'Red Dead Redemption 2' and the Coen Brothers latest effort tackle the same genre, and many similar themes, in very different ways.
If the fall of 2018 is any indication, whoever invented the term, "gone the way of the western", should be tracked down, hogtied and shot with a revolver. That's because two of the entertainment industries biggest plays this quarter have sought to resuscitate a genre that America just can't leave behind.
One of them is a video game from one of the most well-respected developers in the world, the other is an anthology film from a pair of the best-respected directors in the world.
For years many have considered cinema to be among mankind's higher forms of art. They are collages of every artform that we as a species have invented before. Storytelling, melded with music, melded with sound, melded with picture to come together as the ultimate entertainment experience. One whose greatest artists have focused on one major objective: audience immersion.
It's only until recently that video games have provided a threat to that throne. Games like The Last of Us, Fallout and Zelda Breath of the Wild have shown us that storytelling has the ability to evolve even further. They remove the barrier of audience and screen hurtling the user into another world, where they are writing the story themselves.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may have just put the final nail in the coffin.
As Harold Goldberg from Vulture put it, "Game critics always call this 'being immersed,' but 'immersed' almost doesn’t do it justice. This world of Red Dead Redemption 2 feels so alive and real, you feel projected into it and then possessed by it. After a few hours, you can almost feel the ego diminution, the sense of “merging with nature or the universe” that Michael Pollan describes in How to Change Your Mind. (And at $60 for a copy, Red Dead Redemption 2 is cheaper than psychedelic drugs.)"
After spending a little over a week with the game, I can heartily confirm these sentiments.
To that respect, The New York Times released an Op-Ed over the weekend simply titled, Red Dead Redemption is True Art, arguing that the game is, indeed a form of transcendent entertainment. "Instead of consuming a story, in a game you become part of it, choosing how it will unfold — even, in some cases, changing how it ends," writes Peter Suderman the managing editor of Reason.com. R
ed Dead Redemption 2 moves past musings of morality that you may get after watching a film, and physically forces you into "making choices and living with them..[it's] about taking responsibility for how you’ve lived."
"It is a vast four-dimensional mosaic in which the fourth dimension is time, in which the world unfolds around you, dependent on what you do.”
This is a big jump from the video games that first made Rockstar famous. The Grand Theft Auto series started off from humble beginnings and was famously unconcerned with morality at any cost. The video game company is run by two brothers, Dan and Sam Houser, who emigrated from London to Manhattan and started their business in the late 90's. Rockstar’s last release, Grand Theft Auto V, which was made on a budget of $265 million, passed $6 billion in sales, making it the highest-grossing entertainment product in history.
After its October release, Red Dead Redemption 2 earned $725 million in just three days, giving it the highest-grossing opening weekend of any entertainment product — ever. The game's success is truly a testament to the company's work and as such, on its influence from film.
The Houser brothers often talk about the film directors that influence their stories, Scorsese, Malick and Oliver Stone, to name a few. The presence of the rich tapestry of Western mythology is felt throughout Red Dead Redemption 2's vast universe. There are so many iterations on the western, dating back to when the west was still... the west. And Red Dead Redeption 2 makes time to incorporate it all.
There might be a town that reminds you of HBO's Deadwood (also coming back soon in theatrical form), there might be a moment that reminds you of a John Ford vista or a "side quest" that reminds you of The Unforgiven. There is space for it all.
According to Vulture, "The final script RDR2's main story was about 2,000 pages. But if he were to include all the side missions and additional dialogue, and stack the pages, Dan estimates the pile 'would be eight feet high.'
Bringing the script to life meant 2,200 days of motion-capture work...requiring 1,200 actors, all SAG-AFTRA, 700 of them with dialogue." According to Dan, “We’re the biggest employers of actors in terms of numbers of anyone in New York, by miles.” Even the actors recording non-playable characters had over 80 pages of dialogue each.
The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and over 192 interactive mission scores. Borrowing all these aspects from film, the Houser brothers have created what they describe as "a vast four-dimensional mosaic in which the fourth dimension is time, in which the world unfolds around you, dependent on what you do.” That fourth dimension of time is what can truly push video games over the edge in terms of "artistic credibility."
Now let's take a minute to look at Buster Scruggs, a movie that even with it's eye-popping color and metaphysical storytelling seems drab in comparison to the work of Rockstar Games. Once again using the New York Times as a reference, A.O. Scott wrote that the film "can be thought of as a Coen brothers concept album. It works just fine in sequence, but some tracks — the one with James Franco as a dumb bank robber, for instance — only need to be played once."
Others have shared a similarly divisive sentiment on the quality of short stories we see in the anthology film, each of which is ripe for comparison with a single mission in Red Dead Redemption 2. In both projects, each highlights a different aspect, or trope, of cinema concerning the Old West. With visual allusions to the greats like Sergio Leone and John Ford, they are both, at times stunning to behold. There are trappers and stagecoaches, freakish sideshows and prospectors, bank robberies and bar fights.
The real difference here is where the Coen Brothers had six short segments, Red Dead Redemption seemingly had several thousand, each arguably more compelling than anything we see in Buster Scruggs, barring perhaps the titular story itself. I enjoyed watching the film over the weekend, but I could feel myself eagerly anticipating its end so that I could get back to making my own stories in Red Dead Redemption 2.
It's true that RDR2 probably had a much more substantial budget and was in development for seven years, but we also have to consider that the Coens probably had a green light from Netflix to do whatever the hell they wanted and had plenty of resources at their disposal.
All of this is not to say that one form of art should be valued more than the art, only that we should be aware, as filmmakers and content creators, that video games have gotten to the level where they may be able to accomplish more in terms of relating to their viewers. It is a challenge that we can look at, and like any great artist, use to build our own craft in a way that more fully immerses our audience.