Red Dead Redemption 2 — Snap Judgement #11

How I Played: I’ll always remember rushing home from work on October 26th, 2018 so that I could start playing my pre-downloaded copy of Red Dead Redemption 2. I got about 80% of the way through the story in the weeks after that day, saw the rest of the story as my wife played it, and started a new save file when the game landed on Xbox Game Pass earlier this month.

Being a sequel, the obvious question to ask about Red Dead Redemption 2 is how does this game build upon the original? This game is Red Dead Redemption 2, after all — not Red Dead Origins or Red Dead Revolver Redux. So if this is an advancement from 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, what has changed?

Most of the obvious advancements are visible on the game’s surface and can be summed up in a few sentences. The virtual world looks and feels even more real than before. The characters are perhaps the most developed characters in any open-world Rockstar game, even though they’re sometimes repetitive and stiff. The level of detail in every tiny element is at a new all-time high. I can’t think of any game with this much detail, let alone another Rockstar game.

But, at the same time, RDR 2 is still the same standard Rockstar fare we’ve been getting since the 3-D GTA days. Missions are still rigid and allow little room for creativity or improvisation. The world, though vast, is simple: everything you need is clearly marked on your map, and any type of transaction is straightforward. It’s still a story about criminals trying to get out of dodge.

It’s tempting to look at RDR 2 and see just a new coat of paint, just a boost in graphical fidelity, just a new story laid out in the same way. But there’s more to it than that. Deep down, Red Dead Redemption 2 does two things that evolve not just the original Red Dead Redemption, but the entire lineage of open-world Rockstar games.

The first thing it does is create shocking moments that subvert your videogame expectations.

I hate to do this, but I’m going to spoil one of those moments to illustrate my point. Early in my first playthrough, I was riding my horse back to camp when I came upon a man stopped by the side of a trail. The man was marked on my map as a random encounter, so I stopped to see what this side mission was. He was holding one of his horse’s rear legs in his hands, so I assumed I’d have to ride into town to get some sort of tool to fix his horse’s shoe. I approached the man and, just as he dropped the horse’s hoof and looked up to greet me — BAM! — the horse bucked and kicked the man squarely in the head. The horse reared up and ran away, and the man laid there silently. He was dead.

That was it. That was the interaction. I thought this guy was going to ask me to get him something; maybe he was going to rob me. I never expected that he would just…die. There was no prompt to get him help, and he clearly looked beyond help anyway. I stood there stunned — in real life and in the game — for a good thirty seconds. What was I supposed to do? “Nothing to do,” the game seemed to answer, coldly.

This little scene conveys a deeper story than any other side mission I’ve ever played in a Rockstar game. What a vivid illustration of how harsh and unforgiving the west can be. Look at how fragile life is. In a few other remarkable scenes (most of which are these random encounters) the game masterfully takes your expectations and, well, kicks them in the head. In a genre and a medium where it feels like everything has been done, it’s breathtaking to experience that surprise.

The other thing RDR 2 does that evolves open-world games is even more revolutionary. It’s a feature so powerful that it completely alters your relationship with the game world. It fundamentally recontextualizes all your interactions and makes the entire game feel fuller, deeper, and more life-like.

I call this feature the howdy button.

What is the howdy button? Like so many of the controls in Red Dead Redemption 2, the howdy button requires explanation and context. While playing RDR 2, the player can, at any time, pull the left trigger (or press R on PC) to make Arthur focus on the nearest NPC, assuming one is relatively close. From there, you are given three options: “greet,” “antagonize,” or “rob.” The “greet” option is what I call the howdy button, because, if you press it, Arthur will say hello in a folksy, cowboy-y way like “howdy” or “hey mister!” Usually, the NPC will reply with a similar “hello” or “good morning” in return.

Then — and here’s where it gets really crazy — you can press “greet” again and Arthur will continue the conversation! Arthur will bring up a friendly topic like the weather, and the NPC will respond again! Sometimes you can even muster one more parting line out of Arthur like, “well, have a good one” and the NPC will say goodbye.

Arthur can do this with almost any NPC in any location, and his comments will change based on the situation. If he does it with members of his gang, they will have a more specific conversation about something that happened recently. If he does it with someone while they’re riding to a mission objective, he’ll talk to that person about the mission. If he does it during a show, he’ll cheer and clap for the performers. If he does it with someone who has a mission for him, the game will smoothly transition into the mission.

On the surface, this may seem like a banal, throw-away mechanic. But this really is revolutionary. Why? Because, for the first time in an open-world Rockstar game, you can truly interact with ordinary people in a non-violent way.

Think back to seeing someone on the street in GTA V. How can you interact with that person? What options for interaction are available? The first and easiest way to interact with them is to punch them. If you tap the attack button in their vicinity, your character will automatically determine which method of striking them is most efficient and hit them in that way. How else can you interact? Well, you can ram them with your car. You could pull a gun on them and make them fight or flee. You could shoot them (after pulling your gun out and frightening them, of course.) You could brush past them with your shoulder and knock them over. And…I think that’s it. All your actions are violent in both the generic hitting/punching/shooting sense and in the broader sense of exerting physical control over someone.

These are the interactions that the game is coded for. These are the only options the game gives you. This is the game.

But in Red Dead Redemption 2, you have another option. You can say “howdy.” You can talk to people. Sure, you can also do those other things like pulling your gun on them or brushing past them. But now you have another option. Now you can also have a brief, pleasant, interaction with them. You can wish them a good day. You can just be human towards them. The game even encourages this by rewarding you with a few “honor” points every few times you do it.

If you want to understand just how revolutionary this is, go back to GTA V after playing RDR 2 and walk around for a few minutes. You’ll be amazed how isolated and alone you feel simply overhearing conversations and not participating in them. If you’re like me, you’ll feel almost psychopathic when you walk by these people living these seemingly rich, detailed lives and realize that the only way you can interact with those lives is to end them. Going back to that game, I crave, so deeply, the simple ability to say hello to someone on the street.

This one button, the howdy button, completely recalibrates the game world. This is no longer simply a violent world created as a playground for weaponry, it’s now a world where you are just another person going about your life. You can see this transformation by searching for stories of players who have accidentally pulled their gun on someone they were trying to talk to. (A very easy thing to do, since “begin conversation” and “aim weapon” are the same button, alternated by whether not you have your weapon holstered.) Some players say these occurrences are funny, some say they’re frustrating, but both of those reactions are created by the surprise of doing something you didn’t mean to do. It’s a shock to pull your gun on an innocent bystander in RDR 2, but in the earlier Rockstar open-world games, it was your only option.

This feature isn’t perfect. Most of the conversations you have are pretty banal and repetitive. You could also argue that many RPGs, for years, have let you talk to every NPC you see. A keen observer would even note that the original Red Dead Redemption featured an inchoate version of the howdy button.

What I would argue back is that, up until now, all those interactions — the ones in the RPGs, and the original RDR howdy button — didn’t feel like they were naturally occurring, it felt like they were merely game elements. In those RPGs, everyone can talk to you, but only in ways that remind you that they are all serving your mission. Those characters often feel like information repositories, not actual people. And the original howdy button? It’s not a full interaction, it’s just a way of poking people to make them make a noise.The newer howdy button feels like interacting with fully fledged people. The banality of the conversations even makes sense in that regard. This is a stranger. There’s not much to talk to them about, other than the weather.

I suppose this is where I have to admit that perhaps I’m more excited about the potential of the howdy button than the howdy button itself. There are so many possibilities for this tool that aren’t in the game. For instance, after the game’s release, a rumor started circulating that, if you changed your mini map to compass mode, you could ask people for directions to your destination and they’d tell you how to get there. It turned out this wasn’t true. If you turned your mini map to compass mode, all you could do is less easily navigate to your destination. But it says something huge that people thought this could be true. It shows that the ability to talk to anyone is making people think about this game using real world logic instead of game logic. It shows that people are unconsciously beginning to think of this experience in the same way they would think about living their own life.

I’ve seen hints of this dynamic in games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Those games also begin to shift the player’s mindset from “what am I supposed to do here? To “how am I going to accomplish this goal using the tools available to me.” Honestly, Red Dead Redemption isn’t even the best, or perhaps even a good example of this design. But seeing even just a hint of it in a game that’s designed to fully simulate a modern, realistic life feels ground breaking.

The howdy button, within the context of Red Dead Redemption 2, reminds us that, one day, we could have a game that makes you feel like you’re living a life instead of just completing tasks. A game where your options feel infinite. A game where the consequences of your actions are truly consequences and not simply scripted outcomes that were preordained. A game where you are truly the soul embodying a character on the screen.

The potential for something like that to exist is the thing that has excited me about videogames as a medium ever since I started playing them.

And the howdy button is the next small step in that direction.

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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

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Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.