Saturday, 27 October 2018

Day 182: Red Dead

What I didn’t mentioned yesterday was that on the way back from the Van-Shallows I may have stopped by GAME, which may have been open for its midnight launch of Red Dead Redemption 2, and I may have picked myself up a copy of the game. And then I may have played halfway through the night, and been exhausted and grumpy and made a million tiny mistakes at work today.

But what you gonna do? The game is the biggest release of the year - the latest opus from Rockstar, creators of the Grand Theft Auto series - and it demands to be played. Red Dead is Rockstar’s Wild West series, initially pitched as “GTA with cowboys” - although where the former series has always been about unfettered adolescent energy-release, stealing cars, driving at top speeds, mowing people down, Red Dead has staked a claim as a more sombre, mature affair. Yes, there are gun fights, but they are clumsy, brutal affairs, scraping, staccato interludes punctuating slower-paced, thoughtful riding, hunting, simply existing in the kind of huge and untamed wilderness that most of us now only experience in simulated form on our computers.

So I’ve only played a few hours with the game - I came home this evening and did another hour, before passing out and waking up only now - but so far Red Dead Redemption 2 is stunning - oppressive, overwhelming, an order of magnitude better than its predecessor.

What I like most is that its systems are as opaque as the snowstorm your gang of outlaws ride into to evade pursuit after a heist gone awry in the game’s opening hours (it’s very Reservoir Dogs). The gang hole-up in abandoned cabins in the Grizzlies, the game’s caricature of the Rockies, to wait out the winter. The snow falls thick all around. A constant gloom lies across the white. Sounds are close, muffled. Your character struggles through snow drifts and forces his horse up mountain paths as spidery light filters through the trees above. Inside the cabins wood creaks, fire crackles, and the voices of gang members come hushed and coarse.

And this tone is borne out by the mechanics of the game, the verbs of play, and how they are deployed. Changing weapons is unintuitive, time-consuming, fiddly. You store weapons in your horse’s satchel, and must swap them out as you proceed. Interacting with the satchel, and most prompts, involves a long hold of a button, rather than a press. You do not simply have health and stamina gauges, but “bars” surrounding “cores” which deplete and require eating of provisions and sleeping in beds to refill. Your character has a life of his own, the thumbsticks of the controller feel like they’re yanking him to where you want him to go, somewhat against his will. He is old and tired, and moves at his own pace, sluggishly, deliberately. So too the horses, which are beasts to ridden, not controlled directly.

It’s all esoteric, obfuscated, difficult, un-fun - and glorious. It is game design to engender a mood, one of isolation, oppression, existence in a hostile world.

My biggest concern with big-budget game design, with videogames in general, is that it all exists only to mollify us into unconsciousness. An opiate for the masses. A mother’s soft hand on our cheek. “Shh, quiet, here’s the next objective, just press this button, well done, have a million experience points, a level-up award, you’re so special, you’re so perfect, shh, shh, suckle this, bathe in this, go back to sleep… and when you wake up you can buy some add-ons in the in-game store.”

Fuck that. I mean, there’s a place for easy entertainment after a long day at work. There’s a place for warm baths. But it seems to me the vast majority of us are giving our existences in jobs to corporations that do not love us, our money to brands that view us with predatory gazes, all to come home and be jerked off into restless slumber by reality TV and superhero action movies and mainstream videogames. Striving in your day job to, I don't know, bring water to villages in developing countries, or be a nurse, or a teacher, then coming home to a deserved rest is one thing. But many of us - myself included - use entertainment as a drug that only serves to keep us in shackles.

So, all of which means I’m super excited about a huge blockbuster videogame, one that I'm sure will end up being among the biggest sellers of all time, that right from its opening moments offers an experience more thorny and less entertaining, and more grown-up, than any of its contemporaries. It's all the more absorbing for it.

Or maybe I’m just trying to justify why I’m a man in his thirties still playing electronic games. Did it work?

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