WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for the main story of Red Dead Redemption 2. We highly advise completing the game before reading this article.
We’ve been talking about Red Dead Redemption 2 extensively for years now, my review of the game was a whopping 3,000+ words and I still don’t feel like I was able to effectively convey my feelings for Rockstar’s western. It’s so massive and sprawling, I could write 10,000 words on it and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.
With that said, I have a lot of thoughts still in my system after playing 120+ hours of the game since getting the game a few weeks ago. Specifically, how Rockstar triumphantly addresses the criticisms they’ve been hit with for decades while also succeeding where other developers have failed as well.
Despite being one of gaming’s most beloved developers, Rockstar is no stranger to criticism. Yeah, they get 10s across the board on a lot of their games but people still take issue with various aspects of their titles. One issue people have found is the lack of consequence for your actions as a criminal in games like Grand Theft Auto.
Yes, you get wanted, shot, and maybe lose some money, but that’s it. You don’t feel the weight of your evil deeds and perhaps that’s something they didn’t want to do because it’s more fun to blow stuff up and not have to worry about the repercussionsbecause it’s a video game. Grand Theft Auto IV is the only game I can think of which features a moment that sees the player pay for something done within the narrative, specifically taking the life of a loved one as a result of your actions.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is another example of this but it feels much more impactful. As Arthur Morgan, you’re tasked with being this brutish masculine man who strongarms those who cross Dutch’s gang the wrong way. One of the ways they go about this is loansharking, Arthur frequently pays a visit to people who are in debt to Dutch’s gang to collect money from them.
One of the people he goes to is a man who is deathly ill by the name of Thomas Downes. Arthur beats him repeatedly in an attempt to get him to cough up some money but, he has none to give. He’s broke and waist high in debt, Arthur pushes Mr. Downes too hard physically and accidentallykills him. Showing no remorse, he yells at Mr. Downes’ horrified family and tells them that he needs to get them his money as they aren’t running a charity.
Rockstar then makes an interesting choice. Instead of giving you control over Arthur again, we take a minute to watch him ride far away in silence. You’re given a moment to really sit there and realize what you just did. You killed an otherwise innocent man in a greedy attempt to get some money back, spawning a widow and a fatherless boy.
Toward the end of the game, you later find Mrs. Downes selling herself to men because they had to sell their ranch after Mr. Downes died. Arthur makes an attempt to help the family out by giving them money and getting them out of the crappy mining town they’re living in as a way of making up for what he did to them. It’s too late, though as he already knows.
Arthur’s diagnosed with tuberculosis toward the very end of the game and it’s caused by Mr. Downes coughing all over Arthur as he wails on him. It’s something you don’t realize at the moment but upon replaying the game, it’s very obvious when you know what to expect. After he’s diagnosed, he begins this subtle redemption arc. He makes more of an effort to help people rather than being the sarcastic brute he is for most of the game. He doesn’t want to die as a bad man, he has a moment of self-reflection where he realizes he can become something better.
This is incredibly effective storytelling. Outside of having real consequences within the world as well via NPCs remembering your crimes, bounty hunters chase you down, and so on, Rockstar condemns the actions of Arthur Morgan and makes him pay for what he has done. It shows a sense of maturity from the company, something they’ve no doubt had but it feels more than just adult by way of violence, language, and sex. It feels more meaningful and substantial, allowing a character to shape and evolve, showing the effect of superstitions like karma.
One other thing Rockstar (and a lot of other developers) has been faulted for is their large but almost hollow worlds. Yeah, Grand Theft Auto V’s got a big map with lots of buildings and NPCs roaming around, there’s a radio and TV with lots of content on them, but something about it doesn’t feel right after a while. The magical lure wears off, you realize that once you beat the game, the world isn’t as engaging as you might’ve thought.
Rockstar spent eight years building Red Dead Redemption 2 as their biggest game yet and that was no doubt to ensure that it’s one of the best worlds that you could ever possibly explore in a video game. With the ability to interact with every NPC, find dozens if not hundreds of random encounters, explore a rich landscape filled with life to study and hunt, and plenty of activities to keep the player engaged, Red Dead Redemption 2 creates one of the most hypnotic and reactive worlds in the entire medium.
As opposed to the Ubisoft way of filling the world with icons until you can’t see anything on your map properly or overwhelming you to the point that you just lose interest and turn the game off, Red Dead Redemption 2 provides you with a healthy amount of content that is distributed throughout the game at an even pace. Stranger missions aren’t on your map until you walk past them yourself, hunting is something you just go do and isn’t an activity on the map outside of legendary animal icons, and mini-games are kept limited to towns which are spread apart quite nicely.
Add to the fact anything like stage coaches or bounties are added when you seek them out as opposed to always being there, it helps keep the map from being completely cluttered. All of this content isn’t just fluff either, it’s all masterfully handled to create an experience that makes you want to pursue it not just because it’s required for 100% completion. It makes it feel like the 100% completion could come very organically and not be a complete grind that makes you dread the game by the time you’re done with it, something that happens to me very often in these scenarios.
The Strangers missions feel like extensions of the story with the cinematic flair of the cutscenes, more unique characters to fill out the cast, Rockstar’s signature humor, and much more. Some side missions in games don’t even have cutscenes, you go up to a character, their face does that weird thing where their mouth moves but the rest of their face is emotionless, and you go fetch some item and bring it back.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t do that, it treats it all like content that’s valued just as highly as anything else in the game. Rockstar also knows how to pick and choose their battles with content. Instead of giving you 150 side quests, they give you about 20 questlines. Some are for collectibles and some are having you do new missions, it’s varied content and just enough to justify your purchase and time with the game but not so much it begins to bore you and give you anxiety at the number of things to do.
Finally, one of my big issues with Rockstar games has always been the way they deal with the economy. In Grand Theft Auto, after a few hours, it feels like I have all the money I will ever need. All the clothes, guns, and cars I want are mine and I’ll never need to worry about money ever again to the point that it becomes a bit boring. I’m sure that’s somewhat intentional, showing that money isn’t really everything and can’t buy happiness but the point still stands.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t give you an obscene amount of money until you finish the game’s epilogue. There are moments where you’ll have a good amount of spending money but if you’re like me, you’ll invest it all into new guns, some horse upgrades, and building up your camp.
It feels like money has genuine value rather than something you’re printing off as you need it. This makes your new purchases feel more satisfying and valuable. That shotgun you’ve spent hours working for? It’s going to feel all the better when you blow off the head of an O’Driscol now. That fancy new coat you got because you robbed some stagecoaches and looted houses? Going to feel a lot snazzier as you roam the mountains with it.
It’s all these elements, big and small, that simultaneously collide to help Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like the ultimate cohesion of everything Rockstar has learned. They still have some things to work on like control schemes but largely, it feels like this legendary studio hasn’t let the money and acclaim get to their head. They don’t act like they know it all and have chosen to ignore people, sticking to a formula to create something that worked once before.
They’re actively working on building off what has worked and what hasn’t worked, that’s what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so successful.