It’s been incredibly hard to avoid Red Dead Redemption 2 for the last few weeks. Be it through Facebook, YouTube video titles (which spoiled the game’s ending for yours truly) or even at one point BBC News itself. Rockstar Studios seem to generate a mainstream media coverage that is unmatched in scope by the rest of the gaming industry, and perhaps rightly so – with every major release in the last few years, Rockstar seem to raise the bar for what is possible on current hardware with seemingly serendipitous ease. The game’s very much excellent, as expected, and it’s that last part I want to talk about – a problem not so much with the game, more with us, the consumers.
DESPITE THE MASTERFULLY CRAFTED NARRATIVE, THE STAGGERING VISUAL DETAILS, THE DEEPLY IMMERSIVE VOICE ACTING – I WASN’T HAVING FUN.
In case you’ve spent the last two years living under a rock, inside a cave, without Wi-Fi signal, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open-world story-driven action adventure game, the sequel to (that confusingly serves as a prequel to) Red Dead Redemption, developed and published by Rockstar. The studio is responsible for another series that can’t quite seem to stay out of the news, Grand Theft Auto. Naturally, having been bombarded with article after review after hands-on, I, along with half the planet, was fairly excited for the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, in much the same way that the molten core of the Earth is fairly warm. However, as I progressed further and further into the game, my excitement fast became mere interest, and eventually dwindled into apathy. I eventually had an epiphany during a climactic shootout about halfway through the main story – what should have felt like the game’s midpoint climax instead felt comparatively humdrum, and the worrying realisation hit me that despite the masterfully crafted narrative, the staggering visual details, the deeply immersive voice acting – I wasn’t having fun.
Don’t get me wrong – Red Dead Redemption 2 is a landmark release, a true masterpiece on graphical, narrative and technological levels, and boasts an open world that truly feels alive. But I think the root of my apathy lies not with the game itself, but more with my expectations of it. See, because the internet has been saturated with people whipping themselves into a frenzy for the last two years (seriously, go back and watch how people reacted when Rockstar changed their Facebook profile picture to tease the arrival of RDR2 – the internet exploded), everyone has come to expect absolute perfection from this game, which means that if the game is indeed perfect, it’s inherently reduced to simply meeting expectations, rather than going above and beyond them. Does this inherently make the game worse? No, not in this case, but for those looking to be blown away by an experience defying all expectation, this makes it feel a little disappointing. It feels like being taken on a guided tour of Disneyland – knowing what to expect and having those expectations fulfilled and not surpassed certainly takes the magic out of the experience.
Sure, this so-called hype culture is existent in other mediums of entertainment (Avengers: Infinity War, anyone?) but the typical video game is ten times the price of a cinema admission ticket, and is in most cases at least a dozen times longer than the average big-budget film, and with these extra investments from the consumer, any potential disappointments are amplified many times over. There are numerous examples of the damage that over-hype, from both developer and consumer, can cause, and perhaps the most recent example is Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. The procedurally generated open-world universe promised 18 quintillion unique worlds, boasting unique wildlife, a deep story and a vast and intricate crafting system, and the gaming community couldn’t get enough of it.
What was expected to be a small, manageable indie game received far too much media attention, with every feature being talked up by swathes of media outlets, and at some points even Sean Murray himself. Expectations were raised to levels utterly unattainable by the comparatively tiny development team, and when launch day came, fans were presented with what felt like a largely empty universe, with ecosystems, planets and even entire star systems being virtually indistinguishable from each other. The largely inconsequential story barely felt present at all, and a crafting system of the most arbitrary kind, where materials couldn’t be found or harvested, and indeed only existed to be crafted into other materials. It’s worth talking about the post-launch patches Hello Games has implemented, but by then the damage was already done – nothing the game could deliver post-launch would live up the astronomical standards that the consumer had come to expect.
From a financial standpoint, of course it makes sense – developers, publishers and investors want their product to receive as much exposure as possible in the build-up to its release in order to drive up sales, and there’s no more obvious way to do that than talk up your product. I feel, however, that there’s something to be said about the damage that this causes to video games as an art form, damaging the product for the sake of its financial success, and in the worst cases making it impossible for a game to genuinely surprise you, engross you, and ultimately, entertain you. But hey, Super Smash Bros. is out now – let’s get hyped, people!