1. Red Dead Redemption II
, developed by Rockstar Games, played on the Xbox One X for 284 hours
. When I first played 2010's Red Dead Redemption, I found myself avoiding main story beats and side quests and simply camping out in the wilderness and hunting animals. Nothing in the game required me to do so, and there were no incentives in the game to encourage players to "role play" in the world of New Austin/Mexico. Fast forward 8 years later, and Rockstar (a highly profitable AAA developer) decides to make their next game aimed towards weirdos like me. They made a cowboy simulation game. They did it. They didn't have to--they could have just made another Grand Theft Auto-esque game with cowboys--but they did it. This game is not for everyone, and that's what is truly amazing about this game. It's one of the most expensive/risky indie titles to date. Thankfully, this is the game I've always wanted. I love immersion and world building, and this game has moved the bar so high, I can't see myself being this invested in a single player experience for quite some time. Look, I'm going to write a lot about this game. It's going to sound hyperbolic. That's because this game means a lot to me. I love exploration and discovery. I once rode my bike across the country by myself
and love to hike in my spare time. I also work in a clean-room lab environment for 12-14 hour shifts, so being able to come home to this whole world of exploration/excitement... it's been a treat.
Oh, and there's a story too. It's the best character study I've seen in the medium. They took a popular protagonist (John Marston) and pushed him to the side and thrusted this Arthur Morgan character onto you. Arthur Morgan seems a little simplistic at first. He's the muscle of the Van der Lind gang. Then you start to realize that he's got a poetic mind, the more you start to read his journal, listen in on his conversations at camp, and deal with the pressures of the law coming down on his 'family.' His melancholic/idealistic nostalgia for the west and true belief in his leader, Dutch, allow for an interesting conflict of faith. Arthur goes through a lot in the six chapters presented in this game. And that's just in the main story. There are side quest/stranger missions that rival the best writing in most other games, as well. There's also the relationships he has at camp, people I've come to know and love dearly: Abigail, John, Jack, Sadie, Karen, Charles, Pearson, Molly, Hosea, Sean, Lenny, Kieran, Grimshaw, Uncle, Tilly, Javier, Trelawny, Bill, etc.. You spend a lot of time with these characters, through missions, parties at camp, drinking coffee by the fire in the morning, passing by them while doing errands/camp labor, etc.--and these interactions reveal more and more about Arthur. The believability and amount of writing that went into this game only allows for more immersion--as I'm still hearing new lines of dialogue and character nuances as I'm creeping toward my 300th hour of play.
The immersion factor really hinges on those things mentioned above, but the real meat and potatoes is the world design. This has to be the most believable "open world" I have ever seen in video games. There's seemingly no repeating textures, every house, fence, tree, bush, rock... they all look wholly unique. I have no idea how they did it, and I actually stopped wondering after a few hours and just gave myself over to this place. They somehow managed to compress the biomes of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Southern Bayou, the Appalachian mountains, and the southwest desert climates all into one, without it feeling artificial. They created a turn of the century stand in for New Orleans, called Saint Denis, and it's complex, dirty, busy, fascinating, and so big--this could be the main map for any other game. The game sprawls 5 different states: New Austin, New Hanover, Lemoyne, Ambarino, and West Elizabeth. Each place feels wholly unique and real. The dirty wind and humidity around Rhodes, Lemoyne just makes my undergarments feel sticky. The cold air and clear nights in Ambarino remind me of my times visiting in Colorado, and hiking through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The best thing about this game: there's stretches in this vast world where's there's just nothing. It's not like a Ubisoft game, where there's enemy patrols/wild predators attacking you every 2 minutes. There's time to breathe and soak in this environment. And I love riding my horse (Buell) through these vast open landscapes.
Within those environments, you'll still find life. Whether it be a lone rider passing by, or a fox eating away at the carcass of a recent kill. Everything feels interactive. I could say hello to that rider, or antagonize him, or rob him, or follow him and see how he reacts to being followed. I could track that fox to more deer, looking for better pelts. I could watch it chase down a rabbit, and watch an eagle swoop in and carry the kill away. There's endless amounts of systems at play in this game, but they're all so cleverly intertwined, I'm not really thinking about them. It feels organic, natural. Smaller birds will team up and fly after larger birds of prey, fish will jump out and eat at bugs in the early morning hours, domesticated cats will crouch down and chase after mice in the barn. There's an abundance of life. This also carries over to the people. Your gang members all have lives, interests, etc. Uncle just wants to drink all day. Javier likes fishing. Kieran likes watching over the horses. You'll sometimes find Bill getting in trouble at a local saloon. NPCs aren't robotic focal points of interactivity. Everything doesn't seem centered around the player, it's a world that lives on in spite of the player.
I'm a simple man. I also like pretty graphics. Rockstar did some black-magic-f*ckery and made a game that looks next-gen. On my Xbox One X, in HDR and in native 4K, this game is a stunner. I've shown this game to friends/family and they just want to watch in awe as I ride through the country side. On a technical level, this game is above all peers. Everything looks real. I'm sure a lot of blood and sweat went into this aspect, which has been well documented, so I won't get into it. However, it's almost as if the designers, in a brilliant stroke of genius, decided to make Arthur amble along so slowly, that the player is forced to live and breathe in this world around him/her. WE WORKED REAL HARD ON THIS AND YOU'RE GOING TO LOOK AT IT, DAMNIT. Yes, horse balls shrink and expand. Yes, Arthur's facial/head hair grows over time. Yes, you can gain/lose weight. There are little details sprinkled all over the place. The amount of environmental story-telling is baffling. For example, you can stumble along a woman whose horse had died. As you give her a ride back to Emerald Ranch, she'll fill you in on the rumors/comings and goings of the place. These interactions give context to the woman you can often see staring outside a second story window. Or the bullet holes in the closed down bar. You'll later find a piece of mail that explains more, if you want to read it. There's countless amounts of stuff like this. It's amazing. Oh wait, I was talking about graphics. Yeah, they're pretty good.
Then there's the sound design and musical score. This game sounds like a folly artist's nightmare. What's that? You want me to record the sounds of horse pooping? Wait, you need it to land on grass, mud, rocks, snow, sand? The sound design in this game is insane, especially if you're listening for it. The sound of the wood creaking in the wind, or distant roar of waterfalls--all combine and are complimented with the best musical score to ever grace my ears. It's almost as if they took a lot from the simplistic score of Breath of the Wild, and improved upon on the idea. There are intense set pieces all set to music you'll hear only once throughout each playthrough. There's also little musical flourishes to exploration/actions. These can differ--depending on your honor level. I'm a little disappointed that Dolby Atmos or 7.1 wasn't supported in this mix. But it still sounds pretty outstanding through 5.1 channels or with headphones. Oh, and the voice acting is unparalleled as well. I'm sure there's some excel spreadsheet showing the lines of dialogue from this game compared to others, but it's the quality that matters to me. Thankfully, the talent Rockstar tapped for this game is full of varied/wonderful voices. I can listen to Arthur "YAW!" and console his horse forever, and Dutch's raspy speeches help emphasize how tired/stretched he has become through the ordeals that has inflicted the gang. Sadie's voice sounds like she swallowed a few rattlesnakes wrapped in cactus and I love it. If you thought John Marston's voice was good, just hang out in the camp and you'll see the nuanced performances throughout the entire cast helps to elevate this game above all previous Rockstar games.
I could go on and on and on about this game. It's something special. It's my favorite game of all time, by a large margin. That said, it's still not for everyone. It requires a lot from you--time being the most important factor. I took a whole damn week off from work when this initially launched in October, where I played almost 10 hours a day (and drank too much whisky). You need at least an hour or two or three to feel like you're accomplishing something in this game. It requires large swaths of time to get involved in. Not everyone can do that. And I get that. When I see this game showing up on people's most disappointing list, I'm not offended. I think that this being a divisive game, really reinforces my belief that this is a masterpiece. It's not an all-appealing piece of entertainment. It's a slow, methodical, and introspective work. It's by the guys who make the big dumb GTA games, and that's ridiculous. I love this game and that it exists. I'm excited to see how it informs/changes other games and their design techniques. I'm excited to play more. Oh, and I guess there's a whole online game with its own campaign/content--it's not for me, but it's there if you want it. I think everyone should experience this game, even though I'm fully aware that some won't even like their experiences. For the lack of a better metaphor, this is the 2001: A Space Odyssey equivalent of video games. It may not be the most fun I've had with a video game, but it is the most gut-punch/mind-f*ck of a time I've had with a work of fiction, regardless of the medium. Was that hyperbolic enough?*All of these photos I took from the game barely do it any justice. You need to see the combination of movement, environmental sounds, the score, the context of the journey... oh and NO HUD! (Seriously, HUDs should just go away forever. It's time.)