At this point, one week after the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, you’ve made up your mind about whether you’ll purchase the game. There isn’t a lot of fence-sitting surrounding perhaps the most-anticipated game of the year, which is one of a handful of games released in 2018 that have literal years of anticipation behind them — from God of War, to Spider-Man, to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, to Fallout 76, to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. That’s without even mentioning Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ni No Kuni 2, and on and on and on.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 stands head and shoulders above the rest. From the moment its first trailer dropped, there’s been a collective ebb and flow between breath-holding and breathless wonder among all gamers. It’s been more than eight years since Red Dead Redemption was released, and fans of Rockstar’s instant smash have been playing and replaying the game in the years since. That love for RDR, and the fact that it’s been five years since Grand Theft Auto V dropped, has helped create the perfect storm where Red Dead Redemption 2 landed the largest opening weekend for any form of entertainment, ever.
All of that is to say that you’re either on team RDR2 or you aren’t, and much of that has to do with the precise juggernaut that Rockstar has created with their open-world, tortured-male-protagonist, shoot-people-if-you-wanna romps. They created the genre, they perfected it, and they keep getting better at it. Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely Rockstar’s finest game to date. It’s their most mature game in terms of graphic subject matter and nuance. It’s their most sumptuous, it’s their most sprawling, and it’s designed to be exactly what you want it to be. Luckily for them, people are going to want it to be exactly what it is.
This game is wonderful. It moves entirely at the pace of the player, with minimal urging to move along to the next chapter of the story and with exactly as much info as you need to find out where that next chapter lies. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to keep playing the story, or just hunt or ride around or dig for dinosaur bones or pet dogs or just try to grow the best beard you can. Much has been made of the scope of the map and the breadth of activities to take part in, and that’s absolutely correct.
But it’s still fairly striking how narrow the story at the center of the game is. Yes, this is a prequel. It’s a game about a group of outlaws trying to carve out a life for themselves in a hostile land, playing within their own swath of morality. You are in complete control of whether you punch a horse, shoot a stranger, rob a priest, or just go scavenging for herbs. Your morality meter will gain you honor and a reputation as a stand-up feller if you tip your cap and lend a hand … or you’ll rack up bounties, stern looks, and a whisper network of terror if you shoot first and loot bodies later.
It all amounts to one tortured man trying to carve out a life for himself, and we’ve seen that story before.
I believe that video games are very much art, and that there have already been a great number of artistic games released this year. RDR2 is a work of art. The game is breathtaking from the opening credits, which find your character’s gang holing up in a small town in the middle of a blizzard. This opening stretch moves seamlessly between gameplay, tutorial, and cutscenes interspersed with score and credits that combine with the snowy setting to evoke The Hateful Eight. I can’t imagine that’s accidental, as the specter of Tarantino looms large over the house Rockstar Games has built.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise (and, later, RDR) was borne of gamers coming of age while discovering the guise of men behaving badly. The Sopranos bowed in 1999, and the format-defining Grand Theft Auto III followed two years later. It kicked off a golden age of the “flawed protagonist” — critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved films and prestige television shows were by, about, and largely marketed to (as most things have always been) straight white males. That era is still in effect, but finally threatens to be waning.
I don’t begrudge Rockstar for remaining in and refining something they are spectacularly good at. As I’ve said, RDR2 is a phenomenal game, one which I will likely spend dozens, if not hundreds, of hours playing. In fact, this is likely Rockstar’s most progressive game to date. The company has attempted, and to various degrees succeeded, in representation in the past, with installments like San Andreas and GTA V. In nearly all cases, as in RDR2, nearly every “good guy” character neatly sidesteps any responsibility or baggage that might get you too bogged down in the imbalances of these worlds, preventing you from moving along and having a good time.
Unquestionably, it is not Rockstar’s responsibility to be woke or attempt to make this game anything more than what it is: a sandbox game unparalleled in scope, detail, or more nefariously, man hours. As I play RDR2, though, I can’t help but think about the other two games I’ve had the most fun playing this year.
God of War is also about a flawed man (although not specifically coded white — despite Kratos’ alabaster skin, he isn’t human and has notably always been voiced by a black man). But for the first time since the God of War franchise has been in existence, Kratos isn’t just a badass spilling guts. He’s a father who doesn’t want or know how to be one, and though there’s definitely some fridging going on and no small amount of flawed-male-protagonist whining, God of War is a game about heritage, lineage, fatherhood, kinship, denial of self, and a whole host of other extremely heady subjects. Sure, it’s about a big angry dude chopping fools in half with a huge axe, but it’s also about humanity and identity.
My other favorite game so far this year, Spider-Man, is also about a straight white man, but with one important difference: he’s Spider-Man. Peter Parker always looks to do things for the right reasons, leading to him searching for the good in people to a fault. He’ll sometimes do extremely stupid things, but always for the right reasons. Plus the game itself is a blast — the web-swinging mechanic alone puts this into Game of the Year contention for me, because it’s perhaps the most liberating and exhilarating mechanic and mode of travel that’s ever been put into a video game.
So when I went straight from the first DLC for Spider-Man to RDR2, it was pretty jarring. Red Dead Redemption 2 moves at the speed of your horse, or your dust-caked boots, or occasionally at the speed of a locomotive. The first time you accidentally ride your horse into anything at a trot or faster, you’ll fly through the air like a rag doll and likely break both your character’s and his horse’s neck. If you’re not lucky, you’ll launch into a bystander, killing him and immediately drawing the fire of lawmen. RDR2 is meant to be played deliberately, and I don’t think I was ready to come down to earth quite so fast after the thrill that is Spider-Man.
Early on in Red Dead Redemption 2, you’ll be paired with a trio of members of your gang on three different quests. The first is Lenny, a black man, the second is a Mexican man, and the third is a half-Indian. As is standard in sandbox games these days, they’ll talk to you and fill in some backstory as you ride to your destinations. (A welcome feature in RDR2 is the cinematic camera, which allows you to take in the scenery and hold down the “ride” button, letting your horse continue on its route while you are reminded that this game is gorgeous. Except sometimes, you’ll suddenly get mauled by a pack of wolves. Just like the Old West!)
Lenny will talk about how dangerous the frontier is for him, as many wouldn’t hesitate to kill him at first sight. Your character seems to have never considered this before, but also brushes this information off as quickly as … well, as a middle-aged white man likely would in real life. Later, it must be mentioned, Lenny freely drinks, carouses, gets in bar fights with you, and all sorts of other mischief, and all it nets him is a night in the drunk tank to sleep it off, just the same as your character. The game will let you briefly consider an alternative viewpoint, but it never amounts to anything of consequence.
Similarly, you will later encounter the Ku Klux Klan, who are portrayed as buffoonish, bumbling villains. It’s good that there’s no denial from the game that the KKK are evil people to be ridiculed and defeated, but given that we’re living through the KKK being unafraid to march in the streets or run for office, it seems like maybe something more could have been done there. Later, your half-Indian companion will teach you how to track animals and use a bow and arrow. Then they’ll disappear for a good, long while.
This is a game where you’re living through a Western, and there have been thousands of Westerns created across the decades. There are likely fewer than 50 that pursued race relations or racism beyond “cowboys vs. Indians” or “Buffalo soldiers were heroes, too.” John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge might be the most progressive Western made prior to the 1970s, and that film is about the brave white officer who risks literally nothing to take the stand and clear the name of a black soldier falsely accused of rape and murder.
I realize the overwhelming majority of players who seek out Rockstar’s games enjoy them because they offer abundant freedom, and some still enjoy them because of their “edgy” humor, subject matter, and historically anti-“P.C.” content. Some of those players might well be irritated that RDR2 shoehorns in too much having to think about something other than punching a drunkard square in the nose. However you want to play this game, you likely won’t be disappointed there. Your options are nearly limitless … unless you’re referring to your character, which is one that we’ve seen before in Rockstar games and in basically every action-adventure game since they’ve existed. That’s a little bit of a shame, but it doesn’t detract from what a remarkable achievement Red Dead Redemption 2 is as a video game.
I’m going to have a lot of fun exploring this world and killing time in it however I choose. Maybe I’ll make up my own story for my character in my head. The title will likely continue to find ways to surprise and delight me. But I can’t shake that some corner of my mind will continue to wish that the next Rockstar game will find a way to give the world a story it hasn’t seen before.