One of the most pointless arguments in the world of gaming is whether games are art. That this was triggered by famed film critic Roger Ebert saying they aren't is telling, because the one thing video games frequently do in an attempt to "become" art is try to emulate popular movies. This has never been clearer than with Red Dead Redemption 2, the sequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption.
The first game was a rousing adventure set in the Wild West just as the railroads were coming in, heralding an end to the era of cowboys and outlaws. It had a compelling narrative and a wide open world to explore, hunt and skin animals, collect herbs and stumble into adventure, even if you ignored the main story.
Red Dead Redemption 2, which is available on the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 for Rs 3,999, is an attempt to make things bigger and better and it does succeed in many ways. But it also stumbles in balancing its cinematic ambitions and the demands of an interactive medium, a line that the first game had carefully tiptoed along.
Red Dead Redemption 2 creates a frighteningly detailed world where you have to understand dozens of different systems and manage them all at once. There is so much you can do in this game that the controls themselves suffer due to it—you'll find countless tweets about people who were trying to talk and accidentally shot someone; and people trying to get off their horse but accidentally rode it into a tree. At the same time, the actual story being told is gripping and manages to flesh out a range of characters and their motivations well—which can often seem at odds with the larger open world and its emergent narratives.
Drowning in the details
There is a richness to everything you do in Red Dead Redemption 2. To use a cinematic term, the game has beautiful animation—this looks great the first few times, but because there are only so many ways to skin a wolf, things get very repetitive. A life of hunting in the wild might sound like a nice break from reality, but do you actually want to first find the right kinds of animal, then sneak around to observe if they're in good condition and make sure you shoot them with the right kind of arrow before cutting them to pieces? And we're not done yet! You're not going to end up with a nice and useful item in your inventory that easily. No, you also have to carry the carcass around until you find your horse, and tough luck if you run into a bear along the way.
There's a vast selection of clothing and you can customise the details of the world to an often ridiculous degree. You can get your guns engraved, and actions like reloading your revolver or opening your journal are all accompanied by animation that shows you taking the book out and turning to a fresh page, or pushing bullets in one by one.
It's great to look at, and makes the game all the more realistic, but also seems quite unnecessary. The time spent in watching repetitive graphics like this doesn't make the game feel more real. You're not moving around in real life by pushing little sticks on a controller, and you're not magically moving in slow motion to mark your targets, so it doesn't stand that faithfully recreating tiny details of what are mundane activities in the game will make it better.
What about the positive reviews?
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a long game, and it took us two weeks of daily sessions to finally finish it, with a dogged focus on the main story. Even before the game released, though, it was made available to reviewers in the US (though the gaming press in India allegedly got review copies only on the launch date) and so there are already a lot of reviews out there. And the critical consensus seems to be overwhelmingly positive: it has a 97/100 score on Metacritic, the leading reviews aggregator.
And maybe that's the problem. Because the main story of Red Dead Redemption 2 is extremely gripping. If you're a critic who needs to meet a deadline, it's possible that your focus is on playing only the main story missions (so you can say that you officially "finished" the game) and not exploring the wider world that Red Dead Redemption 2 offers.
That brings us back to the question, though, about whether we're dealing with a video game or a movie. A movie doesn't make you restart at a checkpoint if you fail a quiz at the end of a scene. But in the game, you have to complete missions, and if you fail them, you have no choice but to restart. The result is an inferior sort of movie, like someone trying very hard to recreate an episode of Westworld, rather than a deeply realised game.
20 hours later
Having spent a good deal of time in Red Dead Redemption 2, we can say that it is an immense accomplishment. The visual splendour of its world is often jaw-dropping, and you'll notice the tiny details, like the muscles bunching under your horse's skin as it gallops, or how lived-in the world feels, with people to rescue from bear traps and bar fights, and wolves to hunt and skin. There's always something to do, and it's hard not to be awed by how much the developers were able to accomplish.
Your character, Arthur Morgan, is a gruff criminal with a dark past, and the gang leader Dutch van der Linde is simply fantastic. Without giving away the plot, we can say it's gripping and there's a real sense of struggle as the characters all grow over the course of the narrative.
But at the same time, this strongly plotted narrative falls at odds with the wide open world that's been created for you to explore. The honour system keeps track of when you do honourable things and when you break the laws, and if you're a very honourable player you get discounts, while villains get... to do more fun things? But the narrative itself is the story of a conflicted man who struggles with his darkness, and so even if you've been playing a highly honourable man who follows the law and saves people, you might still have to shoot someone while he piteously begs for his life in order to advance a mission.
To be clear, this isn't something you do because it feels like your character has no choice but to make this decision. You do this because otherwise the game won't let you carry on.
Moments of brilliance
So if that's the case, why would you put those 20-40-however-many hours into the game? Well, for one thing, perhaps there are people who don't mind watching the same animation again and again and again as they skin virtual turtle after virtual turtle. And while I'd rather not be left alone in a room with them, it takes all kinds of people to make the world, doesn't it?
The details of the game are amazing, and the central storyline is powerfully told. The controls are sluggish, which was a deliberate decision—after all, you're playing a man, not a superhero who can spin around 180-degrees and then run at top speed—but this doesn't really feel comfortable after years of being trained by other games. Despite that, the actual gunfights are tremendously enjoyable, possibly because it's one of the places where the developers decided they didn't need to stick to tedious realism. And just to look at (and listen to) this game is simply mind-boggling.
The sheer scope of what Rockstar has accomplished is impressive, and makes this one of the few new games that have been added to the library. There are moments of brilliance scattered throughout the game, which are just side stories you can choose to explore or not. These small stories give you a sense of what could have been. Red Dead Redemption 2 leaves a lasting impression, but it could have been even more meaningful if it wasn't frustrating in ways that feel completely needless.