also the scale of the thing itself and the scale of its performance – will ensure that these questions will persist for years to come.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sequel to Red Dead Redemption. Let's just start there with the most basic and truthful thing you can say about this game. But even this ridiculously obvious statement contains more meaning than it might seem at first, because the new game is so spiritually connected to its predecessor. It fits so well into the 2010 game that the two could have been conceived at the same time. The same characters, storytelling and game design ideas that were introduced in the original are used, and all are refined, elaborated and improved. However, the two are more than separate links in an iteration chain. just as often they are complementary halves of a whole.
Red Dead 2 is new and improved in design and execution, but narratively a prequel. It is 1899, a decade before the events of the first game. Again we take control of a steel-eyed gunslinger in a wide-open, abstracted version of the American West. Again we have a free hand to explore a wide open world as we like it. Again we meet a group of colorful characters and again we see how these characters think about the cost of human progress and long for the half-remembered freedoms of a mythical, wild past. Again we ride our horse through forests, deserts and plains; again we shoot and stab and behead countless people. Again we can lasso a guy from the back of his horse, tie him up and throw him off a cliff.
Our hero this time is a weathered, handsome record called Arthur Morgan. He is a taciturn guy who looks like Chris Pine is cosplaying the Marlboro Man and a respected lieutenant in the infamous Van der Linde gang. Arthur was picked up by the gang as a child and brought up for violence, but of course is blessed with the necessary softer, thoughtful side of an antihero. He's going to kill a man for looking at him wrong, but he's so loving with his horse. He will almost beat an unarmed debtor to the death of a colleague at the behest of a colleague, but he sketches so well in his diary.
At first Arthur purposely seemed inconspicuous, another grumbling white tabula rasa on which I should project my own identity. At the end of the story, I came to see him as an independent character, and a beautiful one. Actor Roger Clark brings Arthur to life with unusual confidence and consistency, supported by a sophisticated mix of performance capture magic, first-class animation and character art as well as exceptional writing. Each new trial he survives peels off his grizzled exterior and gradually shows that he's just as vulnerable, sad, and lost as the rest of us.
Arthur may be the protagonist of the story, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is an ensemble drama. The Van der Linde gang is more than just another Pekinpah-like group of villains on horseback. It is a community, a mobile camp that consists of about 20 men, women and children, each of whom has their own story, desires and role. There are villains and psychopaths, drunks and villains as well as dreamers, runaways and lost souls who only want to survive. Each character has their own chance to shine, especially for players who take the time to get to know them all. From the cook to the layabout to the loan shark, everyone has become as real to me as fictional characters rarely do.
At the top of the table sits the Dutchman van der Linde, an equally complex and fascinating villain as I met him in a video game. Benjamin Byron Davis plays the boss perfectly and imagines Dutch as a constantly worried killer with watery eyes. He cares only so much, he does everything he can, his voice is constantly on the verge of worry. Not caring for yourself, but for you and for all other members of this family, of which he is a patriarch. Of course, that's all nonsense. Dutch is a coward and a fool and all the more dangerous because of his ability to deceive himself. He is the type of man who murdered you in your sleep and then wept softly over your body. You will never know how much it hurt to hurt you.
The name "Dutch van der Linde" should ring a menacing bell for anyone who played the Red Dead Redemption 2010 and remembers how it ended. Since Red Dead 2 is a prequel, those familiar with its predecessor have the advantage of knowing how the saga will end. (If you've missed the first game or it's been a while, I recommend watching my colleague Tim Rogers's excellent retrospective video.) This knowledge is indeed an asset, to the point where I have many of the basics of the first Game outline (including spoiler!) in this review. My familiarity with the original helped me a lot to appreciate the many ways in which the sequel surrounds and elaborates on the other, former half.
We know that the gang will fall apart at some point; We know that Dutch will lose his way and his mind. We know that John Marston, who is 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 and kill his surviving compatriots, including Dutch. We know that John will be saved and at the same time protect his family. And we know that John's son Jack is doomed to take over his father's coat of outlaws and gunslingers. Red Dead Redemption 2 is concerned with showing how things came to this point. Our prior knowledge adds significantly to the already ubiquitous sense of anticipation of the sequel and routinely pays off in often subtle, occasionally exciting ways.
Things look bleak from the start. The gang are hiding in the mountains, fleeing the law after a bad robbery left them destitute, knocked down a couple of men, and has a price on everyone's head. After surviving a brutal spring in the snow, Dutch, Arthur and the rest of the crew set out to rebuild a new camp on the green meadows near the city of Valentine. “Reconstruction” obviously means robbery and looting, and things inevitably escalate. The gang's antics eventually bring the law down on them and force them to move again. This is how the story finds its structure, driven by the tired rhythms of escalation, confrontation and relocation. The caravan is driven east – yes east – through grasslands and plantations in swamps, cities and beyond.
Every time they move, Dutch promises things will change. This time they will find their peaceful paradise and settle down. If only they could get some money, of course. If they can only get a big score. You understand, don't you? What should he do? His lies become more and more transparent the more emphatically he tells them. Dutch sells the dream of an "untouched paradise" without recognizing that he and his gang spoil everything they touch. In the end, his hypocrisy got sick, and the many ways Arthur and his gang members wrestle with Dutch and justify their continued loyalty to Dutch back up some of Red Dead 2's most striking and credible dramas.
While driving from place to place, you can activate a "film camera", which places black bars on the screen and controls for you, if you have selected a destination. These journeys approach the photo realism to an uncanny degree.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in a version of America that is both specific and abstract. Characters routinely speak of real places like New York City, Boston, and California, but the actual places in the game are largely drawn substitutes. "The Grizzlies" are basically the Rocky Mountains, the state of "Lemoyne" is more or less Louisiana and the busy city of "Saint Denis" is based on New Orleans. There are no real historical figures to meet or speak to in this game, although it is still clearly the result of extensive research and attention to the accuracy of the periods.
As with the first Red Dead, the fictional duality of the world places history in a gently abstracted space where the writers can comment on American history without worrying about historical accuracy. If Red Dead Redemption 2 were loaded with cheap satire and sensational comments, this approach would seem frustrating. Fortunately, thanks to the game's strong script, the game makes it free to paint strokes wide enough to capture the oppressive corruption that continues to be one of the defining aspects of our nation.
Again and again I was impressed by how seriously the authors of this game took their characters, topics and subjects. Abstract or no, America's Red Dead 2 is still a civil war-torn nation where women are not allowed to vote and where Indians and their culture are systematically exterminated. Everything in the main narrative is handled with reasonable weight and humanity, and I have never come across any kind of random satire, and "everyone sucks" cop-outs that – by some of the same authors! – Auto series were recorded in Rockstar's depressingly misanthropic Grand Theft.
These characters are all human beings and are concerned with things that people dealt with at the turn of the century in America. Her life was hard and most of her stories ended badly. That's exactly how it went. Valuable moments of kindness and generosity seem all the more precious against this dark background, but even these are rare and far apart. What begins outside of Valentine as a dreamy cowboy fantasy quickly becomes a tired parable about entropy, villainy and the death of a lie.
The Dutch gang lives on the fringes of society, in an untamed wilderness that is becoming increasingly difficult to find in 2018. Red Dead Redemption 2 contains the most beautiful representations of nature I've ever seen in a video game, and likes to contrast this beauty with the ugly, violent human ambition that will eventually subdue and destroy it.
There is something ironic about a technologically stunning piece of digital entertainment where the characters are constantly complaining about the relentless progress that will eventually lead to the development of television and microchips. the progress that video games like this will make possible. It reveals something deep and truthful about our contradictory consumer culture that some of their best works of art rightly flagell the systems they created. In the end, Red Dead Redemption 2 cannot – or even necessarily – solve this paradox, but is more than willing to accept it and try to dismantle it.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is vast and fascinating, although – and often because of it – the process of interacting with it can be frustrating and inconsistent. Its overwhelming visual beauty invites players, but its muddy kinaesthetics, confused control scheme, and unclear user interface keep them at a distance. This artificial distance contradicts many well-known principles of game design, but also helps to maintain the convincing illusion of an unrecognizable parallel world.
I rarely found Red Dead 2 as "fun" as many other fun video games. The physical act of playing alone is rarely pleasant. It is often exhausting and cumbersome, if not less exciting. No in-game activity approaches tactile actions to fire a Destiny space rifle, kill a demon in God of War, or jump on Redombas in Super Mario Bros. Red Dead 2 continues Rockstar's long-standing rejection of ideas that should have an input answer Be snappy that control schemes should be powerful and intuitive, and that animation systems should favor player input over credible on-screen actions.
Pressing a button in Red Dead 2 rarely leads to an immediate or satisfactory response. Navigating Arthur through the world is less like controlling a video game character than giving instructions to an actor. Take cover, I tell him, just to see him climb onto cover. Did I press the button too late? Did my push button register at all? Dude, go down, I'll cry when his enemies start to open fire. He turns around slowly and then slides to the ground with an elaborate trip animation. GET IN COVER, I command and press the "Take cover" button for the sixth time. He will pull his body weight forward and finally crouch behind the wall.
Arthur's horse adds another degree of distance. Arthur lures his horse forward with the push of a button. If he presses it rhythmically in time with the horse's hoofbeats, it pushes the horse to gallop. But you still control the man, not the horse. Pay attention to your direction, because it is dangerously easy to put a passing civilian on the broadside and start a firefight or collide with a rock or tree and send Catawampus of people and horses to the ground. Red Dead 2's horses are meticulously detailed and beautifully animated and move around the world like real animals until they no longer do. If you get too close to a boulder or across a wagon, the realistic facade crumbles and you have a grumpy, unresponsive horse whose head cuts through a tree.
Almost every interaction must be carried out through the same wafer-thin, glossy cling film. Gun battles are messy and random, and aiming often feels wild and confusing. Rifles require separate trigger to fire and chamber a new round. Enemies move quickly and fuse with the overwhelming visual milieu of the world, and my resulting confidence in the highly magnetized aiming aid turned most of the battles into pop-and-fire shooting galleries. Arthur moves slowly, especially in settlements or indoors. It is also possible that he runs too fast and hits civilians through doors. Navigating this world is tedious, difficult and inelegant. Even simply picking up an object off the floor may take two or three moments of repositioning and waiting for an interaction prompt.
In a rock star, every character and animal in Red Dead 2 can interact in different non-violent ways. Usually, that means looking at them, holding the left trigger, and then selecting "salute" or "antagonize" to control what Arthur says. After antagonizing, you can continue to antagonize or “disarm” and see where things are going from there. Characters can ask you a question or ask for your help. After highlighting, you can choose an answer. Like Arthur's physical interactions, these conversation systems feel uncomfortable and unrecognizable, yet offer another fascinating way of being unpredictable. If I antagonize this guy, will he duck or attack me? If I try to rob this lady, will she submit or, I don't know, kick my ass?
If you break the law in the face of a law-abiding citizen, they will run away to report you. If you linger too long, a group will appear and speak to you. They may not open fire immediately, but pull out their weapons and instruct them to hold up their hands. Could they let you go with a warning? Could they arrest you? Or could they shoot first and ask questions later? I had different results with different sheriffs in different cities after committing slightly different crimes. Which variable changed things? I can't say for sure. Overall, this ambiguity improves the experience rather than affecting it.
The entire game can be played from the first person perspective, which is impressive and often overwhelming.
Unlike so many modern open world games, Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't want you to take control of it. It wants you to just be in its world and feel part of it. It's a crucial distinction and a big part of what makes everything so haunting and fascinating. The thrill of playing Red Dead 2, like many other Rockstar games, is not based on how much fun or strengthening it is from moment to moment. It comes from the electrical feeling that you are poking and poking around in an indifferent, freely functioning world.
Every interaction in the game, from shootings to pub fights to horse races, basically doesn't feel recognizable. The smallest mistake or a change in the course can lead to very different results. This ignorance gives every company a mysterious atmosphere, which, together with the incredible level of detail in every square centimeter of the world, stimulated my imagination to fill the gaps. Did that figure in the city really remember me the last time I visited her a few hours ago? Or was it just the result of a clever dialog with scripts? Is there a hidden system that rules who likes and dislikes me, or do I imagine things? Will I change my chances of being arrested if I change clothes after a bank robbery or if I wear a headscarf enough over my face? If I walk into the forest with blood on my clothes, will bears be drawn?
With Red Dead Redemption 2, these kinds of questions lurk behind every moment and ignite the game world with the spark of the player's own imagination. Most modern video games strive to present everything in front of you. You put all skills, ranks, levels and progress systems in a table that you can fill out step by step. With Red Dead 2, Rockstar ignored this trend and instead opted to disguise numbers on almost every occasion. If the game includes numerical progress systems, such as the newly expanded level system, which is tied to health, stamina and slow motion "dead eye", these systems are often confusing and poorly explained. These weaknesses underscore Red Dead 2's greatest strength: it is less an easy-to-understand collection of game design systems than an opaque, beguiling world.
Here's a story. It's stupid and short and could stand for a hundred other similar stories that I could tell. After Arthur and the gang came down from the mountains, I finally found myself in the open meadows outside the city of Valentine. I led my horse away from the camp along the street and stopped at the post office outside the city. After getting on and off, I saw a prompt in the corner of the screen, indicating that I could “search the saddlebag”. Not knowing what that meant, I hit the button, only to be horrified to see that Arthur wasn't reaching into his own saddlebag, but rather the one draped over a stranger's neighboring horse. I barely had time to react before this happened:
I almost fell off my chair in surprise. Arthur hastily backed away from the horse, his left half was freshly disheveled and covered with mud. I had just arrived in the city and was looking pretty confused! I threw myself on a bow and wasn't sure what to do next. I went to the post office. I watched a passing man raise his nose and eat it.
When I walked through the mail I heard a woman say, "I hope that's just mud on you." On closer inspection, I wasn't so sure. I left the building and headed for the city, still bathed in dirt. I went into a bar and instigated a cutscene in which Arthur was now covered with slightly dried mud.
I left the bar and only then did I realize that Arthur was no longer wearing his hat. A wild west gunslinger needs his hat! Of course it must have dropped off when the horse kicked me. I rode back to the post office and yes, it was in the mud.
I took the hat, put it back on and drove back to town. Was this experience fun? Not exactly. Was it rewarding or empowering? But on the contrary. It started with the game reacting violently to an action I hadn't intended. It ended in a step backwards to find a hat that I would later learn that I could magically conjure it from my horse. But was it unforgettable? Was it something that could only have happened in this game? Did it make me laugh, shook my head amused and wonder what little adventure or outrage I could stumble upon next? It sure did.
At every opportunity, Red Dead Redemption 2 forces you to slow down, take it easy, drink it. Try to move too fast and it will almost always punish you. The pace is outrageously slow compared to any other modern game, especially in the first half. I spent a good part of my time just going from place to place, and once I got where I was going, I was often engaging in extremely reserved activities.
Geralt, is that you?
Again and again, it favors credibility and immersion over convenience. Looting an enemy body triggers an animation that takes a few seconds to complete. To wash your character, you have to climb into a bath and scrub your head and each of your limbs individually. Skinning a dead animal involves a longer animation in which Arthur carefully separates the creature's skin from its muscles before carrying the rolled-up skin to his horse. You can also specify that the animal is not skinned and instead the entire body is transported to the butcher. However, don't let it hang on your horse's back for too long, otherwise it will rot and attract flies.
This consistently imposed slowness forced me to slow down and take into account the characteristic feature of this game: an incredible, overwhelming focus on details.
Red Dead Redemption 2 lives for details. If you created a word cloud from every review published today, the words “detail” and “details” would almost certainly play a prominent role alongside “western”, “gun” and “horse testicles”. It is impossible not to think about the level of detail in this game, from the incredibly detailed social ecosystem of its cities to the ridiculously complex animations to the shop catalogs and customizable rifle engravings and so on and so on.
Let's start with the foliage. I mean, why not? We could start anywhere, so let's start there. The foliage in this game is damn transcendent. It is hands down the most amazing foliage for video games I have ever seen. When you walk past it, it moves like leaves. When you ride through it, Arthur is likely to react to foliage like a person on a horse. Even after all these hours, I'm still impressed with the foliage.
I could talk about the foliage for another four paragraphs, which shows how difficult it is to grasp the volume and variety of amazing details in this game. Every weapon and every outfit is accompanied by a fully written, long catalog entry. The fantastic (completely optional!) Theater shows you can attend are performed by apparently motion-controlled entertainers – the drummer of a proto-jazz band realistically moves his sticks and fits snare and cymbal hits perfectly with the music, and that's me also convinced that Rockstar hired a professional fire dancer to perform in their Mocap studio.
Apparently every minute reveals more surprises. Once a man picked my bag, so I shot him in the leg while escaping. He limped on until I caught him. Once I happened to start a conversation with a disabled Civil War veterinarian who said he remembered me from the last conversation, which resulted in an extensive, apparently unique conversation about Arthur's life and feelings about what was happening in history. Once I shot a bandit who was chasing me and accidentally beating his horse, and then watched in horrified awe as his horse tipped over onto his face, tripped the man riding behind him, and left her behind in a fall of limbs and blood.
Above: Kotaku video producer Paul Tamayo highlights other amazing details of the game.
Once when I was riding in a snowstorm next to another character, I realized that if I moved further away from my compatriot, both characters would start screaming. When I got closer, they returned to their normal voices. After Arthur slaughtered a turkey, I noticed that his right hand remained covered in blood. "Ich hoffe, das ist nicht dein Blut", sagte ein Mann später zu mir, als ich vorbeiging. (Später regnete es und das Blut wurde abgewaschen.) Ein anderes Mal nahm Arthur seinen Waffengürtel ab, bevor er in ein Flussboot-Casino stieg, und der gesamte Prozess war vollständig animiert.
Wenn andere Spiele das schwer zu animierende Ding aus dem Rahmen herausschneiden würden, zeigt Red Dead Redemption 2 es in seiner ganzen Pracht.
Dies sind alles Beispiele für etwas, das ich mir als "Detailporno" vorstelle. Videospiel Detail Porno ist im Internet riesig. Die Leute lieben es, winzige, erstaunliche Details aus ihren Lieblingsspielen zu teilen und sie als lobenswerten Beweis für die harte Arbeit und Entschlossenheit der Entwickler hochzuhalten. Ich habe mir im Laufe der Jahre meinen Anteil an Detail-Pornomacherei gegönnt, Seitenaufrufe und Twitter-Likes aus Spider-Mans Voice-Over-Arbeit, Tomb Raiders seltsam beeindruckendem Türübergang, Horizon Zero Dawns erstaunlichen Animationen, Assassins Creed Odysseys lächerlicher Helmphysik und Sogar die absurd detaillierten Revolverhämmer in einem Red Dead 2-Werbe-Screenshot. Dieses Spiel wird mehr Detailpornos inspirieren als jedes andere seit Rockstars eigenem Grand Theft Auto V. Sein unglaublicher Fokus auf Kleinigkeiten spielt eine wesentliche Rolle, um es zu einer überlastenden und faszinierenden Erfahrung zu machen, und hat mich oft erstaunt, wie eine solche Leistung künstlerischer Technik möglich ist überhaupt abgeschlossen sein.
Wie haben sie das gemacht? Ich fragte mich immer und immer wieder. Natürlich gibt es Antworten auf diese Frage. Jeder wirft viele weitere Fragen für sich auf.
Es ist seit langem ein offenes Geheimnis in der Spielebranche, dass die Studios von Rockstar eine Kultur extremer Arbeit, kulturell erzwungener „freiwilliger“ Überstunden und längerer Krisenzeiten pflegen. Der „geheime“ Teil dieses offenen Geheimnisses ist in der vergangenen Woche etwas verflogen, als ein kontroverser Kommentar des Rockstar-Mitbegründers und Red Dead Redemption 2-Schriftstellers Dan Houser eine Kaskade von Enthüllungen über die Arbeitsbedingungen in der notorisch geheimen Firma auslöste.
Im vergangenen Monat sprach mein Kollege Jason Schreier mit fast 90 aktuellen und ehemaligen Rockstar-Entwicklern, und sein Bericht über diese Angelegenheit zeichnet ein Bild von einem riesigen und vielfältigen Betrieb, der trotz aller Gespräche über Veränderungen eindeutig Jahre damit verbracht hat, sich zu umarmen und davon zu profitieren Aus einer Kultur exorbitanter Überarbeitung heraus, die selbst viele, die stolz darauf sind, bei Rockstar zu arbeiten, verändert sehen wollen.
Spielen Sie Red Dead Redemption 2 nur ein paar Minuten lang, und die Früchte dieser Arbeit werden sofort sichtbar. Dieses wundervolle, ungewöhnliche Spiel war eindeutig ein titanisches logistisches Unterfangen. Jede Zwischensequenz, jede Eisenbahnbrücke, jedes Interieur, jeder wandernde Nicht-Spieler-Charakter wurde in einem Ausmaß poliert, wie es bisher nur in begrenzten, linearen Spielen zu sehen war. Wenn Naughty Dogs relativ eingeschränktes Uncharted 4 ein anhaltendes, intensives Crunch erfordert, was muss es dann gekostet haben, um ein Spiel hundertmal so groß zu machen, aber mit der gleichen Detailgenauigkeit? Wie der Kritiker Chris Dahlen es einmal ausdrückte, während er darüber nachdachte, wie viel leicht zu übersehende, sorgfältig geformte Arbeit in einem durchschnittlichen Big-Budget-Spiel enthalten ist: "Das ist genau dort ein Fall des Römischen Reiches."
Ich hatte manchmal Probleme, die beeindruckendsten Elemente von Red Dead Redemption 2 zu genießen, weil ich wusste, wie herausfordernd – und schädlich – einige von ihnen gewesen sein müssen. Genauso oft schätzte ich diese Dinge noch mehr, weil ich wusste, dass so viele talentierte Menschen ihr Leben in die Herstellung von etwas so Unglaublichem gesteckt hatten.
Die 34-minütige Credits-Sequenz von Red Dead Redemption 2 zu sehen, war eine Saga für sich. Ich habe in meinen Jahren beim Spielen von Videospielen unzählige lange Credits-Sequenzen gesehen (und übersprungen), aber dieses Mal habe ich mich entschlossen, wirklich aufmerksam zu sein, um ein echtes Gefühl für den Umfang dieser achtjährigen Produktion zu bekommen. Zuerst kamen die Namen, die man mit einem Spiel und seiner Gesamtqualität assoziiert; die ausführenden Produzenten, die Studioköpfe, die Regisseure. Ganz oben standen die Autoren Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth und Rupert Humphries, deren erhebliche Anstrengungen zu einem so guten Drehbuch mit so wunderbaren Charakteren führten.
Bald darauf kamen die technischen Credits, die ein umfassenderes Gefühl für die vielen, vielen Menschen vermitteln, die dieses Spiel zum Leben erweckten. 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.