The Disease of More, or, The Best Bad Video Game Ever Made

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Posted by Nodima (2574 posts) -

Fans of the site have obviously debated ad nauseam those hard RDR 2 turns on the Beastcast. Likewise, anyone following the discourse surrounding this game online has probably noticed that while the critical consensus seemed to have Rockstar's latest opus pegged for Game of the Year material, not even a week after the game's release consumer response was much rockier. It's been interesting to watch the critics slowly drift closer to the center, unable to take back the concrete evidence that RDR 2, alongside Rockstar's own GTA V, is the best-reviewed PS4 game of all-time. I am far from a skeptic of video game criticism; of all the mediums, I find it to be the most challenging to critique in an even-handed and curious way without struggling to not sound like an entitled dweeb, someone who entirely missed the point or like someone who could never recognize why a game may or may not be for someone else at all. I admire anyone who pursues it as either hobby or career.

[Obviously, spoilers to follow.]

But as I settled into my seventh hour with Red Dead Redemption II nearly a month ago, there were two feelings I could not shake. One: holy shit, this is incredible. Two: I feel lied to. Over the next seventy hours, I realized that I hadn't actually been misled by the slow trickle of previews in the weeks leading up to its release, nor were the reviews entirely wrong in their presentation of the game's systems. Rather, I'd allowed myself to be swept up in the flowery ways Rockstar's combination of systems were described by writers as a sort of revolution in open world design rather than a culmination. The one that was really sticking with me was a line repeated in several previews that Rockstar had blurred the lines between primary and secondary content; in reality, everything remained fractured in classic Rockstar fashion, only this time the secondary content was far more fascinating and engaging than the primary story.

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Jess Joho spells this out spectacularly in a recent article for Mashable that's far angrier at the game than I ever could be. After all, during that week I spent drifting through Chapter 3, completely disinterested in the familial spat between the Brathwaites and the Grays, I was in love. In love due to all the weird side stories I was stumbling into in the woods, all the pelts I was collecting as I learned I could go hunting with three horses in toe for maximum storage, all the locations I was discovering and marveling at and all the one-off side characters I was enamored by. By the time I returned to the group and got the story moving along, I quickly came to the realization that Red Dead Redemption II is one of the most repetitive, half-assed, unengaging campaigns I've played in some time.

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By the umpteenth time Dutch said some variation of, "I just need time, and a plan," and Arthur gave some response of, "Oh, I don't know Dutch," or seeing Dutch once again walk around with his arms raised to mid-torso, rings glistening on his wiggling fingers as he smirks and promises you'll only be making a social call, I was just exhausted. It looked great, it sounded incredible, and I wanted nothing at all to do with it. Knowing where everything was headed (both because a friend had spoiled Arthur's story for me at the bar one night and because that's the nature of a prequel) just made me so incredibly exhausted by the cyclical nature of this game's storytelling. Going back to the Joho piece I linked above:

By beginning in the aftermath of a failed robbery, with Dutch and the gang in the midst of moral degradation, the narrative ensures it can do nothing but spin in circles.

We're subjected to (I repeat) a minimum 60 hours of a shitty dude getting shittier, leaving me to wonder whether the people around him are just that stupid, or just that poorly written. Arthur is left with nothing to do but say 1,001 variations of "I dunno, man, I feel like we already tried that one."

Before doing the same shit again anyway.

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Which brings me back around to my time in Chapter 3, and the Epilogue. Despite the costumes you can unlock mostly looking super stupid, the game's lack of a power curve not making a compelling argument for completing those challenges and hunts in the first place, the arduous camp site / homestead chores, the countless number of systems that are arbitrary, meaningless or not even consistently applied to the game (isn't it weird that there is suddenly so much imposed fast travel during the epilogue?)...despite lovable characters embarking on a dumbass story, all I wanted to do was trot to my next objective. All I wanted to do was get off my horse, grab its reins and walk it through town. Get back to camp by nightfall so I could get everyone's opinions on the past day, eat some food (hey, you can just hold R2 to drink your soup or coffee all at once), go to sleep, wake up and change clothes before wrangling up my three horses and going back on another hunt for those meaningless pelts.

And then that epilogue. Was it sloppy? Hell yes. Marston meets characters Morgan met who react to Marston as if he was the same guy. The two enemy factions were shoehorned in and absolutely unnecessary. Charles was...man, I had issues with Charles all throughout the game. But that epilogue was everything I wanted out of this game otherwise. I walked everywhere, I did my farm chores every day (the most efficient route will have you producing eggs and milk to take to market, chopping wood and distributing water in nearly a full day, from roughly 8am to 5pm), I made sure my hair and beard didn't grow out too long so that I never deviated too far from John's look in RDR 1. I began fantasizing about an epilogue to the epilogue in which Red Dead Redemption suddenly became Stardew Valley.

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As the camera came in on John and Abigail standing on their future gravesites, waxing idyllic about their ranching futures, I wanted to live in that fantasy with them. I wanted to rebuild the gang camp as a group of law abiding ranch-hands, make deals with nearby and far away ranches and towns to trade goods and services and build my ranch up into the best in all of West Elizabeth. I got caught up in this sudden fantasy that the campaign of RDR2 was half as long as it was; no Guarma, half as many half-assed villains and half-assed plots, half as many circular, token Rockstar-style travel dialogue where every character comes off like they hate each other's guts...and then, for no good reason other than I was lusting after it, a farming simulator with all the clunky, limited systems I'd come to master over the previous 70 hours.

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"The Disease of More" is an idea coined by basketball coach Pat Riley. In summary, Riley argues that once a team achieves the highest accomplishment in their field (ie. a championship, or the best reviewed or best selling game of all-time) the "more" they're pursuing begins to matriculate outside of the task at hand. What was once just a championship is now endorsement deals, record breaking contracts, starting new businesses, individual achievements, etc. Things that the outside observer may not care about - horse testicles, weather systems, weird hand-to-hand combat, nearly 600 animal species and survival mechanics - that prove the champs' worth to themselves, ultimately taking for granted what got them to that level in the first place.

I like Rockstar's shooting system (though the removal of the ability to swap enemies with the right stick from GTA V is an awkward, bad design choice) and I love the world, but once the game allows you to break away from it and fantasize about all the other things it could have been - a farming game, a hunting game, a dating game, a camp building game - coming back to the thing you originally came for - the story of the Van der Linde Gang - is a bit of a bummer. And then it's a slog. And then it just. won't. end.

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Red Dead Redemption II is a great experience, my personal favorite experience with a video game I had this year. I am still thinking about an old lady I came across alone in her cabin, or a brother and sister I shared some not-so-innocent swigs of moonshine with, or a couple of passed out, drunk thieves hanging out in the basement of a house off the coast of Van Horn, or the time I stumbled across the Murfree Brood's cave and cleared it out dozens of hours before it became a plot point, saving a young woman in the process. I think I saw someone else say on these very forums that RDR 2 is perhaps the best argument for "video games as art" yet due to the wildly different reactions players are having to it, but I also think it's a wonderful entry in that argument because the best things about it are peripheral, oftentimes even brought to the game entirely by the player rather than the game itself.

But it finds its way to being a great experience by being the opposite of so much of what makes a great video game in 2018. It's slow, unresponsive, obtuse, full of systems and ideas that don't matter at all. Nothing is more annoying than upgrades that mean nothing, and as one member of the Game Informer staff says late in their RDR 2 spoilercast, "we're taught to appreciate these wheels of satisfaction in video games, and this game fucking throws those wheels in a fire and pours gasoline on it."

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Somehow, myself and that person fell in love with that concept, wanting more of all the things that weren't actually in the game, but you could imagine they were if you squinted hard enough, and you could pretend they were there if you let yourself sink in. Red Dead Redemption II was simultaneously the best and worst experience I had with a game this year, completely underwhelming narratively compared to its predecessor and aggressively antagonistic from a gameplay perspective compared to any other great gaming experience released this year. Yet I can think of no other game that deserves to be talked about so exhaustively from this year, no other game that constantly caught me by surprise along the margins and took my breath away with every ridge I rode over or stream I walked along. It is both perfect and an utter dumpster fire.

Anyway, I'm halfway through the Golden Ridge section of Celeste and I think it's got me beat. Pretty incredible game, though.

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#1 Posted by Ares42 (4266 posts) -
@nodima said:

We're subjected to (I repeat) a minimum 60 hours of a shitty dude getting shittier, leaving me to wonder whether the people around him are just that stupid, or just that poorly written. Arthur is left with nothing to do but say 1,001 variations of "I dunno, man, I feel like we already tried that one."

I've sorta talked about this a few times here before without being too spoilery, but having this realization halfway through the game just broke the story for me. There's much that can be said and analyzed about Dutch as a character and his portrayal, but the implications of his foolishness leaves this giant question about how on earth this gang has existed successfully for as long as it's implied. I just couldn't buy into the idea that all these people were that blind to his true nature.

But more to the point, I had a conversation with my brother (who's more of a casual gamer) about the game fairly recently and he had fairly similar thoughts about the game. He talked about how he had barely touched the story but was having a great time just doing stuff in the world. He literally said "I think I might just want to play a good hunting game". In some way you would think that the growing trend of this exact feedback might cause Rockstar to rethink their approach for their next game, but at the same time this game has sold a bagillion copies and gotten absolutely stellar critic scores (and will probably get plenty of GOTY awards), so we might want to keep our expectations low.

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#2 Posted by SethMode (1887 posts) -

This is really well written. Thank you for sharing!

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#3 Posted by SloppyDetective (1583 posts) -

Great write up. I myself am still in chapter 4 and haven't touched the game in about two weeks, but it is sitting as my number one on my end of year Google doc.

The dialogue is lyrical, the world is vibrant and the amount of ideas this game gives the player is huge. But, the story is everything you and the other writer said.

One thing that Brad has mentioned in regards to this game that I do not see is how impressive the game's "memory" is. The way the world knows you and remembers your actions seems like a slightly better but sometimes worse version of other open world games. The dialogue/interaction options are novel at first but become repetitive and don't hold much meaning outside of getting in fights or dialogue choices on missions.

All in all I think the game feels exactly how I thought a sequel to RDR would feel, in terms of world, structure, scope. I don't think it's revelutionary in any way other than sheer content. Zelda BOTW was similar for me in that every corner turned, every hill crested I found a piece of handcrafted world that can only come from years of development. But BOTW pushed me to engage with its world on different terms than standard open world games do. This game doesn't ask that of the player. It's the same structure, same expectations, just bigger.

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#4 Posted by JeremyF (338 posts) -

Really enjoyed reading this. At some point before release I decided this game wasn't what I'm looking for right now, so I passed it up.

My brother just got it today. Our tastes have diverged lately, so I'm really curious what he will think about it.

And of course, the GOTY podcasts next week...

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#5 Edited by BoboBones (245 posts) -

Thank you for sharing this. I was in love at first, but the lack of focus started killing me. I was absolutely fascinated by the level of detail. I’m still having a hard time believing they accomplished what they did, but I felt so incredibly overwhelmed, and worn out. Every moment became exhausting.

I sold it to Amazon for $35 and purchased Tetris Effect. The level of focus, and lowered anxiety I feel every time I play Tetris has easily made it my GOTY.

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#6 Posted by soulcake (2640 posts) -

I ended up in chapter 6 lost interest after that, something else came up and i haven't played it since. The story has a lot of similarities with GTA V a lot of one more X and you will get Y, it's the way they will never get to the Y part is what interested me the most how they build up characters over time you come to know/love.

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#7 Posted by Rotten_Avocado (100 posts) -

Top notch write up!

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#8 Edited by Deathstriker (1101 posts) -

RDR2's story and characters compared to a great novel, movie, or TV show might not be that great, but comparing it to its medium, RDR2 has better characters and story than 99% of video games that have been made. Something like Mass Effect 2 might beat it in that department, but not many games. I'll never understand people complaining about RDR's or Witcher's movement/gameplay. They do feel heavy, but that's on purpose and they're definitely not "unresponsive". If Arthur is just some lame video game character stand-in or placeholder why did so many people get upset or emotional about his death? Why did I see so many videos, comments, articles, etc saying people wished they could keep playing as Arthur and not switch back to John, which includes me at first. If Lara Croft, Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, etc died I wouldn't give a shit even though I like those games, Arthur dying was a bummer - probably even more so than Commander Shepard or Lee from TWD to me.

Comparing RDR2 to perfection or some ideal game it falls short, comparing it to other games this gen or from this century it beats the hell out of them.

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#9 Edited by Nodima (2574 posts) -

@deathstriker: I can agree on the characters being great. I felt for Karen in her descent. I missed John and Sadie while they were erased from my camp due to that common glitch. Like I said in the OP, I made a point of revisiting camp no matter how far I'd wandered from it nearly every in-game day just to see if anyone had anything new to say. Some in-game days I would spend entirely at camp, wandering only as far as the nearest river to do some fishing and bird watching. I really lived in this game for most of the time that I played it, and I really cared about these characters in the way it seemed the game was asking me to. My favorite missions were just going into town on a date, or out for a drink, or when I was more focused on foraging or gambling or hunting a making stories for myself along the way.

Then the enemy factions kept piling up beyond reason. The Pinkertons cornered the camp, again, and we escaped, again. Arthur second-guessed Dutch enough times to count on both hands while Dutch regained his and the others' trust with the same speech he'd given so many times before. With enough nuance that would have worked, but this was a 70-hour experience for me, not 2-hour movie or even a 10-hour television series. Narratively, it becomes exhausting when every chapter has the same structure: something just went horribly wrong, but we're back on our feet making a go of it. Someone in our group has a scheme they're cooking up and they promise it'll be good. Just before we go to pull the trigger, the Pinkertons show up or the rival gang captures John, Abigail or his son and we have to spring into action sooner than we'd expected. The plan goes awry, someone else gets captured or killed, and we go on the run again. Repeat five times followed by a beautiful epilogue with shoehorned villains and a dual-deus ex machina ending and that's the basic synopsis.

At any individual moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 is at worst decent and at best transcendent, but taken as a whole its primary story is too exhausting and repetitive while its epilogue is so in a hurry that it's suddenly providing fast travel to and from missions for the player at a frequency so at odds with the main campaign its distracting. The game didn't have a natural flow to it, for me, and I that's what I was getting at when I regretfully simplified my argument to "half-assed" at one point in the OP. The narrative has everything it needs to be a great story; the problem is, it repeats enough of its good ideas that I think it's perfectly reasonable for players to get become a bit jaded in its execution.

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#10 Edited by Deathstriker (1101 posts) -

@nodima: I would only say it's exhausting after Arthur goes to the doctor since it's pretty surprising and the game takes a turn. That being exhausting only works because I, and many others, liked the character so much. I don't even remember the name of other protagonists from open-world games like the last Far Cry, Middle-Earth, or Ghost Recon - they were placeholder, not Arthur. As far as repetition, the only thing that repeatedly happens is that they move camp, since that helps promote players exploring different regions. Sometimes their plans work (the bank robbery in Valentine or the multiple train robberies), sometimes their plans don't work. Yes, the different enemy factions chase after them and try to kill them.

Arthur did doubt Dutch a lot and Dutch always had a plan, but I'm pretty sure that's on purpose. Arthur is loyal to a fault and doesn't see that he should get away from Dutch until it's too late - it's almost like a wife in an abusive relationship sticking around. As for Dutch, he is used to using his cleverness to get out of situations, but society/technology/civilization is putting an end to his way of life, which is probably one of the reasons he starts to crack and pretty much go crazy.

Obviously other people don't have to like the game, you're entitled to your opinion, but I think it deserves the heaps of praise that it has been getting. I think this gen was kinda sucking until this year thanks to RDR2, God of War, and Spider-Man. Those 3 games plus Uncharted 4 and Witcher 3 are easily the best games of this gen by a mile to me.

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#11 Edited by Nodima (2574 posts) -

@deathstriker: As I said in both my posts, I not only like the game, I love it. I also agree with you that those themes are all present in the story. I simply disagree that it is handled in a subtle, engaging way, especially as the game drags along. The game's at it's best as a storyteller when it's not in a hurry - Chapters 1 and 2, Part 1 of the epilogue - and at it's worst when things reach a fever pitch - Chapter 5, Part 2 of the epilogue. So when people are trying to mainline the story - whether it's Dan gearing up for Game of the Year or myself trying to avoid (further) spoilers (for what it's worth, I'd had the diagnosis accidentally spoiled for me by two friends at a bar who had strictly been playing story missions while I was still in Chapter 2, though one of the Game Informer guys seemed to be arguing he did not have TB in his campaign because he wasn't doing the collections) before those debates started - the fact that its weakest moments are all in the backend makes it less surprising the reaction to this game has changed a bit as more and more people have got further into the game. Many of those weaker moments are the equivalent of criticizing Roma for having a lackluster plot when the plot is barely the point of it's existence, or criticizing the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie for being a campy romp when that's exactly its intention - but they are worth pointing out considering how strong the game starts for nearly everyone and how hard some people turned on it as the issues piled up.

The things that I truly take issue with are things like the balloon mission, where a game so intent on being "realistic" suddenly has this balloon that can go any damn direction it pleases so long as it keeps up with Sadie below, or a should-be-dead Sadie appearing out of nowhere to end a final fight with Micah that might be the most oddly designed "can't win final boss" I've ever come across. Or, like I mentioned in my second post, how a glitch like three of the most important characters in the game can just disappear from camp for three chapters if you fail a specific mission and restart it from a checkpoint.

My version of the ending was also strange: I went back for the money (truthfully, I thought at the time this was the only option of the two that would lead to a final showdown with Micah) so I heard that (fine out of context, super weird in context) hip-hop beat, knife fought with Micah and then Dutch appeared out of nowhere to break us up and the dialogue was basically "it's over, it's over" and then Arthur just rolled over and closed his eyes. I went and watched the ending compilations afterward and every other ending had the same basic theme but in all of them Micah either shot or stabbed Arthur to end it; mine was just kind of a wet blanket, and considering I heard someone on one of the GB casts mention they had a cutscene or two that just ended and left them somewhere in the wilderness completely without context I wonder if something like that happened to me.

But anyway, to close, I'll just quote my own last line from the first post, which is in the same as your last line from your most recent post: "Red Dead Redemption II was simultaneously the best and worst experience I had with a game this year, completely underwhelming narratively compared to its predecessor and aggressively antagonistic from a gameplay perspective compared to any other great gaming experience released this year. Yet I can think of no other game that deserves to be talked about so exhaustively from this year, no other game that constantly caught me by surprise along the margins and took my breath away with every ridge I rode over or stream I walked along."

In other words, Red Dead Redemption is my Game of the Year in terms of awe, impact on me and my gaming life in 2018, and possibilities for dialogue about narrative and game design. I find it fascinating that I, and many others, can say that while admitting in the same breath they spent 70 hours with a game that got less and less fun to play as they carried on. And that's what this thread is about, because it's a weird thing to feel when I had such a more visceral, fun experience with God of War, Dead Cells, Spider-Man, Celeste, MLB The Show and NBA 2K, not to mention the older games I caught up on like Pyre, Bloodborne, God of War III Remastered, Titanfall 2 and Sleeping Dogs. Hell, I could double the length of this post and still not run out of stellar things to say about this game; I did not turn on it the way Dan did, or many other commenters I've seen across the internet as the year winds down.

But I can see why they did, and this post was my attempt to examine how the same nearly happened to me before Part I (and the quieter parts of Part 2) of the epilogue reminded me of what made me fall in love with the game in the first place.

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