A Red Dead Reflection

Red Dead Redemption 2 might be the greatest video game I’ve ever played. It might also be the least amount of fun I’ve had over the course of 60-80 hours with a video game.

Red Dead is a game of contradictions. Its narrative core pulses blood and emotion; a masterpiece in storytelling and character development. It creates and moulds Dutch Van Der Linde as one of the most complex and greatest villains of any video game I’ve ever played. The nuanced and deliberate performance of Arthur Morgan is worth the price of admission alone. The technical achievements of the game would require 1000s of words to describe; here, I can only crudely appreciate its beauty. How this prequel links to its 2010 predecessor, Red Dead Redemption, is a marvel, seemingly plucked from the puppeteering hands of Kevin Feige. It is a deliberate game. Meticulously detailed. Cathartically thrilling. Powerful, tragic, painful and relatable. I felt frustrated, at peace, tense, and deep sadness. It is poignant and violent. Graphic and frank. It is a long, slow-paced, doomed yarn about the end of the American frontier. It is about the inevitably tragic life of an outlaw. It is about not being able to escape your past. “It’s about survivin'”. It is more than the sum of its infinite, cog-like parts, turning invisibly in the background. It’s about life.

To get a fuller sense of Red Dead if you haven’t played it, I would suggest reading this excellent article on the frustrations with its gameplay from Polygon perhaps, or this great review piece on Kotaku. Here, I can only tell you about my journey.

Picture the scene: you sit down in the evening, work-tired. You flick on your TV, looking for some entertainment. A show perhaps, or maybe a film. You’re faced with a decision: something light or something heavy. A re-run of Brooklyn-99 perhaps? Or, maybe Schindler’s List? Maybe something new, something where the weight of the medium is unknown. You sigh, wishing for a randomise button to make the decision for you.

Red Dead is the heavy stuff. It’s dark liquor, straight-up. It is a slog to get through. At times you will be bored out of your mind, literally shovelling faeces at one point. You may spend several hours on a tangential storyline, without a neat ending that will only leave you more tired and unsatisfied. It’s a brutal game that tests your patience. It’s like nothing I’ve ever played. For some time I avoided it; I didn’t want to go back to fiddly controls and slow, languid gameplay punctuated by random acts of violence and accidents that felt like they weren’t my fault. It drained me to play Red Dead. And yet, I kept going. Would I play it again? No. Do I regret playing it? No. Would I recommend to a friend? Most likely not.

If you search for the game on the Internet, you will come across a vast ocean of endless praise for Red Dead; just check out its Wikipedia “Awards” section. Search a little deeper, try Reddit, and you’ll find a hardcore fanbase, a devoted and passionate group of individuals. I dare not delve into “gamer” culture here; a now loaded term that is used by both sides of an anonymous online war to incite a reaction from the other. This complicated issue further ties into critiquing art – just look at a recent film’s critic’s score vs. the audience score. Are you allowed to enjoy something that is rated “Rotten” by critics? Does an objective “good” exist? If it does, is it fixed? Is it not something that’s tied to the today’s cultural zeitgeist?

Back to the issue at hand. I’m trying to segue into the many frustrations some players have had with Red Dead. It’s not fun. There is endless busy-work to do. Equipping your guns and quick-menu selection are an unintuitive mess. The fidelity of the game is seemingly on a hair trigger – knocking into an NPC on your horse can cause such chaos that you will be forced to restart your game. On many occasions I have switched on cinematic mode, pre-empting a long ride across the map, only to have my horse fly through the air, injuring several NPCs, who subsequently open fire on me. Their demise sorted out, my crime is reported impossibly-fast and the Law has come to deal with me. Fighting or running off will lead to a large bounty on my head and a drop in my honour level. Nope, sorry game, my Arthur Morgan is a white knight. Restart.

I switched over to playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for an hour one time. Never before have I felt that I was playing a VIDEO GAME. A jam-packed HUD, mission markers, RPG skill trees, quick, jumpy combat, super fast traversal. I felt motion-sick. Red Dead slows you down by design, at the sacrifice of having fun. But what is a video game meant to do? What is it meant to be? Does realism imply immersion? I believe there isn’t one answer to those questions. Perhaps it merely wants to tell a story. Maybe it wants to show you something beautiful for the sake of art. It wants you to have fun and provides you with lightning quick responses and slick gameplay. Maybe it wants you to relax. Maybe it wants you to solve puzzles. Any video game is a mixture of different genres. Comparing one to the other isn’t trivial. And yet, it is hard to resist the pull of metacritic scores. Red Dead is unique in that it locks you to a tiring pace for such a long amount of time. It wants to be played for hours and hours; it is like watching back-to-back seasons of a TV show, but one where perhaps episodically it is unsatisfying, rather, the big picture, the gestalt at the end of it is the hook. Something like LOST is a good comparison a friend of mine suggests; when you look back, it’s the journey that counts, not just the endgame.

The story of Red Dead builds like its in-world steam train. Slow to start but gaining momentum, reaching a nail-biting, tremendously unstoppable pace by the end. It took me 3 months of casual playing to get through the first 3 chapters, and then 2 weeks to get through the final 3.

The two part epilogue at the end, set several years after the main story, is an inspired setup for John Marston, the protagonist of the original Red Dead Redemption. It poignantly shows us his motivations for his actions in the sequel, his drive and foreshadowing of his ultimate doom. We understand Abigail’s unwillingness for John to continue a life of violence, so as not to influence their son, Jack. And yet, this too is a futile task, for Jack does indeed take up the Gun eventually. John proclaims he “ain’t never had a damn choice”, as he tries but fails to avoid his old ways. It is John’s naïveté, his innocence that tugs your heartstrings. You want him to have a happily ever after.

I haven’t said much about Arthur. It’s hard to pin him down. He’s an outlaw yes, not simple-minded like John, but loyal, smart. We see his loyalty in the gang’s leader, Dutch Van Der Linde, collapse across 6 massive chapters, and we watch his demise with teary eyes, as he attempts to help out those he hurt before the end of his story. “You and me, we’re more ghosts than people”, he says to fellow vengeful gunslinger, Sadie Adler. Arthur wants redemption. Perhaps by helping John live a life inside of the law, he can be. While Arthur’s wish comes true, we know that John’s story, while ending on a happy note here, does not end well in the next few years of his life. A violent life begets a violent death. Cause and effect.

I watch the credits roll, put down my controller and let the catharsis of finishing the main story wash over me. I think of Arthur, of Dutch, of Micah, Bill, Javier, Hosea, Lenny, Charles, Sadie, Susan, Molly, Uncle, Abigail, Jack, and John. I think of my fallen comrades. I let the soothing, zen-like music of Red Dead permeate my mind. I try to come to terms with Arthur’s story. I can’t. I try to forget about the future and wish that John and Abigail live a happy life, frozen in this moment in Red Dead. I can’t. Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2 are tragedies. I struggle to think of a piece of fiction, be it a movie or a book, that evoked the same feelings.

Red Dead hollowed me out. I’m still trying to process it. But I guess, like everything that happens in the past, in the words of Arthur Morgan, “we can’t change things, we can only move on”. I switch off my console, the TV goes blank; a black mirror. I stare at the blurry reflection of myself. How hard and painful life can be. And yet, we hold onto it with a death grip.

Red Dead is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. If playing is indeed what I did. No, one doesn’t play Red Dead so much as become intoxicated by it. I experienced life on the Frontier as well as I probably ever will. It’s slow, hard and painful. And yet, it was worth it, in the end.