Saturday, January 12, 2019

GTMTM '18: Red Dead Redemption 2, Isn't Existence Enough?

Red Dead Redemption 2

And so one of the villains of our last story becomes the hero of a new one. That's a fitting fate for Red Dead Redemption 2, though. It's a game that loves its moral ambiguity.

In fact, it's a game that seems to just love ambiguity in general. Maybe too much. It's a game that's so open-ended that a lot of ink (well, pixels really) has been spilled complaining that the game never justifies its existence, and the majority of it doesn't even matter. To be honest, I think that's entirely on purpose, and even more, that's the whole point of the game.

**Some spoilers, and also a disclaimer that I have not finished the main story, so I'm only writing about my experience that I've had with about 40 hours of playtime, up to chapter 4.**

The official description of Red Dead Redemption 2 reads, "America, 1899. The end of the Wild West era has begun. After a robbery goes badly wrong in the western town of Blackwater, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are forced to flee. With federal agents and the best bounty hunters in the nation massing on their heels, the gang must rob, steal and fight their way across the rugged heartland of America in order to survive." Right from the description, Rockstar establishes that this is a game about existence. Implied in those words are the most major themes of the game: existence is sacred because it is the only real thing there is, and fighting for existence is the only truly universal experience. Therefore, all existence matters, and existence is enough.

This philosophy is the thread from which all of Red Dead Redemption 2 is woven. The game tells a story about a group of people fighting to preserve a way of life that they believe in despite ever-mounting threats. This fight does not need to be justified. The reasons to fight do not need to be explained. In the eyes of Red Dead Redemption 2, existence is all there is, and all existence is worth fighting for. The only evil is power that threatens existence, and the only morality is preservation.

In this philosophy, everything that exists and is real matters simply because it exists, and therefore, the right and moral thing to do is to preserve and display every possible tiny detail. Everything matters. Birds matter. Squirrels matter. 178 animals, 74 pieces of equipment, 30 fish, 6 gangs, 43 plants, 19 horse breeds, 60 weapons, and 144 cigarette cards all matter. Horse testicles matter. 300,000 animations and 500,000 lines of dialogue matter. These things matter simply because they give the chance for a world that once existed but is now gone to return--to exist again--which is the the ultimate redemption.

These details--from the impossibly impressive to the baffling mundane--matter because all of them together--and only all of them together--once made of a way of life that is now gone. Every tiny detail of people's whole lives and everything that made their life theirs has faded to history, but Red Dead Redemption 2 gives it a chance to live again. If existence is all that matters, and it matters in and of itself, what more noble act could there be than to bring back something that once existed but now does not? And in bringing back that former existence, who are we to decide what of that existence mattered and what did not? It all mattered because it all existed. The only way to truly honor it is to purposely not curate the experience as much as humanly possible. Curation is hubris, because it is implies that some existence is valued above another. Everything that can be represented, must be. Preservation is all. This is the altar at which Red Dead Redemption 2 worships. Existence. Reality. 

If you think this language is too strong and these views are too extreme, tell that to Dan Houser, and the thousands of people who gave years of their lives to this effort.

This worship of existence is by no means relegated to just the painstaking details of the game's art and design. It is repeatedly expressed explicitly by the game's characters. 

In one side quest, I found a drunk old man on a bench in Rhodes, who told me the bank had taken everything from him, and he asked if I might go to his old house and just get his watch, pistol, and ledger for him--small mementos to help him remember and preserve a life now gone. Once I found the house and cleared it of some hostile squatters, I found all three items, only to discover that the ledger was of the worst possible variety: a record of slaves purchased and sold. I found the old man by a campfire, and a cutscene played of Arthur confronting the old slaver. Having lost his possessions, his livelihood, and all compassion due to his actions, the old man finally screams out in frustration the only thing he has left: "I still exist!" After the camera shifts back and the player takes control again, the man is kneeling face-down in the dirt, moaning. 

What played out next is an amazingly subtle bit of procedural rhetoric--subtle enough that I honestly can't tell if it's entirely on purpose or just a natural result of this game's philosophies being enacted by the designers subconsciously. At this point, the game has led the player in several ways to conclude that the next action they should take is to shoot the man: he's deceived you, he's pulled a gun on you, he's proven himself deeply despicable on a moral level, and now he's helpless in the dirt in front of you, out in the woods where there's no risk of lawmen coming after you or a witness causing a bounty to come on your head. All the boxes are checked; no one would blame you for shooting this guy in the head right now. And yet, as I considered my options, I concluded that no matter how low and how deserving of punishment, I wouldn't take the life of an unarmed man. As I walked away from the moaning man, something surprising happened: a familiar ding chimed through my headphones, and the icon indicating that I had gained honor displayed on the right side of the screen. This is the only time I can remember that the game rewarded me with honor just for not killing someone. With that little ding, Red Dead Redemption 2 reminded me of its philosophy: existence, no matter how wasted, is worth preserving. "I still exist."

Existence for its own sake is again endorsed in a later scene where John and Abigail Marston's young son, Jack, is kidnapped. Immediately and without any options given to the player, all of the men of the gang jump on their horses and ride to get Jack back. When the men get to the estate of the family that kidnapped the boy, they dismount and approach the mansion, calling out the offenders. As one of the men from the family walks up, Dutch van der Linde says, "Whatever complaint you have with us, alleged...or otherwise...That is a young boy. That is not the way you do things. Hand him over." Dutch's rhetoric is not, "That's our boy," or "That's a special boy" or even, "That's little Jack," it's "That's a young boy." Inherently and irrespective of all context, a boy matters, and no matter what conflict arises, threatening the existence of a boy--any boy--is crossing a line. A boy--or any child--is a sacred thing not only for his or her plain existence, but for their potential existence. As John will later say, "That poor kid, we chose this life. He didn't." A boy has more life to live and more existence to create than a man--more choices to be made, more reality to write--and so he is inherently more valuable than a man. A threat to a single boy is worth risking the lives of eight men without hesitation. Those men have existed and will exist beyond death in memory, but a boy has so much left to do and decide, and a legacy to write. And that matters more than anything.

On the other side, the worries of a man growing older in this world also have to do with existence--and with holding onto it even as it seems to shift and disappear beneath your feet. Later in the conversation I cited above, John expresses one of his deepest concerns to Arthur: "Sometimes I wonder if...things was ever the way we remembered 'em. If we were ever who we thought we was." If existence and reality are everything, when that reality is questioned and that existence you held onto might be entirely different from what you thought, you just might lose everything. And while I can't personally speak to the rest of the main story yet, it certainly seems like that's the road it's headed down, and those are the questions that will drive to the climax and resolution of Arthur Morgan's story.

This same philosophy of existence is also expressed in the lyrics of the songs written for the game. Here are the lyrics to "That's the Way it is" (source):

The many miles we walked
The many things we learned
The building of a shrine
Only just to burn

That's the way it is
That’s the way it is

May the wind be at your back
Good fortune touch your hand
May the cards lay out a straight
All from your command

That's the way it is
That's the way it is

Shine light into darkness
Shine light into darkness

These lyrics mourn the inevitable loss of existence ("Only just to burn") while also affirming existence and reality ("That's the way it is"). They end with an admonition to do your part to contribute and to make something real: "All from your command...Shine light into the darkness."

Similarly, D'Angelo's surprise contribution to the game, "Unshaken," is a rousing anthem to maintain existence despite all threats. The chorus prays: "May I stand unshaken / Amid, amidst a crashing world." The existence of Red Dead Redemption 2 is an answer to that prayer: it brings back to life a world and a people who had once lost that fight--who had been shaken amid a crash world--but have been given new life through this devoutly faithful recreation.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is not the only cultural artifact to espouse the ideals of all existence mattering for its own sake, and preserving as much of reality as possible. In fact, there's a whole movement in art and literature dedicated to these ideals called maximalism. Positioned as the opposite of minimalism, maximalism eschews curation for completeness, and rejects efficiency in favor of full expression.

According to one writer's view, maximalist works share 10 aspects: "length, encyclopedic mode, dissonant chorality, diegetic exuberance, completeness, narratorial omniscience, paranoid imagination, inter-semiocity, ethical commitment, and hybrid realism." A quick examination will show that Red Dead Redemption 2 undoubtedly shares all of these qualities:
  1. Length. Check.
  2. Encyclopedic mode. Basically, this means the work strives to cover a wide range of varied topics and chronicle a large amount of information that is valued by a particular culture. Check.
  3. Dissonant chorality. "[N] systematically carried out by a multiplicity of voices that prevents one character or one narrative thread from becoming dominant." Check.
  4. Diegetic exuberance. "Its narrative is hypertrophic; its stories and characters are innumerable." Check.
  5. Completeness. "Systematically constructs narrative patterns." One of the best parts of Red Dead Redemption 2 is that all the systems work together to let you create and tell your own stories. Many of those infinite player stories are told here. Check.
  6. Narratorial omniscience. "Characterized by the presence of an omniscient narrator." Not as true for Red Dead Redemption 2, but the player acts as a kind of omniscient narrator, hovering above the world, seeing and knowing all. Half-check.
  7. Paranoid imagination. "Profoundly obsessed with conspiracies and intrigues of every kind." Check...Okay, that link is mostly a joke. But much like the all-time great Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Red Dead Redemption 2 is defined by the imagined evils heading the way of the gang, and their fear of an all-out conspiracy against their entire way of life, as opposed to just a system of law coming for justice against their crimes.
  8. Inter-semiocity. "Polymorphic, tending towards exhausting and traversing multiple expressive experiences, crossing borders and abolishing aesthetic taboos." Essentially, this means the work borrows from a lot of different genres and mediums all at once. Red Dead Redemption 2 is written like a novel, looks like a movie, plays like an open-world action-adventure game, and runs like an RPG. I'll give this one a check.
  9. Ethical commitment. "Themes of great historical, political, and social importance." Check and check.
  10. Hybrid realism. Essentially, combining purposely ridiculous elements with decidedly real ones to try and make a point about reality. Rockstar's other series, Grand Theft Auto, positively relishes in this interplay, but there's a good amount of it in Red Dead Redemption 2 as well. Perhaps my favorite example is the religious group known as the Chelonians. A turtle-worshiping group who, when threatened, retreat together into a silly "shell of safety." Yet, despite that ridiculous intro, when that story-line ends and a boy who's spent time with the group asks, "Have I been a terrible fool, Arthur?", Arthur's response is surprisingly grounded and real: "I don't know enough about it. But one thing I do know...there ain't no shame in looking for a better world."
With that, I think we can safely say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a maximalist work. Anyone who thinks the game doesn't justify its own existence or that too much of it doesn't matter would perhaps be well served to study maximalism and what it's trying to accomplish. I think the context of maximalism helps the entirety of Red Dead Redemption 2 make a lot more sense.

But all that being said, at the end of the day, "Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere." If Red Dead Redemption 2 is "true art," what is it really saying at the end of all of these hundreds of hours of gameplay? It has a lot of its own points to make, but they all fall under the same larger point: existence matters, and reality deserves your attention. Everything around you has potential simply because it is real. What will make the difference in your life is how you chose to interpret and respond to the millions of little things that exist in your world. 

I actually cut off  one sentence from that official description I cited at the beginning of this post. That last sentence reads, "As deepening internal divisions threaten to tear the gang apart, Arthur must make a choice between his own ideals and loyalty to the gang who raised him." All existence matters, and the most amazing part about your existence is that you get to make something of it. You get to choose what you make of the reality you're given.

One of the greatest maximalist writers, David Foster Wallace, put it this way:

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”

That is exactly the point of Red Dead Redemption 2: there's just so much existence in the world, and it will inevitably overwhelm, scare, inspire, bore, delight, and challenge you. The most beautiful part about life, and the only thing that really matters, is that you get to decide what you make of it.

That's why Red Dead Redemption 2 mattered to me in 2018.

(Thanks for reading! This is the sixth post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)

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