Red Dead Unloaded

An open letter, of sorts, to Rockstar Games

Back in the days before YouTube, back when Netflix was a small mail-order rental company, back when it could take me all day to load a single streaming MP3 song over dial-up if I could find it embedded somewhere, I used to watch what was on television. I have some old favorite movies that probably wouldn't be my favorite movies, except that once upon a time they were on when I wanted something to watch. 

The second half of the 1990s stands out in particular, with my older brother off with his friends and then later off at college, I found myself alone with the downstairs TV and no one to choose and no one to complain, so I found the most appealing thing that was on. 

There was Goodbye Lover, a comic neo-noir that also introduced me to the music of Save Ferris and the concept of ceviche. Love and a .45, a road crime movie and modern-day western of sorts. I'm thinking about these movies I caught on premium cable over and over again, movies I haven't have thought about in years because I'm thinking of another movie from back then: The Negotiator.

That one is kind of known for a bit where the titular character banters with the other negotiator about westerns, about cowboy movies, and the significance of preferring the ones where the hero dies at the end. 

I like westerns. I like how they can present straightforward morality plays in a uniquely American mode. I like how they can also function as a complicated morality play, where a man who's done grievous wrong can do a good thing and still not escape his past. Westerns show us both uncompromising virtues and hard choices with no right answers. 

I like the mythology and iconography of the western, and how so often, as we look back on an age in history that never truly was, so often the story we're telling is the story of how it couldn't be, the story of how it could never last, the story of what went wrong and how it ended. 

A lot of them also have good fight scenes.

I have been intrigued by the Red Dead Redemption series since the first one came out, though I didn't have the right consoles to play it. I'm just not enough of a console gamer for it to make sense for me to invest in a Playstation or XBox. Don't have the space, money, or time for that to make sense. I know I'm missing out on a few games I'd love -- I almost succumbed and splurged on a PS4 anyway to be part of the Spider-man hype -- but ultimately I'm a PC and Nintendo girl.

So when Red Dead Redemption 2's PC launch was announced, I was excited. I'd finally get a chance to be a part of this world, this incredibly vast open world with a fully structured story to play through and experience, and the whole wide range remaining to be explored afterwards. Even aside from the setting and genre, the simultaneous promise that the hero will die in the end but you get to explore the world as long as you want anyway were two of my favorite things, combined in one package against all odds!

I sometimes despair for the state of single-player storytelling in games. There are some long-running franchises that still do it well, and plenty of indie games, but every year it feels like the industry is moving more and more away from games where you experience a fully-realized story and towards games where you experience... other people. I mean, the promos for Fallout 76 looked absolutely gorgeous, but it doesn't yet have any of what I actually look for in a Fallout game.

So I was excited about Red Dead Redemption 2... but a little uncertain. If I had a compatible console, I could buy it secondhand and not give my money to Rockstar Games, whose business practices in the area of labor management I don't particularly care to support. 

Yeah, the crunch thing. 

I want games like this to exist. But I want the companies making them to invest the time in making them right, while treating the people who make them more like... well... like the rock stars the are.

It was enough to keep me on the fence even as Twitter daily showed me ads telling me to pre-order and pre-load by November 5th for free upgrades and exclusive perks. Oof. That nearly overcame my resolve just as an impulse buy, and by the time I woke up today... well, I had mostly made up my mind that I was going to get it, and figure out some way to directly support the people who are fighting for better working conditions in gaming and tech generally.

Then, this morning, game critic Dia Lacina re-upped a piece from last year, "Red Dead Redemption 2's Redface Proves How Far Games Haven't Come", about casting an actor who was neither indigenous nor Black for an NPC character who is both.

The game's treatment of native characters was something I had wondered about. It's one of those things that gives me pause about westerns generally. Even when there aren't any indigenous characters in a story of the old west, their absence is itself a creative choice and part of their mythmaking.

This is the part where, if I were saying this on Twitter, eventually a small but vocal set of gamers would pop up to say that from what I'm saying I wouldn't be happy no matte what, because I'll complain if they're included and I'll complain if they're not. And well, I mean, I don't think it's possible to "do right by" natives in a single video game, in the same way that Shane couldn't put right his whole past by saving one family and their farm. You can't undo a long history of blood and tears with a good deed.

But it's possible to try, and it's possible to do better.

This isn't a case where I can excuse labor problems but not racism. My choice as a consumer is the result of a combination of these factors. There are just too many things about this game that make me feel iffy for me to spend money in order to ostensibly enjoy it. 

The vocal complainers like to say things about how they just want to play fun games and not think about these things. I, too, would like to play fun games and not think about these things. I could do that, if companies like Rockstar would quit doing these things. Wouldn't that be nice?

When I decided to give RDR2 a pass, my first impulse was just to quietly sigh to myself and then move on to another game I've wanted to try, or revisit a favorite. Maybe another Fallout: New Vegas playthrough would help scratch the itch.

But then I thought about it, and I decided... what's the point of voting with my wallet if Rockstar doesn't know I've done so? I'm sure I'll get a bunch of people in my Twitter mentions calling this "virtue-signalling" (a phrase that people use to signal to their in-group their own virtue in calling out people whose politics are not correct, so they may be mobbed and bullied into silence), but that's beside the point. 

This message is for Rockstar Games. I'm not telling anyone else what to do about the game or how to feel if they've already bought it and enjoyed it. This is not prescriptive. It's my decision, for me. I want to make sure they know their decisions have cost them at least one sale.

Might I have enjoyed the game enough to make up for my misgivings? Very possibly. I'm sure it's a great game.

But the world is full of great games, and no one has time to play all of them.

I'll take my time and my money elsewhere.

Thank you for reading!

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