I’ve been a Rockstar gamer since forever, but I’ve had to retreat to the internet to figure out what should be obvious in Red Dead 2.
The sum total of my Red Dead 2 adventure so far has been a purchased hat, a gut-shot Saloon patron (an accident) and a half-marathon of equine cardio.
The promise of such a sprawling world, is that it is yours to define. It’s sandbox gaming at its absolute peak, but, like children, we need to be lead around the play area. We still need our hands held, because Rockstar has always did our homework for us. We’re like the snotty kids that don’t turn out right, because we’ve been coddled. Rockstar raised us in their form, but with RDR2, they’ve hogtied and kicked us out of the house. This sounds like the video game equivalent of “speaking as a mother”, but speaking as someone who has bought every Rockstar sandbox title in the past, the reason why they work so well, is that they define the frame.
Now, I don’t want to wobble the edge of the screen with a back in my day rant, because gaming has never been better, but back in the ol’ frontier of console gaming, we had some sort of instruction manual or screen. Unroll those eyes, mister. Yes, it’s antiquated format, and perhaps I’m projecting my own fear that I’m no longer at the peak of my gaming powers, but never have I ever randomly mashed buttons like a confuzzled octenagarian and wondered aloud what does this button do?
I was stuck atop a train, constantly outduelled by some over-the-hill portly gunslinger for twenty solid minutes, because the introduction to the draw mechanic wasn’t clear. I was so inept, that the game gave up and asked me if I wanted to skip it. This bristled my breeches for two reasons, A) because, no, Rockstar, I want to learn and B) do you know how many lives I ended as John Marston? You should fear and/or respect my skills. I was the deadliest dude both sides of the Rio Grande, and here I am, getting lost in the fudgin’ menu screen. I feel like Landon Ricketts, a skilled force turned obsolete by the turning of the clock.
I desperately wanted to navigate their world without the internet, because the internet didn’t exist in 1899, but lo, retreat to it I did, only to discover that you can’t fast travel (but there’s a complex/expensive way to do it), you can use the duelling mechanic at any time, and that you can manually save. I will admit that I enjoy it immensely more than I did prior to being bailed out by the internet, but the above aspects are so crucial they should have been made obvious.
I admire what they’re doing, they’re letting us discover. But, in affording us this surprise, they’re also breaking our conditioning. In previous Rockstar titles (which winds all the way back to Max Payne), they’ve held our hands for a little bit. Whether we know-it-all douchebags recognised that we needed help or not, we needed it. We knew what we could do, and what we couldn’t.
Now, I realise that Red Dead Redemption 2 was developed as both a movie than game, and it feels like it, therefore the obvious tutorial level would break the hold on the viewer, press x to not die of frostbite, and I also realise that they breadcrumb the features through multiple introductory missions, which was nice; but my main pickle becomes thoroughly unholstered when we’re realised from the story, one that has me calling off camera asking to be fed my next line.
For the first time since forever, I was so staggered by the opportunity afforded, so I chose to do nothing. We’ve been transported to this exotic holiday place, and told to have at it. It’s exciting, but also sort of not. To mangle the very famous words of Aerosmith, I didn’t want to miss a thing…but I didn’t know what those things were, so I bought that hat. We’ve already been taught to hunt, shoot and listen to John Marston be a piss-poor Dad, but those are the bedrock basics of the franchise. We knew this, and we already knew how to do this. What we don’t know is all those amazing things that you killed your developers developing. If we’re not told, we’ll assume that they might not exist. We gamers demand experience, but we’re also too lazy to properly search for it.
Which is not to say there’s not a lot presented. There is. Soon as you plant feet at Horseshoe Overlook, a stuffed library is quietly moved into your menu: herbs, crafting junk, developing the camp, et cetera. But, it wasn’t until I domed a rarebit from atop my steed did I know that there were horsemanship challenges. Strangely, there’s too much information, and not enough.
This sounds like the video game equivalent of “speaking as a mother”, but speaking as someone who has bought every Rockstar sandbox title in the past, the reason why they work so well, is that they define the frame.
My housemate illustrated a rather good point. He said that he didn’t know who his Arthur Morgan was until he flipped the bird to the story, and went adventurin’, which is probably what Rockstar is going for. Red Dead Redemption 2 is undoubtedly their magnum opus. I don’t want to waste it. Like Monet’s room-sized spectrum at the Musée de l’Orangerie, we can marvel at the impressive scale, but we still need a guide to explain the finer details.