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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.