RDR2’s Slow Pace Isn’t About Realism
There’s a deeper meaning behind the game’s mundanity
Sometimes, playing Red Dead Redemption 2 is a lot like looking after a grizzled, mass-murdering Tamagotchi. In your role as Arthur, the game’s protagonist, you’ll sometimes need to stop and eat, lest Arthur grows stringy and feeble. You need to make sure he gets enough sleep, or Arthur will start to sway on the spot, his face masked with heavy exhaustion. If you don’t bathe, he’ll start to stink.
One of the most common complaints levelled against Red Dead Redemption 2 is that it’s too slow, because doing all this stuff takes up time. The game’s quick travel functionality is limited, meaning that you’ll spend most of your time travelling to new locations on horseback. Your horse, of course, needs to eat and be brushed and generally be looked after. You might need to pull aside for a moment during a trip, hitch your horse up, lay down a tent, and cook some dinner. While the fire’s burning you might as well slash crosses into your bullets to make them hit harder. It’s worth fitting in a nap, and then in the morning, you’ll need to pull the site back down. Then, maybe, you should take a moment to polish your guns so that they’ll be useful next time you come across some enemies. There’s a lot of downtime in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Many of the game’s critics have written this all off as an unnecessary focus on realism. It has been argued that Rockstar bogged their game down with mechanics to impress players without much thought for how they would affect pacing or engagement. People have argued that the game’s realism comes at the expense of having a good time. By showing off, they say, Rockstar created a much less compelling experience.
But I don’t agree with any of that, because I don’t think that Rockstar was trying to make the game ‘realistic’ just for the sake of flexing. Red Dead Redemption 2’s meticulous pace has nothing to do with capturing a real ‘cowboy outlaw’ life, which it patently does not do. The game makes you go through all of this for a simpler reason — it wants you to feel alive, right up until you’re not.
For five chapters, Arthur gets put through various ringers, and it’s up to you to maintain whatever base level of humanity you want for the character. There’s the central morality system — is Arthur going to be good or bad — but the game’s concept of being human goes well beyond this. Do you take him to buy new clothes in Saint Denis? Do you have an amicable chat with this stranger? Wouldn’t it be nice to just walk through the town slowly, greeting people? Hey, he’s looking a little thin — might be time for a good meal.
Arthur is a character I lived in. Red Dead Redemption 2’s slow, deliberate pace allows for the closest approximation to actual humanity I think I’ve seen in a playable character, not just because the writing’s good, but because you have to engage with the boring parts of being a human too — everything short of having to go to the toilet. This is unusual for an action game, and it means that Arthur’s character is defined not just by his dialog and actions, but by his occasional mundanity, his need to operate, more or less, like a real person with the needs that all humans have. And this, I think, is key to the emotional heft of the game’s protracted conclusion.
There’s an inevitability to Arthur’s tuberculosis, and Rockstar Games, to their credit, never pretends that Arthur might have a happy ending lined up. There’s the obvious doomed coughing all the way back in Chapter 4, well before his diagnosis, but most people I’ve spoken to pegged it even earlier. There’s the fact that the game is a prequel, and that, of course, Arthur appears nowhere in the first Red Dead Redemption. Perhaps the biggest hint is the way that John Marston is hovering around the whole game, clearly ready to take up the protagonist reins at any moment. The definitive moment where I clicked over from suspicion to certainty came a bit before the diagnosis when I was notified by the game that Arthur had hit the lowest weight he possibly could in the game, even though I was still trying to regularly feed him. It was, honestly, a distressing moment.
The back end of Chapter 6, after Arthur is diagnosed and sets about settling his and the gang’s affairs, might not have hit so hard if Arthur’s body, and his life beyond the ‘fun’ parts of the game, hadn’t been such a prominent part of the experience. The game’s slow pace means that it can capture something deeper than a narrative tragedy — you get to experience the sensations of Arthur’s death, and the sense of no longer needing to look after a dying body in the same way we did before.
Chapter 6 is the payoff on all the busywork the game has put you through, all the moments where you took it for granted that stopping for a meal, or dusting off your horse, or stopping in town for a bath were all part of the price you were paying to continue living. There’s something weirdly freeing about it, at least from a gameplay perspective. You don’t need to think about showering, or shaving, or eating, or anything else beyond just getting through the missions ahead. None of that really matters anymore in the face of the inevitable. But I found myself wishing that I still had to put effort into Arthur’s wellbeing — you can’t ‘save’ him, but being able to give up on him, to focus him purely on his mission, is heartbreaking in its own way.
Red Dead Redemption 2 captures the weight of death, the experience of knowing that you’re going to die soon, in a way I’ve never seen in any other game. It does so by making life, on occasion, boring. To stop eating, drinking, washing, sleeping, as I marched forward at the end — to do away with everything that had been slowing me down — felt like Arthur reckoning with the end of his life. I can’t think of another game that has made me contend with what it means to accept death, and how you might function once your own ending has been mapped out. Video game deaths have broken my heart before, but none that I’ve played have captured such a sense of being diminished at a character’s end.
And then, of course, there’s John. A man we watched die once already, back in the original game. And now, as we guide him through the epilogue as he reconnects with his family and tries (with mixed success) to live an honest life, we fully understand the gift he has of being alive, as well as the gift we’ve been given of getting to share this with him. For all the murders you commit, Red Dead Redemption 2 cares about the value a single of human life. In the final two chapters we reclaim control over the life of a man who was taken from us in the original game, and we build up a certain peace for him. We know it won’t last, of course — we’ve played through the events that come next — but we know that he gets a few years, and the game captures how important it is that he can enjoy a bath, and stop every night to eat with his family, and, yes, even that he spends his long, hard work days shoveling cow shit sometimes.
As I’m writing this, I’ve got dishes piled up in the sink downstairs that I know I need to deal with. A load of washing is currently running, and soon the machine will beep, and I’ll have to go and hang it up. It’s easy to get annoyed at the myriad small tasks of simply being alive and maintaining a basic level of respectability, but they’re such a major component of how we live. When I finish this paragraph I will go downstairs, rinse the dishes that need rinsing, and start to fill the sink with water. I will remove the dried dishes from the rack and wash those that need washing. It’s not a job I enjoy, and there are things I would rather be doing, but I’ll feel much more in control of myself, and of my life, once it’s done.