Red Dead Redemption 2, an expansive, epic open world video game exploring America’s wild frontiers, was released to widespread critical acclaim on Friday. It comes from Grand Theft Auto developers, Rockstar Games, but is rather more slow paced and sumptuous than its urban, adolescent brother.
It is a vivid transportation to 19th century American heartlands. The protagonist outlaw Arthur Morgan, a member of the rowdy Dutch Van der Linde gang, roams the vast prairies and towering mountains on his incredibly lifelike horse, trying to hustle his way through the bandit fuelled world to survive.
This week at MTM, we look at this ground-breaking game – and its impact on the entertainment landscape.
Quality of experience
Arthur Morgan’s world is hugely immersive and phenomenally detailed. Rainwater drips from trees, the crackling of a campfire is a companion on a wintry night, and the ripple of hooves echoing across a disturbed mountain pool is matched only by the ever growing itch of Arthur Morgan’s beard. This universe is so authentic it blurs the distinction between fiction and reality and sets a new standard for constructed realism.
Behind this veil of creation is a vast amount of technical expertise (and too much blood and sweat). Delivered on full native 4K, the developers’ dedication is astounding – rendering the sky through volumetric solutions rather than flat textures, and modelling characters’ walks from actual humans. The deep skies and familiar gaits provide the backdrop to 500,000 lines of dialogue with 300,000 animations between them.
Loosening the narrative
And these lines are needed as the narrative sprawls as far as the Rocky Mountains. Although there is over 60 hours of mainline narrative to follow, players have taken instead to merely, well, living in this alternative reality. “There’s action in the form of shootouts, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback”, writes Keza Macdonald in the Guardian, “but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire.”
This is a world that has been lauded for creating room to breathe, rather than an incessant need to reach the next checkpoint. It is a kind of narrative storytelling where the direction is shaped by the consumer. A day can be filled with firearms or fishing; action or relaxation. There is no set linear path that compels the constructs around, instead there is a malleable narrative to suit all desires and encourage exploration of the immersive setting.
This setting fits into a wider trend of exploring America’s past (and present), a Wild West frontier mythology tinged with the human need of acceptance and family (in Red Dead you belong to a camp that you can choose to protect or neglect). In revisiting and reimagining America’s past, it is the perfect companion to these politically charged times.
And there have been others like it. HBO’s hit TV show, Westworld, reintroduced the public to this lawless era, igniting a resurgence of the historical Western as an expression of American values, including 2018’s The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal in 1850s Oregon, and the upcoming Trail of Justice, a post-Civil War Western following gunslinger Drew Wesley. In addition, there is a slew of films and TV programmes set on ranches showing rural heartland America today, including Yellowstone and The Ranch.
Content creators and producers should take note: Red Dead Redemption 2 is already the most successful entertainment launch of 2018, making £650m in retail sales in its first three days, eclipsing the £490m Avengers Infinity War captured. The gaming industry has once again moved the concept of an entertainment blockbuster forward, albeit by looking back at an apparently simpler time. We wait to see how (and whether) the movie and TV industries, in response, will produce anything as compelling or as lucrative in 2019.