Red Dead Redemption 2. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The blockbuster western has been making headlines lately, for its universal critical acclaim, its absurd attention to detail and for being the fastest-selling piece of entertainment this year, even beating Avengers: Infinity War. The game has been out just over a week and the dust of excitement has started to settle down. But despite all the praise the game was bestowed, some people ain’t feeling the slower-paced game. And I can understand why. But ultimately, I think the slower pace is actually a service to the game and its story. Here’s why.
From the get-go, the game establishes that it’s going to play by its own rules, expectations and gaming norms be damned. Unlike Rockstar Games’ predecessor, the insanely lucrative Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead 2 has a pretty cold opener. I mean that literally as well as metaphorically as the band of outlaws, including protagonist Arthur Morgan, are stranded in a blizzard on the game’s equivalent of the Rocky Mountains. From there, the biggest priorities are finding food and a missing John Marston, the protagonist of the first game. But this isn’t a quick, run through the mountains, be done the tutorial area in forty minutes affair. From the moment you climb on a horse, you realize how the tiny details make you work for the game. Want the horse to go faster? Tap X/A in rhythm with the horse gallop. It’s really cold on the mountain? Make sure you have a winter jacket. Need to hunt deer for food? Better slowly crouch through the woods following a trail and line up a perfect shot, lest you ruin the pelt. From there, you can bring the carcass back to Pearson, the gang’s cook and butcher for food. He’ll then make a stew which will grant you some buffs.
Once you leave the mountains and set up camp near the town of Valentine, the game really opens up. And for some, it really slows down here. But I relished it. I’ve been playing a week pretty regularly and I’m still in chapter 2, specifically shortly after “the Strawberry incident” and saving Mr Maguire. How is that possible, to have played for so long and barely have progressed the story? I’ve been lost and transfixed in the world, playing how the game was designed and taking full advantage of it. The other day, I played for two hours and didn’t even touch a story mission. And I found that to be great!
And spending extra time yields story rewards as well. Playing dominos will open up unique dialogue options may even present a new side quest. Greeting your fellow gang members may result in a brief exchange or an insight into their personalities and their backstories. Explore the camp, and you’ll not only gain backstory for Arthur but you may gain new quests tied to his past. When the camp holds a party, don’t skip out. Join in and let Arthur sing, dance and join in storytelling. You end up feeling like you’re part of something bigger and that the familial bond between them is very real. After dancing with Mary-Beth, Arthur was told it was nice to see him not being “sad and angry” all the time, which made me wonder more about who Arthur is as a person and why he’s the way he is. Unlike John Marston, Arthur is a bit of a pessimist. He’s always ready for the worst to happen and doesn’t get along with everyone in the gang. In short, he’s a bit grumpy. So seeing him let loose and bond sounds important to him.
Every little detail in RDR2 is thought of and incorporated into the game. Want to restore your slo-mo Deadeye meter? Drink some coffee, which you’ll have to manually pour and drink. Same goes for food, which will affect your health and your weight depending on how much you eat. Smoking takes away from your stamina but recharges Deadeye and grants you a collectable card that’s part of a sidequest. There are numerous strangers on the side of the road asking for help, whether it be someone asking for a ride into town or saving someone from a snakebite. These people will remember you too. I saved someone from a bear trap in the hills and he remembered me in town, offered to pay next item at the general store by putting it on his tab. So it’s nice to see that your time spent helping people isn’t just rewarded by bumping your honour meter higher. If that were to happen in real life, an in-person reward would likely be the appropriate response for many.
The world reacts and remembers all your actions. I once greeted someone in Valentine only to be socked in the face by him. We got into a fistfight (which I won) and I looted his KO’d body in the mud (which left a body-sized impression on the ground). While fighting in self-defence is okay, looting him was not and I quickly had a bounty on me after a witness reported my misgivings to the sheriff. Upon my return to town, a few people seemed agitated near me, commenting that they didn’t want any funny stuff or more trouble from me.
There are a plethora of other things to do as well, from Stranger side quests, gang hideouts, various challenges, gambling, and robberies (you are an outlaw after all!). The best thing is that I feel like I’m part of a lived-in world and actively want to feel like a citizen of it. So I want to help the camp with having enough food and staying in their good graces. I want to help strangers on the road and find hidden treasure maps, which I can buy or steal off passers-by. I may have shot someone in town during a botched robbery, only to have a family member hunt me down much later. When not doing any tasks, it’s easy to get lost wandering through the massive and detailed open world just taking the sights in. From a vantage point, one can open up the binoculars and see cities and towns way off in the distance. Hop on a train and you can be there in a few moments. Once you have a few dollars in your pocket, take the train to St-Denis, Rockstar’s version of turn of the century New Orleans. You won’t be disappointed. But there are a crazy host of things to do there and even more to see. And shops and establishments like Saloons aren’t just copy-pasted versions of the same building or concept. I went into Louisiana-inspired Saloon at the small town of Rhodes, which was of a much higher pedigree than the one in Valentine. I had just been roaming the wild and was caked in mud and likely smelled. As soon as I walked in, the music stopped. I could hear patrons talking about me. I greeted some people by the door but I was not given a warm welcome. I didn’t belong in this world, not dressed like this, unkempt and unclean with an unruly beard. But I ignored the gazes and opted for a game of Blackjack nonetheless, which ties into the Gambler challenges the game has in its progression system.
And that’s just the side stuff and the world. The game is intentionally much slower than anything in GTA. The opening few hours of the game are incredibly linear and go against the normal Rockstar formula. But it sets the stage well, and lets you know that yeah, the game can be played at a slower pace and you should opt to do so once the map opens up to you. There can be missions where you encounter no hostile enemies and in a year where Black Ops has a PUBG inspired Battle Royale mode or even Rockstar’s previous mega-blockbuster GTA V, gamers haven’t had a chance to really play a AAA title that focuses on slowing down in some time. Other games use the world as a distraction to pad the runtime by adding numerous fetch quests, towers and collectables to keep you engaged. And while RDR2 has collectables, it feels natural as there is no quest marker on the map telling me to go here to recover something, everything is earned via exploring and doing. I feel no shame in admitting I’ve been enjoying going to the general store every day and purchasing hair tonic to grow Arthur’s beard out. It makes me feel like I’m a citizen of the world, with my own errands, chores and duties to undertake to help make his life and the lives of his fellow outlaws better. Arthur isn’t just an avatar for the story, he’s a man of the world.
Many open-world games have amazing words to explore, full of detail and wonder. But the truly great and inspiring ones are much shorter than that. The world map in RDR2 may seem smaller due to the lack of highways, cars, planes and what have you, but it’s so much more alive. This is one of those few rare times when slowing down and becoming a person rather than playing as a video game character has benefited the story, the world and ultimately, the game. What about you though, have you been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 by jumping straight from mission to mission, or are you taking your time in the world? Let us know and be sure to check out our latest entry in our 1001 Movies series, A Brighter Summer Day and our breakdown of everything we know about the Game of Throne’s prequel series.