Arthur Morgan is propped against a rock as Red Dead Redemption 2 loads my most recent save. Nestled on the outskirts of camp, he’s either dozing or deep in contemplation. He only stirs when I grab the controller and make him move, joining the lazy hum of activity going on around him.
I check my map for a refresher on what missions I currently have available, opting to meet up with Hosea at a ranch to the southeast for a new “business opportunity.” I stroll through camp at a leisurely pace, chatting up members of the Van der Linde gang along the way. I stop off at the stew pot for a meal and grab some supplies before hitting the trail. I ran out of bullets during a recent misunderstanding in Valentine and don’t want to make that mistake a second time.
Sable is waiting for me at the hitching post, playfully digging her hoof into the dirt. I feed her a carrot and give her a good brushing before mounting up, exiting camp through the trees and remembering to give Bill a holler as I pass.
In most games, I would have likely carried out the above actions in a matter of moments, possibly working through a series of menus rather than moseying to various tents in a sleepy camp. The polite conversation, which adds a subtle but wonderful bit of depth to the NPCs of my cowboy family, would likely be completely absent.
If I was playing Assassin’s Creed or Spider-Man, I would be moving from location to location at a breakneck speed. When I arrived at my destination, a fast and furious fight would end with a results screen or a quick break to gather resources from my fallen enemies, at which point I’d be sprinting or swinging on to the next bit of action peppered across the map. While there’s nothing wrong with this sort of gameplay loop, I’ve discovered that Red Dead Redemption is a much more methodical game that actively wants the player to take their time. It’s utterly gratuitous in its leisurely pace, and it’s a better game for it.
The mathematical part of my brain treats most games like a checklist. A mission on the map is a box that needs to be stamped with a “Complete” label and my job as the hero is to blow through as many of those encounters as quickly as possible. Part of that is due to the pacing the developers have purposefully built into the game and, coupled with my own desire to stay current or “part of the conversation” with as many new games as possible, I usually fly through them one after the other.
In a weird sort of way, Rockstar has figured out how to disable my desire to see Red Dead Redemption 2 through to its conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely want to see how this story unfolds, I’m just in no particular hurry to get there.
In RDR2‘s opening hours, the Van der Linde gang finds itself all but stranded in the frozen north, practically crawling through knee-high snow on a quest for literally greener pastures. Whether you’re riding a horse or trudging through fresh powder, almost every action must be made at a slower clip. I think those opening hours helped prepare me for the game ahead, getting me used to the idea that Red Dead 2 is not an experience made to be sprinted through. While it’s certainly possible to play the game faster than I’m managing, it feels almost vulgar to do so.
Back to the mission at hand, I don’t bother to mark my next objective on the map. I’ve only been riding through these hills for about a dozen hours at this point, but I’m starting to learn the breathtaking landscape by heart. And while I could get to my destination more quickly by spurring Sable into a full gallop, I instead wind my way down the trail at a casual trot, keeping an eye and an ear out for unexpected opportunities or danger. Along the way, I may decide to head into a muddy patch to help a stranger repair their wagon. Hell, I might decide to steal it from them afterward, making a break for a nearby stable I know will pay me good money for a quality cart. If the mood catches me, I might stroll off into a tangle of trees to hunt small game or fish. I might even notice a small shack I haven’t spotted before and decide to do a little exploring, potentially digging up yet another mission along the way.
No matter what I do, I know that there will be a process involved; a process that’s typically missing from other games because, let’s face it, most of us are impatient. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that demands a certain degree of patience from the player and even rewards those who are willing to settle in and slow things down even further. Just about every act has a detailed animation and, while I can certainly understand folks getting frustrated with how that slows the game down, I find myself appreciating it more and more for the fact that it’s keeping me in such a contemplative state of mind. Everything has a process, and working through the motions of those processes is proving to be exceptionally rewarding.
There are few ticking clocks in Red Dead Redemption 2. When a mission appears on the map, it’ll be waiting for me whenever I’m ready to tackle it. At this point in my playthrough, even those missions seem to lack a sense of urgency while they’re unfolding. Some folks might holler at me to “hurry it up,” but taking longer to search a cabin for useful resources doesn’t actually bear a penalty. Even shootouts are less bombastic than you might expect from a third-person action game. I know things will amp up as I progress further into the campaign but, for now, my pistol is pretty slow to fire and my enemies aren’t especially eager to take advantage of the fact that they’ve got me outnumbered and surrounded. Instead, I get to take them out one at a time while enjoying some good-natured banter with my cohorts. Even in these life or death scenarios, nobody seems interested in picking up the pace.
Not a lot of games are able to put me into this kind of mindset. When I sit down to play Red Dead Redemption 2, I’m not thinking about how many missions I’ll be able to knock out in the next couple of hours. Its narrative is strong, but it isn’t grabbing me by the ear as if to say “I am the most important thing and you must pay attention to me until I am done with you.” The world is clearly the star here and, so far, I’m in no hurry to leave it.