Cruel, Cruel World: How Red Dead Redemption 2 Fixed the Rockstar Formula

*Expect spoilers…*

Please note: Rockstar’s culture of crunch in the making of RDR2 was simply unacceptable and this piece does not aim to condone such practises. Games this large can and need to be created without exploitation of the talented workers who make them happen.

In a film, book or play the characterisation of the protagonist is finished. Their journey and character may be open to any number of interpretations, but their appearance, mannerisms and most notably choices are all set in stone, permanently existing as whatever they’ve been written to be. Video games, however, have the ability to leave room for the input of the player, and this potential is something that game designers have been struggling to tap into since the invention of the medium. In many open-world RPGs, we’re given the freedom to create our own character from scratch, whilst in others we take over a largely unseen, often voiceless protagonist with little in the way of a personality, allowing you to more seamlessly put yourself into their shoes. These are techniques with their own advantages but they also rely on the awkward paradox of having a main character who is instrumental to the story despite being passive for much of it – there’s something a little bit off about saving the world as someone who never says a word.

Experimentations on those formulas have been largely hit and miss too, like Fallout 4 giving our protagonist a face and voice that perhaps add points to realism whilst removing them from immersion. If such drawbacks are an issue for a developer, then the alternative is to create a game with a fully-formed character with a more defined personality. In such titles, the game in question may either put you on a linear path, where doing things out of character likely results in a fail state, or ask you to suspend your disbelief to an extent that you’re able to feel like you have agency despite controlling a character who is explicitly not you.

This latter approach has largely been the one that Rockstar Games have opted for in their flagship series Grand Theft Auto. In the most recent game in the franchise, Grand Theft Auto V, the player controls three different characters, and whilst free-roaming the map they can pretty much do as they like no matter who they’re inhabiting. It’s only during the story missions that they’re placed on a more structured path on which certain criteria need to be met to progress through the game and advance the plot. This is effective in that it allows you to experience the gameworld as a sort of playground whilst still being able to engage with the story as and when you wish, but it also means that there’s a certain disconnect between the story the game wants to tell and the limitless fun that the player may want to have. The creation of a wildly antisocial main character in Trevor seemed even to be an attempt to somewhat alleviate that disconnect, but creating such a hilariously over-the-top character is papering over the cracks more than it is filling them in – it’s surely not an approach that can work ad infinitum.

Trevor’s reckless attitude made violent sprees seem less at odds with the world and story of GTA V.

So whilst Rockstar’s open worlds are always expansive in the freedom they offer, this is at odds with the strictly linear missions, which often leave little room for experimentation. As a result, their games can almost feel like two diametrically opposed titles coalesced into one neat package. In Rockstar Games’ other majorly successful series, Red Dead Redemption (the less said about Revolver the better), this same issue arises, but it’d be a crime to ignore the ways that the second game in the series, Red Dead Redemption 2 (a prequel, despite the title) uses the same approach in a subtler and arguably less immersion-breaking fashion. RDR2 succeeds in telling a rich and poignant story within a world that compliments that story, and with a protagonist that the player has a much greater opportunity to properly bond with.

This is largely down to the way that the game manages to sidestep one of gaming’s most consistent and insurmountable flaws – that of a dull, ill-defined or even voiceless main character. Instead of falling into that trap, the game gives you the tools needed to play a simple yet significant role in the characterisation of the protagonist, something made especially viable through a character like Arthur Morgan. Morgan is defined and well-rounded enough to operate as a full character in his own right but also brooding and ambivalent enough that there’s room for variation within your interpretation of him that doesn’t feel at odds with the game’s story.

In his diary, Arthur writes of fellow gang member Charles, “He’s a better man than me. He does not need to think to be good. It comes naturally to him, like right is deep within as opposed to this conflict between good and evil that rages within me.” This is the defining conflict for Arthur, and it’s one which the player ultimately has the power to tip the scales on. The contradictory impulses within Arthur, as someone who we know cares for those around him but who is also well versed in the language of violence, allow players to approach RDR2 as Just Another Rockstar Game if they so wish, shooting up towns and robbing strangers at will, but it is often the more peaceful options, sparing lives and helping others, that seem more fitting – the name of the game is redemption, after all.

At particular moments in the game, the player is asked to make a choice between two distinct options. To begin with, such choices don’t come around all that often. When they do, such as with a member of rival gang the O’Driscolls who jumps on you in a barn and a group of guards who surrender during the game’s first train robbery, they usually revolve around choosing whether to spare hostages or let them run away. If the player doesn’t care about Morgan’s actions and their consequences, then why not tie up the loose ends by putting a bullet in their skull and calling it a day? But if the player is engaged, perhaps even already understanding Arthur as someone capable of compassion or indeed redemption, then they may see that murder isn’t always necessary. Arthur is at once both callous enough to kill folks without batting an eyelid and caring enough that letting them go doesn’t feel out of place either, and thus already the player is beginning to decide who exactly their Arthur is going to be.

It’s not always as simple as sparing folks, either. In one mission, you encounter some poachers who’ve been paid to slaughter bison and blame it on a local tribe of Native Americans. The poachers have caused a lot of harm and their actions may lead to further conflict for the long-suffering tribe. Perhaps then it is fair to kill the poachers here, when you consider that sparing them could lead to further harm? Decisions like this are a big part of what make Arthur’s journey meaningful. He has it in his character to go either way, and so it is up to you to discern which choice is most righteous, and then decide whether you believe that Arthur would indeed make the righteous choice in that instance.

The battle between good and evil rages inside Arthur, and it becomes the defining conflict for the RDR2 protagonist.

These decisions may be key in defining Arthur Morgan as the protagonist, but they largely cannot shape the flow of the narrative, and that’s a key distinction to make. Your choices shape Morgan’s trajectory throughout the story and even impact his final moments, but they can’t change his fate, because that’s carved in stone before the story even starts. When fans heard that RDR2 was going to be a prequel, they most likely expected to see John Marston’s old gang at their peak, storming through the desert like an American reimagining of Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. But the game makes a point of starting out already past the point of no return for the group. The Old West is dying, and the gang’s way of life is no longer sustainable. Their most recent scheme in Blackwater has gone horribly wrong, Dutch has begun his descent into the man we saw in the preceding game (or perhaps just begun to be exposed for who he really is) and by this stage Morgan has already grown into a cruel man willing and able to take out his frustrations on the world around him. This is a clever move for a game about redemption, because whilst the game clearly wants the player to somewhat subsume themselves into Arthur and have a hand in directing the course he will take, it means that his ultimate direction is already mapped out. All that remains is just enough room to begin questioning that path and perhaps stepping gently away from it towards something more empathetic before the end.

This does not have to come solely through the overt binary decisions that feature throughout the game’s story missions either. Throughout your time with the game it will consistently nudge you towards roleplaying as Arthur whilst still trying to leave enough freedom for you to play how you want. In Grand Theft Auto, the name of the game is recklessness and violence. Even a homicidal murderspree ends with you emerging from a police station or hospital no worse for wear. In RDR2, you could play with the same reckless abandon and prioritise all-out destruction if you so wish, but committing even minor crimes will rack up a bounty, and having a bounty is a nuisance. Whilst a killing spree won’t ruin your save, it will set you back financially and leave your Honor rating low. Similarly, neglecting the gang hideout and Arthur’s wellbeing won’t grind the story to halt, but NPCs will moan or even take a more active hand in matters, such as how Miss Grimshaw may force you to bathe if you don’t wash for too long. There are consequences to your actions here, but they’re mostly inconveniences – you still have the freedom to play as you want, but you’re also always given a prod in the right direction. As such, it’s often just easier to stifle whatever GTA-esque impulses you might have, and opt instead to exist in the world in a manner that will bring less attention upon Arthur. After all, the online mode is there for you to take the game less seriously if you so wish.

The Honor system is similar in the way that it suggests a correct style of play rather than forcing you down a specific path. It is ultimately superfluous enough that you can complete the game without having made any attempt to achieve some manner of redemption for Arthur. Similarly, you can refuse to commit a single cent to the camp, keep all the food for yourself and antagonise each member of the gang at every opportunity, and yet still complete the entire game. You can do all this and not face too much in the way of pushback beyond NPCs chastising you every now and then, but it’s made abundantly clear early on that this is not the intended experience. Negative Honor is (ostensibly at the very least) bad, and the gang expects you to be the loyal, hardworking Arthur they know you to be. The question that then arises here is why even make it possible to neglect these things? Some critics have suggested that certain roadblocks could have been implemented, for instance not being able to progress without having donated a certain amount to the camp funds, but it’s hard to imagine that such strict box-ticking criteria would truly make the game more immersive. You as the player have to make the decision to engage with the world in front of you.

Nevertheless, the question remains – if the developers want you to experience their version of the story, then why make the alternatives possible at all? Why is there an alternative ending that  essentially requires you to have been a dick the entire way through the game? The gamer answer here is replay value, and that’s certainly a factor, but the more accurate truth of it is that these different outcomes put even more weight on the choices you make. If you’re engaging with the story and feeling immersed in the world, it’s hard not to care for some of your compatriots, and thus strive to help out where you can. And it is not only the mission choices that matter either, but the moment to moment decisions you make when playing. Should I shoot that NPC who just insulted me in the street, or just let it go? Should I steal that NPC’s horse, or save up and buy my own? These decisions, through the Honor system, add up to define your playthrough, and the kind of Arthur you choose to become. Head into the game’s latter stages with a high enough Honor rating and Arthur’s dying attempt to recognise his flaws and right just a handful of his many wrongs can be decidedly more successful.

Was Dutch always the broken man we see in RDR, or do the events of RDR2 lead him there?

The game’s finale forces some big decisions on you, but perhaps the game’s most important choices actually come in the final optional missions you can complete for Leopold Strauss, the camp’s resident loan shark. Throughout the game, Strauss sends Arthur on quests to recover debts from the people he has loaned money to. These people are desperate, but then who else is going to accept such preposterous interest rates? Initially, these quests are mandatory, and during one particularly nasty sequence, Arthur’s proclivity for violence decides his fate. In this sequence, the player is forced, as Arthur, to threaten and beat a visibly sick man to try and recover the debt. It’s an intentionally uncomfortable experience that leaves an unsavoury feeling, and not only because it is the moment in which Arthur contracts the tuberculosis that condemns him. What’s notable here is that there is no choice in the matter on the part of the player. You can’t just threaten the man without getting physical, and you certainly can’t opt to absolve his debts. The player is forced to act out this inexcusably heinous act because in his blind loyalty to the gang and inability to truly empathise with those he’s hurting, Arthur is not yet ready to picture another way of handling this situation.

This early debt collecting mission is in stark contrast to the final mission you can complete for Strauss. By this point, Arthur knows he is dying and has only a little time left in which to do some degree of good. Loaning money is, on the face of it, one of the gang’s less violent crimes, and yet it is the one that most consistently harms truly innocent and helpless people. Arthur and the rest of the gang have come to accept some cruelties as necessary for survival and ultimately this attitude is what has led them to ruin. It is notable then that Arthur can now instead go against Strauss and choose to exonerate the debts. You see Arthur use his violence for good by aiding a fleeing couple in their escape and you can choose to let them keep a silver locket they offer as payment, and you can even pay out of Arthur’s pocket to help a widow and her child. Crucially, though, you can still opt to ignore these options. None of this is set in stone. Pick the kinder options, though, and Arthur will kick Strauss out of camp.

Later on in the finale of the main game, you can even choose to forsake John Marston in his escape and instead go after a stash of hidden money. It’s clear which choices are the more valiant options, not to mention that at this point money is useless to a dying Arthur anyway, so it’s interesting that these things are left up to the player’s discretion at all – the “correct” options are (hopefully) obvious. The point though, is that earlier on in the game empathy simply was not an option, and now it is. The game is telling us as the player that Arthur has now become a man capable of making the right choice, and all that is left for you to do is hit the button that makes that a reality. It’s here that RDR2’s status as a video game is key. Arthur’s growth as a man learning from his mistakes does not play out passively as it would in a novel or film, instead you are actively guiding Arthur’s path and taking some responsibility for the man he ends up being in his final moments.

The game executes this detailed and lengthy arc by focusing its efforts on keeping you immersed in the world. Becoming a character in this gameworld is easier because of the way that it feels, as much as any game can, like a living, breathing world. A big discussion at the time of the game’s release was the concept of realism in games. From shrinking horse testicles to needing to eat to maintain Arthur’s health core, the game places some degree of emphasis on simulating reality. The argument here essentially boils down to engagement. If you’re engaged with the world Rockstar has created, it makes sense that you should want to commit to it fully. It can be a nuisance when you run up a mountain without a coat and find that there are consequences, or have to brew each individual tonic whilst huddled over a campfire, especially since such features are not exactly the norm in games. Many players will have a hard time seeing such features as anything but restrictions, and when those same players are accustomed to the comparative freedom of GTA, then perhaps some degree of backlash is to be expected. In any other game, cooking meat is as simple as hitting a button, so why do I have to set up a fire and cook them one at a time?

RDR2’s expansive game map is the most real of any Rockstar title.

The argument that’s being raised when people make these kinds of points is whether realism actually adds anything of value beyond looking or feeling impressive, but in truth both sides of this debate miss the point. The game is in truth not all that realistic – most actions simply take about as long as it presumably took the mo-cap actor to act them out, as opposed to being a simple button click without any animation at all. Skinning an animal in real life takes hours, here it only lasts as long as it takes the animation to finish. The purpose of these things taking a little longer, then, is to solidify them as decisions. Instead of hitting a “take all” input and looting everything from a cupboard in an instant, you’ll have to sift through and pick up everything you want one at a time. It’s not really a restriction – you’ve still got a cartoonishly large inventory despite Arthur brandishing just a small satchel. That’s because it’s not about sacrificing convenience for realism, but for mood and atmosphere. This design choice distances RDR2 from other open-world RPGs where collecting items is quick, simple and reflexive to the point that it’s done almost without thought. At any one time in Skyrim, my player-character might be carrying 30 health potions, ten carrots and half a dozen cheese wheels. In RDR2, it’s a couple of biscuits I found on a corpse and two tonics that I spent some considerable time gathering the resources to make. That’s not necessarily to Skyrim’s discredit, but it’s certainly to RDR2’s advantage when it comes to immersion. And what the game does with that immersion is compelling.

For those who came to the game expecting a Rockstar title that would let them blow things up with impunity, maybe it’s even understandable that the cutscenes and long dialogue-strewn horse rides would be frustrating. Later in the story, as Arthur begins to grow sicker, the game goes so far as to actively hamper your abilities to reinforce his pain. Your health, stamina and dead eye cores all seem to diminish where it was once relatively easy to keep them fully replenished, and you cannot use consumables as often, nor without Arthur having a coughing fit. The game makes the bold choice to prioritise story in these moments. RDR2 is not GTAV by a long shot and that may not be to everyone’s liking, but if you allow yourself to sink into the story and (here comes that word again) engage with the world, then RDR2 is one of the most rewarding experiences on the AAA market. It’s not perfect (given how Rockstar still seems to struggle with mission templates that aren’t: ride off with companion(s) > shit hits the fan > shoot everyone > the end) but RDR2 sees the developers make some genuinely impressive strides in terms of storytelling in video games, and it’s something that they and their contemporaries should learn from going forward. However, they also need to learn how to make such a game without exploiting their work force.

Words: George Parr

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