I’ve been begging for more of NPR’s excellent series, Reading the Game, which explores the crossover between literary and video game narrative. I got my wish, a few months ago, when Jason Sheehan wrote on last year’s Game of the Year contender, Red Dead Redemption 2.
The game’s old news now, but even so I can’t help but thinking back to this game, this 50-hour-long glance at the Wild West: a period so warped by American mythology that it’s difficult to think of as a real place.
RDR2’s story opens in the most unforgiving of mountain ranges, where a blizzard whips and batters a poor caravan as it slogs through the snow. If I had ignored the prior text scrawls, I would have no idea this caravan belongs to the notorious Van der Linde gang.
The gang takes shelter at an abandoned settlement, where Dutch van der Linde, the leader, makes a motivational speech. There’s no music—just the voice of a man talking to his starving, crumbling followers.
It’s here where a little exposition is dropped, but it’s not much to go on. The gang’s running from a job-gone-wrong in some place called Blackwater. A few characters, who I never got to know, are already dead. That’s all I know.
It’s important to note that RDR2is not a chronological sequel to its predecessor. It’s essentially a prequel. Knowledge of the first game, while helpful, barely serves a purpose here.
After Dutch’s speech, the player takes control of Arthur Morgan, the main protagonist and Dutch’s pseudo-right-hand man. I say “pseudo-right-hand” because the gang hierarchy goes mostly unsaid. Characters flow in and out of Dutch’s graces. Arthur starts somewhere near the top.
Immediately, I realize how loyal Arthur is to Dutch and the gang. He says little. He rarely hesitates. He does ask questions though, and it’s here where RDR2’s conflict is set in motion. All’s not right with the Van der Linde gang, and Dutch’s credibility is already being called into question.
The player’s first task as Arthur is to find food. That’s all. Not shoot up a saloon. Not rob a bank. Just find food. How quaint for a developer like Rockstar Games, whose pedigree has largely been defined bythe Grand Theft Auto franchise. This is not a loud and proud opening. This is cinematic but reserved and self-contained.
Early on, I’ve already discovered what this game is about. This is about people. This is about struggle, natural and man-made. This is about a man with a vision, Dutch, and his followers as they seek to keep up with him. This is about one follower in particular, Arthur—loyal to the vision yet a cut above the others.
It’s a slow opening for sure, something that you would sooner see in a book or a 5-season Netflix series. The freedom of the open world doesn’t really become “open” for the first few hours, and for some, that’s just too long for a video game. I had one friend who quit the game just an hour in—because he said it was so slow.
And I guess that’s fine. Games are games for a reason. They’re meant to be played and interacted with.
But as a writer, I’m inspired by games like RDR2—ones that take their time, develop their characters, and weave an engaging story.