Saturday, July 13, 2019

Red Dead Redemption 2

By: Patrick Morris

I learned two things while playing Red Dead Redemption 2. First I learned that it's ok to just put a game down and walk away from it if you're not enjoying it. We are all busy people and time is the single most valuable resource any of us have so if you're not enjoying something why keep doing it? No matter how good everyone says that thing is, no matter how much everyone insists you keep doing it ultimately if you're not enjoying yourself don’t waste your time with it. And if you do end up putting something down because you're not liking it don’t automatically assume whatever it was is bad. It's important to be able to recognize quality while at the same time keeping your own priorities in order. I personally don’t like Game of Thrones. That doesn’t mean that it's automatically a bad show and I recognize that it absolutely isn't but its just not my cup of tea so I'm not going to waste my time on something I don’t like. The second thing I learned from Red Dead Redemption 2 is patience with a game. Nothing is perfect and not everything is going to hook you right away but if we exercise a bit more patience sometimes that can pay off in a big way. Red Dead Redemption 2 is far from perfect but once I learned the cadence of the game what it had to offer are without a doubt some of the best memories I have ever had in video games.

Spoiler alert. This essay will contain some major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 so if you're like me and you didn’t play it right away but you think you might later stop reading now and just go play the game because it's really good. Or if you're like the former me and you gave it a shot but it just didn’t click with you that well and you don’t think you're going to go back to it don’t worry that’s totally okay but be warned you're about to have a great game spoiled for you.

Before we get started on Red Dead Redemption 2 (which by the way is actually Red Dead 3) I feel like it's important to give a really quick background so you as the reader can better understand my perspective while I played this game. I played Red Dead Revolver when it first came out and absolutely loved the game. Then when Redemption was announced I was crazy excited to go back to the wild west and play cowboy again. As I played Red Dead Redemption 1 I was disappointed, I kept waiting for the game to pick up and to get some really great action set pieces going and it just wasn’t happening. All I was doing was riding to Armadillo then riding back to the McFarlane's ranch. I stopped playing Red Dead Redemption after about five hours and even after everyone kept telling me how amazing it is I just wasn’t willing to go back to it.

Despite not being a big fan of Red Dead Redemption 1 I was very excited to play Red Dead Redemption 2. As the game approached everyone's hype grew and I was sure that this time around I would have grown and matured and would be much more capable of enjoying what Red Dead had to offer. I bought the game on October 26th 2018 the day it was released and immediately went home to install it on my Xbox One X. After playing through what I admittedly even at the time thought was a very good prologue that began to build the power dynamics within the gang I then found myself in chapter 2 doing the same thing that had put me off of the first game, I was riding from camp to Valentine and back to camp over and over again with no real sense of progression or interesting set pieces to keep my interest. Over that first 10-15 hours that I played shortly after release there were things that I was doing but none of it felt meaningful and the game was getting bogged down in the "live in the world" elements that I feel contribute very little to the experience. Shopping in video games isn't fun it's something that has to be done in order to get to the actual fun stuff so making it a significantly more involved process of walking around the store holding a button to pick up an item, holding another button to look at it, then holding a button to buy it doesn’t add to but instead detracts from the overall cohesiveness of the experience. Brushing my horse, bathing and grooming Arthur, and polishing my guns are all things that on paper add to immersion but in practice just make it more difficult for the player to become highly invested in the game. What I came to Red Dead Redemption 2 looking for wasn’t being delivered and I had given it what I felt was a fair shake at the time so I walked away from it. I recognized the incredible quality of all of the individual elements of the game but despite that quality I wasn’t enjoying myself so I put it down.

Months went by and the accolades for Red Dead Redemption 2 kept rolling in. Game of the year awards from individual outlets, perfect scores, four of the most prestigious awards at the 2018 Game Awards, and an absolutely insane 97 on Metacritic. All of these things began to add up and I started to question my decision to stop playing the game. Now I do still stand by that decision because ultimately if you're not having fun with a game don’t bother wasting your time on it but all of this talk of the game had me wondering if I had approached it from the wrong angle, if playing the game in a different mindset would make any sort of difference. So I knew that eventually I would go back and give it another shot and after finishing it I am very glad I did.

When I started playing Red Dead again I didn’t restart the game. I picked up from where I had left off about six months prior because I didn’t want to fall into the same trap I had previously and I wanted to make actual progress. Coming back and being about ten hours in I was at the point where had I just pressed forward for another 30 minutes I would have been hooked. We all get enjoyment from video games for different reasons and we even get different types of enjoyment from different games. I played Doom 2016 for the gameplay and I am looking forward to Doom Eternal for that same reason but I played The Last of Us for the story and the characters. For the most part story is what drives me forward in video games and in Red Dead Redemption 2 it was the character driven story that really hooked me. Gameplay was good, setting was fantastic, but the characters are the reason I couldn’t help but keep coming back for more.

When I finally picked the game back up I was determined to play the main story and nothing else because I had a feeling that that's what would capture my interest. The very first story mission I played when coming back was Arthur taking Jack fishing and seeing that dynamic between the two as they rode and talked and fished and taught and learned from one another blew Arthur wide open as a character with incredible depth, a past, a personality, and extremely human motivations. Suddenly after seeing Arthur be soft and protective over Jack and encounter the Pinkerton's then explain it away to Jack to keep him sheltered while at the same time knowing he was going to have to inform Dutch and they would have to move quickly I knew that the real story that was lying in wait for me was the development of the character relationships. And when it came to character relationships Red Dead Redemption 2 had them in spades.

Throughout the game Arthur develops enthralling relationships with so many different characters. Some characters Arthur grows closer to while others he drifts from but they all feel meaningful and intentional. In the early game the hierarchy of the Van der Linde gang is established. Dutch is obviously the leader with his two most trusted followers Hosea for counsel and Arthur for muscle at his side. Across the first three chapters Hosea acts a voice of reason of sorts keeping Dutch's wild ambitions in check but after his death Dutch and that ambition are left unchecked and he takes both himself and the gang spiraling out of control. Arthur's growth into the Hosea role as an antithesis to challenge Dutch nearly every step of the way is not welcomed by Dutch as he has difficulty adapting to Arthur's new place within the gang's hierarchy. Not only is Dutch resistant to Arthur's new role as counselor and muscle but he was also left unchecked for long enough that his plan had been able to go so far off the rails there is truly no saving it. After their return from Guerra Arthur recognizes the position the gang is in and begins his work to disband  the gang in as peaceful a way as possible so as to save as many people as possible from falling victim to Dutch's madness. Arthur fills the void Hosea left in the gang but whether it was because he filled that void just a bit to late or that Dutch was to far gone or a combination of both the only effective option Arthur has to counteract Dutch is a scorched earth policy. By the end of the game Arthur's relationship with Dutch has progressed to the point where the two are fire and ice battling over the fate of the gang moving forward.

But the Dutch and Arthur relationship isn't the only highly rewarding one the player is able to see develop. During the prologue the player is introduced to John Marston and a tone of animosity and general disdain is set very early; and the player and Arthur are introduced together to Sadie Adler a woman who from the outset is incredibly strong and bold who eventually becomes one of Arthur's closest allies. The Sadie relationship is somewhat straightforward. Sadie and Arthur have similar temperament's and get along well. The two share stories and grow to truly care for one another in what is in my opinion an undoubtedly platonic way. They become close friends and learn that they can trust each other when they can trust almost no one else.  Sadie becomes a more prolific and significant presence in the later chapters as Arthur executes on his plan to save everyone from Dutch's mishaps and by the end of her arc Sadie had become an incredible character that the game couldn’t function without. Arthur's relationship with John is the more interesting of his two closest allies though because it starts from a place of distrust and becomes one of mentorship. John has admittedly made some mistakes in the past that give Arthur justifiable reason to not love John. And Arthur isn't shy about that, constantly reminding John of his mistakes and the fact that Arthur doesn’t like him. But as Arthur and John begin to see the real Dutch together and them both having their own motivations for leaving the gang they become close. Working together over literally dozens of hours the dialogue between the two gradually changes from short and hostile to more dependable and embracing. The two know they can lean on each other when they need to and by the end of the game as they setup the dynamite on the bridge and Arthur tells John that when he gets a chance he needs to run and not look back Arthur speaks to John almost as though he were a little brother that needed looking out for.

My first attempt at Red Dead Redemption 2 was cut short by what I still see as very valid criticisms. In the early hours of the game it appears overly concerned crafting an immersive experience when it should be more concerned with approachability and getting the player connected to the characters. But if you don’t have a problem with a game that seems almost intentionally obtuse from the start then I really cant recommend Red Dead Redemption 2 enough. My second attempt at Red Dead Redemption 2 taught me that in some cases I have to know what it is that I want from a game otherwise I'll spend hours doing something feeling like I'm doing nothing. It's an amazing game and the worst thing about it is that it leads straight into Red Dead Redemption and as I'm playing that I feel as though it is nowhere near as good as Red Dead Redemption 2, but of course that cant be levied as an actual criticism. But remember that even though it hooked me on the second try and it was a game that I wound up really loving if you walk away from red dead, or any game really, don’t worry about it! Games are supposed to be fun and rewarding and fulfilling and if you're not getting what you want out of a game don’t waste your time with it, no matter how good everyone says it is, life is to short to let other peoples opinions force you into wasting your own time.

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