Red Dead Redemption 2 is NOT an RPG. But damn, I wish it were.
I've been on holiday. Apologies for the lack of posting here for the last couple of weeks, sometimes though you need to head out into the great big wide world and let it work its magic on you. It's been a busy year so far, with so much going on that I sometimes feel like my feet don't touch the ground from one week to the next. It got to the point where I was burning out - socially, at work, online... everywhere. So I packed myself off for a couple of weeks to get some distance between me and the things I allow to define me, so I could get some perspective. Nothing reminds you how irrelevant than you are than the open sea, and that's where I've been.
I got back though, and eventually got around to firing up my Xbox and wandering back into Red Dead Redemption 2. When I started it a couple of months back, I mentioned that there was some dissonance for me between the actions of my personal version of Arthur Morgan in the open world, and the actions of Rockstar's version of Arthur Morgan in the story missions. It remains a beautiful game, but the further I go into it, the more this dissonance is beginning to impact on my experience.
When I mentioned this last, it was purely about the actions that the game forces the player to make in the linear story missions in comparison to the freedom of response borne out in the open world. The further through the game I go though, the more it begins to feel as though Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game of two disparate designs - and those two designs don't get along with one another. In fact, it sometimes feels as though they're throwing punches.
On the one hand, there's a beautiful open world - filled with emergent events and player agency. You can choose how to engage with the people you meet, and indeed whether you engage at all. You can hunt and fish. You can, should you choose, commit criminal acts. When you encounter a person in need, you can help them or hinder them. The game seems to be storing all of these decisions away and using them to contribute to a reputation system which, while apparently meaningless so far will (I'm sure) demonstrate its relevance and use later on down the line. In this part of the game, Arthur Morgan isn't Rockstar's version of the man, it's mine. My version of Arthur Morgan doesn't always fire first - unless someone messes with his horse. Doing that earns bullets, every time - no ifs and not buts. He sometimes behaves altruistically. He nods his head and greets people rather than holding them up.
And then, on the other hand, there's the linear tale that Rockstar are telling - and their version of Arthur Morgan is very different to mine. This version of Arthur will beat a man suffering from tuberculosis to get the guy to repay a debt, amongst other things. It's all well and good - they have a tale that they want to tell and, when you're doing this via a videogame, you have to prescribe player choice to a degree. It's when the events of these missions collide with the wider game experience and leave the player experience more confused as a result that you have to begin questioning the method. It extends right the way down to the mission design itself. Out in the sandbox, you can engage in most encounters in any way you wish. Sneaking or guns blazing, killing or capturing are all viable options. As soon as you're in a mission though, you will follow the rules set down by the developer, or you will fail that mission. Any attempt at interpretation is met by a big red failure screen.
There was a wonderful example of this early in the second chapter of the game. You (as Arthur) have to wander to a small town called Strawberry to rescue Micah. Micah is one of the less likeable of your group of rogues - I didn't like him, and Rockstar's version of Arthur doesn't seem to like him either. It's easy to see why; there's not much to like about the guy. He's a violent, racist drunkard - not to mention being a liability to the group due to his rash temper and ability to find trouble in every saloon he steps into. In the dialogue that plays out as part of the mission, it's clear that Arthur is quite happy to see the guy hang... but yet the game makes you rescue him anyway. Even worse though, it makes you kill what feels like most of the town during a protracted gunfight that follows.
I have to remind myself that Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't an RPG. If it were, Micah would have died in that cell - and I personally would have been happy to face that set of consequences and see how they were borne out through the game. With the way the game behaves during the downtime between missions (which can sometimes be several hours of side questing), I keep feeling as though it's lulling me into the false opinion that it remotely cares about what I want Arthur to be. Maybe this is entirely on me... but I'm not sure it is. I don't remember feeling this way during either of my playthroughs of Grand Theft Auto V - but this maybe down to that game offering few opportunities to be anything other than a bad guy. Pretty much everyone you meet in GTAV is an arsehole, with some being that way for better reasons than others. This just means that the dichotomy between the world and the story that exists within RDR2 isn't present in that game - the nature of the characters and the way encounters are architected just don't give it an opportunity to.
The further I get through the game (apparently I'm a little over a third of the way through, now), the stranger it feels. It's a stunning a technical feat. The narrative it's telling is an interesting one - but I can't help but feel that in the years between the first game and this one, there have been other games released that have dealt with the conflict between narrative and open world emergence in much better and less conflicted ways than this does. Yes, I mean The Witcher 3, specifically. The overall impression I'm being left with is that RDR2 would have been much more compelling if either the open world was dropped, or if the linear story was fleshed out into a more typical RPG offering - with branching narratives, different consequences and ultimately different endings. As it is, it feels like a compromise - the worst of both worlds. Not that that'll stop me from finishing it. I'm too invested now to stop. I look back on the original Red Dead Redemption as one of the games of its generation; a stone-cold, era-defining classic. I honestly don't think I'll finish Red Dead Redemption 2 with the same feeling of veneration toward it though.