The first note I took while playing Rockstar’s hugely-anticipated “Red Dead Redemption 2” was “I’m not sure this is supposed to be fun.” Of course, it eventually becomes quite fun but it’s telling that the game radically reshapes expectations of what that word means in its opening chapters. It’s an incredibly difficult game to play alongside anything else. Try jumping to it from “Call of Duty: Black Ops IV” or “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” the two other current hot games, and you’ll get whiplash at the change of pace, style, and tone. “RDR2” takes its time to develop characters, their world, and even the way you play games. In that sense, it’s one of the very few PS4 generation games to challenge the form in any way. With narrative roots that stretch from John Ford to David Milch, “Red Dead Redemption 2” owes a greater deal to other mediums than most modern games, but it’s the way it redefines its own medium that’s so breathtaking. It’s one of the best games of this generation.
A little history: “Red Dead Redemption” was released in 2010, a lifetime ago in the world of gaming, and yet it holds up today due to is landmark world creation and riveting storytelling. In that game, set in 1911, you play an outlaw named John Marston who is forced to help bring in his old gang after the government kidnaps his wife and child. In a truly brilliant narrative move, the sequel is actually a prequel, set 1899, in which you play Arthur Morgan, another member of the Marston gang when they were still together. The knowledge that the gang you’re running with—the men you call brothers—will all betray each other and fall apart adds a layer of poignancy to every positive development in “RDR2” that really enhances the overall mood of the game. In many ways, the narrative of this game is about the blunt nature of change—how it can smother those unprepared for it—and that theme extends all the way through the action of the previous game.
Back to that first note. The first thing you notice when you get to control Arthur is that he’s slow. The game opens in a snowy setting that feels like it’s meant to recall Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Your gang is hunkered down in a cabin in the snowy mountains and you need to find supplies. Everything feels like work. You have to loot enemies one by one. You move slower because of the heavy clothing you’re wearing in the conditions. Horses are slower going up the wintry mountains. Everything is incredibly deliberate. Most games open by dropping you into an action scene that’s going at a breakneck pace. “RDR2” does the opposite. It will eventually open up to fast-paced shoot-outs on galloping horses and speeding trains, but those opening scenes set an unmistakable tone—this is not your standard action game.
As the game progresses, your gang moves to warmer climates, and eventually to major cities, including one clearly modeled after New Orleans. The setting of this game is one of the most breathtaking in gaming history, maybe the most. The details of it are stunning, and the game even allows for something called “cinematic mode,” in which the screen becomes letterboxed as you travel from one place to another, playing out like a movie as much as a game. It enhances the sense that this is a game that owes a great deal to film. However, the experience of “Red Dead Redemption 2” reminded me more of episodic TV than film in that you drop in for an hour, push the plot forward with a mission or two, learn a little more about the supporting characters, and bounce out again. It clearly owes a great deal to “Deadwood” with its emphasis on a lawless landscape and muddy, brutal style. One of the first fistfights you get into will leave you covered in mud. And much of the style looks like “Deadwood.” I’m personally growing a glorious mustache (yes, you have to shave in this game, and feed your horse, and do all kinds of other things that most games take for granted).
While we’re on the “Deadwood” subject, fans of film Westerns will spot dozens of literal and tonal references. There’s a train robbery scene at night with your gang lit by the train light in the adjoining woods that practically owes Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” an on-screen credit for this great scene shot by Roger Deakins. John Ford’s classic films, especially “Stagecoach” influence some of the tone, and its hard not to think of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in some of the small towns that look like they were just built, but the biggest auteur influence feels like Sam Peckinpah and the violent gang of “The Wild Bunch.” (Some have said Leone, and that’s lazy. Sure, DNA from Eastwood’s Man with No Name is in every Western anti-hero since, but there’s little tonal or stylistic similarity otherwise. This actually feels more like “Unforgiven” if you want to consider Eastwood's career.) It’s the kind of game that makes you want to do a Western marathon while you’re playing it. If you’re so inclined, do those four—“Assassination,” “McCabe,” “Wild Bunch,” and “Stagecoach”—and you’ll appreciate this game even more.
As someone who has been writing about games for over a decade now, I’m curious about how they intertwine with the other mediums I love and cover, but the thing that blows me away is when a game feels like it’s actually pushing its form to another level. Those games are rare. “Resident Evil 4,” “Bioshock,” “The Last of Us,” “Dark Souls.” “Red Dead Redemption 2” belongs on that list. Its willingness to be strange, slow, frustrating, unpredictable, and melancholy separate it from even great modern games that so often seek to meet gamer expectations instead of challenging them. So many developers see games as a product that works if it makes the gamer happy again in ways they’ve been made happy before. Rockstar seeks to build on the history of video games instead of just continuing it. And they’ve written another incredible chapter in it with “Red Dead Redemption 2.”