Find­ing beauty in the mun­dane

Why can’t I stop play­ing poker in Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - THE CHATTER - Calum Marsh

Iam not the kind of gamer who plays long or ob­ses­sively. I pre­fer in­stead to para­chute into a game for a few min­utes or per­haps an hour at a time be­fore re­mov­ing my­self to dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties. But pretty well all I have done since Fri­day evening when I started into Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 is im­merse my­self in the fron­tier fan­tasy of this game of cow­boys in the Wild West, break­ing only to or­der take­out and hur­riedly walk the dogs.

One can do many things as an out­law in Rock­star Stu­dios’s painstak­ingly re­al­ized turn-ofthe-cen­tury Amer­ica. Fight a duel. Rob a train. Steal a horse. But what I have been do­ing al­most to the point of ad­dic­tion is tak­ing a seat at a ta­ble in the cor­ner of a di­lap­i­dated sa­loon and, with a stern look on my face, play poker.

Poker in Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 is very re­al­is­tic. Join a game in progress and a co­terie of com­puter-con­trolled op­po­nents will deal you in with en­thu­si­asm: the deck is shuf­fled, the cards dis­trib­uted. When it’s your turn, you can check, fold or raise. My first hand at the ta­ble I nearly busted out be­cause I kept rais­ing on pocket tens that turned into a three-of-a-kind on the flop and a fel­low named Nor­man was nurs­ing a mirac­u­lous straight flush. If you lose, you can buy back in on the next hand; if you keep los­ing, you can al­ways step out­side and rob a stranger in the street, you be­ing a bandit and this be­ing the Wild West. The sun in the game world sets and rises on sched­ule. I have twice now played un­til dawn.

I own a poker set. I have friends who could be counted on to show up with beer and cigars if I in­vited them to play. Yet, for some rea­son it is this un­canny vir­tual card-game fac­sim­ile that con­tin­ues to draw me in — I hardly ever play poker in real life and have never even tried on­line poker or any kind of com­put­er­ized gam­bling at all. What’s es­pe­cially strange is that the ac­cu­racy with which the Red Dead Re­demp­tion poker games are re­al­ized ought to make them less in­ter­est­ing, be­cause they more closely re­sem­ble their coun­ter­parts in the real world and are there­fore sort of re­dun­dant. It’s like the map in the Borges story made on the same scale of the ter­ri­tory it’s map­ping. What’s the point of a sim­u­la­tion if what’s sim­u­lated is so banal?

Per­haps the ba­nal­ity it­self is pre­cisely what I find ap­peal­ing. Be­cause even if the in-game poker is noth­ing more than an ex­act replica of the real-world poker one could play at any time, that achieve­ment in ex­act­ness is re­mark­able, and in­deed com­mands a spec­tac­u­lar de­gree of ad­mi­ra­tion and awe. What is rep­re­sented by th­ese poker matches is an enor­mous amount of tech­ni­cal wizardry and labour; the at­ten­tion to de­tail they con­tain, the ob­ses­sive fidelity to real life they be­tray, con­sti­tutes an achieve­ment that prac­ti­cally de­mands the hon­our of ob­sess­ing over it — all the more so be­cause the poker is en­tirely ir­rel­e­vant and tan­gen­tial to the core of the game.

You don’t need to play much poker to com­plete Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2. Which may be why I can’t help but play a lot of it.

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