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Why Red Dead Redemption Is Disappointing

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

In a previous post I praised Red Dead Redemption for almost being a great world simulation. Really what I meant is that it looks like one if you squint hard enough. Although what I said before basically holds, I would like to elaborate on exactly what it does that keeps it from being a genuinely robust simulation of real emergent consequence.

First of all, there are different rules for different situations. Shooting someone in the leg or arm is non-fatal... except when the game arbitrarily decides otherwise. For example if someone steals your horse and you shoot them in the leg to knock them off, it is for some inexplicable reason always fatal. The same goes for large scale shoot-outs, the kind where several dozen enemies are shooting at you from behind cover. In these situations shooting people in the arms or legs simply kills them, apparently for no reason other than in such circumstances you're "supposed" to kill people. This is made clear by an omnipresent, ever-helpful on-screen prompt, which pops up from time to time to inform your what your goal is. "Kill the outlaws" is a typical prompt, which makes unambiguously clear what sort of behavior is expected (and allowed). Even though Redemption supports a much wider range of behaviors than killing, the game frequently flips certain ones on and off like a light switch in order to force the player into a singular challenge with a singular solution.

Having a voice "tell" you your goals is of course a way of preventing you from developing your own. A real world simulation would simply have consistent rules and let any emergent outcome they support be fair game. If Rockstar had the balls to rely on this consistency, to trust that it in and of itself is interesting enough to carry a game, they'd be making more than just virtual theme parks. Historically they seem to back away from any emergent possibility that might not cater to their juvenile audience, which is why they promise richly simulated worlds but then always cop-out by forcing the player into canned situations. Because what kind of wild west sim would it be if you could go through the whole game without getting into a single gunfight? A great one, obviously. Or, to be more accurate, an actual one.

It's ironic that a game which promises and even bases its narrative on the concept of "freedom" offers so little of it. This is why Redemption is best when it gets out of your way and just lets you solve problems according to consistent world rules. Missions are uniformly awful, boring affairs where you are ordered by a voice from the sky to kill people en masse. One can expect shoot-outs in a Western of course, but by the standards of  any Western film the amount of people you kill in Red Dead Redemption is ludicrous. Any given mission qualifies you as a mass murderer, as you kill literally dozens upon dozens of people all by yourself--more than Clint Eastwood ever did in every Western he ever appeared in combined. This is made possible largely by the way the game approaches difficulty design. John Marston is an indestructible tank, who can be shot endless times in the chest, face, or where ever and still pop heads with his winchester like he's the fucking Terminator. It's Westworld alright... except you are Yul Brynner.

It's both interesting and disappointing how games like Red Dead Redemption create painstakingly simulated worlds built on recognizable genre logic but intervene the moment any emergent consequence falls outside the "normal" borders of power fantasy. It says much about the gap between my sensibilities and Rockstar's that being an indestructible killing machine ordered by God to kill people seems, to me, entirely at odds with the game's surface image of being a "serious" and "adult" game experience. Rockstar typically likes to project this kind of image, as if they were somehow the vanguard of "mature" videogames, though I personally find it to be a ruse most of the time... both in terms of their instant-gratification / zero-consequence game design and their conveniently nihilistic narratives. The frontier in Redemption is arbitrarily sick, featuring cannibalism, bestiality, grave robbing, etc. While I'm not against such content on principle Redemption exhibits the typical Rockstar trait of exploiting such ideas for simple shock value, or as sick jokes, without really dealing with them.

The game is filled with the usual Rockstar gallery of meaninglessly grotesque crazies. Major characters are taken seriously, but minor characters feel more like the punchline of a dirty joke than actual people. (A guy who has sex with his horse? Hilarious!) The professionally done, decently acted cut-scenes seem calculated to obscure this, and it's only videogame culture's maturity complex--which tends to define "maturity" the way a teenager would--that allows such content to historically pass for "serious" work. It's interesting to think how superficial our concept of "seriousness" is, when something that simply looks and sounds like a real movie gets lauded regardless how morally simplistic it is underneath, whereas something that has cute characters or lower production values gets ignored even though it might be suggesting much more complicated and ambivalent things about heroism, violence, etc.

Rockstar's dime-store cynicism comes out even more in Redemption's total lack of variation in world events. It might  have felt different if the behavior of the people you encounter was randomized (as in sometimes a hitchhiker might not want to rob you, etc.) but they aren't, which means you get cynical about people really fast. This could be seen as a sort of commentary, but after a point it feels so shallow and simplistic it's yet another example of the petty nihilism that permeates all Rockstar's efforts. "The world is ugly and everybody's bad" might be a kind of social commentary, but it's a very cheap, childish kind... the sort you might expect from a high school emo poet. This is why Rockstar at the end of the day tends to feel like the Coen Brothers at their worst: people for whom ironic distance is not a mode of thought but a substitute for it.

Rockstar's worlds are stupid, ugly, and weird for arbitrary or petty reasons. They seem more about the narcissistic pleasure of feeling repulsed by (and therefore superior to) other people than trying to understand them. You see this pattern again and again in Rockstar games--in Vice City, in San Andreas, in GTAIV--of a snarky, aloof protagonist encountering weirder and weirder people, all of whom seem crazy and whose craziness seems to exist for no other reason than to give the player something to chuckle at. It's entertaining, but it's hardly nuanced, mature writing... it's precisely the opposite.

This is all not to say that Redemption has no redeeming aspects as a world simulation or as a serious treatment of the topics it raises. At times, when the Rockstar-ness of the game recedes into the background and you are just left alone in its beautiful frontier world, it's quite nice. The best parts of the game, of course, are those that least resemble Grand Theft Auto, notably the hunting, trading, cattle rustling, etc. The combat can be interesting, but only when the game gets out of your way and lets you try to solve problems on your own, and when it gives you the leverage to do that by not changing the rules on you. As I said before, it has all the pieces of a great Western simulation. They are just crippled by the fact that it's a Rockstar game, which traps it in a definition of "maturity" that leaves much to be desired.

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