How The West Was Won
The inside story of Rockstar’s biggest, deepest, and most beautiful game to date
The Th inside story of Red Dead
Redemption Re 2: Rockstar’s biggest, gest, deepest, de most beautiful game ever
We are all of 30 seconds into Red Dead
Redemption 2 when we realise that Rockstar is burying the lede again. When we think of its predecessor, we remember the glorious sunsets, the sun-parched grass of the New Austin frontier, the baked-clay plains of Mexico. In the Red Dead of our memories, there is rarely a cloud in the sky. We did not expect to begin Rockstar’s first game in five years, one sold on the promise of another adventure in the harsh burning sun of the old west, trudging through a storm in snow that comes up to our waist.
Rockstar also did this in Grand Theft Auto V, you may remember. The opening prologue was a quick tutorial heist set in overcast, snow-driven countryside, meaning players had to wait for the fantasy promised by the boxart. When the moment finally came, and you were finally dropped into the hazy, shimmering glitz of Los Santos, it was all the more striking for the delay. After an hour or so, Rockstar’s latest game does the same thing: the storm subsides, the thaw sets in and our outlaw posse trudges down a hillside, the sun peeking through the clouds as Rockstar flexes its muscles for the first time in HDR.
Red Dead Redemption 2’ s opening moments aren’t simply about teasing out a big graphical payoff, though that’s certainly what you’ll get. Rather, it’s about narrowing your focus early on to what counts the most: protagonist Arthur Morgan and his fellow members of the Van der Linde gang. There are nearly two dozen of them in all, a ragtag band of gunslingers, geezers, hard-nuts and harlots that will naturally serve as quest-givers and AI companions over the course of the game. But they’re more than that. They are a family. They’re vulnerable, as this desperate opening trudge through the storm, in urgent search for shelter, makes clear. When the gang finally stumbles upon an empty farmhouse, one of their number has already died. He is mourned, if only briefly. Dutch addresses the group for the first time, and it’s immediately clear why he’s the leader. “Stay strong,” he tells them. “Stay with me. We ain’t done yet.”
You suspect that’s become something of a motto for Rockstar in the production of this, its most ambitious game to date by a stretch – and its most complex, too. No open-world game has ever been too well served by a demo, but this is on another level entirely. We spend six hours
THIS IS ROCKSTAR’S MOST AMBITIOUS GAME TO DATE BY A STRETCH – AND ITS MOST COMPLEX
DEVELOP A REPUTATION AS A HARD MAN AND IT WILL AFFECT THE WAY THE GAME IS PRESENTED
with the game, starting from the beginning, the first publication in the world to do so. We leave knowing we have not so much as scratched the surface. A few days after our visit, Rockstar sends over a fact sheet. This is standard PR work, reducing a game’s design pillars to a series of handy bullet points that rarely stretches beyond a single side of A4. It is nine pages long.
At the centre of it all is Arthur Morgan. From a distance, there’s little to distinguish him from John Marston, protagonist of Red Dead Redemption. He’s gruff, ruggedly handsome, a man of good heart and reasonable intentions despite having spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law. A member of the Van der Linde gang since he was a boy, he’s done his share of bad things, but when it’s put to him that his has been the life of a legendary gunslinger, he’s having none of it. “Folks who need shooting, I try to shoot in the back,” he says. “All that other stuff is bunk.”
He’s immediately likeable, though just how long he will stay that way is up to you. The game’s Honour system is powered not, as in other games, by the choices you make at predefined moments. It’s there constantly, and riddled with shades of grey. With your weapon holstered, any NPC or animal can be targeted, pulling the camera’s focus and bring up a context menu to enable you to act towards them in certain ways. If it’s a bystander, you could threaten, rob or simply greet them; a dog can be patted, praised or scolded.
In isolation, these may not seem like much – but over time, they affect how Morgan is seen, and treated, everywhere he goes. Develop a reputation as a hardman, for instance, and robberies will pay out more. Rockstar says it will even affect the way the game is presented, a moodier soundtrack or camera angle reflecting the player’s choice for the game to be the tale of a dishonorable badass. And while they may, moment to moment, seem like binary choices, there’s room for nuance. At the end of the train job that brings down the curtain on the prologue, Morgan is left alone with three members of train staff, and told to do with them as he pleases. The bandana covering his face slipped off during a fistfight, so he’s been seen – and the owner of the train, a powerful magnate named Leviticus Cornwell, is likely to seek retribution for the stacks of railway bonds that the gang has
made off with. We pop one between the eyes, and let the other two live. If they’re smart, they’ll keep their mouths shut.
“Honour is a big part of the game, much like it was in the previous one,” says Joshua Bass, art director at Rockstar San Diego. “But it’s much more subtly integrated into the world, and it won’t always be clear what’s an honourable thing to do. It’s also less about whether it opens or closes a branching path in a story mission – though there are times when it does – as it is about how you’re going to feel about the overall experience.
“Playing Arthur as a darker character is going to make the moment-to-moment gameplay feel a lot different than if he’s an honourable outlaw. It’s layered into everything, from music to camera angles to body language and the way everyone reacts to you. Hopefully, by the end of the game, these cumulative effects will add up, and people will realise just how different their experience was compared to someone else because of the hundreds of different choices they made as they played.”
The elephant in the room, however, is Marston, star of Red Dead Redemption. This is a prequel to events of the 2010 game, set over a decade earlier when Marston was still part of the gang. Rockstar realises he needs to be dealt with and does so as early as possible: once you’ve found shelter from the storm for the gang, Marston’s then-girlfriend Abigail tells you her beau is missing. You trek up through the deep snow to a mountainside where Marston – here young and impetuous, a stark contrast to his character in Red
Dead Redemption – has been attacked and injured. His leg’s a mess, and his face is all scratched up. Rockstar knows you came, in part, for Marston. He’s introduced early, the mystery of his facial scars immediately cleared up. After that, he’s just another member of the gang.
Once the snow melts and you’ve successfully robbed the train, the gang heads east, setting up camp in verdant, hilly New Hanover – and it’s at this point that the game both opens up and puts down roots. Dutch tells the group in no uncertain terms that, while they’re free to come and go as they please and get up to whatever they feel like – as if he knows this is an open-world game – they’re expected to contribute. There’s plenty to do around the place. At his tent, Marston can trim his hair and beard according to the player’s preference, or change his clothes as the climate demands (the attention to detail in the latter borders on the absurd, including whether sleeves are rolled up or not, and how jeans sit on, or in, your boots). You can sit by the fire and gossip, or share stories of recent adventures. The others live their own lives, and conversations with them are dynamic according to their current mood. Approach one of them after they’ve had an argument, for instance, and they’ll be agitated (the same applies out in the world: an NPC you’ve just cleaned out at the poker table will be less than warm towards you). And all over the place are deposit and storage boxes, waiting for your kickbacks.
“Everyone needs to do their bit to help the gang survive,” Bass says, “whether it’s donating a portion of money or items they steal, or helping out around camp. Arthur doesn’t have to contribute, but his fellow gang members appreciate it when he does. We don’t want the gang to feel like a set of stat values to be managed by the player; they’re a fully realised group of people who know each other well, who gossip and argue and share stories. If Arthur’s helping out around camp, they’ll interact with him more positively and the camp will generally be a happier place to be. If you don’t, the gang might make passing comments about the state of camp, or the fact that Arthur’s not pulling his weight.”
Their most obvious role, however, is as mission-givers, and while available opportunities are shown on the map, quests begin in a more natural fashion than we’ve come to expect from Rockstar, with no interstitial loading screens. Indeed, we begin one by complete accident, wandering into the saloon in Valentine, the main town in New Hanover, and finding ourselves summoned to the bar by a couple of gangmates, a mission kicking off automatically. Your fellow outlaws will come and go over time – you might meet them while out on the road, or even head out on it with them. When elderly conman Hosea Matthews invites us out to hunt a giant bear (there are legendary-class animals to seek out across the game world) he calls to the camp as we leave, telling them we’ll be gone a few days. After the hunt – powered in part by Morgan’s Witcher Senses-style tracking abilities – is over, Matthews tells us he’s going to stay out on the trail for a spell, inviting us to go with him. We turn back, with an apology. We’ve only a few hours left, old stick. We’ll do this properly in a few weeks.
NPCS LIVE THEIR OWN LIVES, AND CONVERSATIONS WITH THEM ARE DYNAMIC ACCORDING TO THEIR MOOD
YOU CAN IMPROVE A HORSE’ S ACCELERATION BY BUYING IT A NEW SADDLE, STIRRUPS OR BEDROLL
Hunting is just one of several systems in Red Dead Redemption 2 that have been put together with such depth and attention to detail that the game quickly starts to feel, even after a lengthy development period and all the delays, like a miracle. Or a folly, we’re not sure. Yes, you track prey with an artifice borrowed from Geralt of Rivia, but that’s only the beginning. Animals are aware of their place in the food chain of the region in which they gambol, canter or swim. Some have a keen sense of smell, forcing you to consider the wind as you make your approach. Nock an arrow and you can whistle to get a grazing animal to raise its head, making the kill easier. Skin it – the friendly camera cutaway of the previous game is gone, the cut, the tear and the pull now shown in full, squeamish non-glory – and you can sell the pelt and cook the meat, though you’ll need to do so before rot sets in.
Morgan himself is driven by systems, too. Health and stamina values are measured in wheels, and regenerate over time. In the centre of each wheel is a core which must be improved out in the world; as in GTAV, running, for instance, will over time boost your stamina. Even without upgraded cores, your health and stamina will still refill, but they’ll do so more slowly as the cores deplete. They can be topped up by eating or resting, though do too much of the former and, in a welcome nod to
GTA: San Andreas, Morgan will start to carry a little extra timber. He needs to eat, and to rest, and to dress appropriately for the wild variations in climate across this sprawling world.
If that brings to mind another recent industrybeating open-world game, Morgan, like Link, also has to tend to his steed. As in Breath Of The Wild, horses must be tamed, their trust earned, before they can be ridden. Like Morgan, their abilities improve through regular use, unlocking new abilities as his bond with them deepens. There’s a hint here at the sort of granular stat-work you’d prefer Rockstar to steer clear of: a visit to the Valentine stables reveals that you can improve a horse’s acceleration, top speed and so on by buying it a new saddle, stirrups or bedroll. But mounts are naturally complex out in the world, away from the menu screens. When we happen across a bear, our ride is spooked, bucking against our control. It will do the same for rattlesnakes, we’re told, and whatever other predators lie in wait across the land. A pat on the shoulder, a firm hand at the
reins and a diversion along the scenic route soon get it back on side, and our journey is all the richer for it.
“Like many parts of the game, the team iterated on the horse for years,” Aaron Garbut, art director at Rockstar North – the entire global Rockstar operation, spanning eight studios, has worked on the game – tells us. “The personality of the horse will come through in its behaviour, reacting to the world in a way that’s unique to its breed and your bond with it. Your horse should feel like a living creature with a mind of its own, and we spent a lot of time tagging elements of the world so the horse knows where it wants to go, and what it wants to avoid, as much as the player.
“Beyond that, though, we want your horse to feel like a companion. You start to care for it, and it upsets you when it’s hurt. Looking after it, and bonding with it, becomes something you want to do – not just for the benefits it can bring, but because it’s your most trusted friend. If it’s hurt and dying, you have limited time to get it medicine, and it’s at times like these that the game opens up its own adventures. Suddenly nothing matters as much as helping your horse. That said, you could just let it die, and get another. Well, I couldn’t. But maybe you could.”
It goes on, this level of detail. There are some fanciful, even outrageous, claims: you’ve probably already heard the one about how your horse’s testicles shrink in cold weather. If what Rockstar tells us is true, this will be the most richly complex open world that the game industry has ever produced. Six hours is nothing, of course, in the scheme of such a thing. We can already tell you, however, that Red Dead Redemption 2 is beautiful, beguiling, and simply enormous.
When Dutch and the gang have stuck up the train and set up camp in New Hanover, the reins of the prologue are loosened. We ask our Rockstar handlers if there are any restrictions on where we can go, or what we can do. Is there anything to stop us pulling up the map, setting a waypoint at its furthest extremity, and spending the rest of the day going there? After a pause, we are told to go nuts.
Rockstar is entitled to feel confident. “We always go through a similar process when designing a world,” Garbut tells us. “We build out our ideas as quickly as we can, and then we live in that world. We get a feel for it and layer on more detail.
“YOU START TO CARE FOR YOUR HORSE. BONDING WITH IT BECOMES SOMETHING YOU WANT TO DO”
More variations, more sub-districts; we move rivers, mountains, features; we adjust and refine, and adjust again. We spend years living in these places, day in day out, to try and make them look and feel better. As soon as the world becomes more resolved, we layer in the people, adventures, missions and off-mission content.
“A big difference for this game is making sure that the player’s not just discovering fun things to do, but that the world is constantly serving things up to you in subtle ways. A rattlesnake spooking your horse, animals lurking in the woods, a rival gang’s campfire off in the distance, the distant lights of the nearest town – there’s always something going on. The things that happen to you as you simply hang out in the world pull you through it, creating rewarding experiences in their own right. That feels real, and it feels new.”
He’s not wrong. We bring up the map, zoom out as far as we can, and move the cursor east. It scrolls for two full screens. “Go south,” a voice behind us says. It scrolls twice as far. We have a few more hours, so head off with the best of intentions, but if you’ve ever played a Rockstar game, you’ll understand we get distracted. We hop off our steed to hunt some deer. We stop off at a beach, where a young boy is skimming stones across the water, playing out an esprit d’escalier conversation with an absent, unrequited love, and pause to offer him the benefit of our years of experience. We will spend the next week wondering what Morgan would have said had we picked the asshole option. We spy some smoke on the horizon, and head off to find its origin; when we get there we find a gang of ne’er-do-wells, scheming their next big job. They do not take kindly to our interruption. The ‘defuse’ dialogue option works, but only for a couple of seconds. We’re told to clear off and, when we tarry, are cut down. Death comes quick in these hills.
Respawning, we find the smoke and head back, this time making sure we shoot first. We hear gunfire over the hill, and find a gang teaching a young boy how to shoot straight; they, too, take umbrage at our presence, and now we know we need to turn tail quickly. We stumble across a farm, and play psycho with the workers there, alternately greeting and threatening them until they walk away, glancing nervously over shoulders. Our horse spies a rattler and freaks out, so we turn sharply, riding east instead of south, and find a railway station offering fast travel to half a dozen destinations. We ask our handlers for advice. We settle on Saint Denis, the game’s equivalent of New Orleans.
If you thought that Red Dead Redemption’s Blackwater was built up, well, this is something else, a surprisingly modern urban sprawl that’s a stark reminder of the new world the Van der Linde gang are struggling to come to terms with. While they toil out on the open plain, sticking up wagons and scrabbling for food, a short hop away there are bustling towns with road networks, busy ports, street lights and nightlife. A bystander takes exception to our appearance, and we take exception to his face. A punch-up ensues, the police are called, and we stand no chance.
After a good old fashioned run and hide, we track down our mouthy aggressor. We knock him out, pick up his body and walk towards the water’s edge. We intend to drop him in it, of course, but Morgan trips somehow, dropping his quarry on the pier and tumbling into the drink himself. The room falls about laughing, and any lingering concerns just melt away. Rockstar may have layered this game with more systems and structures than all its previous games combined. It may have built its biggest, most complex game to date. But there’s no scripting something like that.
That’s the magic of a Rockstar game and has been for years, but from what we’ve seen this will be, by a long way, the biggest, most varied, and most beautiful playground the developer has ever produced. And it is different. “Grand Theft Auto V allowed us to stand on a mountain and see clouds cast shadows on the terrain, which gave a great sense of scale,” Garbut says. “But the system in Red
Dead Redemption 2 lets us climb from an overcast valley up through the clouds until we’re on a mountain above them. You can see bad weather rolling in, rain falling from clouds in the distance, localised fog around you. It’s incredibly dynamic.
“We have moved away from typical open-world tropes. This is not a collection of missions inside a big world filled with blips for pick-ups and minigames. It’s much more subtle, and much more real. We don’t think of it as a game to be played through. It’s a place for you to get lost in.” In just a few short weeks, we fully intend to.
“THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU AS YOU SIMPLY HANG OUT IN THE WORLD PULL YOU THROUGH IT”