I was, as a kid, very aggressive in my consumption of fantasy novels. There was very little I wouldn’t read, and if there was even the slightest promise of swords n’ sorcery, I was all over that. There was one exception, a series that to this day I can’t manage to read, a series that had all the critical acclaim and all the requisite magic and monsters I looked for.
I fucking hate the Thomas Covenant books. By the middle of the first one, I was pushing myself to keep going, reading each page with grim determination.
Much later, looking back, I realized that while I can read stories about protagonists who start out awesome and stay awesome, and I can read stories about protagonists who start out awful and end up awesome, and I can even read stories about protagonists who start out awesome and fall from awesomeness… I have no use for stories about people who start out shitty and stay shitty.
I’ve since tried to re-read Thomas Covenant, because honestly I liked Piers fucking Anthony as a kid, and so it was possible I just didn’t have the context of age and experience needed to appreciate a whining, useless sack of shit as a protagonist. It turns out that as questionable as younger me’s taste was, in this he and I are in total agreement: Thomas Covenant is crap.
I don’t need every protagonist to be a super-hero. I’m fine with reading about people of average capabilities. I’m a huge fan of The Curse of Chalion, featuring a middle-aged guy who’s sort of physically crippled and suffering from a kind of supernatural cancer. It’s the unrelenting incapacity, the inability of Covenant to ever surprise me with a moment of competence, that leaves me cold.
Red Dead Redemption is the Thomas Covenant of modern gaming.
To be fair, it certainly evokes heroic spaghetti westerns, with huge vistas and dusty trails, ramshackle towns and grizzled caricatures for people. I went through a western-games phase a while back, and RDR has Gun beaten hands-down for conjuring the mythical American west. So I’ll call that a point in its favor, though that’s provisional, as I’ll get to in a moment.
My actual experience of the game goes like this: Welcome to this nice woman’s house. Go beat her in a horse race! Oh, you failed.
This would set the pattern for the rest of the game. Over and over, I’d be abruptly asked to do something, beat some kind of challenge, accomplish something with a time restriction, and I’d fail. Save this guy being hung! Fail. Bring this criminal in alive! Fail. Race these coaches! Fail. Win this gunfight! Fail.
The disconnect between the story’s portrayal of my character, and my actual game experience of the character, became so large that I started openly laughing at his braggadocio, his assurance that he could handle whatever situation might come along. Dude, you can probably handle pissing without getting your boots wet, if you have an assistant and a few do-overs.
So I was playing the wild west version of Thomas Covenant, arrogant and offensive, brutal and mean, useless except in his own delusions, and expected to save the world (or whatever hokum RDR had me running around doing). I kept at it for as long as I could, but one too many ‘DEAD’s popping up and I had to ask myself: in a finite lifetime, how many irreplaceable minutes is this game honestly worth?
But why, do you suppose, did I keep failing? Perhaps I’m just bad at videogames, and I shouldn’t play them expecting to enjoy them.
On the other hand, let me offer a comparison. In the fantastic Assassin’s Creed, you do basically everything with the four face buttons, which are mapped to parts of your body. The X button (translate to your Playstation weird-ass shapes as needed) is your left hand. The B button is your right hand. The A button is your legs. The Y button is your head.
You have something in your right hand, a sword perhaps? Use the B button to use it competently. Your character, the always-competent Altair, knows what to do with that sword. Need to jump? Use the A button. The connection between button placement and body is so smooth and intuitive that within moments it vanishes completely, and you’re navigating this virtual medieval space like you’d been raised to it.
But, and here’s the important part: Altair does this stuff competently. If you have to throw a thing at another thing, the one thing you can count on once that thing is in your hand is that you’re going to throw it like you know how to throw. If you jump from one building to another, you’re going to jump like you mean it. If you’re going to body-check someone as you run past, you’re taking that fucker down.
RDR is exactly the opposite, both in how it presents its controls, and how the protagonist expresses your intent in the game world.
Every new challenge is a brand new game system, whose controls are nothing like any other controls you’ve used. You will be asked to herd cattle shortly after starting, and herding cattle is not like anything else you’ve done so far, and not like anything else you’ll do again. You’ll be asked to use a rope to lasso a horse to break it, and lassoing is not like anything else you’ve done so far (in fact, it’s highly counter-intuitive if you’ve been practicing the gun controls at all). Much later in the game, you’ll be asked to win a quick-draw duel. You’ll have never seen the system used to accomplish this before, and you’ll have no opportunity to practice, because the duel is in earnest and failure to master this (quite non-intuitive) system on the first try means you’re dead.
Over and over, the game exposes you to entirely new systems and control schemes by throwing you into a do-or-die situation with only the briefest explanation of what you’re expected to do. For added fun, some of the completely-new-and-unexpected system moments are randomly triggered. You lose a gun-fight, you reload, you return to where you lost, and the enemy gunfighter is no longer there. Hope you didn’t expect to practice your gun-fighting.
But let’s be clear: even the sum of all these problems wouldn’t cause my very low opinion of this game. I dashed myself against the jagged rocks of Dark Souls‘ difficulty curve and ultimately mastered it. I’m willing to lose if there’s the promise of eventually winning. It’s not the randomness or the difficulty of the controls that eventually led to my final ‘DEAD’ screen.
It’s that RDR was released in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Ten, and when I died to some freak accident, some random encounter, some poorly-timed cougar arrival, I lost all my progress since I had last physically instructed the game to save.
On at least one occasion, this was nearly two hours of progress.
Halo: Combat Evolved was released in 2001. It had no save mechanic. Instead, you periodically reached a checkpoint, and if you failed, you restarted from that checkpoint. This seemed to me, at the time, to be a revolutionary departure from the ‘quick-save-quick-load’ of shooters I’d played up to that point. It felt awesome to rush headlong into danger, knowing that I could fail, and build on my failures, learn, and eventually win. I looked back on the days of thinking ‘oh crap, this looks bad, better press F5’ with fond contempt. I was so foolish then, to think that was a good way to manage my experience.
I would take quick-save in a goddamn instant over the bundle of rotten bullshit that is the RDR save ‘system’. I don’t even need a modern checkpoint system (though lord knows it would have taken the game to new and dizzying heights of actual playability), I’ll settle for just pressing a button to take a quick snapshot.
I’ve considered the argument that you could conceivably make a bad decision, and leave yourself with a save game that is nearly unplayable because of how bad you fucked up. And I can see how that might be a problem — assuming, of course, that your game designers stopped paying attention to game design sometime in the mid fucking 1990s. Because autosaves, they’re a thing, you know? Independent of user-initiated saves?
I want to step back from the nuts and bolts of RDR’s busted mechanics and feature set, and talk for a moment about the ‘open world’. All games are now ‘open worlds’, mostly to their detriment; it turns out that I don’t need yet another faux NYC to race cars through, and the charm of driving a sports car off the top of a hundred-story skyscraper is pretty much used up after one playthrough of Crackdown.
But if there were ever a game that really ought to be an ‘open world’, it’s RDR. The American west is all about open frontiers, endless horizons, huge skies, distant mountains, and a sense that in any direction you choose to ride, there’s adventure.
Unfortunately for RDR, they managed only the seeming of an open world, not the substance. Let me use an example from a really excellent game that handles the concept of the open world in a nearly perfect way: Batman: Arkham City.
Here’s this big chunk of city, full of buildings and back alleyways and docks and churches and towers and apartments. Down on the streets, stuff is happening. People are getting menaced by criminals, supervillains are plotting, bad guys are lurking. The world is improbably alive with all manner of content, everywhere you look. Glide from building A to building B, and chances are good you’ll pass a half-dozen nefarious deeds taking place.
You have a mission, but you’re also the goddamn Batman, and part of the thing that makes you who you are is that putting your bat-fist in some criminal faces is always topical. So you drop down on Joker’s Minion #451 and use his head as a football for a while. Then you get back to tracking down Two-Face or solving another goddamn Riddler Room or whatever you were doing. This makes sense. Punching those mooks along the way is part of the Batman Story, and when you later avoid some thugs because fuck it, you’ve got better things to do, that’s also part of the Batman Story.
This is open world gameplay done correctly. Go wherever you like. Wherever you go, there is something for you to do that feels like part of the story you’re experiencing.
RDR falls way, way short of this ideal.
In the first place, the content you encounter is weirdly dense for the setting. Big open stretches of desert are constantly alive with the pop-pop-pop of distant gunfire, like you were taking a trip through south central Los Angeles at three in the morning. You’re never alone; pause for a moment and someone will come running up through thickets of cactus to ask for help or try to steal your horse. (The horse thieves were my favorite, since knocking a man with a loaded rifle off his horse and trying to ride off is basically Wild West Suicide 101.) You can’t mosey down a path without someone challenging you to a bird shooting competition or trying to ambush you from behind an overturned stagecoach. Every hill has vicious murderous animals lurking behind it.
It’s too much; it’s a density of tropes, not of action. It feels like every western movie ever made, all trying to happen to you simultaneously, none of them aware of any of the others. I reached a point where, seeing the damsel in distress ambush by the side of the road for the tenth time, I’d just lead off by headshotting her and riding off. Not worth the effort anymore.
I’m a former bandit, I’m a hard-ass, I’m tracking down a bad man — that’s the story of John Marston. But I’m also a hunter and a flower-picker and a gambler and a herder and a cop and a naturalist and just about everything else anyone has ever been in any western movie. It’s incoherent. Suddenly, emerging from an hour of looking for one last herb, you ask yourself: wasn’t there something else I was supposed to be doing? Wasn’t there someone I had to find? Isn’t my wife being held hostage right this very instant?
And that’s the real failing. I can do all these random things, some of them more fun than others, but none of them feel like the thing that the story of John Marston is about. I’m not Batman, punching faces; it’s more like Batman, pausing in the middle of his hunt for the Joker to teach some kids how to skateboard. Could Batman do that? Sure, probably; he’s Batman. Does it make sense in the context of the story about hunting down the Joker? No, it really doesn’t. So instead RDR has this open world full of things that are not the story of John Marston, that aren’t even relevant to that story, that make as much sense as a sudden Bollywood dance sequence would make.
All of that said, I still really wanted to like RDR. I forced myself to keep playing it, because I wanted to have some kind of amazing Western experience. I wanted to be Wyatt Earp, putting the fear of God into the bad guys, just for a moment. I thought the game would eventually give me that.
So I cross over into Mexico, and it’s night-time, and as I cross over, it starts to rain. My horse is trudging along the dark path, and lightning starts to flicker across the vast, cloudy sky. The first crash of thunder hits, and a mournful song starts to play. It’s fantastic, this moment: it’s evocative and nearly perfect. I’m alone, on the run, betrayed and wounded, it’s not clear what the future holds. The rain courses off me, and I, the player, shiver with sympathetic cold.
Then, unseen in the dark, coyotes sneak up, kill my horse, and then kill me.
That’s Red Dead Redemption.