Red Dead Redemption 2 is a difficult game to wrap your head around. While it opens with an entertaining introduction to the Van der Linde Gang that functions as a tutorial to the title’s basic mechanics, it quickly sets you loose in a hostile world with very little information. It’s hard to get things done in Red Dead Redemption 2, partially because it doesn’t hold players’ hands and partially because of its sheer size. There are so many mechanics that the game asks you to pay attention to, from hunting to crafting to keeping an eye on your characters health core levels, and even more that you have to figure out for yourself. It all becomes very overwhelming as the “tutorial” part of the game spills out of the opening segment and continues well into the journey. Coupled with an awkward movement system and unforgiving enemies, and the first dozen or so hours with this apparent Game of the Year contender can be filled with more frustration than excitement. But then you hit a turning point and things start to click, eventually revealing the game to be an impressive achievement in world building and game design.
For me, that turning point came on my second day with the game. I had been having fun, but earning money was proving difficult and most of my enjoyment stemmed from main story missions. While exploring the open world, I often felt a sense of listlessness and after dumping a number of hours into the game I found myself less than impressed with a title for which I had waited eight years. Then I dug up a hidden treasure I’d spent hours hunting only to find another hint rather than the money I had been hoping for as a reward. Then a wolf ate me. Then my horse failed to jump over a low-lying log and sent me flying into the ground. Irritated, lost in the wilderness, and at my wit’s end, I decided to give up on the game’s sprawling open world. The main story would be my focus since that was the only thing I could count on for enjoyment. At least for the time being.
On my way back to town, however, a train started to pass me by. The game displayed a small hint in the corner of the screen telling me that it was possible to hijack it. It felt like a dare.
I raced my horse through the winding mountain paths until I was close enough to leap onto the moving car. I dispatched the conductor and fended off the armed guards rushing to stop me. At this point, my adrenaline had started pumping. As I started clearing out the shelves and robbing the passengers, reinforcements came in the form of bounty hunters and lawmen. Robbing a train solo was proving much more difficult without my gang to back me up. I had to multitask, watching out for enemies while accosting passengers to throw their money at me. After dispatching the last of my attackers, I looted the caboose until I literally couldn’t carry anything else, hopped off the track, called my trusty steed, and rode off with the train still stranded on the steep mountainside.
I used the considerable funds I had collected to treat myself in town. I purchased two new guns and personalized a revolver I’d had my eye on for some time. Then I went to the general store to update my outfit for the first time, turning the default avatar of Arthur Morgan into my personal interpretation of the character. Lastly, I purchased a new saddle for the horse that had carried me through the high stakes adventure. It took me many hours but I had finally taken ownership of my experience. Suddenly the whole game took on a new light. I started moving through the world with confidence rather than cautiousness.
You can’t simply wander through the wilderness and expect to make meaningful progress. So I proceeded to spend hours in the wild forcing myself to come to grips with the deep and slow-paced design of the game’s hunting without worrying about the main story and slowly built up a familiarity with the vast open world. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that you have to play intentionally.
It’s now a week after I robbed that train and, to be honest, I sill get overwhelmed by the game. Hunting and crafting are far more complex than I had realized even just a few days ago, huge swaths of the frontier remain undiscovered, and the game continues to introduce new mechanics. To a certain degree, it almost feels like work. Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t have the easy to pick up nature of Breath of the Wild or the immediate grandeur of God of War. Both of those games and many others put most of their cards on the table within the first few hours, but Red Dead Redemption 2 makes you search for them. It’s almost inaccessibly complex and when you’re first starting out that can result in a lot of irritation. It’s even tempting to give up at times. But it’s worth it to keep pushing forward, even if progress feels slow. The complexity and depth present in each system are what make the world so incredibly immersive and the feeling of being overwhelmed slowly but surely gives way to a sense of awe.
That doesn’t mean everything about the game is perfect, however. Although Red Dead Redemption 2 presents an excellent approximation of reality, however, there are still moments where the cracks show. The robust interaction system works amazing for the most part, but there are moments when your actions can have results that you didn’t intend and couldn’t expect, causing old frustrations to reemerge. Furthermore, while the moment to moment gameplay is solid, it lacks the same kind of inherent entertainment value as something like a Super Mario game. Red Dead Redemption 2 relies on its context, on its excellent presentation and varied mission design, to make the effort worthwhile. When these aspects falter, the game suffers. Fortunately, these instances are rare and the fundamental shooting mechanics are strong enough to hold up even the less intriguing missions. But this is why getting comfortable with the open world is so difficult. You have to make your own context rather than being inspired by what the game gives you.
Still, Red Dead Redemption 2’s greatest strength is how it draws players into its world. On reflection, what strikes me most about my turning point with the train robbery is how closely my personal emotions resembled those expressed by Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang. To them, civilization and the broader scheme of society have taken away the life they want to live. It’s a system that doesn’t want them, that keeps hurting them and the ones they love. They’ve been driven into the dirt too many times to count, and they’re fed up with it. They’ll take their new life by whatever means they have at their disposal. This sense of taking back that which was owed to you, that which was taken or withheld, is the same source of frustration that led me to rob the train. I believe that experience connected me with the game personally as if I am now actually inhabiting a tangible world rather than controlling a video game designed to entertain me. That shift has made all the difference, allowing me to find satisfaction in even the game’s more banal activities. I have since started down a more honorable path because it seems like the choice Arthur is inclined to make at this point in his journey, but tapping into his frustration and anger is what allowed me to enjoy getting to this more righteous state. Now I’m hoping that it can lead both him and me to redemption.