I went back to Grand Theft Auto V shortly after completing Red Dead Redemption 2, and the most notable difference between the two Rockstar open world games is that GTA V is fun.
It feels better to play, to be sure—sports cars, unsurprisingly, have considerably more horsepower than horses. But, most of the fun, perhaps counterintuitively, is owed to the game’s deeply cynical, cheaply satirical soul. At best, I don’t care about Grand Theft Auto V’s NPCs. At worst, I am actively rooting for their swift death, inflicting violent mayhem on them in guilt-free, map-marked rampages.
These reality show rejects are the most grating, gross, obnoxious and vapid wad of bottom-shelf SNL parodies to ever grace a video game. They, universally, suck. The upside, though, is that each time I unleash hell on Los Santos’ unsuspecting denizens, there is a solipsistic joy propelling the bullets. I am real. And, I’m glad that you are not.
Maybe the most fun I had in a game in 2018 involved clambering on top of a garbage truck, spraying lead into a crowd of civilians, and shooting down helicopter after helicopter that pursued me. My wanted level nabbed stars like a Super Mario 64 speedrunner. The garbage truck kept moving. Citizens kept dying. It was a good time.
But, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the better game, in part, because very few of the game’s random acts of violence could be described as “a good time.” I don’t mean this as a dunk on the game’s painfully deliberate animations and clunky control scheme. By and large, I think RDR2’s moseying pace works.
I’m also not talking about RDR2’s mission structure that funnels players through an endless sequence of shootouts. While Rockstar’s mission design has taken a noticeable step backward from the highs of GTA V’s wild variety, I still mostly enjoy the shooting galleries. Deadeye is fun to use, and wasting a dozen O’Driscolls is satisfying.
What I mean when I say that Red Dead’s violence isn’t a “good time” is that killing innocent people feels almost as bad as it should. Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser proved himself unable to read the room when he boasted about the developer working “100-hour weeks” to get the game finished. However, the game those crunch sessions produced is considerably less tone-deaf. Red Dead Redemption 2, in many ways, feels like a deftly written response to the times in which we live. And that time is a post-Vegas, post-Pulse, post-Parkland time.
What that means in practice is that Red Dead Redemption 2 draws a thematic line in the sand. Wasting anyone who shoots at you in a mission is fair game. Shooting anyone unprovoked is not. (Though Klan members, a certain former slave catcher and the street-preaching eugenicist in Saint Denis seems to be exceptions. RDR2’s rules take a firm stance on punching Nazis— one that isn’t all that consistent with it’s setting in the antebellum American South, where law enforcement would likely be at least a little sympathetic to the plight of Steve the upstanding dentist by day, KKK treasurer by night— but which I appreciate, nonetheless).
When you do break those rules, when you do decide to go on a GTA-style rampage in Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest city, something surprising happens. Rockstar makes it abundantly clear that this is not GTA. The music changes, taking on a sinister, bassy hum, like blood pounding in your ears. The citizens scream and run. Blood realistically darkens their clothes as bullets pierce their skin. If you reign down chaos from atop your horse, the scene becomes even more grisly. Hoofsteps sound like gunshots as they reverberate off the cobblestone streets. The fleeing citizens may catch bullets or be trampled underfoot.
GTA V’s rampages are fun, chaotic shooting galleries. Its citizens screams bother me about as much as a hit water foul’s deflated honk in Duck Hunt. Their inner lives are nonexistent. Their outer lives are repellant.
Last year, probably a month or so before Red Dead came out, I had a nightmare that I was a member of a squad of shooters, massacring innocents with the tactical precision of Seal Team 6. We moved silently, blowing our randomly selected targets away with silenced pistols. Then we escaped, removed our masks, returned to normalcy as the surrounding community was plunged into tragedy.
I woke up horrified, but relieved that it had only been a dream. Red Dead Redemption 2 captures that feeling. Its violence horrifies. And if you manage to escape unseen, its quickly escalating bounties serve as a reminder: Yes, I really did that. No, it wasn’t a dream.