If you have any interest in video gaming whatsoever, you can’t have missed the release of Rockstar Games’ oater epic Red Dead Redemption 2. From the game’s almost Deakinsian visuals via its insane level of detail (yes, your horse’s testicles contract in cold weather!) to, sadly, the reports of the studio’s insane crunch culture that’s deleterious to mental and physical health as well as relationships, RDR2 (which, I admit, sounds too much like a Star Wars robot to be a very helpful abbreviation) has been everywhere – including my PS4’s hard disk. I’ve not yet had much time to explore the dying Old West alongside the Van der Linde gang, but it’s already clear that this is an exceptional game. Exceptional in scope and ambition, surely – but what is most surprising to me is that this is also an exceptionally wilful game. If it wants me to like it, it’s going about it in a very strange way.
Games are a billion-dollar business, and like so many businesses, making the big bucks often means pandering to your audience. There is an almost meretricious aspect to the way games go out of their way to make you like them. They flatter the player’s ego through transparent (and usually male) power fantasies. They let you do things that you usually wouldn’t be able to do unless you were a Marvel superhero.
This tends to extend to issues such as user experience: by and large, games strive to be as smooth and effortless to get into as possible – sometimes at the expense of annoying the player. We’re used these days to video games being something of a mix between a primary school teacher and an overeager puppy in how they explain how they work to you – and then they explain it again and again, and you can’t even hit them on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Mostly, games are designed to make you have a good time, and the thing they seem most afraid of is that a player is confused or put off by something that isn’t immediately welcoming. Skinner Box rewards must come in on a regular basis, because the player needs to be reminded constantly that This Is Fun! Here’s a new weapon, there’s an achievement, here’s something for you to do, there’s someone for you to kill. Don’t risk your player getting bored or frustrated even for one second. Games don’t always succeed in this, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying: if the player’s success is frustrated by anything, it’s certainly not by design in most cases, it’s due to a failure of design.
This is all the more true for so-called AAA games – that is, the gaming equivalent of those big mainstream films starring the likes of Tom Cruise or one of the Hollywood Chrises. However, it is not true for Red Dead Redemption 2. Even in my couple of hours of playing the game, I’ve certainly been wowed by the production values and the sheer excess of detail, but the game does not make any of this easy. The controls are cumbersome, with buttons doing entirely different things based on whether they’re briefly pressed, tapped repeatedly or held, and sometimes even whether they’re combined with another button. Some of those hours I’ve spent in the wilderness of New Hannover I’ve been hunting for deer and elk – but I can only carry one or two animal carcasses on my horse, and even those will go bad if I don’t sell them, cook them or deliver them to the Van der Linde gang’s cook to prepare.
Most of what you can do in the game, you’ve done before in other games – but where other games make these easy, smooth and in the process kind of forgettable (it’s amazing how a game’s main character can usually do things that otherwise take a whole industry in ten seconds and a few easy button presses ), Red Dead Redemption 2 slows you down. Searching a cabin entails going through each drawer and each cupboard one at a time. Picking up the provisions you find? Definitely not nearly as easy as ordering things online. There’s almost something perverse to how much RDR2 slows the player down in things that usually barely register in games.
And you know what? I rather like that perverseness. I like the game’s wilfulness. I like that a game about what is usually an obvious power fantasy – one man with a gun and a horse taming the West – makes things feel like work. As odd as this may sound when describing a game in which you play the member of a gang who commits robberies, lassoes bounties and tames wild horses in between breakfast and lunch, there’s something oddly mindful about what Red Dead Redemption 2 makes its players do. In an industry that almost always provides instant gratification, it is refreshing to find that the biggest game of the year isn’t desperate to make the player like it above anything else.