While playing the first handful of hours of Red Dead Redemption 2, I was coming to terms with kinda sorta...hating it. Rockstar's sprawling western just wasn't for me. It was too plodding, too deliberate, too time-consuming, and too dull. So many of the game's systems seemed designed deliberately to keep you from having fun while playing it. No matter how much I liked the original Red Dead Redemption--a game I'd fully completed in 2010, despite a lot of the same sorts of issues--I was getting ready to let the sequel ride off into the sunset that is deleting it off my PS4 hard drive.
Then I hit one of the game's best scenes (at least, so far), and it significantly changed my mind.
It's not exactly an easy task to get to that scene if you're already at odds with the game's pace. It comes in Chapter 2, after you have gone through quite a few tutorial missions, learning about brushing horses, tracking and hunting game through the wilderness, and improving camp. Red Dead 2's story isn't in any particular hurry to pull you along, but eventually you spend time with all of the Van der Linde gang's characters, and hanging around with them starts to become the story in itself. One mission sees you and your comrades mounting a rescue mission to save Sean, an outlaw pal who was captured by bounty hunters off-screen in the earlier Blackwater job that happens before the game's start.
It's not the mission to save Sean that turned the corner for Red Dead 2. That's another of those "fight a bunch of guys" missions common to video games, where you gun down a small army while ducking behind trees and random bits of wood to hide incoming fire. Red Dead 2's gunplay isn't especially engaging most of the time; leaving the game's sticky aim assist on basically does the work for you, but turning it off makes picking out targets finicky and difficult. But the gang and I managed to clear out the bounty hunters holding Sean and secure his release, safe and sound.
One evening not long after rescuing Sean, I returned to camp to find everyone in good spirits. Dutch, the gang's leader, declared Sean's return a major victory, and before long, a full-blown party started. Scattered groups of people in the gang started pounding whiskey, singing, dancing, and conversing. The camp came alive as the characters cut loose and had a rare bit of fun.
The party scene is, so far, my favorite thing that's happened in Red Dead 2. You can wander around, sitting by campfires and joining in as other members of the gang sing songs, to which protagonist Arthur doesn't always know all the words. You can ask one of the women of the gang for a dance, and somewhat clumsily sway with her, or offer a quick dip. You can listen to a variety of interactions, including Sean drunkenly trying to convince one of the camp's women, Karen, that he's in love with her--and then to their tryst in a tent, where both break down in whiskey driven tears. It's a moment that's both heartfelt and hilarious, especially when Sean stumbles back out of the tent afterward and playfully calls Arthur a creep.
The party lasts through the night, and while there's not a particularly large amount to actually do from a gameplay standpoint, it's one of the better moments in Red Dead 2 because it takes advantage of what's great about the game: its characters. You spend the party just learning about the people who make up the gang, and time spent with them deepens the story moments and conversations that come later.
It's nice, too, that for as much shooting and stabbing as you do in Red Dead 2, there are ways to interact with its world that don't come at the end of a gun barrel. The games industry is full of triple-A titles that have huge, beautiful, imaginative worlds, but your only way of taking part in those worlds is to kill the stuff within them. For all that imagination, the reality of what games offer is usually pretty narrow: kill, or be killed. In Red Dead 2, there are at least these other opportunities, where interacting with characters is as rewarding as sticking them up or gunning them down.
Video games as a medium often still struggle in trying to tell compelling stories, specifically focusing on plot and action while relegating character development and worldbuilding to collectible notes and audio logs. Games often feel like their creators fear that if players aren't constantly running from one battle to the next, they'll stop playing altogether--there's no time to waste on populating many games with people, even though the people within them are what make humans so interested in stories in the first place.
Red Dead 2 isn't afraid to let you stop and just spend time with its characters. The party scene has no real gameplay loop, there's no achievement or trophy tied to it, and you can basically set your controller down for most of it. Red Dead 2's confidence in its characters is such that the game is okay with you not playing for a bit, but instead just being there, in that moment it's trying to create for you. Rockstar's willingness to try to leave you in moments like that is refreshing, because so many games and developers aren't. When other developers are looking at Red Dead 2's success, I hope that's the lesson they take from it.