The new West world: Red Dead Redemption 2 signals the era of prestige video games
Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy tapped a host of inspirations to build their Emmy-winning sci-fi drama for HBO — including the first Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games’ game-changing video game that upped the ante for CG storytelling in 2010.
Looking back on when Nolan and Joy made the reveal during 2016’s New York Comic Con, Rob Nelson, co-studio head of Rockstar North, tells EW, “I think it’s wonderful that games have come on that much, that we are now influencing some of the influences that we perhaps had earlier on in making them.”
Games have long sought to emulate the realism of cinema and television, as when Rockstar looked to works like Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch to craft the first Red Dead Redemption. As Red Dead Redemption 2 now gallops towards its debut, eight years after the original installment, games have become the influencers.
After the age of “Peak TV” saw television rise to match the prestige quality of film, the Red Dead sequel becomes part of an ongoing wave of video games, released over the past couple years, that seek to elevate the medium.
Stories are more character-driven, as with the new God of War, an intimate father-son story set against a brutal backdrop of Norse myth. Computer graphics are more cinematic, as with Marvel’s Spider-Man, where the developers wanted to create a playable superhero movie. More actors are also gravitating towards gaming for voice and motion-capture performances — Grey’s Anatomy‘s Camilla Luddington still plays Lara Croft in the Square Enix series of games, ones that even inspired the latest Tomb Raider movie with Alicia Vikander.
“Sometimes I feel like [the games] capture more than the movies are capturing,” Luddington told EW. “And I think when you’re feeling and seeing more of what the character’s feeling, you’re more invested emotionally in playing the game.”
Kensei Fujinaga, producer of the live-action, CG hybrid The Quiet Man, believes the elevated experience in gaming comes from consumers asking “for more mature story.” For Nelson, this doesn’t necessarily mean replicating the movie-watching experience or chasing after the juice of Peak TV. “Cinema and TV are a passive viewing experience,” he explains. “So what we really tried to do with this game… is blur the lines between what’s passive, what’s active, what’s interactive, and what’s partially interactive, and blur the lines between you as a player and you as a viewer.”
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the first. As the red credits fade in and out of the opening cinematic, similar in style and subject matter to Quentin Tarantino’s opening of The Hateful Eight, gamers are introduced to the Van der Linde gang of outlaws. They are the former gang of John Marston, the main character in the first Red Dead who also makes an appearance in the sequel. We meet them guiding their caravan through a volatile blizzard in search of shelter. Arthur Morgan, righthand man to the gang’s leader, Dutch, is our lens into this story, one where the age of the Wild West is coming to an end. These criminals, in particular, are on the run after a robbery gone wrong and now they have to start fresh somewhere else.
“There’s usually two things that we need to figure out: where it’s gonna take place — the setting, the world that we have to build — and then the story that we want to tell,” Nelson says. “Not necessarily just the linear narrative or the narrative of the main character but the world that we want to create, the characters that are gonna live in it, and roughly what narrative we’re gonna weave through that.”
Pitches for a Red Dead sequel came in during production of the first game. This writers room of developers considered multiple options for a possible story treatment, but found the idea of a gang “too compelling to turn away.”
“There was a lot of history set up in the last about Marston’s former gang and the character of Dutch and what he was all about,” Nelson continues. “And so that was something that we really thought we could explore and juxtapose the idea of being this partially reformed outlaw in the last game to being an active, working outlaw living with a gang in this game.”
Earlier this year, the devs at Quantic Dream experimented with a choice-driven concept in Detroit: Become Human. Leaning on performances from Grey’s Anatomy‘s Jesse Williams, Friday Night Lights‘ Minka Kelly, and Aliens‘ Lance Henriksen, the main tension came from split-second decision making and each move made yielding a different set of consequences. This idea, that choices effect the outcome of the game, seamlessly blends into the narratives at play in Red Dead. Pursuing hunting, for example, may seem like a more tiresome task, but doing so will keep the camp happy — and if the camp is happy, they might be more willing to open more avenues for you to explore.
The interactivity of gaming is what sparked Westworld to drop characters into an Old West setting, giving them room to chase desires and pursue different narratives, while always remembering “these violent delights have violent ends.” Rockstar seeks to push this concept, something they’ve already been developing for more than a decade, even further — though Nelson sees the moral crossroads presented to players as more choosing between the “dark gray” hat and “light gray” hat. “You can play it straight as this guy that you pick up and he’s a certain way and you can take him left or right down this path, but we ended up pulling a lot of [story] stuff out and then making it optional [to play] either good or bad.”
It’s easy to get lost in a seemingly endless world with so many choices and lush graphics. While on a side mission to track down infamous outlaws, for example, the gothic horror image of the Southern Louisiana swamp calls on you to explore like a siren calling wayward thrill-seekers to their deaths. The danger here is losing your horse to a gator waiting in the mud or losing your kidney to a backwoods hillbilly offering you food and water.
Another option: you can forget the missions and just get so hammered in the local bar that you’ll mistake the local ladies of the night for your drinking buddy.
An original score by Woody Jackson (one of the first game’s composers) and an ensemble of collaborators further heightens the drama of the experience, while motion-capture performances from a reported 1,200 actors bring photo-realistic renderings to characters across 300,000 animations and 500,000 lines of dialogue. Everything seems to hinge on the technology. It’s why so many games can more easily experiment with storytelling, character design, and world-building in fresh and nuanced ways.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the first project from Rockstar Games built specifically from the ground up for the current generation of consoles, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. It came down to, as Nelson says, the “increase we had in memory.” More memory means a consumer’s hardware can handle the higher quality.
“When we did a next-gen version of Grand Theft Auto V [originally released in 2013 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360], we added as much as we could to that game [for Playstation 4 and Xbox One] but it was built on the last generation,” he explains. “So we spent a long time on those next-gen versions of V to try and give them everything that we possibly could. We spent a lot of time with our own game looking at it and we were able to enhance it in a lot of ways: greater draw distance, more cars, more people, all these things. But we couldn’t really get back down to the foundations of our systems and rework them.”
Starting from scratch with a game on the newer consoles meant Rockstar could “hit the ground running,” Nelson adds. “With the additional memory, we really exploded on this game. Besides the graphics and engine enhancements was memory for animation. And so we ended up being able to have 10 times the amount of animations in game, which means that the world around you, it’s going to look and feel much more alive and varied because you’re not seeing as much more repeating loops animations. You can run things a lot longer, but they all need to be created by hand. They need to be written they need to be cast they need to be acted, performed, motion-captured, cleaned up, broken into systems that work ‘cause it’s all happening in real time. And they need to be interactive so that if you, the player, go over and mess with it, it works.”
Other titles with still-unclaimed release dates also seek to forge something new for the gaming experience. Death Stranding, an upcoming release from Metal Gear Solid‘s Hideo Kojima, touts an enthralling apocalyptic world with performances from The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus, Doctor Strange‘s Mads Mikkelsen, Spectre‘s Léa Seydoux, The Bionic Woman‘s Lindsay Wagner, and The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro. Leaked footage of a mystery Harry Potter game teased what a RPG could look like in the Fantastic wizarding world of J.K. Rowling — something previous Potter games couldn’t quite achieve.
Against the abundance of high-quality games, Red Dead Redemption 2 still feels unique. As one Rockstar employee put it, to build a more vast open world, you go inward instead of out — meaning you develop a more intricate network of story, character, and interactivity instead of focusing on how big a map you can make. Although, this game still flaunts a massive map. Nelson doesn’t even know how long it would take for Arthur to walk it on foot.
He just laughs at the thought. “Probably some crazy person has. I think certainly on horseback people have done it.”
Red Dead Redemption will be available on Playstation 4 and Xbox One this Friday.