After four years in corporate America and in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s time I admit that I don't have the energy for big honkin’ open world games. Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s magnum opus (until they inevitably release another magnum opus), knocked me on my ass the first time I played it back in 2018. Even in quarantine, with nothing to do except stay inside, it still burned me out. In my words ahead, I will try to answer why Red Dead beat me so bad, and there will be spoilers that help me do so along the way.
Red Dead leaves you with many questions, the first of which is how on earth did they manage to make a game with this scope, graphical integrity, and depth of character? Given the stories about barbaric working hours at Rockstar, I think we’ve pretty much settled on that one.
The next question is... why? Why do I want to feed my virtual horse carrots? Why do I care about hunting squirrels to keep myself from the dreaded “underweight” status? Why do I come back to a game after having my heart ripped out when our hero slowly wheezes to death from tuberculosis (especially when there's a deadly respiratory illness right outside my window)? And lastly, why the hell do I care who or where Gavin is?
In many ways I feel a kindred spirit with the Rockstar dev team. I, too, logged massive amounts of overtime slogging through this slow, strange, brilliant game. I have spent two years trying to figure out what made something so good feel like such a chore. After playing Red Dead a second time, a few years older, I think I finally figured it out. It’s simply too real. So thoroughly have Rockstar succeeded in breathing life into a game and its characters that it ceases to be an escape and instead becomes a reflection of the same miseries we face in the real world: tedium, failure, betrayal, the inevitability of our own demise.
No doubt, Rockstar’s Western tragedy transcends the genre, bringing us closer to the Wild West than John Wayne (or Marston in round one) ever could. Not only does it transport us there, it exposes the Wild West for what it really is: a deep-seated, yet ultimately false American myth. Societies of antiquity contextualized their culture within the craftwork of the gods. The American gods were those of the fabled West, sphinxlike rogues and individualists who sought freedom at any cost.
Red Dead teaches us that those nameless, faceless heroes are like any other human. Each is broken in their own special way, like Sadie Adler, the loving wife turned homicidal sentinel. Each is capable of treachery and deception, like Micah Bell with his Machiavellianist bent, or Dutch with his five-and-dime charisma. Each is ultimately doomed to the same fate we all face, like our dying hero Arthur Morgan. In the context of 2020, a year in which any lingering notions of American exceptionalism have crumbled under the weight of Coronavirus, it feels fitting to revisit a story that challenges the myths that fueled those beliefs. And the unraveling of those ideals feels all the more poignant and exhausting because they mirror the unraveling of American identity in the real world today.
Now that I’ve given my opinion, I want to give some context about my gaming diet during quarantine. I started quarantine by tearing through The Witcher 3, which took me all of 120 hours (again, a second playthrough). I then braved the frosted shores of Midgard in God of War, which felt mercifully short by comparison. But as soon as the credits rolled, I moved onto Red Dead. I made mistakes. Thoughts above.
As soon as Arthur wheezed his last breath, I turned the game off. Fuck it. I couldn’t do the 20-hour epilogue with John Marston. I just couldn’t. I spent the better part of the next morning waffling between Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Metal Gear Solid V, both of which have been collecting digital dust in my library. I played through the intro of MGSV, had a blast, and then immediately shut the game off when I got to the open world.
When I thought of scouring another perfectly crafted world with dozens of side quests, I felt a palpable nausea. I was sweating. My stomach gnarled in protest. I lost the will to slog through another 60-100 hour game. I was battered and broken. Seeking refuge from open-world anti-heros and their petty side quests, I bought Hitman 2 on sale.
Hitman 2 feels like a gift from the gods. I don’t need to feed Agent 47. I don’t need to look after 23 other characters, each with their own fully fleshed out story. I don’t need to persevere through 10 hours of gameplay with a terminal illness. I don’t need to try and find Gavin. If there is a Gavin in Hitman, I already tranqed him with horse sedatives and stuck him in an armoire somewhere.
The formula for Hitman 2 is simple. I spend one hour on a mission. Imagine that: a mission. With borders and a limited list of objectives. In that mission, I am free to choose how I want to approach said objectives, and I get a whiff of infinite possibility without the infinitude of an open world game. As I dispose of my targets' bodies and head for the exit, I take comfort in knowing that there isn’t a giant world waiting for me once I complete it. When it’s done, it’s done. And with the world falling apart outside with no end in sight, a little comletion goes a long way.
It’s going to be a while before I hop back into an open world. I’m dreaming of The Last of Us 2. Because it’s a Naughty Dog title, I know it’ll be perfect, like Red Dead. Because I’ve played the first game, I know the story will tear me apart, like Red Dead. But I also know it’ll be mercifully contained. And I will take solace in that. That is... until Ghost of Tsushima kicks down my door, hogties me to a chair, tapes my eyes open, and gives me fifty lashes until I’m running around at 3am desperately trying to find the Gavins of feudal Japan.
Ghost of Tsushima: You down for another 60 hour campaign?