Red Dead Redemption 2 as a commentary on The Game Industry (my love–hate relationship with it)

I’ve been wanting to do another post talking about indie games, analyzing game design, and showcasing good examples from the indie space but… I’m struggling a lot with being afraid of unintentionally platforming an abuser. I know saying that out loud sounds irrational, maybe. It’s been hard finding love for a space that I feel like happily decided people like me are a justifiable loss if it means making snarky Twitter Takes about what they’re going through… or just benefiting from indifference.
I don’t know anymore… I don’t want to rant. I want to talk about game design. It’s hard to separate the two at the moment.

So… I thought I should write about another game that I’ve been playing way too much of this year: Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a weird open world AAA game too, and I think it would be fascinating to discuss.
…My fear of platforming abuse being invalid at this point, in choosing this I already failed.

(Content warning: spoilers, discussing racism and sexual violence
Also: Opinions of this game are coming from my own point of view, as informed by my own experiences. It’s culture criticism. There are a million ways of looking at the same thing. Take it with a grain of salt, thank you.)

(The bugs in this game are the best. These are the screenshots I’ll use through-ought this post.)

I bought Red Dead Redemption 2 on a whim because I saw someone sharing an animated .gif of fishing in it.
You can fish in it, and you can bathe in it! Between these two perks, it sounded like something worth getting into… Cowboys and the Wild West completely aside, there are no good bathing simulators out there.
I say that also understanding that you have to play the game for a while before being allowed to fish or take a bath, so even accomplishing these basic things was a time investment.
A friend of mine said that he tried getting into the game, but bounced off it because it seemed like a huge time sink. That’s no joke. This game wants to be your life!
All things considered, I think Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up being a really interesting self-commentary on itself and the game industry. It kind of unintentionally captures a lot of the mood that seems to hover over games, especially in regards to issues of abuse, contradiction, and wanting to be viewed as “good” when it’s so often anything but.

I’ll explain… This will be a very long post.

I played Red Dead Redeption 2 through once. I powered through a lot of it, and started playing it again right after beating it because I felt like I missed most of what people seem to like (or defend) about it.
My first impression wasn’t really a positive one in terms of relating to or caring about the main characters in the game. To me, the protagonist seemed like an asshole. Admittedly, he’s a good for nothing gun-slinging outlaw, and that’s the point of the game.
Most of the game highlights that. There’s a lot about this that rubbed me the wrong way. It’s really hard not to admit that you are basically assuming the role of a patriarchal misogynistic creep (I mean, Outlaw with a capital O… it goes without saying). The game has you do plenty of missions that drive that point across. Some are fun, others you really have to cringe through.
I find the dynamics behind the character building through-ought the game fascinating because the game really wants you to care about the main protagonist (Author Morgan), and the gang that he is in (The Van der Linde Gang).
The game is full of moments of trying to assure you that this group are kind of good guys (more akin to anti-heroes in line with Robin Hood). For example, in Author’s tent you can find a newspaper clipping talking about how the gang robbed a bank and then reportedly gave some of their “ill-gotten gains” to orphans and the poor.
While also doing missions where you have to collect money that poor people borrowed from the camp, often involving beating them.
I find the contrasts interesting because the game is so full of this back and forth between justifying really cruel behavior, while also sugar coating it with occasional goodness.
To me, playing Red Dead Redemption 2 feels so fascinatingly disassociated. It is many pieces that have been sewn together, and it takes a massive amount of suspension of disbelief to view it the way it wants to be viewed.
It wants me to care about the gang, the people in it, the main character, while I’m overlooking aspects that are really difficult to look past.

There’s a mission where you hogtie a Black guy (Anthony Foreman) that kidnapped one of the women (Tilly) from your group and it gives you an option to slit his throat. Aside from the casual racism in the game, moments like these felt really tone def.
This moment in the game is one of many that boast having consequences later, although sparing or killing this character (like in many cases) doesn’t REALLY make much of a difference. If you spare him then later (in the Epilogue) he becomes a bounty for John. If you catch him then, you supposedly reminisce about Author Morgan. I illustrate this because there’s no real moralistic reason for sparing or killing. The result is very small, almost inconsequential to the overall story. Decisions don’t really make that much of a difference, other than being cosmetic.
Scenes like these were really hard to play through because, in the end, it still asks me to hogtie a Black man. The game is placed in a period in time after the Civil War. Racist slurs are often casually thrown around, and you can encounter the KKK too. I make a point to highlight this because I feel like the way the game frames this is so… self-indulgent? Indifferent? Morbidly neutral?
Actions like these aren’t really condemned.
There’s a mission called “The Inequities of History” in which you find a drunken homeless veteran who you decide to help. It seems like a bleeding heart type situation.
His house was repossessed by the bank. He asks you to get a set of items for him, one of which is a ledger. This ledger ends up being a list of names of people who escaped slavery that the veteran caught, along with a record of what he was paid for doing so.
You can optionally confront him on his past… It really doesn’t make much of a difference other than just showing this as some unrelated plot device that’s supposed to frame the world, but also assert that the character you play is somehow “better” than this veteran.
On the other hand, there is another confederate veteran that you can have friendly conversations with… Political or moralistic leanings seem so cosmetic, it almost feels like the more righteous reactions exist to placate criticism for the way the game is often so flawed when featuring things like racism, sexism, or rape.
The way history is portrayed is very indifferent toward making any point other than cherry picking “what might be cool” to play through (for a player to experience).
It’s what annoys me about it, and why I say this inadvertently reflects the game industry. It wants you to look past its flaws and see a self-proclaimed masterpiece, while being proudly horrible in so many ways.

For example, there’s a stranger encounter in which you can get raped. There’s not much to it. You accept a stranger’s hospitality, eat food, pass out. Most is implied.
It’s worth mentioning because it leads to articles like this…

I find it morbidly funny to see “help guys, how do i get raped???” featured in walkthroughs, or forums. Like it’s something to seek out and experience.
The game really doesn’t address this outside of being an activity. There’s no condemnation. There’s no consequence. It’s just a feature.

I understand the desire for nitty gritty dark things. Why that might be important in media… but this game really doesn’t do much with these issues… or racism, the looming indigenous land theft, rape, abuse… It’s just something fun to do. More often than not it feels terribly “white savior”. These issues existing to prop up the protagonist, fuel the power fantasy, rather than social commentary. Very little, if anything, is unpacked. The way it’s portrayed is as selective as it is indifferent.
So I think, playing this, really thinking about it… is an interesting pulse check in terms of what is tolerated in a mainstream game.

I’ve seen plenty of conversations online about how many of these encounters are “just a joke” because “Rockstar humor”… and it kind of doesn’t really justify anything, other than entering the territory of “What? Can’t you take a joke??”
This framing is why I ended up being really indifferent toward the character that I was playing. Being “good” was just more about being (inconsistently) self-righteous than it was about maybe navigating a difficult moralistic landscape. There was no point.

I say this because it’s REALLY hard to play the story mode of this game and excuse this stuff. Similar to existing in the game space as a developer, I felt like I have to excuse a lot just to enjoy being in it.

My final example, which I think really frames all this interestingly well, is how the game features KKK and white supremacists.
You can have a number or random encounters with the KKK. For example, at night, when you’re riding through the woods, you can find them having a rally in which they are about to burn a cross. If you let them do what they are doing they end up setting themselves on fire.
Another encounter might be with them trying to put up a cross, and the cross falls on them, crushing them.
The KKK are framed more like adorable idiots, rather than evil. Granted, if you kill them it does not affect your honor level, but that’s about all of a stance that gets taken.
I have issue with this because framing something detrimentally evil as just kind of… idiots for a punch line, doesn’t say much. There’s no stance other than maybe not wanting to alienate the white supremacist player base.
As a result, playing online means enduring a whole lot of racism, for example see this article.
There are a lot of articles like this, and I think this is an important case study just in terms of how design can encourage certain behavior…
Not taking a stance on the way you frame things has this effect. This is why the way Red Dead Redemption 2’s framing of these issues (with the excuse of “well, it’s era appropriate lol”) really bothered me.
Another thing could be said about cherry picking these things out of an “era” and then saying “it’s era appropriate”.
It strikes a similar chord as GTA’s sexism and homophobia does. Just because 2013’s Los Angeles has racism (sexism, homophobia, violence loaded with -ism), doesn’t mean you get to cherry pick that and sprinkle it into your game and call it social commentary. Nothing gets unpacked. It’s just brushed off as some kind of joke which you are too sensitive to understand.

(You can pet the dog for as long as you want)

All that said… I make it a point to unpack my issues with the moralistic tone of Red Dead Redemption 2 because moral is supposedly such a central part of the game.
A player’s “Honor Level” is portrayed just as critically as a player’s health. It’s supposed to matter, but somehow… just doesn’t.
If you are “good” (your honor level is high enough), before you complete the game and Author dies… then Author’s grave is decorated with wild flowers that grow around it. That’s all. It’s not much of a takeaway.
It’s hard to overlook what the game justifies about itself, what it features, and how you’re supposed to overlook so many of these things while still caring about it.
Moral becomes cosmetic in a game that advertises it as a central part, because of how it refuses to take any significant stance on literally anything.
It’s also why I found it such a fascinating thing to play through for the sake of commentary on the game industry.
Can games, especially AAA, even address anything meaningfully (difficult topics) when they’re so afraid of alienating player bases that would get offended at basic things like condemning racism?
If rape is reduced to a mere feature… just some casual side plot to stumble into… can we expect change when it comes to things like sexual harassment? Judging by the way it’s treated here it’s just “not a big deal”.
Can games unpack this stuff in a meaningful way?
I find it difficult in a space that wants SO BADLY to be taken serious as a legitimate artform, when it’s so cowardly because of it’s commercialism.
If sales, player bases, numbers… are above all else, can this ever be more than just casual entertainment? I say casual entertainment because, despite the large amount of hours you have to play this game to really “get into it”, it still fails to really hold up as meaningful when you contrast it to other artforms. It all seems too commercial to really matter.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open world game. Letting a player do whatever they want is central to it, as is choice.
You can never really have true choice in a game. Whatever you are allowed to do is because the game was designed to support that type of behavior.
If a player is given a gun, the player will interact with the world using that gun. This becomes the primary mode of interaction. These games are built around a certain set of presuppositions… being an asshole in the world that you are placed in is a big one. That’s not really sarcasm, that’s just how things are.
The movie Free Guy, with Ryan Reynolds, in which he plays an NPC navigating this type of space is a good example of how even popular culture views game worlds.
So I think, just conceptually, games like Red Dead Redemption, GTA, Cyberpunk… paint themselves in a corner because you can never really boast a morally superior v.s. evil storyline, with moral cut-scenes of the “good guy” you are playing, when (in the end) the player behaves this way in the world (by default).
It’s central to the suspension of disbelief needed when engaging with the game’s story. You KNOW that the Author Morgan you were being up until you went out on that date with your former love interest was NOT that nice. If it were up to the player (most likely), all people in the theater would be punched, and the production set on fire. There will always be a disconnect with how the game wants to tell a story, and how the player gets there.
As a side note, a little long winded, but that’s what I’m here for… I think really the only narratively sound characters in open world games are the ones that establish themselves as chaotic evil (for example, Malkavian’s in Vampire the Masquerade still made the most sense).
Popular view of existing in a video game is to be an asshole. There are a lot of indiegames coming from the “wholesome” label that thankfully offer alternatives to this. I think plenty of work has been done in challenging conceptions of what it means to exist in a game. I don’t think Red Dead Redemption 2 deserves the accolades it has gotten for “doing a good job” at that when it still holds onto so many of these old formulas that cause such dissociation between the world, a player’s actions in it, supposed morality, and the story.

(The cute couple bug. You can sit in eachothers laps, if you catch the right angle.)

Over-analyzing one final feature (which I’m here to do)… My favorite in Red Redemption 2 is bathing. I think it’s hilarious.
Your dude can get dirty, and then you can bathe him. It serves a function. Being clean matters, as people comment on if you are too covered in blood or not.
Bathing is done very manly. It’s probably the most masculine type of bath you could come up with. It’s obvious that there were meetings about this to make bathing as masculine as possible… so as not to alienate players who might think personal hygiene or self-care is “gay”.
Each bathing scene also involves the presence of alcohol. Each time you bathe you hear a woman ask if you need help. If you accept then she will gently caress your back, and then your thighs, and then… It’s implied.
This way you don’t have to touch your own butthole to get clean, therefore bathing is not gay in this game.
I realize that I sound really sarcastic here, but I understand the player base that they try to cater to.
I find this really interesting to juxtapose against all the story elements that try so hard to be deep (and successfully at times).

(The “We’re more ghosts than people” scene…)

If you play the game in its entirety (not skipping anything, paying attention…), it comes across as a game that’s trying really hard to “grow up”. Like games are tired of themselves, and want to be more, but are still held back by the audience (fear of alienating certain bases), the people in charge, and overall industry.

I know at this point I sound like I hate the game. I don’t. It’s just another game. I like talking about it. I think it’s an accomplishment for how big and weird it is… How it feels like a game that’s trying to be better than what games have been so far… it wants to be “deep”, to be more than just a male power fantasy… while failing spectacularly at much of this for how it can’t let go of all the things games have done for so long.

(Something should be said of the hunting element and the ridiculous amount of animals you need to kill in order to unlock things… then even the legendary animals, which you must kill. It’s interesting that the only way to interact with animals here, especially the legendary animals, is not to protect them, or listen to the supposed lore about them, but… kill and skin. It’s very colonialist… consumerist for how it again reduces the natural world to a “resource”… I could spend pages going into that, so I wont. Maybe give AAA games a few more generations and then they will finally feature nature as more than something to mine… maybe this will happen after the environment entirely collapses and it’s not a good look anymore? As another aside… maybe that will never happen because masculinity will always mater more. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me. I’m pessimistic.)

(A lake from out of bounds)

I spent a lot of time with Red Dead Redemption 2. I played it more than anything this year because it’s still one of the best open world games that you could get into. It helped during lock-down. It gave a sense of freedom that is hard to find in games because of how tangible its environment is. A long time ago, I wrote about open world games, and their shortcomings (why they can make you feel trapped, rather than free). In many ways, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an exception to these criticisms.
You can actually sit on chairs. You can watch the sunset. You can fish (optionally throwing fish back, so there’s that…). You can play it at your own pace, even as a walking sim if you want.
The player is much less confined to the pressures of the world there.
The map that you exist in is huge. The amount of things to explore seems endless.
I was standing in a field watching a hawk. The hawk swooped down and picked up a rat. My mind is constantly blown by how intricate the simulation is. All the pieces seem aware of eachother and respond. That, in itself, makes playing it worth it…

(Out of bounds wildlife)

The thing I’m most fascinated with is the out of bounds space in Red Dead Redemption 2. There are a number of tricks to get you outside of the map. For example, getting blackout drunk while running up the edge, and when you wake up you are outside of the world.
Here animals don’t attack or run away. You are in a weird void where the laws of the world seem to degrade.
The world kind of comes apart, and it seems endless.
I think the poetry of this is fascinating. Somewhere in all the surrounding chaos, there’s this simulated functional world. The surrounding out of bounds, the bugs, the way the virtual world responds to the player… is why this game is worth experiencing.

I know this is a long, probably nitpicky, blog post psychoanalyzing just another AAA game. There’s a lot of commentary on this game. Me talking about it seems like a pointless thing to throw into the sea of things said about it.

I wanted to write this because of the theme of redemption. Aside from the fishing and bathing, a mainstream game talking about “redemption” is why I thought I should give it a shot. Redemption implies some self-awareness of a wrong. What does that look like?
In the grand scheme of things…
What does “redemption” look like to the game industry? (as depicted in a AAA game?)
The game industry has problems with accountability. There’s so much abuse, so many abuse stories that have come to light, you have to have your head in the sand to not know about it.
Even most of the popular discussions about accountability are spearheaded by abusers or people who have enabled abuse. Outlets that spearheaded social justice rhetoric abusing vulnerable people, journalists that built their careers on supposedly caring and then choosing to be indifferent toward their own harm, people who were outgoing about fighting abuse being abusers themselves… The contradicting nature of this space is self-harm in itself. It’s really hard not to feel crushed by it.
It’s hard to play a game that so casually features rape, knowing that people in this industry survive that while working on games like this.
So, coming from a space that so fails in basic justice, how would the message of “redemption” (accountability) look?
This is why I say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fascinating self-commentary.

Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to be the “good guy” while fully aware that it’s not. You’re an outlaw after all. Even so, it wants you to sympathize with the character. You should care about him. He does these truly horrible things before contracting a deadly disease and then trying to make amends for the harm he has caused people. Only in knowing that he is doomed does he finally start caring. I find it interesting that there’s this turning point in the tone of the story, where it starts to admit that these past transgressions were wrong. Even so, all the way until the end does the game want you to sympathize with the fate of this character. He had no better options in life. This is the life he chose. An outlaw is his passion. It’s all he wants or knows. It’s his freedom… somewhere between harming others to sustain this life, and making occasional moral choices that make you question if he’s really all that bad, do you get an ending where he pays the ultimate price. Does any other end really make sense at this point?
A lot of people found the ending upsetting, but it’s the one that seemed to save the game from itself.

A final tangent to illustrate… The first episode of Netflix’s Dark Tourist takes you to Latin America where the host does narco-tourism. He meets a former assassin that killed people for the drug lord there. The assassin is a likeable guy. The episode seems to highlight how likeable he is, with Farier having to constantly remind himself that this is a man that killed his girlfriend (along with a lot of other murder).
At one point he says something along the lines of “They warned me that I would like you… But you killed your girlfriend” I probably paraphrase, but points like that stood out. Yes, evil people are likeable too. Love-able even. Anyone who survived an abuser can tell you that.
This moment captures my feelings about games like Red Dead Redemption 2. The type of heroes most popular in games… and the type of people this industry places on a pedestal that make these games.
I have to wonder how much better things would be if we would actually take stances on abuse, abusers, and individuals who are horrible… What if their narratives weren’t the ones we constantly chose to platform or justify?
I highlighted a lot of how Red Dead Redemption 2 fails to take stances on things like its framing of racism, white supremacy, sexual violence… This is reflective of the atmosphere in games… The fear of alienating yourself, burning bridges, or losing opportunities far outweighs doing the right thing and supporting someone that has been harmed.
This is a space where looking the other way is the norm… Just a basic act of solidarity, standing against an obvious harm, will be viewed as “too much”.
Can we really expect games themselves to be different, better, more consistent, less racist, less rapey, less everything-ist, when the space itself is like this?
The game industry is all about doing the bare minimum, least specific action, and then patting itself on the back for being The Best Medium Ever.
Even the indie game space has these same issues.

I have a hard time saying this but… Maybe the type of redemption in Red Dead Redemption 2 is some subconscious self-realization that this is what’s deserved. In the end, this fate was earned: You can’t save it. You shouldn’t. Just let it die.
Abusers are likeable. They are relatable. You can understand why any harmful person chose to be the type of person they are… It’s the wrong story to sympathize with tho, especially in context of the change that’s desperately necessary right now.