Red Dead Redemption 2 Will Never Live up to its Predecessor

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I'm very excited about Red Dead Redemption 2. The trailer showed some beautiful vistas framed in ways so very typical of western films and the mythology that surrounds the setting. I think that it will be a great game with a lot to offer. I think that I will love its characters (whoever they turn out to be) and I expect to spend a great deal of time immersed in the world it provides. I do not, however, think that it will ever approach Red Dead Redemption in terms of expectations.

Red Dead Redemption was one of the first games to really deliver players a western expanse that felt wild in the slightest. To be clear, a couple years before RDR was the very good Gun, but while its world felt large and open at the time, it pales in comparison to the work of Rockstar. Red Dead Redemption gave us a huge area to explore, tons of things to do, from side quests and encounters to the incredibly well told and appropriately tragic story of the campaign. The character of John Marston in RDR meant something different to everyone that played the game. Through the actions you took in the game and the way you felt about some of the encounters, John could be anything from a redeemed hero to a heartless killer. I suspect most were somewhere in between.

I don't think I'll ever forget the time I spent in that game. I spent hours just riding across the mesas and through the forests or watching the sky turn dark and the stars appear. It was a strikingly beautiful game that tempered the cold violence of the west with stories of hope, desperation, loss and decency. The underpinnings of the mechanics weren't so unlike Grand Theft Auto, but it felt like a game with so much more character.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the stranger quests that popped up from time to time along your travels. They weren't tied to the main story at all, just sidequests with sparse rewards but really interesting, if short, stories. One in particular, Flowers for a Lady, really got to me. An old man named Billy is out gathering flowers to make bouquet for his wife. John offers to gather a few other flowers from the area to help out the old man.

Essentially a fetch quest, once the items are collected you return to the house and Billy lets you inside to meet his wife. Upon entering, John discovers that Billy's wife has been dead for a long time. Her corpse sits in a rocking chair in their one room shack, but Billy talks to her as though she were still alive. Most people I talk t about this quest think it was funny or a weird, satirical Hitchcock reference, but I thought it was incredibly sad. Billy has been so undone by the hardships of living out west that he cannot accept that his own wife has died. In fact, it seems that his disbelief is the only thing keeping him "sane."

I still play Red Dead Redemption from time to time. I don't know of any other game from 2012 besides Civ V that I still play. I think the thing that it did so well was create a space for the players to make it something that belonged to them. There was space in that world for everyone to have their own personal journey and determine for themselves what the game meant to them. With such anticipation for the sequel, I don't think it would be fair of us to expect or demand the same from it. Part of what made it special was just how surprising it was.