I've Watched a Lot of Films: The Cinematic Failures of Red Dead Redemption 2
by Jackson Tyler
Dan Houser loves movies almost as much as he loves totally ineffectual labour laws. Red Dead Redemption 2, his latest, is a monument to both, constructed entirely out of stolen set pieces from every Western imaginable and monologues where an outlaw looks into the sunset and says, “our time is endin’ soon, we can’t fight the gov-ern-ment.” More than 3,000 people sacrificed some of the best of their lives to the goal of making the most detailed and cinematic open world game of all time. And for all this (unequally compensated) sacrifice they failed, because while the men steering the ship may love movies, they do not understand them.
Much of this work making Red Dead feel cinematic goes into tone, to making players feel like an actor in a scene. When you walk into a saloon, the light adjusts from a harsh outdoor day to the warm, wooden firelit glow. The ambient laughter and piano in the background is perfectly balanced. Every NPC has a unique model and animation cycle. Each detail is so perfect, you can’t help but mosey into the joint, the hero of your very own western.
It doesn’t work.
It’s time, money, and bodies thrown at solving an impossible problem.
Red Dead doesn’t feel cinematic, because the player controls the camera almost exclusively. Hell, the “cinematic camera” button switches the game over to an procedurally generated view to emulate a cinematic style, whatever that means. It misses the point so much that it’s laughable: Red Dead refuses, outside of actual cutscenes, to break its illusion of ultimate player freedom and intentionally take control of the camera and frame a shot. You know, like cinema does.
Let’s talk about one of the most iconic, and successful cinematic moments in the history of games: the dog jumping through the window in Resident Evil.
Just two shots set the standard for cinematic horror in games. In the first shot, you stand by the door and face the camera, centre-frame. You cannot see what awaits you. You press up and move towards the camera, which cuts just as you are about to move out of the centre third of the frame. The next shot, a classic fake out, reverses the angle: there is nothing there. You have been re-centred, but the focal point of the shot is now the corner at the end of the corridor. This framing poses a new question: what’s around the corner? You walk down the corridor into the distance and as you begin to turn, for the first time in this sequence, you move out of your centrally framed position. At this exact moment the window in the foreground breaks, and a dog jumps into the empty space you just made.
It is a perfectly executed gag. Player agency is never undermined, and yet, your actions are both influenced by and complementary to the framing. You are an actor within a scene, and one could not exist without the other. Just 95 people are credited with making Resident Evil. Including special thanks. ◒
Jackson Tyler is stuck in a field somewhere in England recording too many podcasts. Among other things, they co-host a monthly game club and read Star Trek books on their small, queer podcast network Abnormal Mapping. When they're not podcasting or writing the occasional article, they're shitposting on twitter at @headfallsoff.