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Unhappy trails: Red Dead Redemption's naive narrative

Analysis: Red Dead Redemption 2 is on track to become the best selling entertainment product of all time, but it's also ponderous, bereft of meaning and narratively naïve, writes Francis Cook.

Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 is a beautifully rendered world where the leaves on a bush rustle and sway as you move through them, and while a few labour laws were broken here and there to get it over the line, it looks likely to become the best selling entertainment product of all time.

The Wild West video game has already brought in almost $US1 billion in revenue since it was released in late October. Despite that, the developers are trying to find ways to extract more money from people who paid the initial $100 purchase cost.

Set at the turn of the 20th century - when industrial and capital was laying waste to the concept of agrarian paradise - it is a time when the outlaw bandit gangs have been outpaced by societal change and are on the decline.

But while this is the persistent story of all outlaw gangs, there's never been a golden age for them to decline from - they were always in decline from conception.

In songwriter Townes Van Zandt's 'Pancho and Lefty', the reality of the outlaw is exposed as myth-making bullshit, with Pancho laid bare as a figure of ridicule for believing he was, or could be, an outlaw:

A few great federales say / they could've had him any day / they only let him go so long / out of kindness I suppose.

The outlaw is only a heroic figure in hagiography, much like modern politicians such as George HW Bush and John McCain. They're revered and eulogised as heroes, while their horrific acts are stricken from the narrative. Judgement of these characters is deemed insensitive during a period of mourning and obsolete by the time that has passed.

And so, Red Dead Redemption 2 begins with a gang in decline as all outlaw stories must. But far from a critique of American myth-making (such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and 'Pancho and Lefty', developers Rockstar seem to have bought, wholesale, into the bullshit. Does it matter that Johnny Cash didn't really shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die? Rockstar emphatically says no.

The plot asks players to suspend a huge amount of belief to buy into this tale of outlaws on the run. It'd have us believe rival gangs roam the land in large packs committing wanton slaughter at a whim. This was a period when the Pinkerton Agency was at its height and was incredibly effective at liquidating what their customers believed were trouble-makers (which often included workers' unions).

This is incongruous with the attention to detail paid to almost every other part of the game, in an effort to add a hefty dose of realism.

Nonetheless, the player can trot into town on his a very well-rendered horse (the male horses' testicles noticeable shrivel in size in cold weather) and be welcomed by folk even after commit a minor genocide against law enforcement in the neighbouring area.

Should you want to return to the scene of the massacre, a small fee will give you a clean slate.

This is the absurd fantasy the player is unleashed on. Rockstar has always prided its games on a sense of "freedom". The open sandbox world where the player can do as they wish, even if that means behaving horrifically. Earlier games from the studio -such as Grand Theft Auto IV - allowed players to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them to claim their money back.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was criticised recently when players uploaded footage of them punching and attacking suffragettes. While the game doesn't encourage the behaviour, it doesn't provide any meaningful consequence for doing it. That's all part of the freedom.

And when the open world lacks meaningful consequence, it's hard to find the point in doing anything. A simple journey from one point on the map to another can take a long time and the game encourages the player to activate "cinematic mode" - to essentially sit back and gaze in appreciation at the world the developers have created.

But the journey has no cinematic arc or meaning attached to it unless it's an imagined one by the player.

This takes on a stark Ozymandias feeling when the world, while beautifully rendered, feels essentially dead and pointless.

Where Grand Theft Auto's fun comes in its anarchism, Red Dead Redemption trades in nihilism and existentialism.

One of the most telling moments comes when the protagonist is made to, begrudgingly, carrying out debt recovers for the gang's money lender, who's only narrative purpose is expose a moral bearing in the hero. The debt recovery missions make the character a violent perpetrator in a system his gang is supposedly free of. He can only justify this through resignation and nihilism.

Rockstar made no secret about exploiting its labour to get this product to market according to an arbitrary deadline. In fact, lead producers seemed proud of the fact staff were working 80-hour weeks in the lead up to the release.

The company attempted to convert this exploitation to customers when they released their much-anticipated Red Dead Online mode a month later.

The online version of the game is, unintentionally, the most realistic representation of America Rockstar has achieved to-date. Players, after breaking out of jail, were rendered homeless and with little possessions. Items such as guns and food were made prohibitively expensive with in-game currency - and in-game currency difficult to acquire - in the clear hope players' frustration would lead them to spend real money to acquire them rapidly.

This strikes to the heart of one of the biggest trends in the gaming industry, where modern games that don't generate income passively are seen as failures by developers and their shareholders. A game which can coax players into spending money over sustained periods, for instance Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto 5 (developed by Rockstar), are essentially a license to print money.

Fortnite, which is free, generated $US318 million in May alone through cosmetic purchases. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto 5 is the most profitable entertainment product of all time having generated more than $6b in revenue since release - in no part thanks to in-game purchases which have earned Rockstar more than $1.09b in ongoing passive income.

Rockstar was undoubtedly aiming for another passive revenue generator with Red Dead Redemption 2's online mode but have created a dystopian reflection of modern society in its place.

The game promises freedom to do as you want, as long as the player abides strict conditions set by prohibitive requirements designed specifically to exploit consumers.

That a modern game developer would impose austerity on the player at the outset is a hilarious reflection of where we are as a society and how much faith Rockstar has in their consumers.

Players and journalists, unsurprisingly, were less than impressed with this economy and Rockstar was forced to acquiesce and change the rate of exchange between currency and goods.

Silicon Valley companies and development studios like Rockstar can no longer pretend to be outsiders or rebels to the capitalist system when they're generating more wealth and revenue than their "normie" counterparts.

Rockstar laid bare the human labour cost and ruthless employment practices that happens behind these major games, especially in the months prior to release. People who left Rockstar before the game's release were not even credited for the work they had done.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is pure mimesis in that a game about a gang in the pursuit of a life free of bureaucratic and capitalistic norms turned into a commodity designed to extract as much revenue as possible from the consumer. They gave us a taste of the outlaw life and showed that, on further inspection, it's really all bullshit.
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