Quick note: I’m about to use the terms realism and realistic in tandem. My definitions of these are as follows: realism is trying to emulate our world while realistic is creating a world that is in itself believable and thus real in its own context.
Also, there be no spoilers here!
There’s been a singular push in the AAA industry ever since games became polygons: realism. It’s long been a buzz word relegated to better and better graphics in games. However, these games haven’t looked to sacrifice fun in the process. Why? Because real life isn’t fun. It’s arduous.
We don’t get to teleport around the world at our whim; we have to walk, drive, take trains, fly, and all these things take time. The amount of our lives spent in transit is actually staggering when you think about it. This reality isn’t suited for a medium where we want to be entertained, constantly. As such, concessions to realism are made that in turn make games feel far from realistic. But this year’s biggest game– one that will likely have a rippling influence across the medium– looks to buck that trend by opting for hyper-realism.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s no fast-travelling. There’s only riding your horse across a ridiculously expansive digital wild west. That horse is a living creature that will run out stamina. It’ll need to be fed and cleaned. You’ll need to stop in your tracks periodically to do these things. Then it’s back to your long trek. Aside from the optional emergent moment, you will go minutes just traveling across an (incredibly detailed) open world. Sometimes you’ll look at the distance you need to travel and groan, but there’s no choice. If you want to do the next mission or sell your furs to the trapper or so on, you’re riding that dang horse all the way there.
Well, almost. I’m being a facetious here as a concession is made in the form of taking trains and coaches to instantly move between towns. You’ll still need to travel to these locations which can be a trek in and of itself, but the convenience is there. Yet even then these methods of transportation look to retain a sense of realism by charging you based on the travel distance, which for long trips can cost a pretty penny. Time is money, just like in the real world! If getting into the action faster is important to you then you’ll cough up that coin and be on your way.
But despite this, we need to be clear on one thing: these methods of transportation are absolutely a concession. The game may not let you jump from one point to another from anywhere as many open world games do but it has a half-measure nonetheless. The game designers could have made this fast-travel happen in real time. But it happens instantly, and during that load screen your immersion in this world striving for realism is broken. You’re reminded that you are 100% playing a video game.
This is but one example of the game’s constant struggle between realism and the limitations the medium. Others: the controls allow for an extensive range of actions but remembering all the button combinations for each is impossible; a good 15 hours in and I’m still constantly checking the pages-spanning control manual on the mobile app, pulling me out of the experience.
Then you have just how easily you’re marked as a criminal: merely bump into someone too hard and the law is on your tail. And god forbid you accidentally hit the grab button in town and put your hands on an NPC… you’ve got a bounty on your head. Is this realistic? Sure, probably. These actions are uncivilized at best and criminal at worst in real life. But in a video game? Honest mistakes with such huge repercussions are just frustrating.
I could continue this list all day but my point is that the ways in which realism is broken or made frustrating in Red Dead Redemption 2 are constant. We’re left asking if the game has gone too far.
My examples would indicate yes but I do appreciate the attempts and at times the concessions. Red Dead Redemption 2 might be the most ambitious game I’ve personally played and when it works, it works. I LOVE riding my horse across the drop-dead gorgeous landscape for miles and miles. But sometimes I want Red Dead Redemption 2 to just be a video game. Sometimes I feel my mortality after hours spent playing a game and want to ride the train to the next mission. This comes at the expense of Rockstar’s goals, but perhaps only being realistic some of the time is mostly fine… as long as you’re okay with common moments of dissonance.
But again, let me ask: did Red Dead Redemption 2 go too far? The answer only begets another question: can a video game go far enough? Is full realism in a video game even possible? The answer is that, with current technologies, no. AI isn’t sentient, but if we were to achieve the singularity then we’d probably have much grander applications (and problems) than creating a realistic video game. Controllers also don’t have enough buttons as I’ve covered. And realism is multi-sensory. We aren’t able to smell or feel or taste a video game; we can only see and hear it. And yes, these same limitations apply to VR, too. Anything short of Sword Art Online’s FullDive technology is going to fail at true realism.
But let’s forget all those impasses for a moment and think of realism on a smaller, conceptual scale: an experience that’s naturalistic to the greatest extent it can be. Red Dead Redemption 2 is trying to be that, and it doesn’t quite succeed. But you know what game does achieve this definition of realism? Super Mario Odyssey.
Wait, what? The video game about a stumpy Italian man who uses his hat to possess creatures in fantastical worlds? Yep. It may not be striving for realism, but it’s absolutely realistic. It creates and justifies its universe by throwing the idea of realism out the window. Mario can fast-travel between checkpoint flags and you don’t need to actually fly the Odyssey from one planet to another. Pipes and doors send Mario into abstract dimensions full of platforms floating in nothingness. And don’t get me started on the humans with realistic proportions in New Donk City. You’ll never think about the practicality of any of this (except maybe those damn humans) because the game never asks you to. Add in simple controls and you’ve got a game that never breaks your unwavering attention. You live inside its world and it feels– to use the term again– naturalistic. It’s realistic because it never poses the question of realism in the first place.
Meanwhile, Red Dead Redemption 2 is constantly drawing attention to its attempts at realism and in the process isn’t realistic. It has elements that emulate real life but even those are abstract. For instance, playable character Arthur Morgan’s clothes are categorized by climates: cold, normal and hot. However, their use is delegated to set areas of the game rather than the weather changing unpredictably as it does in real life. There’s no unseasonably cold or hot day, only designated biomes. And what about reloading your guns? Does Arthur never fumble in the midst of combat? Which is even more puzzling when you consider that technically you could play the entire game without having him sleep once. The dude must be tired!
So, to answer the question posed in the title of this article: Red Dead Redemption 2 strives for realism and probably takes it too far given the constraints of what a video game can accomplish. This can be frustrating at times when it’s inconvenient in ways that aren’t fun and creates many moments of dissonance when it falls short. But it’s not too realistic because it’s not actually realistic at all.
One point I made early in this article is that Red Dead Redemption 2 is the sort of watershed title that will be emulated for many years to come. Everyone in the game industry, community and media has their eyes on it. I just hope that the trend doesn’t turn to further futile attempts at realism. Realism has the potential to distract and detract from immersion and entertainment. This isn’t to say that systems can’t try to emulate reality but when you focus your entire game around that concept you open yourself up to grand failure. Red Dead Redemption 2 skirts this but in the hands of a less talented studio than Rockstar I don’t think the results would be as favorable. Besides, if every open world game from now on has us traveling vast stretches of land by necessity– especially if fast travel was truly removed– then I think we’d get sick of the genre even faster (and a lot of us are getting sick of it already).
Instead, what I hope is taken away from Red Dead Redemption 2 is the detail of its world. Most open world games are quite empty despite their size. They’re littered with repetitive canned missions and stretches where there’s literally nothing of interest. Red Dead Redemption 2 may be huge but it utilizes that space extremely well. NPCs with distinct personalities and highly populate the world, the landscape is painstakingly built inch-for-inch, the variety of wildlife is staggering, and towns mostly feel like more than storefront hubs. The only thing that ever undermines this is that it pushes realism where such a feat isn’t possible, but that’s a balance I think future games could strike better.
To close, let me stress that Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a staggering game despite the tone this article takes. Its world generally feels more organic than those of its contemporaries. The story– and particularly the dialogue– is best-in-class. The gunplay is dynamic and the horse-riding is as authentic as is possible. Plus, this is the single most detailed game I’ve ever seen which is especially impressive when you factor in its sheer scope. If you have even a passing interest in this game, I give it a high recommendation.