Tedious. Slow paced. Frustrating.
Here are words some people have used time and time again in the recent coverage of Red Dead Redemption II.
And while there’s a lot of love for that game, and many pieces explaining why those people seem to have lost their way (A feeling this particular writer shares), I’ve never seen an article that quite gets why these words don’t do justice to that game in my opinion. Because what these words imply is that Red Dead Redemption II is swallowing their hard earned time by the dozen.
Yet, I can’t remember the last time a game was that mindful of my time.
You’ve heard that story before. It’s about some guy, he’s always low-key complaining about his lack of time to play video games. Something he fell into unwillingly because of his work, his friends, his life. While all of those arguments are valid, there’s something else.
I do have less time to play but, as it’s very easy to learn, you can always find time if you make that thing your priority. The real issue is to find a game worthy of that investment.
The day I found out I will never be able to finish The Witcher 3 was a bummer. I felt this strange emotion. This fear of missing out. No matter how great that game is, and by Thor it is, I knew in my bones that I would not be able to get back to it after some time if, unfortunately, I had to take a longer break than expected.
And this fear, mixed with everything this game demands, the number of quests you hoard, all the activities the game keep reminding you of, severely increased my exhaustion.
Left and right, people want your help, because it would be a shame if you never went to see what the developer made for you over here or over there.
Every time I went back to the game, I was just getting this feeling of being lost just by looking at the quest list.
The last two games I’ve finished were God of War and the amazing Spider-man (I will never apologize for this quite easy bon mot), both for PS4.
They are great games, and while I feel GoW made more efforts about being mindful of my time by making all of its content very accessible to the player, it still sometimes felt like I was gently pushed toward making sure I completed everything. Although, to that game defense, I was more than happy to do it.
About the ultimate game starring Peter Parker, It is important to remember the context. Indeed, in order to feel like the aforementioned super-hero, you do need to feel the urgency of each emergencies, to put yourself into the shoes of the busy spider you are in the game. But still, I wonder if I would have completed the whole game if that swinging mechanic wasn’t there, or wasn’t that great, and the fact Spidey is one of my all-time favorites.
I wonder, didn’t we used to be better at that, in the olden days? Were we less concerned about players having to see all the work? Were we still in that far-west-y game design philosophy where we didn’t knew as much so we tried anything to see what worked? Is it because now that games cost a lot of money we need to justify everything inside the game? Is it a bit of everything?
Let me take a little break here. Let’s see if I can give this opinion piece a bit of context, a bit of meaning. Maybe by telling you where I think this all started.
The year is 2008, and Ubisoft just released Far Cry 2, a game so unapologetic in its way of not holding your hand and letting you lose yourself it confused a great deal of people. While this game is often cited as an example now, during that time there was a lot of players which couldn’t get past its numerous failings (And it’s not that hard to see why). And of course, when, about two years earlier, a game from Bethesda Softworks named Oblivion made a lot of money by being the most accessible game of its franchise to date (Oblivion believed that being more accessible meant always making sure the player knew what he had to do next, of never being able to lose itself in its world.), it’s not difficult to see Far Cry 2 as nothing but a failure from a business point.
That’s most likely why, for Far Cry 3, their designers went the other way and filled the map with so much to do, so much cluttering, begging you to keep playing this game and make sure you see everything.
I’m not here to say that less mindful games cannot be the greatest thing ever made. I love any of those games, all of the games named above. To this day I keep them in my heart and will cherish the moments they gave me for years to come. But boy, those games weren’t respectful of my time, especially for games who promised me an open-world and freedom.
By telling me how I should invest my time, I often felt like doing a list of tasks instead of living inside an alien world.
This is likely why, although I love Oblivion and Skyrim so much (I even bought Skyrim for the third time on Switch), Morrowind is still the best Elder Scrolls for in my opinion. Although I know most of the game by heart, I’m still able to make mistakes and be absorbed into its world.
And it’s because Morrowind, very much like Red Dead Redemption II, doesn’t care at all if I do anything in its world except lose yourself in it.
And that, is true mindfulness of someone’s time.
Bear in mind that I play Red Dead Redemption II with the radar turned off, so I might not have the constant reminder of an available quest, as someone else might. But still, it’s insane how Red Dead Redemption II doesn’t care whether you play it or not. As long as you play with it, this game is happy to just let you do anything you can.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect in that regard, just look at the main missions where the game often asks you to do things you don’t really want to. Especially during that beginning, where linearity is the word. But once the game opens, feel free to do whatever you decide to and then main missions never last more than fifteen minutes at most, I think.
And during those, the worst that can happen to you are your companions letting you know they would like Arthur to move faster, or to gently tell you that you forgot to give them some money or provisions for a while.
Absolutely nothing else is reminding you that you have objectives and challenges. No tips during the loading to point out all the ‘cool’ things you can do during your game.
No hand holding.
Forgot how to do something? Just redo the mission explaining said thing and be on your way, mighty cowboy.
And actually, most main missions are just that, missions which show you how to perform a certain task.
In the end nothing really matters, because the game never emphasize much, and by doing so you are the only one who gets to choose what is important. Nothing can really feel tedious because everything you do not like doing, you can just skip it. There is nothing you need to do in order to move forward.
By crafting a game who doesn’t hold your hand, who doesn’t explain its inner workings, Rockstar has made something that lets you be free. And they were able to craft that inside a game about a group of people yearning to be free in a world where they perceive any progress as slavery.
I feel the metaphor couldn’t be better.
In the end, nothing makes you want to play Red Dead Redemption II more, to lose yourself in its inside, than letting you lose your time, make mistakes and be on your way.
All of this puts Red Dead Redemption II inside the same pool of games, such as like Dark Souls or Morrowind, which are huge time-sinkers but still keep you in their clutches because there’s freedom to be found.
Here’s to you, Arthur Morgan. One of the few free men left.
Alexis Duclaux is a Game Jam veteran creating weirdly strange shitty games and had the chance to see one of these game he worked on win the 2015 Best Game Design Award at the MIGF - Proximity .
He also writes strange tales when he’s not trying to tell the fake real story of a french king (in French).