Listmas 2018: The Devil in is the Details in Red Dead Redemption II

Setting aside my personal feelings about Red Dead Redemption II, the fact remains that Rockstar created a very different and very special game. While it doesn’t do everything perfectly game-wise, it contains some of the most incredible details I’ve ever encountered in a game. When small moments add up to something bigger and are able to infuse a game’s world with more life than not, they can transform the overall experience. With that, here are five small details in Red Dead Redemption II that inject that “little bit more” into the game’s soul. 

1. A stranger in a strange land in Saint Denis

In the world of visual entertainment, it’s a cliché. A “fish out of water” character walks into an unfamiliar and potentially unwelcoming place, and the world stops. Everyone turns to stare, the music stops, and silence takes over. And then, once everyone’s had their fill of the stranger, the world starts back up. This is exactly what happens when the outlaw cowboy Arthur Morgan steps into a posh saloon in the bustling, industrial, and antebellum city of Saint Denis. When he enters, everyone stops and stares. But rather than having the NPCs all slack-jawed and wide-eyed, as so often such scenes are played for comedic affect, most of them spend only a second on Arthur before going back to their business. The moment occurs so subtly that it’s easy to miss if your eyes are on Arthur, but it’s definitely there. And in that moment, after feeling as if Arthur had the world at his fingertips, it became clear that he was not in control at all. It provided a wonderful character shift that only added to the looming question in my mind: “Who is Arthur Morgan?”

2. The sounds of wildlife while on horseback

One of the things I enjoyed most about playing the first Red Dead Redemption was quietly traversing the world on horseback with some light, twangy music in the background. That world was alive with a few notable animals – wolves, coyotes, cougars, the occasional bird or two, maybe a fox here or there – and it’s now a far cry for the veritable zoo that inhabits the world of Red Dead Redemption II. While moseying on horseback is still enjoyable, in this iteration, I find myself listening far less to the traveling background music, and much more to the animals around me. Not only does this cacophony make the world feel more alive, it also helps draw the line between Morgan’s land of 1899 — freer, more open, and more populated with wildlife — and Marston’s world of the 1910s, which is more settled, and more hunted

3. Playing poker with friends

I’m not much into card games in games – that’s partially because I find that I’m just impatient with how slow they often go. However, I do like to try my hand at poker in games in which it’s available, but even that gets old, especially when playing with a group of random NPCs. But Red Dead Redemption II switched up that old formula and gave Morgan that chance to play cards with his Van Der Linde cohorts.  I remain terrible at poker (on all counts), but I do enjoy having the chance to sit down with “friends” to play a few hands between missions. The banter is better and more meaningful, and the group activity helps to further cement (and elucidate) the relationships between Arthur and various members of the gang.

4. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and more

Further adding to the notion that the world of Red Dead Redemption II is truly alive, there’s more it’s hills and valley than animals. While out in the world, whether traveling for fun or from mission to mission, smoke plumes become occasionally visible…and they beckon. They beckon as if to say “come over here and you might find something interesting…or not.”  Whatever might be at the end of them, they signal a world in transition, one that’s in the process of settlement and change. Upon traveling to find the source of one plume, I found a group of hunters who invited Arthur to have some freshly smoked deer. Upon traveling to another, I found the remains of a well-dressed traveler who, I guessed, was unprepared for his journey. At a third, I found a stranded woman who was just trying to stay warm. Arthur offered to take her into town, but she refused.

5. Riding by the cries of help

Random encounters abound in a number of Rockstar games, but they seemed to have upped the ante Red Dead Redemption II. During nearly every session of travel, Arthur’s passed by at least one stranger on the road. While stopping to help folks can raise Arthur’s moral standing, the few times that I have stopped haven’t produced good results, either for Arthur or the people “in need.” So I’ve started ignoring the random encounters entirely. And maybe it’s just my guilty conscience at play, but more and more I’ve found that the NPCs in legitimate distress (mostly people being chased by wild animals, at least in my game) have started to cry out directly to Arthur when he won’t stop. Again, I might be reading more into these moments due to remorse, but the “realness” of the situation is usually enough to at least make me stop and consider turning around. Yet by the time I do, the encounter is over. In that split second, I wonder more about myself than Arthur. Who’s playing who, exactly?

Lede image, © Rockstar Games (2018), was captured by the author on the PS4 during gameplay.