Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

There’s gold in the hills of Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2
Screenshot: Rockstar
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Red Dead Redemption 2 begins in a fog of white light. It’s viscous, thick enough to cut. As Arthur Morgan, resident muscle for the Dutch Van der Linde gang, you begin the game hightailing out of a heist gone awry and shacked up in the mountains, a perilous expanse painted in sheets of blinding white snow. During the daytime, the sun glints off the powder, reducing visibility to a few feet at most. So, un-enticed by anything beyond the mission objective at your fingertips, you trudge through the snow slowly, reclaiming comrades from hypothermia, shooting wolves, calming your horse. Gradually, you work your way into high-mountain valleys, trading bullets with bandits amidst the snow drifts; even more gradually, characters come into focus, like the gang’s book-smart Roger Sterling figure, or a bone-tough woman who reluctantly takes up a life of crime. After a few hours, you find your way out of this hellish wild, and into a lush, mountainous vista. A guitar traces out a melancholy, Bon Iver-esque figure.

It’s a forceful, auteurist start for the follow-up to the most successful entertainment product in history. Rockstar’s previous game, Grand Theft Auto V, has grossed some $6 billion since its release in 2013. In the five years since then, the company hasn’t released a single game—an unheard-of gap, given that it released at least one per year since the late ’90s—instead focusing obsessively on Red Dead Redemption 2, a sequel to its sprawling 2010 Western. It’s a shift roughly analogous to, say, Universal Pictures halting development on all films to focus full-bore on a single new James Bond installment. You’d expect the result to be gargantuan, focus-grouped into oblivion, algorithmic in its humor and design.

And yet there you are, trudging through the snow for hours, schlepping deer carcasses back to the camp for food. The game takes its time coming into focus, but when it does, it’s a remarkably sober, stately experience, telling a large story through measured interactions and a handful of rich but clearly defined systems. That wintry opening chapter was no feint: the game delights in friction, forcing the player to be intentional in their actions. You can while away a surprisingly long time cooking fish, mixing tonics, and prepping bullets at your camp. You shop in sumptuously designed, era-specific catalogues, leafing through individual pages of pistols and provisions. Hunting involves long spells of tracking, trapping, and waiting; even then, mangle the shot and the pelt will be worthless. Most progression (think firepower, speed, skills) isn’t gated through the sheer grind of other games but by crafting specific talismans and buying better equipment. The systems are tactile and intentional. Consider fast travel, long a crutch of open-world game design. Here it’s purchased after a dozen or so hours, and then accessible only in one location, and only to a few other locations. You compare and contrast your own map with it, pairing names before finally selecting which one to go to. I’ve used it exactly once, and it was to write the previous sentence.

The result of all of this intentionality feels like a rejoinder to the modern scourge of open-world game design: the dreaded map glut, full of icons to collect and pointless activities to tick off and towers to climb, content for content’s sake. Like The Witcher 3, Red Dead is devoted to lightly branching and vividly drawn narratives, with emergent side quests containing unexpected scope and pathos. (Make it a policy to stop on any question mark on your map, or at least to listen to the shouts of strangers.) And like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, it turns hunting and cooking into a purposeful, essential relationship with the land. (Do yourself a favor and switch the mini-map off, following only a compass and the landmarks on the road to each destination.) Sure, there are dinosaur bones to collect, rote tasks to fulfill, mini-games to fiddle with briefly before discarding. But the meat of this sprawling, overwhelming experience is the land itself and the people etching a living off of it.

Because, make no mistake, you see every second of Rockstar’s effort on the screen. Much pre-release attention was focused on the preposterous fact that your horse’s testicles expand and contract depending on the temperature, a sort of case in point for the unmatched detail Rockstar lavishes on its games, but the opulence is everywhere: the variety and beauty of cloud patterns, the shadow of a bird soaring high above the swaying grass, the incidental dialogue catered to every possible situation. It’s astonishing in its detail, and frequently terrifying. There’s a bespoke animation of a grieving mother clawing her way up a bannister in a burning mansion, employed once, its shadow dancing up the stairwell. Once I shot a whitetail from horseback, attempting to hunt while traveling, but when I approached the corpse to take what meat I could I realized she was still howling, alive but immobilized, locked in some horrifying near-death programming state. A team of people spent untold hours designing this agony, its mewling and kicking and blinking. I did not wait to see how it ended. I aim more carefully now.

Another bit of friction: Despite ostensibly being a Western, you’ll start trapped in the mountains, then the Midwest and the South, chasing crooks through bayous and plantations and cooling your heels outside a smoggy, gas-lit New Orleans redux. For a long time, your protagonist openly pines for a return to the more lawless West, far from the Pinkertons and bounty hunters hot on the gang’s trail. Since Rockstar more or less invented the open-world game with 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, game designers have engaged in an arms race for map size, creating ever larger continents for players to explore. Red Dead’s postbellum America may not be the biggest ever created, but it compresses the country effectively, the landscape fading from region to region with a grace that our commercialized and streamlined interstates hide. There’s something elegiac about the crooked slant of telephone poles dotting the plains of West Elizabeth, the way they mark the encroachment of civilization. While the GTA games often traffic in puerile satire, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels profoundly, reverently American, tracing the exploitation of the country’s natural beauty as a matter of pure, capitalistic necessity. The only XP that matters is cash. It’s earned with bodies and blood.

You can’t help but look at this simulacrum of the American landscape, as prospectors once did, and see money everywhere: the labor put into each patch of land, the flames licking out of tobacco fields, the fine-tuned kick of horseback travel, meant to be enjoyed and monetized indefinitely. You’d be forgiven for wondering: Is it worth it? It’s certainly big enough—I’m some 40 percent complete after dozens of hours of playing—without even considering the upcoming online mode, which will reconfigure this universe in unexpected and ongoing ways. As a narrative and piece of game design, it’s unconventional, even kicky and playful, containing a few particularly memorable hard-drinking scenes that take their cues from the experimental game space. Where GTAV was built around a handful of heists that never quite felt as momentous as they should’ve, big scores emerge more organically from the systems of RDR2, its narrative pivoting instead around the broader politics of life on the lam. As Arthur, you kill so that the gang can earn—or live, as gang leader Dutch puts it. He is animated by capital, in more ways than one.

The game seems to be hinting toward some seismic shift just around the corner, and so it’s impossible to say where it’s all headed, at least from my vantage point. One claim is easy to make, though: As a piece of craft, Red Dead Redemption 2 exceeds any game ever made, easily and immediately. Anything less would’ve been failure. As a gang member muses to me over the campfire one night, “This isn’t a land for men. It’s a land for money.” It glints in the hills and in the shit falling out of your horse.