Since the dawn of the video game medium, game developers have constantly striven for realism. We aim for better graphics, immersive worlds, grounded story-arcs, and believable characters. These are the staples of a modern triple-A video game, whether you’re on board or not. As developers push boundaries, we’re treated with expansive games that blur the lines between the real and the digital. No game has done this more so than Rockstar’s most recent title.
An Achievement in Realism
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most realistic video game ever created – I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. The jaw-dropping vistas and snow-capped mountains of Les Moines present a world that feels as real as it is massive. The long stretches of open expanse between destinations leave you riding your horse in thoughtful silence. It may sound cliché, but Red Dead 2 really is a game that you don’t play as much as you experience. That’s entirely intentional.
Rockstar went out of their way to present a system of controls that limit the player’s movement. For example, Arthur Morgan (The player-character) has two movement speeds: a casual stroll and a breakneck quarter-back rush. See, the dash works fine out in the open-world when you aren’t on your horse. However, when you’re in town, the civilians wandering the street make it extremely difficult to run without bumping into someone. It feels unnatural at first – you’ve probably been taught by many open-world games to run whenever possible – but trust me, you learn to live with it. Walking listlessly around Saint Denis is extremely relaxing if you take the time to smell the roses.
There’s no doubt that RDR2 purposefully tries to be as real as possible. But there’s one problem: the hyper-realistic, slow-paced moments make the “video-gamey” moments even more apparent.
The Virtual Barrier
See, RDR2 might be the most realistic video game of all time… but it’s still a video game. There are a plethora of open-world tropes that Rockstar implemented, despite bucking a handful of notorious ones. Here, let me show a few examples:
- Robbing dead enemies or looting houses or camps isn’t a seamless process. You have to walk to each one, hold down the triangle (or Y) button, and wait for the five-second animation to finish. Rinse and repeat.
- The bounty system after committing a crime is far from realistic. Instead of paying time in a cell, you just “magically erase” your criminal record at a post office. In a world where the main characters are in constant fear of being captured, this bounty system is a serious disconnect.
- While Red Dead 2 ditches a few of the stereotypical missions that bog so many other open-world games down, it still presents the ones that are there as just that: missions. After every story-mission, a dialogue box pops up in the left-hand corner, telling you your completion rate and giving you a medal. How is that supposed to feel realistic and immersive?
- The camp upgrade system, while fun to progress, doesn’t feel particularly in line with the story. Instead of unlocking key camp upgrades to the camp that correspond to key events in the narrative, you unlock upgrades by going to ledger and buying them. They “magically appear” in your camp a moment later.
But aside from intentional design choices, there are many immersion-breaking moments in Red Dead 2 that happen simply because of bugs, miscues, or finicky controls.
One of RDR2’s most incredible feats is how the world remembers and responds to your actions. But when your wanted level rises when you try to defend yourself, it can feel pretty frustrating. When a lawmen shoots you down for accidental animal cruelty, it can seem unfair.
I remember one moment where the AI punished me for a being a hero. See, I was hanging out in Saint Denis, minding my own business, when I heard a cry for help. I wheeled around to find a robber mugging an innocent lady, while another man nearby tried to intervene. Then, in a moment of shock, the thug shot the woman in the forehead, slowly looked at the guy trying to stop the situation, took the lady’s purse and bolted. Naturally, I immediately shot the guy down to avenge the poor victim’s death. I expected some sort of praise or tribute from the man standing by, but instead he started punching me! And of course, my wanted level went up, and I had to retreat for fifteen minutes and eventually pay a ninety-dollar bounty.
Between Two Worlds
The truth is that no matter how realistic Rockstar games are, there are always going to be immersion-breaking moments. Even after hundreds and thousands of work hours, a video game can never be completely free of bugs and can never be a completely accurate “non-video gamey” representation of life. RDR2 proves that.
Red Dead 2 is the product of two parents– the real and virtual – and at times it pushes as hard as it can to overcome the virtual side of genetics to become as real a video game it can. I don’t think it particularly succeeds at either – but take both those factors into account, and there is still an incredible, albeit flawed, world to discover.
For more on Red Dead Redemption 2, be sure to read about the comeback of the wild west in popular media. And of course, for all other things related to video games, stay tuned to Culture of Gaming!