Last week, Red Dead Redemption II, the long-awaited sequel to Rockstar Games’ critically acclaimed western Red Dead Redemption, was released worldwide to critical and public acclaim. The game currently stands at a 97 aggregate score on Metacritic, garnering high praise from publications such as Gamespot (90), Forbes (90), and IGN (100). In just the first three days the game garnered worldwide consumer retail sales amounting to $725 million, making it the second largest entertainment release of all-time besting Avengers: Infinity War ($640 million) but coming in behind Rockstar’s last major release, Grand Theft Auto V ($1 billion).
However, one review of the game by a prominent gaming website has many readers scratching their heads. Writing for Kotaku, staff writer and critic Heather Alexandra released a piece, titled “Red Dead Redemption 2’s Puppet-Like NPCs Clash With Its Meticulous World”, that criticizes the machinations of the various Non-Player Characters (NPCs) found throughout the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2):
“On the surface, NPCs aspire to the same level of detail, acting out what seem to be full lives. An angry saloon-goer tosses someone through the window for sleeping with his wife; a clumsy rider stops to calm their horse only to get kicked in the head. These moments try to suggest the world is full of people going about their lives, but when contrasted with the rest of the game’s level of detail, they are woefully artificial. The seams start to show, and it’s obvious that Red Dead Redemption 2’s people only exist in relation to me and are defined solely by what I can do to them.”
However, much of Alexandra’s criticism seems to be focused on conceptual and philosophical interpretations rather than objective measures of the quality of the game. At one point in her criticism, Alexandra focuses on the games ‘masculinity’:
“The game’s interactions are constrained largely due to its inspirations. Westerns are a complex and problematic genre tied to a violent history that gave rise to the myth of the gun as an egalitarian tool (e.g., the oft-quoted “God made man, Sam Colt made them equal”) and rugged, self-reliant masculinity. As a result, interactions with RDR2’s NPCs exist within that masculine framework. Arthur and the player’s actions are expressions of a mythic masculinity. We rescue women and lesser men—after all, better men would be able to fight off bandits and manage their horses— and compete against would-be gunslingers while using unique abilities like Dead-Eye to our advantage. We tip our hat like a proper gentleman, and we kill anyone we want. The game rewards those masculine impulses without fail.”
While present in the game, Alexandra presents readers with bad faith interpretations of these elements. Women don’t need rescuing because they are feeble, helpless creatures. Instead, they are tied up on the back of a horse and being kidnapped or are being hassled by a drunken bar patron. Never are women in trouble by virtue of simply being a woman, but rather find themselves in situations where assistance would most likely be very appreciated by anyone, regardless of gender.
Men are never presented as ‘lesser’ because they need Arthur Morgan (the player character)’s help, but are shown to need assistance due to being chased by a ravenous pack of wolves or having just been robbed by bandits. Even when assisting in mundane tasks, such as “managing their horses,” Arthur asks the NPCs in question if they would like or need assistance, rather than forcing his way into the situation.
As far as “reward[ing] those masculine impulses without fail”, this claim is objectively false. When Arthur murders a man, robs his corpse, or even assaults him in the street, citizens who see Arthur giving in to these ‘masculine impulses’ rush immediately to report the crime to the authorities, at which point Arthur will be wanted by the law and a manhunt ensues. Even if Arthur manages to escape the lawmen in the immediate area, a bounty is placed on his head that follows him from town to town.
This bounty system not only signals to other lawmen and bounty hunters that you are to be taken into custody dead or alive, but when Arthur has an active bounty he will find that many services in town, such as wagon fast travel, are unavailable until he is either caught or pays out of pocket to clear his bounty. The impulses themselves are not rewarded, but rather the player’s ability to maneuver a situation and either escape the authorities or shoot their way out.
Alexandra then goes on to bizarrely criticize the very nature of NPCs and their functions in video games:
“This encounter meant to give my actions consequences, but the reward and the scripted nature of our interaction rang false. For all of Red Dead Redemption 2’s attention to detail, this NPC wasn’t an entity who existed before I found him. Which is to say he literally exists because of me and my importance as a player. He was spawned in as I came near, solely to be rescued by me, and then again to reward me for it. Enemies are magically summoned for me to gun down; I’ve watched them blip into existence on my radar during certain events. NPCs exist in orbit of the player, for the player. This is true to varying degrees in all games, but it feels particular pronounced due to Red Dead Redemption 2’s attempt at a meticulous and believable space. As a result, Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world often captures the beauty and detail of real spaces—I’ve never seen grass of these particularly perfect colors before—but it never manages to treat its citizens with empathy or give them life beyond their service to the player. How can it, when these people exist to serve me and when I can decide to kill them with the single press of a button?”
There have been many reviews and points of criticism concerning the expansive promises of Red Dead Redemption 2’s NPCs. Yet these reviews focus on how this shortcoming reflects and changes elements of the game, such as engagement or gameplay approaches, instead of attributing it to an ideological shortcoming.
For comparison, here is how Chris Plante of Polygon addressed the same issue:
“Arthur can engage with every character in Red Dead Redemption 2 by greeting them, antagonizing them or robbing them. It’s a limited means of communication, but an upgrade from so many action games that begin and end most conversations with a bullet. The trouble with presenting a fully interactive world is that, when the internal logic fails, the unrealistic reaction is all the more jarring. I don’t expect to interact with the generic crowds in Red Dead’s contemporaries, like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, but giving me the option to converse with every individual dramatically changes what I assume the game will allow me to do. […] When the systems in Red Dead Redemption 2 fail — or don’t live up to their promise — it changes how I play. Initially, I tried to spark my own stories with the people in the world. Now, I respond to the world, rather than hoping it might respond to me.”
Steven Scaife of Slant Magazine also addresses this issue:
“As much as the game knows when to be quiet, to not drop you into one gunfight after another, Arthur noticeably arrives in the middle of each event for maximum irony and/or usefulness. The man on the road was just bitten by a snake, the train robbers have just finished unloading the passengers, and a rival gang has just opened the prison transport for their captured buddy. You rarely stumble into the aftermath of such events or arrive well before anything happens; it’s always around the height of the drama, which works against the idea of a world that appears not explicitly designed around the player.”
The key issue here with Alexandra’s criticism is that the expectations are unrealistic and unfairly ignore the inherent characteristics of the medium. Yes, the “NPCs exist in orbit of the player, for the player,” but this is because a game is centered around player interaction and the effects their actions have on the game: A chess piece must be moved, a football needs to be thrown, and a player character in a video game needs to actively meet milestones or checkpoints to advance the game. The very nature of a game requires players to exist, and NPCs, serving as points of interaction for the player, are explicitly developed to aid the player’s experience.
Alexandra seems to want a truly dynamic and evolving world that continues to push forward regardless of the player character’s presence, similar to the environment of Toy Story than a video game. To achieve this would require massive advancements in virtual reality and the invention of truly independent and living artificial intelligence. Objectively speaking this is a fantasy rendered unrealistic by the technological limitations of our time, but Alexandra holds RDR2 to the standards of science fiction.
The general consensus regarding Red Dead Redemption II is that Rockstar has produced a truly phenomenal video game. Critics lavish it with praise, players continue to sink hours into gunslinging and hunting, and many people have already heralded it as one of the best games of the console generation. Yet no game is perfect, and while it can be argued that the issues presented by Alexandra are prevalent within the experience, her arguments are framed in a philosophical and hypothetical context rather than in the objective and concrete context of a video game that RDR2 exists within.