John Marston’s Scars
Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games
The credits kept rolling, and the fonts got smaller. Some pleasant instrumental music started playing. Soon came the quality assurance testers, the names of whose rank-and-file members were listed in massive blocks spread across four pages.
Those people, 383 in all, were responsible for helping make the game as smooth and polished as it is. Many of them were employees at Rockstar’s QA offices in Lincoln, England, reportedly home to some of the most brutal overtime crunch of all. Those testers’ work, like the work of so many game developers, is invisible but no less vital. How many of them caught a gameplay bug that might have destroyed my save file and forced me to start over? Did Reese Gagan, or Jay Patel? Which of them made sure that every plant my character picked from the ground believably flopped over in his hand? Maybe that was Okechi Jones-Williams, or Emily Greaves? And which names weren’t on that list at all? Who were the people who burned out and quit, only to be cut from the credits because, per Rockstar’s stated policy, they didn’t make it across the finish line?
It is nearly impossible to answer any of those questions, just as it is impossible to assign credit for this marvelous and unusual game to any one person, or even any team of people. That’s just the way entertainment of this scale is made: vast numbers of people spread around the globe, churning for years in order to make something previously thought to be impossible. It’s a process from a different galaxy than the lone artist, sitting quietly in front of a blank easel. It has as much in common with industry as with art.
Intentional or not, Red Dead Redemption 2 can be read as a meditation on failed leaders, and even as a potent critique of the internal and external cultures that Rockstar has helped perpetuate. Dutch Van der Linde is every inch the manipulative boss, frightening not only for his violent nature but for his ability to marshal people to work against their own self-interest. Time and again he reveals his shameless hypocrisy, and his promises of a new life are consistently shown to be empty maneuvering. “This isn’t a prison camp,” he says at one point, uncannily echoing every supervisor who has ever coerced an underling into a technically optional task. “I am not forcing anybody to stay. So either we’re in this together, working together to get out together, or we’re not. There simply isn’t a reality in which we do nothing and get everything.” I half-expected him to promise everyone bonuses if they hit their sales target.
The parallels between game development and gang leadership aren’t always so readily apparent, but Red Dead Redemption 2 repeatedly sets its sights on the systematic damage enabled by irresponsible leaders. It does not celebrate Dutch’s actions or his worldview; it repudiates them in no uncertain terms. Dutch is a failure and a disgrace, arguably the game’s truest villain. Thanks to the first Red Dead, we already know that he fails. We even know how he dies—not in a blaze of noble glory, but alone and cold, with no one left to stand by him. Rockstar Games, one of the most successful entertainment purveyors on the planet, will never meet the same fate, but the people who wrote their latest game sure seem aware of the risks of ambition.