Despite everything, I think Red Dead Redemption II deserves credit for how fascinating it is. Rockstar Games has made something that is fun to talk and write about. That’s true even when I’m trying to explain why I find it so disappointing.
For me, Red Dead II is the antithesis of what I like about games. And it disregards my tastes with a confidence and bravado that I find undeniable. When people talk about Red Dead Redemption II, it’s common to hear them use the phrase “singular vision.” The implication is that Rockstar made the game in a vacuum and went with its gut on how it should play and feel. It didn’t look to what Ubisoft or Nintendo were doing in the space. Rockstar knows best.
But I think that goes way beyond a singular vision and instead leans hard into hubris. That is why Red Dead Redemption II wins the Terrible Date Award as part of our GamesBeat Rewind 2018 retrospective — because it’s only interested in itself.
You can listen to us discuss Red Dead Redemption II’s award in the video clip above or as part of our Bad Awards in the podcast below:
Rockstar knows best
Red Dead Redemption II doesn’t just disregard modern open-world conventions. It also disregards the player. Rockstar is so impressed with its own choices that it doesn’t seem like it ever stopped to ask how the game would make players feel. It was only interested in making players feel a certain way, and so be it if you don’t come along for the ride. And that’s a problem because the game repeatedly muddles how you’re supposed to feel as a player.
This problem manifests most obviously in the story missions where, if you stumble off of Rockstar’s prescribed path, you fail. You get a game over.
These narrow paths are not the game pushing back against the player in a fun or challenging way. It is Rockstar pushing against the player. It is the developer saying, “You’re playing wrong.” Rockstar pushes you back onto its set path as if to say, “Look at all this stuff we made. Can you see how clever we are?”
Rockstar scolds players for having their own curiosity and creativity. You are here to experience Rockstar’s creativity, and that’s it.
A stifling open-world
But where Rockstar’s heavy hand forces you down its corridors in the story missions, it relentlessly throws a handful of predetermined experiences at you in the open world.
The studio packed the land with things to do, but Rockstar also scripted all of these diversions as well. Hunting, fishing, poker, drinking, cooking, and more are all available to you. But the developer throws these things at the player without ever really handing any authorship over to the player.
Red Dead II’s activities are like theme-park re-creations. Or, put another way: You can go on the hunting ride, but you cannot use hunting to your own ends. Red Dead has few real systems or systemic interactions.
The snake-bitten dancing animatronic rodent
Most people who have played enough Red Dead II ran into the poor soul on the side of the road who cries to you for help with a snake bite. He’s going to die unless he gets medicine or someone to suck the poison out.
But the snake-bitten man is just an animatron. He is a dancing robot rat at Chuck E. Cheese. And Rockstar has strictly authored every way this interaction plays out. You can save or kill him. While saving him, you can demand money or just give him what he needs without taking anything in return. And if you save him, the man will show up again later in your world and pay for an item at a store for you.
This entire interaction is devoid of systems that the player can use. You cannot, for example, choose what you want from the man. I would have threatened him to join my posse in exchange for his life. Or I would have asked him to take me to his home so I could pick whatever through his possessions for what I wanted for my own.
I’m not saying the game has to work like this. The point here is that Rockstar was so impressed with itself and how it used its systems, that it never thought it wouldn’t impress the players. It never puts decisions in your hand. Why would you want to interact with this world when Rockstar has built so many things for you to experience as it intended.
A self-absorbed date
Red Dead Redemption II is stifling. It has an illusion of freedom and choice. It has a morality system that goes up or down depending on the choices you make as player. But if Rockstar wants to do something with the characters, it doesn’t even pretend to take your previous actions into account.
If Rockstar needs Arthur to be regretful for its current story beat, it won’t matter that my Arthur shot every person on the side of the road that asked him for help.
Red Dead Redemption II makes me think: “why am I here?” It’s like going on a date with someone who is completely self-absorbed.
It shoots down every idea you have and dismisses your efforts to guide the conversation. It only has anything to say when it is talking about itself. And because it is so beautiful, Rockstar can’t fathom the possibility that you aren’t as absorbed and impressed with it as it is.
And if you agree with Rockstar, you can still have a good time. You can dress up your cowboy however you want and let Red Dead II show you a good time. But you’re just going along to nod in agreement with whatever the game has to say. If you expect anything more than that, this game just won’t care.