While playing the first handful of Red Dead Redemption 2, I came to talk with some sort … hate it. Rockstar's sprawling Western was just not for me. It was too plodding, too conscious, too time consuming and too boring. So many of the game systems worked out intentionally to prevent you from having fun while playing it. No matter how much I liked the original Red Dead Redemption – a game I had completed in 2010, despite many of the same issues – I was ready to let the sequel ride the sunset that erases it from my PS4 hard drive.
Then I beat one of the game's best scenes (at least so far) and it changed me significantly.
It's not an easy task to get to that scene if you are already in violation of the game's pace. It comes in Chapter 2, after you have gone through many training assignments, learned about brushing horses, tracking and hunting games through the wilderness, and improving the camp. Red Dead 2's story has no hurry to pull you together, but eventually you spend time with all the Van der Linde bend's characters, and hanging with them begins to be the story in itself. An assignment sees you and your comrades assemble a rescue mission to save Sean, a felony, caught by bounty hunters on the screen in the former Blackwater job that happens before the game starts.
It is not the mission to save Sean who turned the corner to Red Dead 2. It is another of those who fight for a bunch of guys who are common to video games where you pistol down a little army while diving behind trees and random pieces of wood to hide incoming fire. Red Dead 2's gunplay is not particularly engaging most of the time; to leave the game's sticky goal assists basically do the job for you, but turning it off makes picking out goals finicky and difficult. But the gang and I managed to clear out the bounty hunters who held Sean and secure their release, safe and sound.
One evening not long after saving Sean, I returned to the camp to find everyone in a good mood. Dutch, the gang leader, declared Sean's return a great victory, and for a long time a full blown party started. Scattered groups of people in the gang started knocking whiskey, singing, dancing and talking. The camp became alive when the characters cut loose and had a rare little fun.
The festival is so far my favorite thing that happened in Red Dead 2. You can wander around, camp at campfire and join other members of the gang singing songs, as the protagonist Arthur does not always know all the words. You can ask one of the women in the gang for a dance and swim a little with her, or give a quick dip. You can listen to a series of interactions, including Sean completely trying to convince one of the camp's women, Karen, that he is in love with her – and looked at their thirst in a tent, both of which break into whiskey-driven tears. It's a moment that's both sincere and fun, especially when Sean stumble back out of the tent afterwards and gorgeous Arthur calls a creep.
The party lasts through the night and while it's not a big deal to actually make a play, it's one of the better moments in Red Dead 2 because it exploits the good of the game: its characters. You spend the party just by learning about the people who make up the gang, and the time offered with them, the story deepens the moments and conversations that come later.
It's also nice that for as much shooting and stabbing as you do in Red Death 2, there are ways to interact with their world that does not come to the end of a pistol hole. The game industry is full of triple-A titles that have big, beautiful, imaginative worlds, but your only way to participate in these worlds is to kill things in them. For all that imagination, the reality of which games is offered, usually quite narrow: kill or be killed. In Red Dead 2, there are at least these other possibilities, where interaction with characters is as rewarding as picking up or giving them down.
Video games like a medium are often still trying to tell convincing stories, especially focusing on plot and action while moving character development and worldbuilding into collectibles and audio logs. Games often feel that their creators fear that if players do not run continuously from game to next, they will stop playing completely – there is no time to waste on populating many games with people, even though the people in them are doing so people interested in stories initially.
Red Dead 2 is not afraid to let you stop and just spend time with its characters. The party scene has no real gameplay loop, there is no performance or trophy attached to it and you can basically put the controller down for the most part. Red Dead 2's confidence in the characters is such that the game is fine when you do not play for a little, but instead just being there, at the moment it tries to create for you. Rockstar is willing to try to leave you in the moments as refreshing, because so many games and developers are not. When other developers look at Red Dead 2's success, I hope it's the lesson they take from it.