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Misadventures in the West

A Red Dead Redemption 2 diary

· Video Games

Day 1. Sent to capture a snake oil salesman. Forgot how to use my lasso. Bounty got away. Failed the quest.

I've been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 after skipping it at launch, when stories of hundred-hour workweeks and their perenniel mistreatment of quality assurance workers broke. The game was successful, but has not made much of a lasting cultural splash. Yet some people I know love it, so I was curious: what did that sacrifice (both willing and unwilling) of time, energy, and quality of life deliver?

Day 2: On my way to collect a debt, I ran into a woman pinned beneath her fallen horse. I helped her out and she asked me to take her to Valentine. Her ankle is injured, you see, and she can't possibly walk all that way herself. I agree, then realize Valentine is way back in the other direction, and I'm very close to collecting this debt. What if I just do this one thing first? The woman realizes we're not headed to Valentine. She freaks out, jumps of the horse and runs full tilt, injured ankle be damned, into the woods.

My initial reaction is: this is it? It's a beautiful world, for certain. The opening is intent on impressing you with its cinematic qualities. The story very carefully introduces the main dramatis personae in the gang you, as Arthur Morgan will be travelling with. But there's little in the way of a story hook. The most exciting action (some kind of heist gone wrong) has happened in the past. You're here to grapple with the dramatic fallout, and with an ugly blood feud between your leader, Dutch, and another gang, the O'Driscolls. There's a smattering of period-appropriate racism and nativism sprinkled in. You spend a lot of time on long, scenic horse rides. So far, this is not an open world.

Day 3: On my way to collect another debt, the farmers at the house get irritated at my very presence and pull guns on me. I shoot them all, then stumble into a stable where a horse is tied up. I approach the horse, expecting to be able to soothe it by pressing a button, but the prompt never appears. The horse kicks me and I die. When I revive, the marker for collecting the debt is no longer on my map. I wander away from the farm and it reappears, as do the people.

After completing the long opening, the world opens up. Yet it feels surprisingly un-alive. Big yellow markers tell me where to go for the game's main missions, each of which is full of dialogue, cinematics and shoot-outs. Around these is a world built on a series of rickety systems: a Wanted system for determining how steep your crimes are and how people respond to you being around; a hunting-skinning system; a system of randomized NPC events you can encounter in the wild; a robbery system. But for all of that, the mechanics available to the player are fairly thin. Most of what you can do in the open world is help people in random events or try to rob them. I feel little incentive to set out and explore on my own.

Day 5: I escape a brush with the law for a crime I don't remember committing and pay my bounty at the nearby train station. Then I decide to buy passage on a coach. As I'm approaching the coachman, several lawmen (the old west equivalent of police, the game's tooltips helpfully tell me) show up and tell me to put my hands up. I'm so baffled I try to run. They shoot me dead.

Day 6: Another woman who's fallen off her horse and broken her ankle. Seems to be a real hazard around here. This time I take her in the right direction, but in attempt to avoid another rider on the road I take my horse over the rail of a small bridge. The horse fails the leap and lands, face-first in the dirt, flinging me and the woman off his back. The woman runs off screaming.

Day 7: I am on the hunt for a legendary bear. I track it to a clearing and spy it through my binoculars. It notices me and starts to charge. I press the button that opens the weapon wheel to draw my gun, but because the last thing I equipped were binoculars, it opens the item wheel instead. In my moment of confusion, the bear mawls me and I die.

The player's character, Arthur Morgan is a violent, cruel criminal. As far as I can see, there's really no option to play him otherwise, though there are roleplaying choices you can take. I don't like it at first, but over time, I become inurred to the game's cruelty. This is what this game wants me to do. This is the fantasy it wants to sell. After all, when I learn about a widow living on her own, it's described to me as a robbery opportunity, not a chance to help a senior citizen.

A few days in, someone mentions to me that they like to just wander the wilds in the game and go fishing. The game hasn't taught me to fish yet. I decide that I want to go fishing. There's only one problem: I don't have a fishing rod, and the general store in Valentine doesn't sell them.

Day 8: I find a man fishing in a stream. I wonder if talking to him will get me a fishing rod. It does not. I decide to rob him for it. He carefully shoves his fishing rod into his pocket (there's a dedicated animation for this) and pulls a gun on me. I shoot him. He tries to flee. I kill him. I loot bullets off the ground and $0.82 off his body. No fishing rod.

I later learn that if I had shot him before he put the fishing rod in his pocket, I could have looted it.

By now I've completed all the yellow story missions on the map except for one. It is in an area marked "Wanted: Dead of Alive." I'm pretty sure that means I'll get shot the moment I set foot in that territory. At the same time, I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to be doing at this point. So, I head toward the map marker.

Day 9: As soon as I set foot in Blackwater, a posse of seven lawmen comes charging after me on horseback. I don't even know how they managed to put together a posse that fast. I try to use the dead-eye mode to shoot them, but for some reason it fires five bullets into one of them and one into another and leaves the other five unscathed. They shoot my horse. I have an option to "revive" or "kill" it. I die before I can do either. When I respawn, my horse is nowhere to be seen. It cost me $150. I have $23.

In 2019, Alex Jaffe gave a GDC talk about cursed game design problems. To summarize, a cursed game design problem is an impossible one--the marriage of two competing and mutually opposed design goals. A dev team can spend a thousand years, all their energy, and all their goodwill toward each other trying to solve one of these problems, but there is no solution. The only thing you can do is choose which goal you're going to favor over the other.

Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a cursed design problem writ large. Its 9 years of development seems like a textbook case of a team getting marred in trying to do the impossible. All of the crunch poured into making the perfect cinematics and the perfect simulation, and the result is a game that seems persistently at odds with itself. As a player, I'm continually falling afoul of quirks in the simulation that the more controlled scripted experience couldn't account for, or finding that the attempts to make the world more cinematic keep key information from me.

In a game where the simulation was the point, perhaps these would be exciting anecdotes, but in a game where I'm steered toward bright yellow dots where the most lovingly-crafted content is located, they are frustrating and often bewildering. The UI shoves the most useful information into a small text box in the upper corner of the screen, which is impossible to follow while the action is unfolding, and context prompts rarely appear, as if they would spoil the cinematic view of the action. Almost every action requires a few too many button presses to do effectively. Fishing is apparently locked behind a questline that I can't figure out how to access.

I begin to think I'm playing the game wrong. Maybe pursuing the big yellow dots is the wrong way to go about it. Maybe I should give into Arthur's violent criminal impulses. Or maybe I should just spend my days hunting and selling pelts until that fishing quest finally unlocks. Or at least, until I can afford a new horse.

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