Red Dead Vacation 2

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Like many at JPL, I took advantage of a combination of regularly scheduled Fridays off, federal holidays, and stored vacation to ultimately have only two days of actual work over a seventeen-day period.  That’s 15 days off over two weeks and three weekends.  I had simple plans including catching up on some recently released movies, day trips outside of the LA area, cleaning up my backyard, getting my sprinklers fixed, or even just going for a walk or two.  What did I do instead?  I played a video game.

Let me understate that a little more.  I just played one video game, and I didn’t even finish it.

I should be sitting here apologizing or wisecracking about wasting my time off for this, but I’m not.  In fact quite the opposite.  I didn’t intend to spend the holiday doing this, but then again, I am not regretting it.

The game is called Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2); an immersive first/third person adventure game based in a fictionalized Wild West created by Rockstar Games.  At it’s most understated, it’s a game where you play an outlaw as he runs around with his gang or by himself on horseback across western environments.  Yet I haven’t even begun to understate it enough.

Video games are an indulgence to me, and it’s pretty common you will find me killing time playing something when sitting around the house.  I’m not one to just sit blankly at a TV, so (like this holiday) I had RDR2 up on my big screen while Netflix streamed baking shows or I had a hockey game in my ear.  I mostly play PC games, but if a council game catches my eye, I find myself gravitating that way.  In fact, including this one, the last three times I bought a council was to play a title from Rockstar Games.  Rockstar is best known (positively or negatively) for their Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, yet GTA has been considered game changers (pun intended) in the gaming world.  They were the first to push 3D immersive open worlds to the point where each time a release came out it seemed to be years ahead of whatever was out there.  Those games, however, were highly controversial — since you basically go around killing random people for money and fun.  Rumor is, the concept came for GTA when they tried to produce a realistic street racing game, but couldn’t keep the pedestrian from getting run over … so they just started rewarding points for that.  The last major release, GTA V, blew minds because they recreated a scaled 3D version of Southern California so realistic I still find myself driving around here looking for the clues that were in the game.  GTA V allowed you to play multiple characters through a storyline about chaos and crime; and didn’t hold back in some pretty graphic scenes.  With all it’s criticism about glorifying violence, racism, and sexism; it was as immersive as it was fun to play.  Then after creating what was considered to be one of the greatest achievements in gaming history, Rockstar games disappeared for nearly 5 years — a near lifetime in game development.  There were questions if they have gone too far to keep going, or they just wanted to sit back and relax.

Instead, they took five years to develop Red Dead Redemption 2 … and it needed every minute of it.

Set in 1899, RDR2 puts you into the character of Arthur Morgan, an aging outlaw running with the Van de Line gang lead by the philosophical leader Dutch.  A prequel to the 2010 Red Dead Redemption, it picks up the story as they run from a failed heist meant to give them the money they need to get away from it all and turn to a life of peace.  Throughout the game you are given a series of main missions, ‘stranger’ missions (key to the story, but you come across them randomly), side missions, and challenges/activities enhancing the gameplay.  Arthur rides around on horseback under your control with guns at your side doing evil, good, or whatever to get by.  While there are some historically accurate items, like the available gun technology or the hired law Pinkertons, most are fictionalized.  Like for instance, the cities of New Orleans, Savana, and St Louis are all mashed together in the town of Saint Denis with its jazz music, streetcars, and cemeteries.  Yet every aspect of 1890s America is visited including Vaudville, early electricity (including a Tesla character building robots), and early oil drilling.

It’s hard to describe what makes this game so immersive that it becomes ‘blog worthy’ because there is so much to describe.  It’s attention to detail is extraordinary – from the realism in the characters faces to the way wood splinters differently depending on the type of gun you shoot it with.  There are over 250 animal species to discover — most of which are huntable — from whitetail deer to cougars, from alligators to bald eagles to bluegills.  It’s the ability to wow you with its grandeur just as much – like you can be riding across a hillside, stop for a moment, and see snow-covered mountains a good days ride away.  There’s the humor like in one of those crazy details like how the horses seem to leave their ‘apples’ everywhere (or the more notorious detail – the male horses seeming to ‘shrink’ in colder climates).  There are the varied options to take; something that led me to restart the game after getting about halfway through it.  I learned some tricks that made the game easier for a crappy player like me.  One was getting my hands on the best horse available nearly from the beginning.  The infamous ‘White Arabian’ was only obtainable by stalking it in the snow, capturing it, calming it, then breaking it.  I spent almost two hours doing so, which was probably more work than it deserved, but that’s the kind of commitment you can find yourself in.  That horse, I named ‘Easy Breezy’ got the royal treatment, getting brushed, cleaned, fed, and saddled in all the best … because it was just fun.  Easy Breezy was my good girl right up to the end.

Then there is the massiveness of it all.   It captures likenesses of the Rocky Mountains, the swamps of the deep south, the open plains of the western frontier, the north woods of the Pacific, and even locations that feel like Kentucky, West Virginia, and at times, Alaska.  It’s so big that feels you have the whole country to explore.  80+ missions, 50+ challenges, and even 155 of these damn little cigarette cards to find.

This game is so massive that it takes days and days to complete.  I probably put in about 100 hours into it and still have a couple chapters to go.  Speed players, those who set records on how fast to finish a game, are needing over 15 hours to do everything – even when doing every step perfectly (in comparison GTA V’s speed run record is 6 hours, so this is nearly 3 times longer).  Sometimes I get caught in the mundane, like hunting or fishing to feed the gang, or killing time like playing poker, or searching for dream catchers and dinosaur bones, or just riding Easy Breezy around the countryside; but that’s part of the immersion.  It is like a complex novel with advanced and varied stories in an environment that doesn’t just immerse you to identify with the characters, it puts you right there inside that character.

What really made me have to blog about this game, however, is the story … and it’s a hell of a story.  Now I am guessing most of you won’t play the game, but if you intend to … I AM NOT HOLDING BACK ON SPOILERS … you have been warned.

These game designers approached the story with a brilliance I have never seen.  Honestly, games like this try to shove a storyline down your throat and tend to be written by gamers, not writers.  RDR2 starts subtly and builds on you, in the process going counter to many things games tend to do.  The first few chapters do well to get you to play the game, to try different things, and just to immerse you in the world.  Every mission builds on the story, but slowly to not overwhelm.

Meanwhile, how you approach the game defines your ‘Honor’ … something that in the beginning doesn’t seem to matter much, but holy heck it matters later.  For instance, there is a simple scene where a farmer took a loan from the gang, and Arthur is sent to collect.  The man can’t pay and has tuberculosis, and after a little bit of a beat down, the man’s wife & teenaged son beg Arthur to give them more time – this relatively minor moment can raise or lower your honor, but also can play out the story differently later on. Over time, you get bits and pieces of different characters, but because there are so many surrounding Arthur the game doesn’t give you more than you can chew.

After a good chunk of time, after you have gotten to know most of the game and goofed around a bit, the story takes a hard turn.  No matter what your valor is, Arthur is not a good man, and he points that out so often it’s almost a running joke.   A job goes bad, a portion of the gang has to make an escape, and while heading south on a boat land in a foreign land – mimicking a Central American / Carribean island.  In doing what they need to do to get back, our character Arthur sees a darker side to the gang leader Dutch when he kills an innocent old woman who did nothing but ask for more money when helping them escape.  This begins a series of questions to be asked by the main character on what their purpose really is.  The lines between the greater good and planned chaos start to blur.  At this time, Arthur realizes that ‘relatively minor moment’ early on with the man with TB now infected him with the same disease.  In the gaming world, it’s common that a player gets stronger throughout the game — but with this disease your character now is sick, and from that point on slowly gets worse.   In that crazy attention to detail they let the character decline so that by the time you reach the later chapter, the on-screen character is white, sunken-eyed, and coughs doing simple tasks.  It is about this time when the game became hard to play – not because of the skills needed or the way it worked, but because every mission was bringing me to tears.

Arthur is dying, he knows he is dying, people who are close to him know he is dying.  There are multiple endings based on your valor, and some minor decisions affect that outcome.  Since I had a high valor, I played out the “Good Ending”.   I don’t know about the “Evil Ending”, but I doubt it is as gut-wrenching.  Most of the later missions are affected by that valor, and they center on absolution.  That ‘simple scene’ plays out where the man died of TB, the wife now has to turn to prostitution, the son can’t keep work, so Arthur chooses to help – help that is rejected over a couple missions due to her anger and pride against him, and it is only his persistence and willingness to remain unforgiven that allows her to take it.  These later missions, you spend more money on the solutions, giving things away, taking care of those he has wronged.  Yet the most common thing Arthur says is essential “I am not a good man.” Until he meets up with a nun he helped out a couple times.  In a confessional moment, as he admits his fears and opens up to this random stranger, she says the one thing you probably would never hear in a GTA game:
“Take a gamble on love, and do a loving act.”

The final missions become heartbreaking.  Arthur sees Dutch leave him to die in a small/subtle way that makes Arthur challenge what he saw.  Sadie Adler, a widow they saved in the very first mission (and the best female character Rockstar Games ever created), absolves herself late with revenge – covered in blood she reminisces about the purity of joy she had with her husband.  Arthur saves the future anti-hero of Red Dead Redemption 1 in his final loving act.

And at the moment that still has me fully choked up sitting in a Starbucks, lawmen gun down Easy Breezy, and Arthur stops, holds the horse’s head as it breathes its last breath, and thanks her.  This is the power of this game.  I chose to get that horse, I named it, I took care of it, I saved it a few times, I rode it for tens of hours — so when it was killed, Arthur didn’t say goodbye to his horse, I said goodbye to mine.

In this “Good Ending,” Arthur doesn’t survive.  He battles it out with those who were family to him, and they leave him to die on a mountaintop from tuberculosis that ravished his lungs.  He dreams of a buck watching across a glowing field, a spirt that has followed him whenever his valor was high.  He crawls a few feet, lays back against a rock, and watches the sunrise.  The music, harkening back to that turning point earlier on, plays somber as the camera pans out showing the majesty of the mountain, the beauty of the world, and the peace he had fought for all of this time.

My understanding is that the “good ending” is the best, though there is a variant that would have crushed me when a long-lost love visit’s Arthur’s grave.  There is an epilog, which I’m to understand helps to tie up loose ends and tell you what happened (and needs another 5-10 hours to finish).  It’s been two days, and I am not ready for that yet.  I’m not ready to move on.  To say this game moved me to tears is an understatement – but even in a 2000+ word post, everything I can say about this game is an understatement.

What I can tell you is that while I didn’t intend to spend the entirety of this vacation playing a game … I don’t regret it.  This was an experience I don’t think I will ever forget.

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