The most astounding thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is the way the light filters through the trees. I have actually spent time pausing, just to look and take it in, absorbing the ethereal beauty of the smokey shafts as they cast dappled light on the damp, dew soaked ground.
Or maybe the thing I like most is actually more subtle than that. Maybe it's the sense of weight I feel as I get on my horse, the creak of the leather breaking the morning stillness as I settle into my saddle. Or is it the sense of life that envelopes me as I enter a town, seeing strangers scurrying too and fro as they go about their business? I can greet them if I want. Or I can just head straight for the saloon, order a whiskey, and settle in for a game of cards. Or sit by a window as the piano tinkles in the background, watching the world slowly go by as the sun sinks behind the General Store and the azure sky slowly fades to inky night, pinpricked by a thousand stars...
From the above descriptions, you may or may not have guessed that Read Dead Redemption 2 (or RDR2) is a computer game. Set in the dying days of the Wild West, you play as Arthur, a member of a charismatic gang of outlaws who must rob and plunder in order to survive. From the same developers as the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the game lets you spend your time robbing trains, holding people at gunpoint, or taking part in the missions that make up the vast Hollywood-esq story. So far, so expected.
Yet you can also play the game in a completely different way. Although maybe 'play' might be the wrong verb. Maybe 'live' might be a better description. For despite all the skill and time that has gone into making the story as thrilling and emotional as possible (and the story really does deserve praise, as much for it's subtly and delicate characterisation, as for it's bombast) it is the game's open world that surely deserves the most praise and attention.
For those who may not know what an 'open world' game is, it is, essentially, a game where an entire world is open and available for you right from the very start - instead of playing through levels to progress, you choose where to go and what to do and in what order you want to do it. It is the video game equivalent of 'freedom', of giving the player a replication of the autonomy of normal life.
And RDR2 has arguably the most stunning open world ever created. It is vast and breathtakingly detailed. It teems with life and substance. It creates the illusion, better than any game before it, that the world you are looking at through your television is real. And therein (arguably) lies the problem...
Since I started playing the game last October, all my in game actions have been motivated by the illusion that the world I am playing in is real. If I see a character in need of help by the roadside, I will stop to help them. If I enter a town, I will walk around, taking my time, not running around like a headless chicken. At the end of each video game 'day' I will head back to my outlaw camp to have dinner before going to bed. Each morning, I will wake up, have a shave and a coffee, before jumping on my horse before once again venturing out into the wild frontier. Sometimes it has felt like I am living two lives, one in the real world, and one in the Wild West of the late nineteenth century.
On the one hand this has to be applauded. The amount of time and talent poured into this game is phenomenal. The fact that we can can create illusionary worlds as detailed as this is something to be celebrated. There is no reason why video games should not now be been seen as pieces of popular art (along with books, music and films, etc) that offer the consumer a place to escape the real world for several hours.
Yet when does the illusion stop and reality begin to shift? In the novel Ready Player One (made into a film by Steven Spielberg last year) the entire world is hooked on a virtual reality game called the Oasis. For those that are hooked, the real world had ceased to matter...how long will it be before that novel's fantasy becomes our reality?
As games like RDR2 continue to develop and evolve, as technology continues to improve, it may be far sooner than we think. And that, possibly, is a worrying thing. The world as it stands at the moment is, at times, a pretty bleak place. We are told that we are in the middle of the Earth's sixth global extinction (caused by us this time). We are destroying the only planet we can call home. Political instability and extremism seems to be continually on the rise. More and more of us are turning to our phones, to Netflix and Spotify, in an attempt to ignore the almost helpless situation that seems to fester just outside our front doors. How much more tempting will it be to ignore the world outside when there is an alternative world created inside a computer that seems so much more alluring and beautiful? Perhaps a world where insects buzz around you, where coastal cities aren't submerged by the sea, where a scratch by a rusty nail can still be cured by a couple of antibiotics (for who can guarantee that all of that will be a reality for us in fifty or a hundred years time?).
So while I applaud the achievement of games like RDR2, I think that they potentially do - or will - come at a cost (initially for the development team itself - https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-10-25-the-human-cost-of-red-dead-redemption-2 - but that is a subject for another blog perhaps). Beyond that, as more games of RDR2's quality and verisimilitude are made, the more tempting and easy it will be to drift away from the very real problems that are growing in our far less appealing, but very much more vital, reality. So while it is important to enjoy the wonders that we are able to create for ourselves, we have to be careful that we don't enjoy them so much that we lose sight of the wonders that have already been created for us, wonders that are lying just outside our windows and doors, beyond the doom and gloom, just waiting for us to sit up and take a look.