Red Dead Redemption 2 is a story about change. Sure, other themes are swirling around its narrative stew, but change and the refusal to adapt to change are at its core. It’s the central conflict of the characters. Dutch Van Der Linde, leader of the gang of outlaws, goes to extreme lengths to escape the rampant wave of “progress” that is exterminating his way of life; The growth of civilisation encroaching on what was once a “free” land in which people could do what they wanted without bureaucratic repercussions. For the most part, the story succeeds. RDR 2 is a fantastic tragedy of characters so stuck in their ways that they refuse to accept that things have and are changing, being so rigid in their ideals that they can’t see past the harm they’re doing to themselves and others.

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Which is super weird because Red Dead Redemption 2 is also a game that is so super dated and stuck in the past that it hurts the overall experience and leaves me with a strong sense of dramatic irony.

Plenty has already been said on RDR 2’s gameplay. Many have lamented the tedium and slow pace the game insists on for the sake of realism as well as the inclusion of many features that have long since adapted and grown more streamlined over the years. As Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Tool Kit puts it: “A lot has happened in open world games in the last eight years, since the release of Red Dead Redemption 1.”

Harshly restrictive mission structures, cumbersome menu navigation, stagnant combat and an open world that lacks an unscripted systemic spontaneity are all problems that hold back RDR 2 from being ‘the best open world experience’.

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Being presented with an open world as impressive as RDR 2’s is truly magical. The vistas, the towns, the people; they all lead to an experience that is, quite simply, magical. But this is only true for the first few hours. Once you spend enough time in New Hanover and West Elizabeth, you begin to realise that other open world games have just…done it better? The interactive ecosystem and food chains of Far Cry vastly surpasses the admittedly impressive number of random encounters in RDR 2. The open-ended nature of quests in games like Fallout: New Vegas or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that allow for player expression and unique experiences offer far more than heavily scripted missions in which the player is punished for being creative or thinking outside of the box. These are problems that have been solved by other games.

The thing is, these are issues found in nearly every other Rockstar open world game. Grand Theft Auto V suffered from similarly restrictive mission structure and cover-based combat that feels clunky and unsatisfying. Sure, improvements have been made to their formula, but many of these problems are still rampant within the game. It’s baffling to see these same problems still exist in Rockstar’s open world games in 2018. It’s been five years since the release of GTA V, and in some ways, it feels like RDR 2 has learnt nothing from its older sibling. It’s as if Rockstar is so set in their ways and so focused on the formula that put their studio on the map that they can’t bear the thought of evolvi…ahhhhhh, see what I did there?

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Ludonarrative dissonance is one of those phrases some guy on YouTube who critiques video games for his Patreon throws around to sound super clever and important, and if you’ll forgive me for two paragraphs, I’m about to do the same. Ludonarrative dissonance is a clever-sounding way of saying that a game’s mechanics, its gameplay, contradicts the narrative it’s telling. This can often be seen in game’s where the player is presented with a desperate and vital quest of the utmost importance but then spends the next four days finding scrap to build a water purifier in some meaningless farm in the middle of nowhere (Fallout 4 was wild). Now, ludonarrative dissonance isn’t the core problem with RDR 2 (although it certainly rears its greasy, bespeckled head to hunt pheasants for days in the middle of an impending outlaw exodus). It’s not a case of the game’s mechanics undermining the main narrative, but rather being entirely oblivious to the meaning behind the story. A sort of ‘Ludonarrative Irony’, if you will.

I know, I know. I go to a lot of parties.

For our cases, I would like to define “Ludonarrative Irony” as when a game’s mechanics don’t necessarily invalidate the game’s narrative but rather miss the point of it. It’s like the story is trying to convey a specific message, one that could be applied to the game itself, but is glossed over entirely, almost as if the game is unaware of the point it’s trying to make. It’s like if in the Fallout franchise war suddenly changed. It doesn’t fundamentally break the story. The structures and conflicts are still present, the gameplay is just oblivious to the themes put forward.

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RDR 2 is dripping with ludonarrative irony. The story, a tale about the dangers of denying change and clinging onto a vision that has become less acceptable as society has grown and developed becomes increasingly more ironic when the gameplay itself is stuck in a time when they were considered revolutionary. The game is still clutching at the principles that once made Rockstar’s open world games so enjoyable and groundbreaking but refusing to adapt and grow to meet the expectations set by other games in the genre. It’s a case of the game ignoring the message it’s communicating in a sort of “do as I say, not as I do” paradox, either ignoring or failing to understand the message they’re putting out into the world. Just as Dutch and Arthur are stuck in the past, refusing to grow, so too is the gameplay of RDR 2.

Ludonarrative irony (I’m getting mileage out of the phrase) doesn’t break RDR 2. Far from it in fact. I’ve played the game for dozens of hours and I’m looking forward to playing even more. It just creates an uncanny valley for me. I battle to take the narrative seriously when it seems the people who made the game itself missed the point they were trying to make. Which is a shame because RDR 2 has some of the best dialogue and scene writing I’ve seen Rockstar produce. It’s just hampered by the gameplay totally misunderstanding the themes it’s trying to convey. The story itself holds a great deal of narrative potential and excels a lot of the time. But the second a cutscene ends and I have to flip through several pages in a catalogue just to buy shotgun shells, it kind of rings hollow.

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Perhaps this is intentional. Mechanics are perhaps the best means to convey a story in a medium as interactive as video games. I’m a firm believer that games like Spec-Ops: The Line were purposely made to be tedious to further reinforce the message it was sending to its audience. Maybe there’s some meaning to be seen in RDR 2 refusing to update its game design and then telling us how dangerous it is to not adapt to the times. Maybe the clunk is to help us identify with the characters. They’re stuck in the past which is mirrored by their unresponsive movement and repetitive shooting galleries!

All I know is that RDR 2 is a giant ironic paradox to me. Rockstar has a supreme talent in crafting intricate open worlds dripping with unbelievable detail that are always a joy to spend a few hours messing around in. It’s just a shame that they can’t see past a formula that has long since been improved.

Or maybe I’m just tired of failing a mission because I used the wrong gun.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: October 14, 2020

22 Comments

  1. BradeLunner

    November 29, 2018 at 15:02

    Interesting points, I also felt the game is ponderously slow, making it much harder for me to play as I don’t often have more than an hour to spare on any given day. This game requires investment! Maybe it’s further dissonance because I really am admiring it for that; guess I am just nostalgic for the old days when I had weeks long holidays and the only tax I paid was VAT. The Ludonarrative (this spelling feels..off) issue will hopefully be an issue for a long time to come in open world RPG,s; I like having the freedom to play the game my own way, then go back to the “high-art” movie style part of the game

    Reply

  2. RinceThis

    November 29, 2018 at 15:18

    If you are really thinking about the irony of the developers and their story due to the mechanics I fear you are missing out on a great deal of immersion many others are able to enjoy. I don’t need gears of war mechanics in a western.

    Reply

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      November 29, 2018 at 15:28

      One man’s immersion is another man’s tedium.

      Reply

      • RinceThis

        November 29, 2018 at 17:33

        The game has always, ALWAYS, been slow. If it changed from that formula, I’d understand the complaint.

        Reply

        • Alien Emperor Trevor

          November 29, 2018 at 17:39

          It’s one game released eight years ago. Think of how much game play has evolved since then. Something can be immersive without being slow. For example having the same lengthy animation for mounting a horse (for argument’s sake) is immersive, but if you’re watching that same animation every couple of minutes it gets tiresome and stops being fun.

          Reply

          • RinceThis

            November 29, 2018 at 17:44

            I am saying that if you enjoyed the first game, which was slow, you would enjoy this too. But as you said, one man’s immersion is another man’s tedium. If you changed the game play it would interfere with the telling of the story. And that is what this game is all about, story.

          • Alessandro Barbosa

            November 29, 2018 at 18:16

            Oh I would definitely not immediately say that enjoying the first automatically means you’ll love this. This pace is slower even by original RDR standards (and bogged down with more menial mechanics that were present then). I’m slowly appreciating it more as I play, but I’m nowhere near as in love with it as I was with the first. Can’t even honestly call it GOTY material personally.

    • Geoffrey Tim

      November 29, 2018 at 15:31

      I actually agree with him (and i adored the first game). The sim-lite fluff added to this game kills any sense of immersion for me. It’s supposed to be this great big sandbox, but the second you try to colour outside of the lines you’re penalised. Games have progressed a tonne since the first game’s release. This hasn’t – and while it looks amazing, it feels stuck in the past.

      Reply

      • RinceThis

        November 29, 2018 at 15:33

        I think it adds to the immersion considerably and makes you feel the world really is bloody hard to live in. Always had a slight issues with how easy it felt to live in the first game.

        Reply

        • Geoffrey Tim

          November 29, 2018 at 15:50

          I already struggle to survive. I don;t need to do that in video games as well.

          Reply

          • RinceThis

            November 29, 2018 at 17:54

            then don’t buy simulator cowboy games :p

          • Geoffrey Tim

            November 29, 2018 at 18:03

            First game wasn’t a simulator. It was an open-world action adventure. Reasonable to expect the sequel, 8 years later to be similar, but with many open world issues and problems fixed, as they have been in many games. Instead, you get the same sort of experience, only with CHORES added in. meh.

          • RinceThis

            November 29, 2018 at 18:07

            Thought the point of this article is that is shouldn’t be similar?

          • Geoffrey Tim

            November 29, 2018 at 18:15

            “but with many open world issues and problems fixed” but they’re not. they’re just as they are.

          • RinceThis

            November 29, 2018 at 18:28

            Like? Has been ages since I played the first, can’t remember.

  3. Kenn Gibson

    November 29, 2018 at 15:54

    meh. I love the game and think it’s great.

    Reply

    • Geoffrey Tim

      November 29, 2018 at 16:00

      And…that’s perfectly fine. One person’s opinion doesn’t invalidate yours. 🙂

      Reply

  4. Anon A Mouse

    November 29, 2018 at 16:55

    Look I like that people have such opions about games, and when I play this some day I might even agree with a lot of the points, but at the moment as a general feeling, I feel that if I’m going to start worrying about the game mechanics and how it should have improved, I’m missing the reason for playing the games.

    Then again I watch movies just to escape and mostly can’t even remember a specific scene the next day, that’s how I play most of my games as well. So maybe I’m not the right person to even comment on this.

    Anyway TL;DR to each their own I suppose.

    Reply

  5. Gr8_Balls_o_Fire

    November 29, 2018 at 17:25

    I’m completely sold by the realism! It’s something I and many others have dreamed of for years. A real-feeling open world game, that you don’t want to rush through.

    I don’t complain when I have to open my car door 500 times a day. It takes the same amount of time to mount your virtual horse. Maybe less.

    Reply

  6. Magoo

    November 30, 2018 at 08:28

    new site who dis

    Reply

  7. Steffmeister

    November 30, 2018 at 09:35

    I’m 50% on my second play through, and still don’t find any of the mechanics tedious or slow nor do I find mission structures restrictive.(Maybe I just play the way the developers want) I find this game very relaxing, just taking my time with everything. Taking in the scenery. Its exactly the game I needed after playing Dark Souls games for almost a year. I guess it just requires a certain mindset, and can be very boring for some.

    Reply

    • Pariah

      November 30, 2018 at 10:37

      Just the same – I find Dark Souls games to be terribly boring, tedious and uninspired. DS3 had beautiful environments, I’ll give it that. Likewise, I find the Witcher series to be boring. Now you’ll note that neither of those opinions are popular opinions, they’re quite atypical.

      That’s how personal taste works really. Sometimes you agree with most people, sometimes you don’t. And just because that’s how you feel, doesn’t mean that’s what the devs intended. Could be that they feel they’ve missed the mark completely. Could be that they were lazy. Could be that you’re bang on what they wanted. Don’t assume. 🙂

      Reply

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