(Let me preface this by saying that I am a huge fan of the Red Dead Redemption games, I have spent countless hours completing both and believe what Rockstar Games has achieved in terms of world design is absolutely incredible.)
However much as I am a fan of the Red Dead Redemption games personally, it is glaringly apparent the design decisions taken by the developers with the second iteration leading down a route of ‘realism vs gameplay’. What I mean by this is that there are aspects of the game which are slow, sluggish and sometimes unenjoyable as well as impacting upon replayability purely for the sake of making the game a more ‘realistic’ experience. Examples of this include having to eat to maintain your avatars weight, having to feed your horse, having to brush dirt out of your horse’s mane, having to go through an animation of your character skinning an animal to obtain its pelt, having to use gun oil to keep your weapon well maintained and polished…. The list goes on and on.
A large part of this is due to the move towards realism and incredibly large amounts of seemingly minor details being put into the game as a way to create a more immersive and ‘genuine’ experience. Truly the sheer number of minor details that the developers took the time to programme into the game is enormous, some kind folks over at IGN even comprised a list of just some of these details as can be seen here – (Warning, lots of advertisements https://uk.ign.com/articles/2018/11/12/79-amazing-little-details-in-red-dead-redemption-2_ )
This move towards realism and detail, strangely, actually has me divided. On the one hand any move towards a more historically realistic, immersive and detailed video game is always going to sound positive, but in reality, it might not be what we want entirely, at least, not without certain conditions. Now I know that sounds crazy, but as any player of the second Red Dead Redemption could back me up on, while the details are mind-blowing at first, having to spend 15 minutes in real life controlling your avatar as he does nothing but slowly loot the corpses of the bandits you killed, or having to go to a general store to buy baked beans as your characters weight has fallen too low, it becomes tedious bordering on annoying. The details are incredible but there is a certain degree of realism that games are expected to not contain.
The issue is that total realism is not what players want from their video games, it might be what they think they want, but in reality the majority of players actually want a kind of token realism, a stereotypical portrayal that conforms to their own preconceptions and ideas regarding what the setting, characters and environment should play like. Actual realism removes the ‘game’ element from the video game and instead it becomes much more like a simulative historical experience, which can be amazing, but is not a video game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 treads an awkward line between being very obviously a video game, but occasionally leaning too hard into a historical simulative experience. While detail, accuracy and representation are all important they should not stand in the way of making an enjoyable video game. Most of the criticisms of the games single player are in regard to the almost ironically immersion breaking sluggish detailed animations, grindy details and time-consuming realism. Which is then awkward because the games stellar reviews are also largely due to the very clear and obvious hard work, research, time and effort which has gone into making this beautiful, huge and vibrant recreation of the American West.
The game was and is a huge success and any criticisms pale in comparison to the fantastic reviews and sales figures. If anything the only lesson to be learned is that while players are increasingly demanding more detailed, realistic and immersive experiences; gameplay is still a vital component of a video game and care needs to be taken with design decisions which are detrimental to gameplay in return for improved historical representation