Forty-eight percent. That's how far I am in Red Dead Redemption 2 and yet it feels like there's so much more game that I have yet to discover, some might even say fifty-two percent more... I've just begun to play with the skill challenges. In the majority of games, I find such frivolities on par with the oft-lampooned kill ten rats quests of MMORPG fame. They are generally tacked on completionist content and they represent exactly what I play games to escape. Low effort, uncreative, checkbox repetition of the mundane just to give a player the dopamine-driven sense of accomplishment they crave with the hope the asinine keeps them playing your game just a few minutes more. Yet in Read Dead, I don't mind them. In fact, they are a nice simple reprieve from the storyline content and fit well into the random stuff gameplay rotation I adore.
It speaks to the quality of this game. I normally ignore skill challenges entirely but with Red Dead, I feel like I've been given so much high-quality content that they deserve my attention even for more mundane. For when I'm not utilizing the incredible hunting system, exploring the wilds, harassing townsfolk, kicking buffalo in the face, kicking elk in the face, kicking bears in the face, kicking rabbits in the face, random quests, saving the suicidal photographer, finding dinosaur bones and random (albeit repetitious) encounters. That reminds me, how many times can that same guy get bit by a snake before he realizes whatever he is doing to them, they don't like it?
Long story short I'm countless entertainment hours into the main story and while some of the characters have earned themselves a skip at the cut, most of them have grown on me. My hope is before its said and done I'll get the chance to drag dirty Dutch behind my horse and hog tie the cook...on some train tracks! Before it's lost on you, I want to remind everyone that I don't like long cutscenes and heavily scripted games. I don't really like how much the main character looks like Josh Brolin, I'm not fond of his voice, attitude or dialogue. I'd rather he come off more of a quiet observer than his overly cowboy self. More Conagher and less the character John Wayne played in...well, every Western he did-all 375 of them... Despite not connecting with, and even disliking the main character, this game pulls me in. But how?
I've spent a great amount of time trying to deduce what it is that's made this game an exception to so many of my rules. After careful thought and consideration, I believe it comes down to the simple fact that its just unbelievably well done. Top to bottom it feels like they hired experts for almost every part of the game to make it as accurate as possible. Although I could give them some tips on skinning a deer versus skinning an elk but I'll give those desk drivers a pass on that. One has to wonder how many sacrifices the gods of gaming required to get this product to launch! Many developers fried to bring us this entertainment.
Beyond the fact that is a ridiculous gaming achievement, if there was a single mechanic that I could point to its as obvious as Arthur's hatred for those dastardly O'Driscolls (no relation to the McPoyles that I know of but it hasn't stopped me from pretending). It's the world itself.
Throughout the years there have always been certain game worlds that stood out for the sense of freedom and overwhelming wonder they created. The planets of Star Wars Galaxies, the hell that was the game world in Darkfall, the land of Skyrim and now this. I say this without any reservations, the game world in Red Dead is the single finest I have ever had the privilege to explore. I've always been a gamer that took time to take screens of the beauty around the digital doll, and again, I'm still humbled by this creation.
My shameless fanboying isn't without reason. I assume the fact that I enjoy hunting and fishing as an outdoors introvert weighs heavily on my affinity for this specific game world. I find myself watching the nature in this game just to see how far the developers took it, to observe how well their experts advised them. When do the waterfowl fly? Where do I kick up pheasants? How doe the elk behave compared to the deer etc. Of course, it's not perfect, but it's as good as I've ever seen.
I've lost countless hours just watching ducks and geese fly at dusk and dawn, watching Grizzlies and wolves duel on ice and lassoing every animal the game allows - including apes. While naturally diminished over time I still have some of the awe that I had the first time I finished one of the worst intro's I've ever bit down and pushed through before finally seeing the vast expanse of my playground. As with Skyrim and Galaxies before it I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, I had a lot of unknown to pursue.
When the sun is setting and the shadows become long I feel this game. I feel it beyond the dopamine to somewhere deeper. Somewhere that calls back to the outdoors experiences I myself have had and I'm compelled to stop and admire...then crack a drink and carry on - for the realism of course. Fanboy pro-tip, lassoing a buffalo was one of the most rewarding Red Dead experience for all the best reasons.
I wrote this as an open letter of sorts. One in which I could express my gratitude and show my appreciation for a piece of playable art that showed a grizzled old gamer there as still awe left within his favorite hobby. Now, as keeps happening when I write about this game, I need to go play it!
"The nights are cool and I'm a fool
Each star's a pool of water
(Pours libations for Buster Scruggs, puts on his ten-gallon hat, taps his new boots together, jumps onto his couch and rides into the Red Dead sunset on his horse, Dan.)