A Question of Tone


#1

EDIT: It seems to due a comedy of errors (and perhaps some bugs), I watched the described scene in a very different way than other people-- I think I had accidentally hit cinematic mode, and I was locked behind the character without knowing it wasn’t a cut scene and it all went wrong from there. Whoops. heehee

Content Warning: Red Dead Redemption 2 spoilers and… sigh… implied beastiality.

Well over 40 hours into my adventures in the old west of Red Dead Redemption 2, trying to wrap up the SECOND epilogue in what had been increasingly a real slog, I watched as my playable character, his back to me, apparently blew a dog. His son, standing right next to him, screamed things like, “Suck it, dad!” and, in a tone of horror and betrayal one might exude had they walked in on such a scene, “Dad! Rufus! NO!”.

To explain the scene-- your son’s dog, Rufus, gets bit by a snake in his hind leg, and you have to suck out the poison to save the dog. But with the framing and the dialogue, it is 100% for certain what Rockstar had in mind here.

I turned the game off.

It wasn’t the actual act suggested on screen that had upset my delicate sensibilities. My back ground is in punk music and exploitation films. I think John Waters should be on the 20 dollar bill and this could have been a scene from one of his older flicks. No, it was just the fact that after what seemed like a heartfelt attempt from Rockstar to make a game with some real gravity, some really good story beats at times, a deep (for Rockstar anyway) character who I really believed in, it had all led here: An absolutely on purpose dog blowing joke. We had gone from The Wild Bunch to Old Tyme Canine Fellatio Simulator in an instance. A game that I felt had begged me to take it seriously for so long had finally snapped my goodwill by turning around and laughing in my face. The tone had been broken forever.

OK, Rockstar is not the greatest example to use-- they have charitably been called “irreverent” their entire career (problematic and juvenile might be another way to describe them). But still the question came to mind: Is one sustained tone a reasonable thing to expect from something like a 60 hour plus interactive experience? Consistent tone in something like a novel or a film or a TV series is one thing, but in a medium that demands so much side stuff, so much content, am I simply being a big baby that my shoot 'em up cowboy story was interrupted by edge lord humor?

In short, what are your expectations of “tone” concerning longer games?


#2

Uhh, I read this scene/mission much, much differently than you, so I don’t quite think you can say that this was 100% what Rockstar intended.

In fact, all of the writing in this sequence felt very heartfelt and sincere to me. After you return home, the conversation with Jack is tender, sad, and tonally consistent with the rest of the main storyline. I don’t see how this sequence lends itself to your interpretation, to be honest. It isn’t that Rockstar hasn’t pulled this kinda crap in the past, or that RDR2 doesn’t have some tasteless material, but I really, really don’t think they intended to include a dog fellatio gag in a sequence about coming to grips with mortality.


#3

I respect your opinion, and certainly everyone can read things differently, but for me a boy shouting “SUCK IT, DAD!” as dad has his back to the camera, his head bobbing up and down over the back half of the dog, I don’t think leaves much up to interruption-- who would yell SUCK IT, like that when speaking about poison? I felt like the scene was very, very on purpose. And it is 100% in line with Rockstar.


#4

I also read the scene as an earnest attempt at rescuing a dog, tonally consistent with the rest of the main story.

All of the hot trash garbage I usually associate with R* was relegated to the strangers missions in this game.

But to answer your question…

In video games, I expect games to be mostly tonally inconsistent. Especially with larger, open world affairs like this one. When you have a team of writers and designers split up to handle different tasks that’s bound to happen. There are inconsistencies in the writing between main and side stories in most games of this size.

Tbh, RDR2 is kind of a weird exception imo. Because it does mostly manage to keep those glaringly different pieces of writing separate and in their own part of the game.


#5

Maybe I didn’t explain myself clearly enough-- I know in the story he is saving the dog, but my take was that it felt obvious to me that Rockstar specifically chose the angle, the area of the wound and Jack’s very odd dialogue so it would be hard to NOT think of the sex act that is being implied. I absolutely think that “joke” is on purpose-- there is no way anyone, especially Rockstar, would be naive enough to set that up just that way and not notice-- they could have put the camera in a place where the act wasn’t being obscured, put the wound on the front paw, had Jack cry about his dog instead of saying things like SUCK IT DAD and DON’T SWALLOW! But I certainly didn’t mean that he was ACTUALLY in the story servicing the dog. But the joke was made, and that was the thing impacting the tone for me.

As for your take on large games, I feel mostly the same. It’s why I think drama is hard to do on a larger scale.

I also feel like this is a weird game for sure. My feelings on it have really changed from say 10 hours in to 40.


#6

Okay, so I found the scene in question on YouTube because it’s been a minute since I’ve seen that mission.

I’m posting it so… spoiler warning to anyone who hasn’t gotten here yet:

John is clearly sucking on Rufus’s foot. The camera defaults to an angle at the side that shows this. You also have control over the camera position sooo…

The dialogue “suck it dad” said by Jack is like the only thing that stands out to me as maybe being a joke??


#7

Very weird. When I played, I swear to you there were black bars indicating a cut scene (maybe I accidentally had hit cinematic mode?) and I was stuck at one camera angle-- hence my feeling here. Obviously when you show this, I am 100% incorrect but when I played, I was stuck in an angle from the back and couldn’t see this shot at ALL. I understand why people think I was weird now hahahaha! This angle clearly shows it to be the dramatic scene it was meant to be while what I was watching totally looked like an outtake from a bad National Lampoon Movie. And the L2 only had the command SUCK which added to what I thought was their “joke”. Anyway, mea culpa here. hahahaha-- I edited the original post to explain this. What a messed up series of events.


#8

Hey it happens!

It says a lot that the scene can be framed that way at all tbh. Like, Jack’s dialogue here is still bad.


#9

I think it also goes to show just how much I don’t trust Rockstar-- I still wouldn’t put something like this past them. It just felt SO tonally off, even for them. I suppose my point still stands but I’ve ruined the thread hahahaa. Welp. Probably going to delete it.


#10

WAIT, I still think it’s worth discussing this games tone issues, even if the example you led with isn’t the best one, because I think Red Dead Redemption 2, more than its predecessors, feels like it’s trying to drag itself away from Rockstar’s shtick, but it just can’t cross the finish line.

You can see the evolution start in GTA 4, then RDR1, and even GTA V to an extent, where the irreverent comedy (AKA stupid, offensive, bullshit) becomes more and more isolated and therefore more and more noticeable when it turns up. In RDR2’s case, we’ve reached the point where the game’s critical path just doesn’t have, like, a Florian Cravic or Irish equivalent and even a good chunk of the side content has an empathetic edge and is populated by characters who feel like humans. But, it’s like they can’t help themselves and they have to have Arthur get in a fist fight with a cognitively disabled giant, alongside stuff like Lenny telling him that he, as a white man, wouldn’t notice the ways in which the people of Lemoyne despise black Americans.

It really makes me wish that Houser, Unsworth and Humphries would’ve allowed themselves to hear dissenting voices while they were writing this because at least then there might have been someone to say: “What? NO!”


#11

It’s also worth pointing out while this particular instance wasn’t referring to beastiality, the way the game plays the idea of sucking venom out of people in the game is 100% meant to be an oral sex joke, so this reading isn’t completely off base.


#12

All very good points, and I agree. It IS like they can’t help themselves. I think, too, when Waypoint did their RDR1 episodes that they hit on so many other things that bothered me that I hadn’t been able to articulate. The whole libertarian undercurrent in whatever they do is ALWAYS there. They truly do seem to think that if you work hard, you will in the end always get what you want which is just not how the world works.


#13

This is true, too. Thanks for giving me some hope :wink: Seriously I didn’t open this thread for the rest of yesterday because of how stupid I felt for barging in with my “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT DOG BLOWING SCENE?!” ugh. hahahahah


#14

Well, I would actually argue that’s NOT a viewpoint the games trying to spread. The scenes that play during the end credits are indicative enough of that.


#15

Not to veer too far from the initial scope of this conversation, but I’ve been thinking about my own tone preferences and expectations a good deal this weekend as a result of this thread. Please bear with me.

First of all, my thoughts are affected by the fact that I lost someone I cared about this weekend, and spent a solid chunk of time in funeral services. But anyhow, human life and existence, serving as template for realism in art, is not tonally consistent. A person who is undergoing deep tumult and tragedy may still find themselves laughing at an absurd occurrence or funny memory. One state of feeling doesn’t necessarily preclude another. We are complicated creatures, emotionally and tonally.

Connecting this to art, I can think of many, many examples of works that balance a certain bleak existentialism, while also indulging in humor, even that of questionable taste. For one example, Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree is largely elegiac in tone, but leaves room for sequences involving characters, um, defiling a watermelon patch for personal pleasure. Pynchon does a good deal of this kind of bawdy and bathetic combo in his books as well.

In terms of games, I recently started playing Yakuza Kiwami (thanks PS+), and I think that this game/series–limited as my exposure and understanding of it happens to be currently–does similar things, tonally. Melodramatic plot twists involving sexual assault push up against all manner of wacky fanservice. And yet, I cannot say that the inclusion of goofy-ass fanservice undermines the subject matter, as much as complicates it. Would a po-faced tone make the game better? The cultish devotion Yakuza fans bear towards the series makes me think not.

In general, I feel that maximalist tones are more representative of the ways we survive in the world. This isn’t to dismiss any poorly handled material in RDR2 (such as the side mission with the carnival folk), but rather to admit that what we consider as “good taste” is often rooted in Western notions of quality–refer to Yakuza, or even better, the films of Sion Sono–and that it’s also a dishonest representation of the actual experience of life.

This same weekend, after all the speeches and funeral processions, I came home and watched Mandy. For those who are unaware, Mandy is a death metal fever dream involving death cults, fantasy novels, and chainsaw fights. Despite immersion in multiple poor taste milieus, Mandy perhaps works best as a meditation on death and loss, inspired by the death of the director’s father. The film is often hilarious, or at least jaw-dropping, but few of its garish touches dampen the film’s emotional impact. Part of me thinks that the uncomfortable balance of tones is the primary reason the film succeeds.

In any case, the TL;DR version of this is that life finds a tonal balance, despite non-stop inconsistencies. Since life is tonally messy, art that is honest should also strive for a certain messiness. Games should be no exception to that, imo.


#16

I hope you pulled up okay from a tough weekend <3

I think in terms of clashing tones, RDR2 is less “someone telling a joke and making you laugh at a funeral” and more “someone telling a racist joke and absolutely not making you laugh but also distracting you from the eulogy”. Tonal inconsistency can totally work if there’s still a thematic consistency. RDR2 fails because it tries to tell a story about a bad man finding redemption before he dies, which requires taking characters and humans more broadly seriously as beings worthy of certain treatment and specific recompense, and then occasionally drops in a joke which fundamentally disregards the value of people. On their own, these jokes are bad and generally inconsiderate (that whole magician family sideplot is ROUGH), but paired with the story being told, they absolutely blow up the feel and tone of much of the main plot.