Even though I talk a good cerebral game about… games, I come to video games to play them; meaning the game that I put in the system or boot up. If I asked you what Red Dead Redemption was, you would probably say something like “Well, it’s a western themed open world or sandbox game wherein the player takes missions and completes them to progress the story.” This is wrong. Red Dead Redemption is a collection of many (mini?) games in which one is more prominent than the others.
As I traveled through the world of Red Dead Redemption, I found myself only doing missions about 50% of the time. The other times I found myself playing thirty minute games of Texas hold ‘em poker, blackjack, or even horseshoes. In addition to this puzzling situation, I also found myself thinking that these games that were not the ‘doing the missions’ stuff were not very well done. When I sat down for a thirty minute or forty five minute play session, I often ended up finishing one mission when I meant to complete three. The rest of the time was spent goofing off and sometimes getting frustrated about something that had nothing to do with the main game. So, I thought, why include them? Then, it raised another large question for me: if you put so many mini-games into a full product to supplement or pad the “real” part of the game, then how good is your real game?
I will be the first person to admit that I am not a fan of Rockstar style games. What drew me to Red Dead Redemption were its aesthetic and my personal taste in movies. I have quit playing essentially after one third of the game because I found myself being distracted from a lackluster and repetitive main game by lackluster and repetitive mini-games. Now, before you start yelling at me, I’m also the same guy who played and, will readily say, enjoyed GTA5. One major difference between my experiences between these games is that in GTA5 I did not, that I can remember, even attempt any of the non-core parts of the game. I played straight through the missions and was so engaged and entertained that I felt no need to even try its other smaller games such as races or bowling or whatever. Perhaps, for argument’s sake, we can use this litmus to place GTA5 as a “better” game than Red Dead Redemption.
My reasoning is that I would have quit Red Dead Redemption long before I did if I had not been playing the mini-games throughout its world. While on the surface this seems good for the game, the reality is that these games are being used to distract me from the fact that the actual GAME is not all that great. Now I’m not sure if they were not included the main game would have turned out any better, but it does make me wonder about the possibilities. Also, I generally consider myself to be interested in the stories of games and not just the gameplay itself, but this has not always proven to be true. Going back to GTA5, the story was actually not very interesting; it was just a cavalcade of increasingly high powered bad people asking the characters to do worse things. But the variety of the gameplay in the core game missions pulled me through to the very end. Red Dead Redemption is solid in its “let’s go to this ranch and kill some outlaw” gameplay, but in my 15 hour experience I did not see it going anywhere else. This is the major difference.
Now, another argument may be that many games focus on one repeated type of experience and the exciting part is seeing yourself or the character improve as it progresses na nanee poo poo Mr. Backlog Killer. Wrong. In Red Dead Redemption, I found myself using the same tactics, same guns, and same movements in hour one as I was using in hour fifteen. It felt very cool at first, but simply killing fifteen rustlers in an encounter rather than the five I was faced with before with no feeling of growth was just useless. In games like Dark Souls, Mario, or, hell, even Asteroids, the player is faced with challenges that are meant to be severe roadblocks to be conquered. The player feels great after conquering them. In Red Dead Redemption the “power fantasy” seemed to only be played out by the game showing the player “Look, you killed 20 guys instead of 10 like last time! You’re doing great!” There is no challenge or even illusion of character or player progression.
Maybe I sound like an old fuddy duddy, but games were always meant to challenge me, at least to the point of having to put in more than minimal effort to get beyond a challenge. I’m veering dangerously close to the whole “Are games not hard enough anymore?” argument but maybe that is valid enough, too. What I am saying is that, in this situation, the main game was not interesting enough and is served by the mini-games which have no other purpose. If they did, then I would have played similar style mini-games in GTA5. I can buy Hoyle’s Mega-Casino at any Wal-Mart discount software rack and play poker or blackjack immediately in a much less cumbersome way than they are implemented in Red Dead. If I wanted to see a comedian or a movie or watch TV, I would do it on TV or YouTube, not in my game. I didn’t come to the game to do these things. I came to play the game. Please make that the reason that I am staying.