Liking Red Dead Redemption 2 is complicated. Its premise, in essence an historically revisionist homage to the Wild West, romanticizes an era of genocide, war and violent colonialist expansion, more or less amounting to nationalist propaganda. Add to that the labor issues surrounding the development of the game, and Rockstar’s poor track record in general, and the game comes saddled with enough baggage to sink the entire ship.
I’ve spent dozens of hours playing Red Dead Redemption 2 so far, but I admit, I have little interest in most of the missions and sidequests. I don’t like terrorizing innocent people or peddling precious keepsakes for petty cash, nor do I sympathize with most of the major characters and their selfish motivations. I’m drawn more to the little worldbuilding features that don’t really comprise the core game, to the extent that I get distracted by them when I’m trying to get through the main storyline. I like to ride my horse across the plains and hike up into the mountains to enjoy the snow. I like to trot through the towns and holler “howdy” from the back of my thoroughbred to everyone I pass by, then head to the swamp to fish and camp by the water, eating roasted game caught by my own hands. I enjoy documenting all the animals I come across with my binoculars and sketchbook, looking over the drawings later as I remember the unique buildings Arthur has come across, and the stories each one told. I’ve sunk more time into playing dominoes and doing camp chores than robbing trains and homesteads.
I say this not to defend Red Dead Redemption 2 (among other things, I’m cynical about a lot of arbitrary time extenders in open world games), but rather, highlight what parts of a game become the most appeal when you’re in the position of having to make the most of it. I think a more honest game set in the time and place of Red Dead Redemption 2 would look very different from what Rockstar delivered, and their attempts to address that seem clumsy and peripheral. It’s impossible to fix or rehabilitate a game built on such a fundamentally flawed foundation. And so, as I work my way through, I keep falling back on the few parts I can get lost in: the scenery, the flora and fauna, the games of five finger fillet with Lenny and staring into a campfire at sunset. It’s not a guilt-free experience, but it’s as relaxing as the game can be, given the circumstances.
Of all the things that resources were spent on in the production of Red Dead Redemption 2, it seems silly that facial hair and equestrian pooping were so high on the priority list. At best they offer a few seconds of amusement, while the most beautifully mundane moments are the ones that span hours of quiet simplicity. Red Dead Redemption 2 can be quite an enjoyable game—but only if you aren’t really playing.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.