“More and more of civilization, what a mess we’re making of things…” Romantic Landscapes and Work in Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2, developed by Rockstar Games, is the sequel to the highly acclaimed 2010 game Red Dead Redemption. Announced in October 2016, the game quickly became one of the most anticipated games of the generation. Originally planned to release in the second half of 2017, the game was eventually delayed twice, first to the beginning of 2018, and then to the end of 2018. These delays only served to increase the gaming community’s anticipation and excitement. Finally, on October 26th, 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2 released to almost universal acclaim.
One of the most impressive parts of Red Dead 2 is the game’s environment. Since it takes place in the pre-1900s wild west, the game’s world consists of large, natural spaces. These environments are intricately detailed, surprisingly varied, and full of animal and endemic life. While it has the deserts and mesas that one would come to expect from a Western video game, there are also snowy mountaintops, wide green fields, and musky southern bayous. The environmental design is reminiscent of pre-1900s American landscape paintings, specifically those of the Hudson Valley School of Art, who were inspired by Victorian Romantic landscape paintings.
Not every aspect of the game was praised. Many critics took umbrage with the way the game feels to control. Such terms as “sluggish,” “slow,” and “molasses” have been levied at Red Dead 2. Every movement in the game has significant weight to it, and nearly every action has an accompanying animation. Whether the player is searching a cabinet, skinning an animal, or rifling through their horse’s saddlebags, they will have to sit through an animation of their character performing the action.
Critic Film Crit Hulk, writing for Polygon, described processes of the game, such as figuring out which weapons require cleaning at a gunsmith, “laborious.” He describes these design decisions as intentional choices: “These are carefully selected design and control schemes that are meant to help the user play the game, but they often do exactly the opposite.” In his essay, Hulk seeks the answer to why Rockstar made these design decisions. He determines that these decisions serve a quest for realism on the part of the design time, though he believes that games should not strive for realism at the cost of satisfying player engagement.
Other critics, such as Kirk Hamilton writing for Kotaku, echo this sentiment: “[Red Dead Redemption 2] is defiantly slow-paced, exuberantly unfun, and wholly unconcerned with catering to the needs or wants of its players.” However, despite this negative description, Hamilton goes on to describe having a positive experience: “It is also captivating, poignant, and at times shockingly entertaining.”
The fact that Red Dead 2 is engaging and affecting even though it has sluggish controls speaks to John Claudius Loudon’s theories about gardening. In his Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion, Loudon describes how simply sitting in and appreciating a garden is not enough to feel the full benefits of being in nature. In order to reap the full rewards of a garden, one must do engage with and do work in said garden. In this way, Red Dead Redemption 2 is analogous to an interactive Victorian Romantic landscape painting in which the player works and interacts with a virtual environment. As such, the player can derive similar pleasures through this virtual nature as they can with real-world nature.
Gordon Calleja in “Digital Game Involvement A Conceptual Model” puts forth six categories of game elements that contribute to a player’s involvement in a game. These categories are tactical, affective, spatial, shared, narrative, and performative. Tactical refers to any moments of interactive decision making that a player encounters. These interactions can be with the game’s rules, or with the game’s wider environments and other players (Calleja 239). Performative involvement refers to the control that a player has over an avatar or object, “ranging from learning controls to the fluency of internalized movement” (Calleja 241). Affective involvement pertains to the ways that a player is emotionally affected by the act of playing a game. Calleja gives the example of someone who has a lack of excitement in their lives finding an immediate method of stimulus. On the other hand, someone who leads a very hectic life may find the idea of a “performative domain that suits the players’ needs” appealing (Calleja 244). This kind of player may seek to “vent frustration through intense first-person action, get absorbed in the cognitive challenge of a strategy game, or stroll leisurely in aesthetically appealing landscapes” (244). It is this last action of strolling through a landscape that is particularly relevant to me.
Calleja then describes shared involvement. Shared involvement refers to the interactions that a player has with other entities within the game, whether they be players or non-player characters. This involvement is especially relevant in games where a player controls an avatar character because it serves to anchor the player in the environment “both spatially and socially” (Calleja 247). This kind of involvement relates to all kinds of communication that a player has with other figures in the game world.
The next involvement, narrative, is a contentious one among games scholars. The role of narrative in games has been hotly debated and is usually referred to as the debate of narratology vs. ludology (249). The narratology side of the debate argues that video games are a new form of narrative storytelling, and as such can have narrative theory applied to them. Meanwhile those on the ludology side believe that the interactive nature of games makes them wholly different from other mediums, and as such they should be understood on their own terms. Most modern scholars believe that conceptual models from other fields, including narrative theory, can be applied; however, they must be adapted for games (249). Calleja separates narrative into two different kinds: the narrative that the game itself tells, which he calls the “designed narrative,” and the narrative that the player creates through their actions, which Calleja deems “personal narrative” (250). Ideally, this allows players to always be involved in a narrative; even if the designed narrative does not interest them, they may still be invested in their own personal narrative.
Calleja’s final form of involvement, spatial, involves the player’s ability to place themselves in the game’s environment even beyond what is shown on the screen. This type of involvement may “take the form of mental maps, directions from other players, or referral to in-game or out-of-game maps and covers aspects such as exploration and exploitation of the game space for strategic purposes” (252). As a player becomes more familiar with a game’s environment, playing the game will require less conscious investment from the player into remembering where they are in relation to the game’s layout. Through the process of internalizing the layout of the game’s map, the player will experience a stronger sense of inhabiting the game’s environment (253).
For a very long time, the term “immersion” has been used to describe player engagement; however, Calleja believes that “immersion” implies a singular involvement that is built upon the player inserting themselves in a game. He proposes the term “incorporation” in place of “immersion” in order to instead imply that the player undergoes a “simultaneous assimilation of the digital environment and presence to others within it” (Calleja 236). Calleja also discusses the concept of “flow” in relation to video games as it was put forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Calleja’s article is particularly useful for me in that it describes the more technical and psychological aspects of a player’s involvement with a game. It served as a useful introduction to the terms “flow” and “immersion” especially, as these are terms I’ve come across quite often during discussions about gameplay and its various effects on players.
Through another one of my other sources, I was introduced to Gerald Farca’s idea of “the emancipated player.” In his article, aptly titled “The Emancipated Player,” Farca puts forth the idea of a certain kind of player that resides within everyone: one that “willingly engages in the act of play and who primarily wants to experience play’s aesthetic effect” (1). Farca takes the six categories that Calleja puts forth and proposes a mode of interaction that goes beyond them. Through interacting with representational art like a game, one can experience an “aesthetic effect,” as Farca puts it. However, when it comes to games as representational art, this aesthetic effect requires “an emancipated being that open-mindedly and critically works her way through the virtualized storyworld s/he encounters (both ergodically and imaginatively)” (2).
Farca proposes an extension of Calleja’s forms called “emancipated involvement” which “occurs when the player steps beyond the basic pleasures of entertainment and affective emotions and reaches for the levels of significance; an experience which leads to a partial restructuring of her or his habitual dispositions” (Farca 2). What Farca describes here is something that occurs in the experience of other art forms such as literature and film. It is an experience in which the audience (in this case, the player) feels something beyond simply being entertained, and comes away with their outlooks and opinions changed.
A player who has this kind of experience in mind is dubbed “the emancipated player” by Farca. This kind of player is one “who is critical about her or his involvement in the game- and storyworld and who primarily wants to experience play’s aesthetic effect” (2). Because of this, an emancipated player would show positivity towards representational art.
Farca calls forth Wolfgang Iser’s ideas from The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978) about the imaginative and interpretive involvement a reader may have with a text. It is through interaction with the text that the reader creates an aesthetic object. Iser then compares the reader’s involvement with the text with an “experience,” which will lead to the changing of the reader themselves (4). In order for this to happen, the reader must not remain passive and must imaginatively involve themselves in the text. Farca argues that the interactive nature of a game makes it easier for a player to imaginatively involve themselves in it, and as such, games have the potential for emancipated involvement.
Nature in the Victorian Era (Loudon)
While I have found plenty of writing on Loudon’s gardening style, I have not come across much on his gardening philosophy, aside from his own writings in his book The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion. One of the few sources on Loudon that was useful to me was “Gardens for the Working Class: Victorian Practical Pleasure” by S. Martin Gaskell. In this article, Gaskell describes how gardens were thought of as places of moral and physical healing in Victorian England; however, they were originally only thought of as being for the upper class. Over time, the idea of lower classes having access to gardens became more popular. Additionally, gardens went from being “a passive agent to an active agent in the recreative process” (Gaskell 479). It was no longer sufficient to simply sit in the garden and think about nature; one had to be actively involved in the garden in order to reap the benefits (479). Gaskell points to Loudon as one of the most consistent proponents of actually gardening instead of just sitting in the garden.
Red Dead Redemption 2 contains a wide variety of landscapes. The game takes place in 5 fictional states representing the American wilderness: New Hanover, Ambarino, Lemoyne, New Austin, and West Elizabeth. Each of these states represents a different ecosystem that one may encounter in the western United States. New Hanover is a wide, green valley consisting of prairies and forests. It is largely inspired by the states near or containing the Rocky Mountains like Colorado and Wyoming.
Meanwhile, New Austin, which is based on the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, is more representative of the deserts and dusty valleys that one usually associates with the western genre. West Elizabeth contains areas similar to the Great Plains, and Big Trees State Park, while Lemoyne is inspired by the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. Far to the north, Ambarino is a snowy, mountainous region analogous to the Rocky Mountains.
These locations are all in relatively close proximity to each other. On horseback, the player can cross the entirety of the map in roughly 16 minutes (I know this because I tried it myself). The scale of the game is not realistic, and due to technical limitations, it is not reasonable to expect it to be. However, this has the effect of creating a magical space for the player, an idealized landscape containing all manner of environments. Despite the unrealistic proximity of these environments to each other, the detail and art design of the environments keeps the player from dwelling too much on their unrealistic nature.
In an interview with Polygon, Rockstar North art director Aaron Garbut stated that “Generally [Rockstar was] not looking to film or art for inspiration…We were building a place, not a linear or static representation, so while in the past we had looked to both, it no longer seemed as necessary or relevant. We are not building a passive experience” (qtd. in Gies). In this quote, Garbut attempts to distance Red Dead 2 from other media forms due to its interactive nature. While the interactive nature of Red Dead 2 certainly differentiates it from other art forms, taking a hard ludological approach to the inspiration for the art and environmental design of a game that strives for realism at every turn seems almost impossible.
Indeed, Garbut goes on to admit that, when it comes to the lighting of the game, “Owen Shepherd, our lighting director, looked to the pastoral and landscape painters like Turner, Rembrandt and American landscape painters from the 19th century such as Albert Bierstadt, Frank Johnson, and Charles Russell” (qtd. in Gies). These influences in the lighting are very apparent when one looks at the works of these artists, and of the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School was a group of American painters who specialized in landscape painting. They were active from roughly 1825–1880 (Barrow). Founded by English immigrant Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School represented the first large movement towards landscape painting in the United States. Cole was inspired by English Romantic landscape painters, and believed that the wilderness of the United States held untapped potential:
“Though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still it has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe…the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness…And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator — they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things” (Cole).
In this excerpt from his essay, “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole echoes the views of Romanticists who have gone before him, most notably William Wordsworth, who believed that proof of God’s existence could be found in nature, and that being in nature could cause one to feel, as he wrote in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” “A presence that disturbs [one] with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (Wordsworth lines 96–98).
This feeling of the sublime, which both Cole and Wordsworth refer to, is also an important part of Victorian landscape painting. The sublime in nature usually takes the form of waterfalls, thunderstorms, great mountains, wide open fields, dramatic sunsets, and anything else that suggests a great power that resides in nature (Barrow). The sublime usually provokes a combination of feelings such as fear, awe, amazement, and reverence.
Artists in the Hudson River School worked closely within the Romantic Sublime framework. Their paintings portrayed large, sweeping landscapes complete with sublime elements. For example, Thomas Cole’s painting “Sunny Morning on the Hudson River” shows a far green country extending all the way to the horizon. In the middle ground of the painting is a large, imposing mountain, while in the foreground is a burned, broken tree. Both of these elements are suggestive of the sublime (Barrow). The mountain, looming over the viewer, and the blasted tree are both assumed to have been created by a higher power. While the sublime is present, the effect is not one of fear, but of awe and contemplation. The light blue sky, morning sun, and light mist suggest calmness and peace.
Within the Hudson River School grew the luminist style. Frederick Edwin Church is often thought of as the progenitor of this style, as natural light played a large role in his paintings. Additionally, Albert Bierstadt, who Garbut named as an inspiration for Rockstar’s lighting team, also worked within the luminist movement. Many of his paintings involved an interplay between light and shadow (Barrow). The backgrounds of many of his paintings are bathed in light, while the foreground is darker. He employs this effect in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the vastness of the landscapes he portrays, which invokes feelings of the sublime.
The environments Red Dead Redemption 2 are prone to Romantic Sublime and luminist moments. While exploring the environment, players will encounter wide open landscapes, imposing mountains, and immense waterfalls. Additionally, the lighting of the game mirrors luminist depictions of natural light. This lighting immerses the player in the game world in the same way it immersed viewers of Hudson River School works in paintings. In this screenshot below, the wide field stretching out before the player and the mountains in the distance are bathed in light. Meanwhile, the foreground is darker. In moments like these, the player is struck by sublime awe, much like the viewer of a Bierstadt painting would be.
The interactive nature of video games makes these moments even more impactful for a player than if they were a passive viewer. Interacting with something is more engaging than simply viewing it, which is what famed botanist John Claudius Loudon believed. In his 1838 guide The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion, Loudon explains this belief:
“There is a great deal of enjoyment to be derived from performing the different operations of gardening, independently altogether of the health resulting from this kind of exercise. To labour for the sake of arriving at a result, and to be successful in attaining it, are, as cause and effect, attended by a certain degree of satisfaction to the mind, however simple or rude the labour may be, and however unimportant the result obtained” (Loudon 2).
It is on this basis that Loudon argues for the benefits of being involved in gardening rather than simply sitting in and thinking about a garden. He says that, in order to attain health and happiness, one must labor, and that the enjoyment that someone who labors derives is of a greater form than one who plays games.
What Loudon did not, and could not, anticipate is a game that feels like work to play. As stated earlier in this essay, many critics, even ones with a positive review of Red Dead Redemption 2, described that actually act of playing the game as slow and laborious, and they are correct. Everything about Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay is designed to force the player to slow down and think about the ways in which they interact with the game. Even something as simple as making the player character walk is a slow process. There is a delay between pushing the control stick forward, and the character beginning to walk that is not insignificant, because just as a person would in real life, the character takes a second to get up to walking speed. Similarly, when the player tries to get the character to stop moving by letting off the control stick, the character takes a few more steps forward in order to slow to a stop. While this can be frustrating, it forces the player into a more thoughtful form of performative involvement because they are required to consider their movement and their position in the environment.
A combination between affective and performative involvement in Red Dead Redemption 2 can be seen in the game’s horse care mechanics. Horses in Red Dead 2 have a health bar, which determines how healthy it is, and a stamina bar, which shows how tired the horse is. If the player walks up to their horse and holds the “interact” button, they are presented with a number of interaction options with their horse. The player can feed, brush, and affectionately pat their horse. All of these actions have an associated animation that the player cannot skip. Beyond this, the player must repeatedly press a button while brushing the horse. All of these actions increase the horse’s health and stamina bars, making them more healthy. More importantly, these actions increase the player, and player character’s, bond with their horse. Having to care for the horse makes the player care for them, forming an affective relationship with the horse. By making the player take an active, performative role in the care of their horse, Red Dead 2 connects performative involvement (work) with affective involvement (emotional payoff).
Red Dead Redemption 2 involves the player in and allows them to interact with a Romantic-style environment. By making the player work, the game forces the player to involve themselves more deeply in their interaction with the environment. It is this interaction that separates Red Dead Redemption 2, a video game, from other media forms like landscape painting or environmental writing. The way the player is affected is arguably more intense, or at the very least more involved. By showing how this work more deeply involves the player, I have answered the question that many critics had about the laborious controls: why? It is through the work the player is required to do that Red Dead Redemption 2 involves the player in its environment more than other media forms, and more than even other games.
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