For the past several days straight, I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and while I’m not about to speak to the game as a whole, I can say one thing for sure. This game is going to change things. Right out of the gate Red Dead 2 is immersive in a way that I’ve never seen before, and I know that might sound like an overly-dramatic Kotaku-ism, but this time it’s true.
Even the most mundane of activities are seamlessly animated. Picking up loot doesn’t involve walking over items sitting on the ground or flipping through menus. Instead, you physically open drawers and chests, and then remove the items from inside and put them in your satchel. Skinning an animal doesn’t involve looting the pelt from a menu screen while it lays on the ground full rigor mortis. In this game, you really do skin the animal.
And that attention to detail doesn’t stop at the core gameplay. It extends to many aspects that are typically passed over and dismissed as “good enough” in their present form. Take, for example, the way this game handles shops. Where most games would have the player speak to the shop owner only to be turned over to an abstract menu screen with little to no relation to gameplay or reality, Red Dead 2 has the player flipping through an in-game catalogue, complete with remarkably detailed flavor text, advertisements, and design work that fits the era.
In a way this reminds me of when Valve had the bright idea to set the first Half-Life game in a recognizable and relatable setting like offices and labs instead of some far-flung space station with no relation to reality like pretty much every other shooter up until that point. It turns out, people loved having a setting that they were more familiar with, since it helped them form a closer connection with it. That may sound like an obvious decision in retrospect, but at the time it changed the industry and gave us shooters as we know them today.
Obviously this isn’t going turn gaming on its head quite like the first Half-Life did all the way back in 1998, but the comparison still holds true. Red Dead 2 brings immersive elements to parts of a game where they previously did not exist. Now, you may accuse me of beating a dead horse, but this really is THAT big of a deal. Immersion is one of the primary factors that drives the modern games industry forward. If you take one example from the world of slot machines, it is like releasing Dead or Alive 2, which revolutionized the whole scene at once.
It’s part of the reason why, for good or ill, people care so much about a game’s graphical fidelity – it’s the easiest way to tell if a game has the potential to pull you into its world or not, at least at a surface level. As soon as you get used to this generation’s graphical achievements, past games end up looking far worse than you remembered them. That’s because you’ve gotten used to the prettier, more believable looking games of today, and so you’d have a hard time becoming immersed in a game where people’s faces look two-dimensional.
But back in the day, your standards wouldn’t have been as high. Red Dead 2 has that same sort of effect on me, but it’s not just the visuals. Now looking back, a lot of games seem dated with how jarring and outwardly “gamey” they are. That isn’t me taking a shot at other games, it isn’t their fault. Red Dead 2 just pulled this off so well. And the same can be said for the way Red Dead 2’s NPCs interact with the player.
I’ve honestly never seen anything like this. The player can either make small talk with or antagonize just about every single person, and the dialogue options adapt to the immediate situation. The choice is typically binary which definitely limits you, and yet it’s still impressive how convincing these interactions can appear. In fact, they’re so convincing that some people apparently think that these virtual characters deserve rights. Let’s not dwell on that for too long. Say you’re walking down the street and see somebody get shit dumped on them.
You can turn around and make a relevant comment to the situation. Which might sound gimmicky on the surface, but during gameplay it causes your character’s interactions with the world to seem more fluid and natural, as opposed to the more in-your-face style we see in so many other titles – Where the world seems to grind to a halt everytime you speak to somebody as if you live in a somehow even more demented version of Adam Sandler’s Click, but instead of a remote, it’s your vocal cords imprisoning all life forms in the universe to a temporal prison. This mechanic probably isn’t going to replace dialogue menus as we know them, which, I mean, thank god, but it’s definitely way better than having no control at all. It’s a kind of middle ground that others will hopefully take notice of.
This isn’t a case of one particular feature that is especially groundbreaking, rather it’s the combination of so many fully realized smaller features that makes this game so special. When everything comes together just right, the world of Red Dead 2 feels alive in a way that hasn’t been achieved before. To me, it feels like Red Dead 2 will mark a “before and after” for its genre. Do I think every single one of these sorts of games is going to have dynamically growing hair mechanics and a worldspace with as of yet unprecedented detail?
No. I think we’ll probably see some other games putting their own spin on these kind of features, but it’ll take some time. Either way, you can’t deny that Red Dead 2 raises the bar for believability and attention to detail, and any big open world titles that come after this are going to have huge shoes to fill, because this game is a really tough act to follow.