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.