It's Surprising How Much of 'Red Dead Redemption 2' Doesn't Actually Matter


Every once and awhile in Red Dead Redemption 2, I pick up a new gun. For fun, I guess? It’s impossible to easily compare specs, so if the name sounds cool, I’m in. It’s been a few hours since I randomly picked one up! Sometimes, if I remember, I will clean it. The game tells me it performs better if I do this, and there are lots of impressive-looking bars that fill up if my boy Arthur scrubs away, but I genuinely do not know if it makes a difference because you rarely die in this game, the shooting is not compelling, and the guns all seem the same.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Perhaps it really does come down to the smallest details because I played both Far Cry 5 and RDR2 to near completion and I felt the former was the worst 2018 game I played and the latter was the best.

Both games are trying constantly to grab your attention with shit to do, but Red Dead always seemed to be playing out more naturalistically than anything in FC5, which is ironic, I guess, considering RDR2 is way more scripted in its encounters.


I mean, at a certain point nothing matters.


I think Red Dead 2 is a significantly worse game if you mainline story missions like Patrick alludes to doing in this piece. The fact that the game doesn’t maybe nudge you a little more in the direction of not doing that is a failiing that I think comes from, again what Patrick talks about, the way Rockstar practically segregates the story and the open world. Missions in this game get super repetitive especially in Chapter 3 - doing them in succession you’ll just be in gunfght after gunfight. I distinctly remember a particular mission I was just hoping, just really hoping, would have no gunfight in it. You’re holed up in a barn hiding from the law and it seems like they’re gonna leave. Then one of your dumbass buddies (probably Bill) like kills a dude, or something, and then it’s gunfight time!!!

If this is how it is in the next GTA or whatever game they go for next, I’m going to be pretty disappointed, because the structure just seems dated. I know there’s that long Youtube video on this exact topic, so yeah, maybe someone can post that or I’ll go find a link. Here it is.

It's Surprising How Much of 'Red Dead Redemption 2' Doesn't Actually Matter

Far Cry 5 felt like it was CONSTANTLY trying to get your attention. One of my big problems with that game, and the main reason I finally uninstalled, is that it just could not calm the fuck down.

RDR2 has it’s issues with repeating situations and it’s bad controls, but I felt like the ratio between exploring/forced encounter was a lot more balanced and natural. You could ride a horse in RDR2 for 15 minutes or so without running into anything, while Far Cry 5 demanded you fight a bear as soon as you got done killing Cultists on the road.


You can literally stand still in the middle of nowhere in FC5 and shit will just come to you and fuck with you. Stand in the middle of nowhere in RDR2 and you can, you know, enjoy the scenery and be chill. While Red Dead loves to have people come up to you when you’re riding on your horse, these games have seriously different levels of attention-grabby bullshit. FC5 is practically insecure in itself. Also, RDR2 never thought it was a good idea to take me out of what I was doing nine different times to force me to do a story mission!


I probably spoke impulsively, but a lot of a the Big Games this year, good (AC Odyssey, Spidey) or bad (Far Cry), were like content conveyor belts. I legitimately liked that, in Red Dead, I had to put in slightly more effort to find engaging things and it didn’t really matter that there weren’t any numbers going up.

Patrick’s right in saying that Red Dead’s open world doesn’t truly “matter” but I still think the story of the Van Der Linde gang, going out and hunting because Pearson “needs” supplies, justifies the expense, but I realize that my experience was a very personal one.


For me, it’s exactly that: the window-dressing and “stuff that doesn’t matter” is put together to craft a stunning world that doesn’t actually care that much about its players. It’s part of why Rami Ismail called it an “indie game with a ridiculous budget”–the authorial intent seems so clear so as to ignore some of the quality-of-life mechanics that have defined modern open-world RPGs. As with a lot of discourse around this game, this has the effect of making a poor playing experience for many people. Besides the poor shooting, I did not have nearly as bad a gameplay experience as so many people seemed to have had, and that was probably because I played nothing but this game for 3 weeks after work. I got used to the shooting (in free-aim mode no less), I never got tired of skinning animations, I ran into a total of two or three innocent pedestrians (and feel I deserved the punishment).

The window-dressing, when taken as a whole, create an experience that compels you to be immersed in it. Yes, the hunting, the crafting, the food–everything. Brad Shoemaker, in a last ditch effort to explain his love for the game in Giant Bomb’s 2018 Game of the Year awards, made an impassioned speech describing his desire to “role-play” in a way that a game never made him do before. It’s these moments, and the arc of Arthur Morgan as a character that define Red Dead Redemption 2 for me. I’m unlikely to remember the fact that pomading your hair has no effect on how anybody interacts with you, but I will remember how I did so immediately after becoming a deputy in Rhodes or when I stopped pomading entirely in the later, more desolate chapters of the game.


This is interesting as someone who tried to play RDR2 at launch, fell off almost immediately, and has now gone back.

I’m having a much better time this go of it, and I think a large part of that is because all the talk about “dynamic”, “immersive” systems that the game has is mostly gone.

“The NPCs will react differently if you’re dirty!”
“You can only get hair styles shorter than your current length!”
“Strangers might reward you if you help them!”
“Your gun degrades if you don’t clean it!”

So much of the discourse at launch focused on elements that now seem barely relevant to the game at all. They seem designed to be a bullet point on a marketing sheet.

I’m with Patrick. The interesting parts of the game are Arthur and his relationship to the gang and other characters. It is much better if you stick to missions, or at least if you’re targeting specific tasks or challenges. Just being a cowboy ronin is boring.

full disclosure: this is also exactly how I feel about Breath of the Wild.


I said something similar in the main Red Dead thread, but I think the reason RDR2’s open world does it for me in a way few other ones do is that Rockstar goes to such painstaking lengths to mask the machinery and algorithms that make this world tick in an effort to make you forget, even if only briefly and from time to time, that you are playing around in what is essentially a theme park constructed for you.

Just Cause and Far Cry and AC and wildlands couldn’t care less if you think about how ridiculous this all is and give you the tools up front to fuck about to your hearts content, which is a ton of fun but to me is entirely too short lived. For me to want to exist in a space for any real length of time, I need to believe that I am not the driving force behind any and every occurrence there, that every angry bear within a 10 mile radius is going to gravitate towards me so I have something wacky to keep me interested. Red dead certainly doesn’t do this perfectly (strangers ask for help entirely too often) but those R* resources were put to good work in making a lived in world where I was not the only one going about their day. It is the empty nothing and entirely optional, insignificant parts that a lot of people bemoan in this game that gives me the space to pause, breath, and actually enjoy myself on my own terms.

I mean for god’s sake I actually started role-playing here in a way that I rarely ever do (always found a saloon or hotel for the night to have a nice meal, and a bath every time I was finished playing for the day) something I wouldn’t give a fuck about doing if I couldn’t bring myself to buy into that universe.


i think about game design in something like RDR (and rockstar games in general) in contrast to something like Spelunky. obviously very different games, but in Spelunky, there are hundreds of tiny, very simple systems, which are capable of interacting with each other in very complex ways, since they exist with a unified set of verbs (move, hurt, fall, etc.)

rockstar games similarly tend to have thousands of little systems, but none of them really interact with each other meaningfully, outside of purely physics- or combat-based scenarios. this is going to sound like a peter molydeux tweet, but no matter how much you pet your horse, it’ll never meaningfully change from being A Horse, whereas if you shoot it, it’ll turn into A Dead Horse. no matter how many fish you catch and animals you hunt, you can’t meaningfully change the landscape, or even the way in which you interact with it.

i don’t necessarily want to feel powerful - i’m not suggesting if you pet your horse enough, it should learn to fly (at least not in this game) - but i want things to feel meaningful. rockstar games tend to be emotionally flat, especially in terms of gameplay, because their maximalism is of a “bullet points on the back of the box” style rather than one based on creating a meaningful world.

doesn’t he say he did the exact opposite of this?


Patrick says in the piece he “decided to punt on everything but the story,” and that he’s sticking to story and stranger missions, not going off the beaten path.

(Also I like all the stuff you said)


For me, one the biggest failings (ludonarrative dissonance aside) was the way, narratively, there did not feel like times where arthur could fuck off and do his own thing. I try to usually only wander off the critical path when it feels like it makes sense for the character to do so. Spiderman is a 2018 game that does a pretty good job of this, explicitly giving the player moments between missions where they ARE supposed to wander off and do side stuff. RDR2 doesn’t do this as much, and I think it would have benefitted from some space/time in the narrative between main plot beats where the player is prompted to stop mainlining the story.

I’ve only played through chapter 3-4, so maybe this changes in later missions.


There are Stranger missions in chapter 6 in which they say to Arthur, “Come back in a few days,” and the mission prompt will, indeed, not appear again for a few in-game days.


I feel like this exemplifies why I tend to dislike open-world games and why I didn’t even try RDR2. There is a gambit of trying to present such a vast experience, where if a player’s priorities and the game’s priorities are different enough like in this case, it can leave the player feeling like they’re ignored or out in the cold. That’s an interesting dilemma, though, when one’s favorite systems in a game can be fleshed out enough to be effective but not given the importance to feel effective enough. It seems like this can only really come out of such a big, varied game like RDR2.


In my experience, RDR2 is better at being a rudimentary Westworld than it is at being a cowboy simulator. I don’t think the systems in RDR2 amount to a cohesive whole systemically, but, yes, they do serve as very polished ‘window dressing’. However, I’m not meaning to wield this descriptor disparagingly; I am glad for the appearance of systemic depth, the gestures towards a living, breathing world.

Similarly, I like the rides in Disneyland just fine, but what I REALLY like is the world-building in the lines, or at the stores. My journey from the back of this line to the front was ultimately to get on the ride, but I often find that I have the most fun reading the labels on all the cartoon boxes that hint at the adventure I’m about to go on, or watching the newsreel as it tries to warn me not to go any further.

This is how I treat RDR2: it’s a fantastically detailed world in which a rollercoaster is set, but I am there for the lore, baby. Ultimately, I am riding towards St. Denis, but I’m gonna veer off here and take a look behind this waterfall for no other reason than it’s there and there’s some cool little story about it. I do this because the game rewards me for doing it - not materially, but in there actually being something there to find. There are just hundreds of little, totally purposeless details all over the map. There’s a meteorite crater. There’s a serial killer. There’s a house getting wrecked by a bear. There’s a witch’s hut, replete with a bubbling cauldron. And there’s a bunch of weird supernatural shit, and allusions towards greater mysteries - none of which have anything to do with the main story. They’re just there, and the act of discovering them is why I play this game.

I won’t argue that the systems appear mechanically meaningless after digging deeper, but for me, they are about as immediately impressive, if ultimately limited in function, as the animatronics on a Disneyland ride. I let them fool me, and if I stop and watch them perform their clockwork motions, I marvel at them for what they are. All the while I know I am being sold an experience, but I’m okay with that because, whether I’m fooled by it or not, they’re just neat to behold.


I think this largely sums up the polarizing reactions to this game that I’ve observed and why it didn’t really land for me. A lot of the people I’ve seen discuss RDR2 most passionately made a strong commitment to role playing as Arthur and I will admit a lot of the systems in the game that people like Patrick (and myself) would describe as “useless” are great tools to help you do that.

My critical thinking regarding this game has left me in a weird place because I feel entitled asking that the game give me more reasons to go out and explore things, but that’s kind of what I want.

I’ve heard about things like this

And it gets me so interested to go out in the world and explore, but then much of MY time exploring in the world winds up fruitless or only grants action in the form of the scripted roadside encounter or a stranger mission.

(Forgive me if this next part is a bit self involved)

I have a very similar relationship with the original Star Wars trilogy, where I’m so immensely fascinated by the underlying themes people take from them and the sense of joy and wonder it evokes in some people when they watch, but when I engage with those films I get absolutely none of that.

In this case, I think I’ll never be able to reconcile the fact that R* basically made two separate games between the story mission and the open world aspects. So while the back end of the story, and just Arthur’s arc in general did win me over, this gripping cowboy RP that some people describe just isn’t what I’ve experienced.


That could be something to criticize, if the game would pretend this never happened before - just like any other game does - but the game (and Arthur) knows, that we’re there for the second time and even tells us - especially this encounter is commented by Arthur (like “what the hell, you again?”).


I’m a player who struggles with games designed around “finding your own fun,” so to speak.

This is totally me.
Something that finally dawned on me for real last year, when I despite being a massive Zelda fan all my life, never really clicked with BotW.

So it’s funny to see Patrick note that:

Breath of the Wild, with its dynamic weather systems and constantly breaking weapons, repeatedly pressed me into unexpected territory.

Which it most certainly didn’t for me.
When Jeff Gerstmann said: “I’m just breaking good weapons to get bad weapons”, that was pretty much how I felt.
Plus rather quickly, I discovered that nothing besides more Shrines and Korok seeds was waiting for me in those unexpected territories.

While I haven’t played RDR2, I do expect it to have way more stuff to discover off the beaten path.


I didn’t feel like the world and the main narrative were ever mechanically in harmony with each other, they both have radically different goals that don’t align or intersect.

I think there are a lot of people who are still in the ooh-and-aah initial trailblazing mode where they’re slowly scraping together resources through hunting and exploring. When you hit that point around chapter 4 where the game just starts dumping ridiculous amounts of cash on you, it both betrays the meaningfulness of those early play moments, and hearkens back to GTA 4’s problem where (again) the story and systems aren’t interacting with each other.

For all of Mafia 2’s problems, it committed to putting you in Vito’s shoes; when everything came tumbling down for him, when the American dream turned out to be just as false as it was for Niko or Arthur, you felt it, because the game ripped that fortune from you and stuck both you-the-player and Vito back at square one.

Mark Brown’s write-up also bangs on these issues. Even if you didn’t like the choices made for individual systems in Breath of the Wild, the structure blew the door wide open on bringing the goals of the narrative and the open world into a shared focus.