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Red Dead Remorseful Over Rockstar's Player Immersion

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. He aspires to be a doctor and lawyer and such.

"We're bad men, but we ain't them."

"We're bad men, but we ain't them."

A Criminal's Grasp of Sophistry

Having finally finished Red Dead Redemption II, I'm able to publish my thoughts on it, even though my impressions remained mostly consistent from start to finish. It's a fine game, and I don't mean fine as in 'adequate' or 'average': it's so fine it's practically brittle. If Rockstar were to sharpen its edges any more, the whole thing would snap in two on contact with a release date announcement. You get the idea.

However good a time I had with RDR2, I could've enjoyed it a lot more without some of its widely criticised and equally defended attempts at player immersion. I say attempts, because there's not a single feature that can be added to a game to make it more immersive to everyone playing it. Music for example—however fitting for its setting and mood—might not be as well-received as silence. Doom (2016)'s soundtrack doesn't quite do it for me where the 1993 original did, due to the variety of genres it used from cha-cha-chá to the ambient whining of electric guitars (as composer Bobby Prince didn't think metal was appropriate for the entire game).

Then there's turn-based combat versus real-time with pause, which I've already talked about. Or first-person versus third-person views which fundamentally changes how much of the world and characters you can see at any one time, plus developers have to take into consideration field of view, motion sickness and other real-life factors beyond preference.

And then there's the issue of controls.

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Red Dead Redemption II runs brilliantly on my now-mid end PC, which is more than can be said for how Arthur Morgan and co. travel east after their failed raid on Blackwater. So why the game requires me to travel so slowly as though it's some clever background loading or rendering technique, I'm not entirely sure. Developer Rockstar wants you to enjoy the visuals and take your time, but they are very forceful in this approach. Despite the stunning combination of motion capture and voice acting, Morgan moves unnaturally. I'd say he moves like a machine but that doesn't convey the invisible weight that can be physically felt on his shoulders and calves. Sprinting feels unpolished in a stark contrast to how well the rest of the game is cleaned up. The same applies to the horses which, despite their different breeds and stats, don't feel unique so much as featuring varying levels of clumsiness.

These are further exemplified by parts where you're forced to walk so you don't miss a beat in the dialogue, but that begs the question of allowing players to take the longer route at a normal pace if the developers don't cut down the word count. I have a hard enough time appreciating the 100-hour work weeks some of the staff were doing, and this doesn't help. Now sure, the end result is the same but the way it feels is very different, and the feel of a video game is one of the medium's greatest considerations. I'll add that I thoroughly enjoyed the optional dialogues that you can have with your fellows on a ride after they've said their piece, but to see them all you either have to slow down to hear them all the way through or target them and choose to initiate that dialogue quickly. If the game had to cart me to a jail cell I'd sit through that instead of a load screen if it meant I could talk to the bounty hunters or the deputies on the way there, because the writing is so good.

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My criticisms are mostly in universum as the mollasses-slow gameplay does have its ups and downs. The ups are the reason why I don't think the game can be any more slippery smooth than sandpaper, such as when Arthur Morgan makes an important discovery about his health. Such a scene would conflict with the tone of the rest of the game, and suddenly making the game slower as a result of his affliction would make it seem like a downgrade in addition to the deficiency of healing items present at that point. Outside of the story missions though, there's no need for Morgan's doddering or the compulsory extensive animations in other actions such as cleaning weapons, skinning, hogtying and so on.

While I'm all for a compromise between developers and players, there's not a lot of room for such ideas when the game paces itself as well as it does. It's so fundamental to the tone and quite possibly the engine (and let's be honest, the developer's egos) that it can't simply be flipped with a switch for those who want it and those who don't.

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Red Dead Redemption II tries so hard to immerse players it forgets the various ways it can. Its user interface is clean and tries to tie as many functionalities to gamepads as it can without being confusing. That's how I get immersed in a game, and it succeeds . . . mostly. It forgets about things like UI elements such as ammo counters not being near the map, funds not being visible or the names of weapons being displayed. Playing Grand Theft Auto III as I write this has made me realise there's a lot of lessons Rockstar could still learn from their days of less visual real estate, or couldn't add in their exhaustion crunching with their latest cowboy romp.

Immersion, authenticity and realism are all very tricky things to implement in a game. Even if developers nail it, they can still have a tough time from an audience that doesn't expect or want their decisions. Despite my myriad complaints here and elsewhere, I respect Rockstar for not changing their artistic vision for greater mainstream appeal. I hope they can respect those who couldn't dream of reaching that same appeal if they tried.

Perhaps that's for the best.