Video Games Were Never the Same After Red Dead Redemption 2

Going Wild for the West

art for Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar Games
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The American West inspired the stuff of legends. Literally. Most of what we think we know about America’s early 20th-century history comes from media based on cowboy stories, tall tales, and historical whitewashing. The West is a centerpiece of American mythology, stories of rugged individuals forming the backbone of the bootstrap mentality pervasive in our national self-perception. The Western genre, appropriately, treats the subject with reverence.

So it should come as no surprise that the quintessential Western video game, Red Dead Redemption 2, is treated the same — only that has nothing to do with the setting. Five years after it debuted on October 26, 2018, RDR2 remains a triumph of game design that continues to inspire stuff from legends.

Don’t call him “Zelda,” either.

Rockstar Games

This year alone, creators behind both The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Starfield cited its influence on their development. In interviews with IGN, Eiji Aonuma and Todd Howard, of Tears of the Kingdom and Starfield, respectively, offered their praise for Rockstar Game’s open-world triumph. Aonuma said it had a hold over the younger members of the TotK dev team, much like Skyrim had on him.

Howard, who also served as the game director for Skyrim, talked about how RDR2 influenced the vibe they wanted to capture in Starfield.

“It's the games that put you in a world, that transport you to a place,” he said. “So I think it also has a flow, probably has more of a feeling of a [Red Dead Redemption 2], where I'm living the Western fantasy. So in this, you're living this science fiction explorer fantasy.”

Gunfire never looked so good.

Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is arguably the most immersive open world ever created. The depth of detail is staggering, from the authentic plants and animals to the breathtaking natural lighting and expansive scenery. Everything about the way NPCs move and interact is subtle, you rarely get pulled from the moment by a glitchy half-step and there’s no T-posing in sight. Riding your horse along the trails is as captivating as any of its numerous big-budget gunfights.

This level of craftsmanship is why God of Wår game director Cory Barlog spent much of 2018 anxiously anticipating the release of RDR2. So much so that he told VentureBeat he planned his game’s April release date to give some space between the two.

“I wanted to get into 2018 to get away from Red Dead. I was very clear with everybody. Red Dead is going to be amazing,” he said. “And once Red Dead comes out, there’s a line of demarcation. Pre-Red Dead, post-Red Dead.”

Despite his trepidation, Barlog scored big at The Game Awards in 2018, taking home the coveted Game of the Year. The two games competed at most major awards shows for 2018 and, while GoW got the nods for broad category wins, RDR2 often took home the production-oriented trophies. It won Outstanding Technical Achievement at the D.I.C.E. Awards and Best Technology at the Game Developers Choice Awards. The post-mortem period for RDR2 has included many deep dives into its different aspects, like Senior Graphics Programmer Fabian Bauer’s presentation on the revolutionary lighting effects in the game.

Bauer’s breakdown of lighting effects shows the work behind blue sky thinking.

Rockstar Games/Fabian Bauer

Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 is more than the sum of its parts. Audiences didn’t fall in love with its immersive world-building on technical prowess alone. At the heart of the game is the best story Rockstar has ever told. Arthur Morgan is a captivating, yet tragic, protagonist who learns the hard way that his way of life (and his life itself) is on borrowed time. Roger Clark’s commanding performance as Morgan is matched by Benjamin Byron Davis’ Dutch Van Der Linde, one of the most complex and charismatic villains in all of gaming history.

It’s no wonder Red Dead Redemption 2 took nearly a decade to complete, releasing eight years after its predecessor. Its development budget was around $250 million (nearly as much as GTA V’s reported $265 million price tag). The investment paid off, with sales estimates for RDR2 currently at $1.3 billion. But having legendary directors from each major gaming company singing your praises, even half a decade after your release? That’s priceless.

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