Fi­nally, we dip into the im­mer­sive world of Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2,

Is Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 the most life­like video game ever made?

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - By Keza Mac­Don­ald

the west­ern­based video game that crit­ics say is the most re­al­is­tic ever made. With hol­i­day­sea­son wish­lists now busily be­ing com­piled, ex­pect to hear more about this slice of con­sole-based vir­tual life.

In the pale sun­shine of a win­ter’s day, you ride along a trail in the shadow of pris­tine moun­tains. There are other out­laws with you, chat­ting as they ride, guid­ing their horses around frosted trees. You can see your horse’s mus­cles mov­ing be­neath its flanks, hear its grunts as you veer off the track and push it through the snow, leav­ing deep gouges in the un­tainted white. One of your num­ber breaks into song and you choose whether to join in. Even­tu­ally, ar­riv­ing at a ridge, the gang leader pulls up his horse and you slow to a trot as rail­road tracks come into view be­low and in the dis­tance is train you are about to rob.

If you still think of Pac-Man or Space In­vaders when you hear the words “video game”, take a look at Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 and you will see just how far they have come. A turn-of-the-cen­tury tale of the US fron­tier, it casts the player as a gruff out­law rid­ing with a band of other mis­cre­ants, liv­ing off the land and try­ing to out­run the ad­vance of moder­nity. In clas­sic west­ern style, the dream is to make enough money from rob­beries and other jobs to give ev­ery­one in the gang a fresh start some­where new. But law­men and en­e­mies keep chas­ing play­ers across an as­ton­ish­ing recre­ation of the old west, from the moun­tains to the plains to the hot, soupy air of the bayou.

The game’s vir­tual world is ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­tailed. As a player, you can see rain­wa­ter drip­ping from the trees af­ter the sun breaks through clouds and hear deer mov­ing softly through the woods. Its char­ac­ters are mod­elled so ex­actly on real peo­ple that it looks like a film. You can call out to any­one you pass on the road or in a dusty town and they will look up from a news­pa­per or turn to­wards you to re­spond. Its sim­u­la­tion is so de­tailed that, at first, it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve.

Like the fic­tional pro­pri­etors of West­world (the cow­boy amuse­ment park staffed by hu­man-like an­droids in HBO’s TV se­ries), Rockstar aims to pro­vide play­ers with a wild west fan­tasy so au­then­tic that you can for­get it is not real. This real­ism – not just in the way the world looks, but also in how it be­haves – would have been tech­no­log­i­cally out of reach only five years ago and a phe­nom­e­nal amount of money and work has gone into its cre­ation. In­deed, in the past few weeks, Rockstar has had to de­fend it­self from con­tro­versy about its staff ’s wel­fare af­ter one of its co-founders, Dan Houser, said they were work­ing “100-hour weeks”. (He later clar­i­fied that the fig­ure ap­plied only to him­self and three other se­nior writ­ers, with other de­vel­op­ers work­ing 42 to 46 hours in an av­er­age week, ac­cord­ing to the stu­dio.) The game is the re­sult of more than 1,600 peo­ple’s labour over seven years and will have cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars – enough to bank­rupt al­most any other de­vel­oper.

Rockstar is in a unique po­si­tion, how­ever. Buoyed by the in­com­pa­ra­ble suc­cess of 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, which made $1bn in its first three days and has sold 100m copies, the de­vel­oper’s cre­ative leads have the time and money to do what­ever the hell they want. Speak­ing to some of them at Rockstar’s Ed­in­burgh stu­dio, Rockstar North, it is clear that they share an ob­ses­sion with per­fec­tion­ism and a ten­dency to dis­ap­pear down con­ver­sa­tional rab­bit holes; I had a 10-minute chat with Alas­tair MacGre­gor, the tech­ni­cal au­dio di­rec­tor, about the sound of a horse breath­ing. The stu­dio’s co-head, a Cana­dian called Rob Nel­son, speaks ef­fu­sively about Rockstar’s cre­ative aims, rarely fin­ish­ing a sen­tence be­fore start­ing the next one.

“What does real­ism mean? I think we wanted it to feel like an au­then­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a place and a time. But how slav­ishly we ad­here to real­ism, that’s a bal­ance that we have to strike,” says Nel­son. “How do you pop­u­late a world this size with enough to do? What are the things that make a city or a town feel au­then­tic? How are peo­ple go­ing to be hang­ing out in the world – and then what sys­tems are you go­ing to need to have them be­have be­liev­ably? You can’t go out in the world and have it just fall apart on you, with lit­tle robot peo­ple walk­ing around.”

For a long time, video games were ob­sessed with chas­ing real­ism. To play­ers and de­vel­op­ers who grew up play­ing

No­body wants to watch a 15-sec­ond movie of a cow­boy skin­ning a deer

with pixel char­ac­ters or awk­ward early-3D pup­pets on bulky TVs, the idea of a game that looked in­dis­tin­guish­able from real life was the holy grail. Ac­cord­ingly, video-game vi­su­als and be­hav­iour made tech­no­log­i­cal leaps ev­ery few years. The Leg­end of Zelda: Oca­rina of Time, re­leased by Nin­tendo in 1998, was the first to cre­ate a 3D world that you could freely ex­plore. Naughty Dog’s In­di­ana-Jones-es­que Un­charted games and their emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing The Last of Us set new stan­dards for cin­e­matic nar­ra­tive from the mid-00s on­wards, with be­liev­able char­ac­ters played by ta­lented ac­tors. The As­sas­sin’s Creed se­ries, made by Ubisoft, has recre­ated an­cient Egypt, In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion Lon­don and Re­nais­sance Italy. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a sprawl­ing, low-fan­tasy epic from 2015 in which you play a ma­ligned mon­ster-hunter, is the cur­rent high-wa­ter mark for video-game worlds.

But the time when push­ing cre­ative and tech­no­log­i­cal bound­aries went hand in hand in game devel­op­ment has gone. In the past 10 years or so, as the tech­nol­ogy has started to plateau and more peo­ple have turned to smart­phones or older con­soles, rather than state-of-the-art PCs, games have di­ver­si­fied. They were never ho­moge­nous, but they are less so now than ever: look at crit­ics’ lists of this year’s best games and you will see a pin­ball game about a lit­tle ant rolling a rock around an is­land (Yoku’s Is­land

Ex­press), a brief and beau­ti­ful in­ter­ac­tive story about first love (Florence) and a game about a semi-re­tired god and his son bat­tling crea­tures from Norse mythol­ogy (God of War). Real­ism is no longer the only qual­ity by which video games mea­sure their suc­cess. Plenty of games made by much smaller teams than Rockstar’s es­chew it en­tirely, em­brac­ing stylis­tic art and out­landish con­cepts or ex­plor­ing one fun or in­ter­est­ing idea in a lo-fi way. The most pop­u­lar game in the world right now, Fort­nite, has no as­pi­ra­tion to nat­u­ral­ism.

Real­ism sets lu­di­crous stan­dards, which is why most de­vel­op­ers do not com­mit to it. It is tempt­ing to think of de­vel­op­ers as gods, con­jur­ing a world into ex­is­tence, but the re­al­ity is that it in­volves a tre­men­dous amount of of­ten te­dious work. Even some­thing as sim­ple as a life­like tree takes sev­eral peo­ple months to make: some to draw and model it, some to code how the wind moves its leaves, oth­ers to record and mix its rustling. Usu­ally, real­ism is not worth it. But Houser, Rockstar’s co-founder, has long been ob­sessed with cre­at­ing games that feel as life­like as pos­si­ble. The com­pany’s 2001 break­out hit, Grand Theft Auto 3, con­jured a sar­donic sim­u­lacrum of New York on the PlaySta­tion 2 and since then the de­vel­oper has been at the fore­front of video-game real­ism, ex­pand­ing from one stu­dio in Scot­land to nine around the world. GTA V was an­other land­mark, go­ing be­yond a city and cre­at­ing a whole county, with moun­tain trails to cy­cle around and meth-ad­dled trailer parks to drive past.

Red Dead 2 is very dif­fer­ent in mood

from GTA V, al­though both are adul­to­ri­ented and 18-rated. (The first game in the Red Dead fran­chise was 2004’s Red Dead Re­volver, fol­lowed in 2010 by Red Dead Re­demp­tion.) The lat­ter is a black, sharp-tongued satire of the worst ex­cesses of the US, mer­ci­lessly de­pict­ing (and, in the eyes of some crit­ics, glo­ri­fy­ing) the vi­o­lence, mega­lo­ma­nia, hy­per­sex­u­al­i­sa­tion and nar­cis­sism that drives its char­ac­ters and its world. The for­mer is slower, calmer, sad­der and more char­ac­ter-driven. It is set mostly in na­ture and play­ers spend a great deal of time rid­ing around on horses. Noth­ing here will in­spire the same con­tro­ver­sies as GTA V’s tor­ture scenes and strip clubs. The world of GTA V looked amaz­ing, but the play re­volved around vi­o­lence: the game was to steal cars, shoot at cops and gang mem­bers and blow up gas sta­tions. In Red Dead 2, while you can point a re­volver at a car­riage and rob its driver, you can also shout a greet­ing as you pass. You can go fish­ing with your friends or hunt elk in the wilder­ness.

The abil­ity to hunt an­i­mals is one ex­am­ple that il­lus­trates the work that has gone into the game. Nel­son says it was im­por­tant to the team that, as a cow­boy, you could live off the land. That meant the an­i­ma­tors had to cre­ate an­i­ma­tions and mod­els for skin­ning ev­ery species of an­i­mal, from deer to squir­rels, and for pick­ing up and stow­ing the pelts on the back of a horse. So, they took mo­tion-cap­tured data from real ac­tors and adapted it, cre­at­ing al­most grue­somely de­tailed mod­els of skinned an­i­mals. “But at some point you’ve taken the real­ism too far – no­body wants to watch a 15-sec­ond movie of a cow­boy skin­ning a deer,” says Rob. “You could just keep go­ing and go­ing and go­ing and you have to fig­ure out where to draw the line.”

So, why does Rockstar pur­sue this ex­pen­sive per­fec­tion­ism? Is it purely be­cause it can? “No, not at all. It’s not just be­cause we can, it’s be­cause we have to,” says Nel­son. It is an im­mense ver­sion of what Dis­ney used to re­fer to as the il­lu­sion of life, he says. “We’re try­ing to build worlds that peo­ple be­lieve in, that they can get lost in, that is liv­ing with­out you, there for you when you come to it. We want as lit­tle as pos­si­ble to re­mind you that peo­ple made it … ev­ery time that a short­cut is taken, it’s a slight re­minder that it’s been made by peo­ple, it’s not real.”

In a way, the job of a game coder is quite sad: it in­volves spend­ing years cre­at­ing very com­plex and im­pres­sive sys­tems, only to make them ap­pear in­vis­i­ble as pos­si­ble to the player. Be­hind ev­ery nat­u­ral-seem­ing mo­ment in Red Dead 2 – some­one sit­ting out­side a saloon, a horse dip­ping its head to nib­ble on grass – are sev­eral in­tri­cate, in­ter­lock­ing cogs of code de­ter­min­ing how the sim­u­la­tion be­haves. Phil Hooker, as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, is the mas­ter of these sys­tems, bring­ing to­gether the work of sev­eral hun­dred coders.

“We wanted, in this game, to be able to in­ter­act with any­body and for them to feel like a hu­man be­ing,” says Hooker. “In or­der to do that, we need to make sure, what­ever they’re do­ing in the world, they have the ca­pa­bil­ity to re­act to you. So, some­one sit­ting stir­ring a pot of stew needs to be able to turn to look at you briefly or re­act in shock if you do some­thing more ex­treme, and also maybe have a con­ver­sa­tion with you and then go back to what they were do­ing. The num­ber and com­bi­na­tions of an­i­ma­tions we needed to do that, and the sys­tems we needed to put that to­gether, were a lot more com­plex than ever be­fore.

“The chal­lenge is that, as soon as you bring some­thing up to that level of fidelity, ev­ery­thing else has got to match it for the world to feel con­sis­tent and im­merse you. Ev­ery now and again, you take a sin­gle step that you know is go­ing to in­volve a lot of work for a lot of peo­ple and that’s where we have to be very mea­sured.”

Rockstar is one of the only stu­dios left with the re­sources and bullish de­ter­mi­na­tion to push video-game real­ism, nar­ra­tive and world-build­ing as far as it can go, no mat­ter how ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing it might be. For this rea­son, the re­lease of one of its games is al­ways an event. Red Dead 2 is cer­tainly the most am­bi­tious game yet made, by Rockstar or any­one else. Play­ers are not able to do ab­so­lutely any­thing they want in its sim­u­lated world but ev­ery­thing you can do is ex­e­cuted to per­fec­tion. KEZA MAC­DON­ALD IS THE GUARDIAN’S VIDEO GAMES ED­I­TOR

Stick ‘em up Rockstar wanted its land­scapes and cities to feel au­then­tic to play­ers

Leaf it out Scenery as ‘sim­ple’ as a life­like tree can take sev­eral peo­ple months to cre­ate

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