Red Dead Redemption 2 is a Pale Imitation of its Inspirations

By Rich Stanton on at

"But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all." — Blood Meridian

This probably isn't going to be my most-popular opinion but, when it comes to AAA titles, the gamer hive-mind has some wacky ideas about value. I don't mean in terms of cold hard cash – hey I'm Scottish, try to out-tightwad me – so much as this idea that, if a game isn't some 60-hour epic, then it's somehow ripping players off. Indies don't get it nearly so bad, of course, but woe betide the £50 marquee title that dares to offer up anything less than a 20-hour campaign.

Over time I think this has had a notable effect on certain titles, and one recent example in particular seemed to take the idea of longer means better to extremes. Perhaps last year's biggest title in several senses was Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar's long-awaited open-world rootin-tootin' cowboy-strokin' sequel. Looking back on it with a year's hindsight, the game has some amazing elements. But it's also way too long and, in demanding such an investment from its players, ultimately exposes its own threadbare soul.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't have an enormous amount of ideas, either mechanically or narratively, and so the game's first ten hours simply keep repeating themselves for another 80 hours. Every single mission in the game boils down to a job gone wrong, a straight-up shootout, or just riding around on your horse for a while. All of which is fine, up to a point.

The biggest problem by far is that the game takes most of its cues from other works, in everything from visual style to themes. Parts of the landscape design are heavily influenced by The Revenant, the superbly shot 2015 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a frontiersman, while characters and themes are lifted from Cormac McCarthy's 1985 novel Blood Meridian. This is nothing unusual for Rockstar: most of the company's work is a kind of high-end cultural collage, given its power by incredible open world tech and accumulation of detail.

But it's a much more effective technique in something like Grand Theft Auto, simply because the range of reference is so much wider – GTA is set in the present day so, to an extent, anything goes. You can whack in missions taken straight from Heat, do tributes to countless gangster movies, then have Ricky Gervais doing a standup show over there and a Halo pisstake running on the telly. Rockstar North's biggest asset as a studio is its magpie nature. Anything that is shiny or cool gets picked up, and goes in.

Many of Cormac McCarthy's books have been turned into successful movies. Not Blood Meridian, however, which has been optioned and in pre-production multiple times but never made it to the screen. One of the reasons for this may be the level of violence, which is extreme. Probably the bigger factor is that it's one of McCarthy's few works with something of an interior landscape. McCarthy's novels tend to be about dialogue and action, with the inner workings of his characters implied but rarely (if ever) spelled-out for the reader. In Blood Meridian the protagonist, the Kid, is paired-off with the fleshy and coruscatingly brilliant figure of the Judge.

To give one example of how thoroughly this book is woven-through the video game, Red Dead Redemption 2 revolves around the story of Dutch van der Linde's gang. Dutch is a poor man's Judge: a faux-philosopher, an advocate for the 'free life' that just happens to involve killing lots of people, and ultimately an antagonist. The Judge by contrast is primal, even primeval, possessed of extraordinary intelligence and talents, and the animating force around which events whirl.

The through-line is obvious. Dutch's name even seems to be a tribute: in the novel, several scalp-hunters are suspicious of the Judge... because he can speak Dutch (there are also more minor references scattered throughout RDR2, such as a document signed by 'Judge Holden', the character's full name.)

Okay, two examples: RDR2 features a minor character called Otis Miller, a sort of legendary cowboy based on Jesse James. Throughout the game you can find three penny dreadful books that recount his exploits, which are written in a pastiche of McCarthy's style: run-on sentences, spare description, and unexpected metaphor.

than when he had first arrived in New York City. His nose bristled at the foreign sights and smells and he had a thirst a mile long. Otis sat on his horse. He looked on at the wagons and refuge and the cacophony of city noises and shoeless children running and workmen heading home and women carrying bags of groceries and shouts and sounds that drowned his ears. The red reflection of the sunlight cut between the buildings and seemed to sever them in two like a curtain of some boudoir

'Otis Miller and the Boy from New York'

Don't take my word for it: in 2010 Rockstar itself recommended various 'cowboy' media to its fans. The single book it included was Blood Meridian ("considered by us to be McCarthy's seminal work"). It's probably also worth mentioning that the original Red Dead Redemption, while not my focus here, was just as indebted and included missions based on key moments, such as when a gang takes over a river crossing (which itself is based on a real-life incident: Blood Meridian takes much inspiration from the story of the Glanton gang, and the character of Micah is little more than a thinly-disguised Glanton).

So it's little surprise that Red Dead Redemption 2 lifts a lot of ideas from the book, which itself could almost be described as a work of historical fiction. But the game's range is heavily circumscribed by not only this, but various western movies (and Deadwood), and above all else by an unwillingness to explore beyond these limits, both narratively and in terms of the moment-to-moment play.

This is supposed to be a western epic, but the problem is that 'redemption' in the title. Arthur Morgan ultimately finds meaning in his last days by correcting past misdeeds as best he can, and helping John Marston escape the outlaw life. Marston will later find his own meaning in protecting and providing for his family to the last.

The fact that both of these men are hardened killers responsible for the deaths of multiple hundreds of people doesn't ever get much of a look-in. It's made very clear that these are 'good' men, whereas someone like Micah is a 'bad' man, and the actual actions they undertake are irrelevant to these character arcs. Arthur might have regrets, but he goes on killing right to the end, and it's the same for John.

This tension undermines one of the western's core themes, and one that RDR2 builds its world around: the inexorable progress of civilisation. In Blood Meridian the main characters (including the Kid) are amoral, violent, untrustworthy and sadistic killers. There are no happy endings, and civilised places rightly fear such men. They are hated by 'normal' folk, and will eventually be hounded out of existence. The novel has a brief epilogue in which we see a man in the desert planting fence posts, a rather on-the-nose summation of how civilisation is leaving the myth of the 'wild west' behind. The point of Blood Meridian is that the western of popular imagination is just that: a collective fantasy.

RDR2's van der Linde gang, on the other hand, are charming folks. Enormous effort has gone into humanising every member, from the huge amount of bespoke camp dialogue to the periodic sing-songs and parties. The game is constructed around making you care for these characters and constantly makes you return to them. But the life they lead bears little relation to the violence this group visits on innocent people, while other gangs and particularly the Pinkertons are portrayed unsympathetically. It's all a bit one-note because, in this scenario, the outlaws feel like the true heroes while the defenders of civilisation – the sheriffs, the Pinkertons, the folk in towns you attack – are comically evil, idiotic, drunk, or all three.

This is one of the big reasons why the game starts to drag. There's a lot of repetition in RDR2, and you can only play through Rockstar's rotating mission templates so many times before it all gets a bit too predictable. A heist? I wonder if something will go wrong! Oh it did, here's a load of dudes to shoot, now let's ride off on our horse back to camp, have a snooze, and do it all again.

It's a strange combination: psycho by day, chillaxing cowboy by night. I don't offer this as some profound insight, you could make the same point about most games involving combat. It's more how this frames the experience as a whole. One of the things about RDR2 is that it is in many respects a deeply weird game. You have to respect Rockstar's belief in its own vision, and in particular the style of open world it constructed. At times this feels more like a nature simulator than a AAA video game: I've spent hours hunting animals, rowing out onto a lake to fish, and just slowly taking in the sights.

I found these moments were RDR2 at its best, because whenever it returns to the story everything falls apart. This is a game of grandiose scale but little insight: a world where industrialisation is rendering cowboys obsolete, but also a world that doesn't have much to say about either industrialisation or cowboys. It feels shallow because, while the game lifts scenarios, plot and character archetypes from Blood Meridian, it uses them as mere echoes of their original form. This game, with all the technology and all the millions and all the development time, fundamentally ends up as a black-and-white story, with little in the way of grey areas: it's why Arthur's own 'redemption' feels so forced.

Thinking about the reasons why is interesting, and not least because it brings into sharp relief the question of video game violence. Rockstar has had issues in the past with (to my mind unfounded) allegations that the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and even games like Bully advocate or encourage violence. Manhunt and its sequel, in particular, show that the studio is not afraid of depicting extreme body horror.

In RDR2 the violence is video game violence. It might seem weird I'd say this, but the effect of headshotting an enemy is both satisfying and a total cliche: we've experienced that same feeling a million times in different games. We're used to riddling enemies with bullets, and watching the Euphoria engine do its thing as the corpse flops to the ground. And you'll headshot so many enemies before this journey's done. Here's what happens when Glanton headshots an old woman in Blood Meridian:

The woman looked up. Neither courage nor heartsink in those old eyes. He pointed with his left hand and she turned to follow his hand with her gaze and he put the pistol to her head and fired.

The explosion filled all that sad little park. Some of the horses shied and stepped. A fistsized hole erupted out of the far side of the woman's head in a great vomit of gore and she pitched over and lay slain in her blood without remedy. Glanton had already put the pistol at halfcock and he flicked away the spent primer with his thumb and was preparing to recharge the cylinder. McGill, he said.

A Mexican, solitary of his race in that company, came forward.

Get that receipt for us.

He took a skinning knife from his belt and stepped to where the old woman lay and took up her hair and twisted it about his wrist and passed the blade of the knife about her skull and ripped away the scalp.

There are things books can do that games cannot, and vice-versa. You couldn't recreate this scene in a video game with the same effect and nor would I expect such: the point is the way violence is described and framed. The hand point, the 'sad little park' which is now a grave, the reaction of the horses, and only then after the reader has absorbed this do we come to the oxymoronic but unforgettable description of a hole erupting from the old woman's head.

In contrast, consider how outright tame RDR2's representations of violence are. This is a video game where violence is routine, where it happens all the time in every mission. I don't know how many people I killed as Arthur but it's got to be in the high hundreds if not thousands. And so the violence itself becomes unremarkable. The twin cores of McCarthy's book, on the other hand, are the grim banality of the Kid's gradual desensitisation to what's going on, and the poetic horror in descriptions of same. The past is a foreign country in Blood Meridian, its characters alien to modern sensibilities and also in some sense elemental manifestations of the landscape's wider history: one foot in history, one in myth. Arthur by contrast you can easily imagine bumping into at a cowboy re-enactment club.

This is probably Blood Meridian's most famous passage, as well as one of the best run-on sentences in literature, in which a band of scalp-hunters are ambushed by apache warriors:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Next to that, don't Red Dead Redemption 2's antagonists seem frankly pathetic. I'm not simply saying 'book good, game bad' but that the game is trying to emulate something it cannot: Blood Meridian's meaning, if such a thing exists, whirls around questions of violence and human nature, then how different characters interpret those things. When something bad happens it is existential, apocalyptic even.

But in RDR2, violence is everywhere, it's always the same, and this is ultimately what renders its story so shallow. The game's violence doesn't go anywhere near where McCarthy's book does (infanticide, mass murder, rape...) and so we're left with the curious spectacle of a game that's supposed to be some deep musing on the fate of the wild west when, really, it's an open-world shooting gallery that perpetuates romantic falsehoods while pretending it's above them. Shooting people is commonplace and the consequences, really, are non-existent. The most stupid part of RDR2 is Arthur's tubercolosis, which prompts a period of reflection where he makes up for past sins and tries to be a better man: honestly. As a story, RDR2 is at best a straight-to-TV spaghetti western.

This project had all the money and time and talent in the world. The finished product has production values and a scale that can, at times, take your breath away. I like some of the characters, I enjoy hunting, it looks spectacular, and just riding around on a horse feels so good.

But the vision here is in all the wrong places: it may be one of the best-looking games ever, but the combat (arguably the most central interaction in the game) is just an iteration on the original. It takes ideas and themes from other works, but comes to feel like it's lacking its own strong identity.

None of this would particularly matter if RDR2 was digestible. But it demands so much time from its players and in return delivers a pretty derivative and unremarkable story, one assembled from the elements of much stronger works. And so the real issue becomes the void at its centre. When a game demands this amount of time from players, we should expect something spectacular. But on finishing Red Dead Redemption 2 my overwhelming emotion was relief: the game goes on far too long and, with the epilogue in particular, becomes a drag.

Looking back after a year, I'm struck by how quickly folk stopped talking about this game (albeit not Red Dead Online, which I'd consider as its own distinct thing). Even then I wouldn't call it bad, per se, so much as a game that is too self-important, too grand in airs, for its own good. This is no western classic, but a grab-bag of bits from real western classics, rendered interactive with a thirdperson combat system that sits squarely in Rockstar North's comfort zone, and never threatens to turn uncomfortable.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is supposed to be an epic, and maybe for some folk it is. Me, I'll go with a bloated and pale imitation of far richer, deeper fictional worlds. It's a game with nothing much to say, even though it takes 80 hours to do it.