I have a confession to make: I don’t like anything by Rockstar Games.
To many, this is an outrageous statement. Rockstar is one of the largest developers in the industry, and produces games reminiscent in size, scope, and budget to Hollywood blockbusters. Their games are universally lauded by fans and critics alike, and are always in the conversation about developers or games that define a console generation. So what’s my issue?
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.
Something about them aesthetically doesn’t click for me. Not that I will push back against their success—I’m sure the games are all incredible and I don’t fault anyone for enjoying them. They’re just not my cup of tea. For me, it always feels like the games’ narrative is a secondary part of the experience. It should be primary. Whereas, the real draw, for most, is having an open world sandbox for players to do whatever they desire. Which Rockstar games, like Grand Theft Auto, and Red Dead Redemption, excel at. And so it came as no surprise to me that the latest Rockstar effort, Red Dead Redemption 2, received such wide praise and commercial success. The game earned Rockstar $725 million in its release weekend, easily securing its place as the biggest release weekend gaming has ever seen. I was not one of the people to purchase, but any success of the industry makes me happy. Any videogame that succeeds pushes the medium forward and further into the mainstream, where it deserves to be.
So, why are we here?
A friend of mine sent me an op-ed posted to The New York Times last weekend, written by Peter Suderman of Reason.com entitled “Red Dead Redemption 2 is True Art.” I was excited to read it, as maybe it would ignite my interest in the series and convince me to pick the game up and pull me away from World of Warcraft. I left, from the article, disappointed. I had a few issues with it, mainly how he champions features of RDR2 as if they are unique to the game, when in fact they have existed in other games that didn’t make $725 million dollars, but were still very much worth playing. The last few lines left a particularly bad taste in my mouth:
“Gaming’s cultural reputation is born partly from the sense that playing is a way of avoiding responsibility, of escaping into virtual worlds where nothing matters. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about both making choices and living with them, about taking responsibility for how you’ve lived.
It’s a game, in other words, that implicitly tells its players to grow up—and it’s as sure a sign as any that videogames are starting to do just that.”
Grow up? That one stung.
The past two console generations have been marked by games that haven’t just pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a videogame, but have completely shattered conception of what a videogame can and can’t do. The Last of Us in 2013 redefined the kinds of stories videogames can tell. The Mass Effect trilogy spanned five years and three games and rivaled Star Wars in its sense of intergalactic scientific scope, providing players with branching choices across the three unique games that took into account all of the nuances of the prior entries. Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare completely altered the face of online gaming. And this was just in the PS3/Xbox 360 Generation. The current console generation has already brought us masterpieces like Persona 5, with its incredibly moving tale of teenage relationships and the power of rebellion. The Witcher 3 released in 2015, an open world fantasy game based on the Witcher novels, by Andrzej Sapkowski, had a sprawling, beautiful world evocative of Tolkein’s most descriptive passages. Every quest was hand crafted, from the smallest moments, like helping an old woman into her home, to grander moments, like taking down a corrupt emperor and saving your kidnapped daughter. And its script was 450,000 words, the size of four novels. NieR: Automata is an incredible exploration of existentialism, has a gorgeous open world, and an emotional, evocative soundtrack.
Another bit, from the article, that rubbed me the wrong way: “Like the classic westerns and gangster stories it draws from, it can be crude and violent. But it is also richly cinematic and even literary….” What does Mr. Suderman mean by “even literary?” Is that something that videogames need to aspire to be? Does it lend them legitimacy somehow, a sign that the medium has “grown up”? Can games even be literary? They aren’t literature by definition, as they involve much more than the written script. But videogames do have all of the metaphorical, textual, and formal complexities of literature, and have for years. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, released in April of 2000, is a game rich in metaphor, exploring the stages of grief and accepting the inevitability of one’s mortality, under the veneer of one hero’s adventure to save the world. There are plenty of videogames that utilize the form of the game to place the player as an integral part of the experience. Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, released in 2009, puts the actual player at the center of the game. The protagonist Junpei must relive a single night after he and eight others were kidnapped and placed on a derelict cruise ship with devices strapped to each of them set to kill should they not play along with the kidnapper’s game. As Junpei, you make choices and live out the consequences of those decisions—even if Junpei himself meets his end. In that event, the game resets and you begin again. Junpei doesn’t know that choice “B” leads to his death, but the player knows and passes this knowledge onto Junpei, who at certain points questions how he knows the things he can not possibly know. And the player knows that it’s because of them. That kind of formal complexity is unique to videogames, and certainly not a factor in RDR2. So while I may not necessarily question Mr. Suderman’s assertion that the game is “literary,” I would argue that videogames have the capability to transcend the literary—and that did not start in 2018 with Red Dead Redemption 2.
I could rant for even longer about how incorrect Mr. Suderman’s assertion is, that videogames haven’t “grown up” until this moment, but the point stands. I have no doubt that Red Dead Redemption 2 is an incredible work of art. But where’s the celebration for the last decade of games that were just as complex? RDR2 deals with incredibly mature themes and puts the locus of responsibility for the actions of the protagonist on the player. But this is the point where the medium starts to grow? I think not.
Videogames have been “grown” for some time now. And Red Dead Redemption 2 is another in the long line, but it is not unique in its maturity. It is true art, sure. But so is God of War and NieR, and Majora’s Mask and so many others. Videogames aren’t just starting to “grow up.” People are just starting to notice.