Red Dead Redemption 2's Puppet-Like NPCs Make Its World Feel Less Real

Red Dead Redemption 2’s excessively detailed world tries to suggest reality. Fall and you get covered in mud; while covered in mud someone might make a coy comment about how they hope it’s not shit.

The world is full of little flourishes and behaviours that suggest its NPCs are real people with genuine reactions. But the more I play, the more they feel like puppets putting on a show.

Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to draw the player into a sort of simulated (albeit overly romantic) version of ages past when the natural world bore less scars from industrialisation and people always had stories or tall tales to share. The world reacts to the player. Shoot someone in the leg and they might end up with a prosthetic the next time you see them. Leave a carcass by the side of the road and come back a few days to find bones.

The game’s natural world, with its detailed snow and character-affecting temperatures, strives to feel realistic. Even Arthur himself emulates a real person through his need to groom and bathe, while his slow gait seems an attempt to separate him from faster, video-y game contemporaries like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Kassandra.

On the surface, NPCs aspire to the same level of detail, acting out what seem to be full lives. An angry saloon-goer tosses someone through the window for sleeping with his wife; a clumsy rider stops to calm their horse only to get kicked in the head.

These moments try to suggest the world is full of people going about their lives, but when contrasted with the rest of the game’s level of detail, they are woefully artificial. The seams start to show, and it’s obvious that Red Dead Redemption 2’s people only exist in relation to me, defined by what I can do them.

The game’s interactions are constrained due to its inspirations. Westerns are a complex and problematic genre tied to a violent history that gave rise to the myth of the gun as an egalitarian tool (e.g., the oft-quoted “God made man, Sam Colt made them equal”) and rugged, self-reliant masculinity. As a result, interactions with Red Dead Redemption 2’s NPCs exist within that masculine framework.

Arthur and the player’s actions are expressions of a mythic masculinity. We rescue women and lesser men—after all, better men would be able to fight off bandits and manage their horses - and compete against would-be gunslingers while using unique abilities like Dead-Eye to our advantage. We tip our hat like a proper gentleman, and we kill anyone we want.

The game rewards those masculine impulses. The Western framework leads to only certain kinds of interactions, and those interactions inevitably lead to rewards: outshoot someone in a marksmanship contest and you’ll gain some cash; rescue a man from wolves and he’ll give you a treasure map.

These rewards further stress that, in spite of Red Dead Redemption 2’s meticulous details and animations—created through excess, condemnable hours and strenuous labour - the NPCs just exist for the player’s benefit.

HBO’s Westworld - whose core conceit is that people can attend a theme park of Wild West role-playing android “hosts” who offer unique adventures—mocks this conceit in a scene in which one of the park’s artificial workers falls off his horse.

When a human protagonist, William, comes to his aid, the host tries to entice him with tales of a treasure map and lost riches. William’s companion dismisses the prospective adventure as a transparent park narrative. It’s kiddie stuff, a blatant attempt to pull park guests into side activities and storylines crafted for their amusement.

And yet, in Red Dead Redemption 2, these scenarios play out with little irony. The game’s details are meant to evoke wonder, and these NPC interactions seem meant to suggest a bigger world full of secrets and adventures. But those adventures are constrained, always coming back to rewarding the player. What a deep and rich world, to have such people and such adventures on every ridge and road! Yet they pale in comparison to the game’s other details, which makes them feel even more unreal.

One time, while riding through the plains, I heard a man crying out in fear. He was going to die, dammit. Please won’t someone help him. As it turned out, he was bitten by a snake. I could leave him, I could suck out the venom, or I could give him medicine. I opted for the latter, and we then parted ways.

Nearly five hours later, I heard the man call out to me while I was walking around in the town of Valentine. He was sitting on a shop’s porch with his friend.

Why, wasn’t it wonderful for him to see me, his saviour, again? He was so delighted that he offered to pay for whatever I wanted in the gun shop. I bought a Springfield Rifle and scope; it’s perfect for hunting deer.

This encounter meant to give my actions consequences, but the reward and the scripted nature of our interaction rang false. For all of Red Dead Redemption 2’s attention to detail, this NPC wasn’t an entity who existed before I found him.

He was spawned in as I came near, solely to be rescued by me, and then again to reward me for it. Red Dead’s characters are always leading you somewhere, instead of just being people. Enemies are magically summoned for me to gun down; I’ve watched them blip into existence on my radar during certain events.

NPCs exist in orbit of the player, for the player. As a result, Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world often captures the beauty and detail of real spaces, but it never emulates a functioning society. How can it, when these people exist to serve me and when I can decide to kill them with the single press of a button?

I avoid towns more often than not in the game. I get too distracted by the animatronic people and their play-acting lives. Perhaps I’ve been playing games so long that I can’t help but see the puppeteer’s strings. When I’m out in the forest or riding on the plains, things seem calmer. Red Dead Redemption 2’s detailed environments are intoxicating enough that I forget myself for a time.

But that silence always breaks. Suddenly, there are broken stagecoaches passengers on the side of the road, hillbilly ambushes, or a man caught in a bear trap. The world doesn’t want me to forget all the things I can do it or all the riches its characters want to give me.

There’s so much content out there, all for me, that the game can’t help but summon its theme park actors and crafted set pieces.

After all, the greatest crime I could commit would be to miss them.


    Would you prefer no encounters? Sounds like you want to just be a part of the world and not actually play the game. Without scripted events the game would be quite boring.

      I'd prefer a living world but on this scale it's very hard to do right, R* has been using this "all the world is a stage and everyone but the player is the supporting cast" model and its worked so far just its always a bit hollow.
      A living world where the npc are driven by their own programing (which has been attempted many times) would be better but it will always seem very limited since you can only program so many responses to situations before you run out of dev time. Maybe neural nets and machine learning can step in here?

      The problem I think the author is trying to highlight is that the scripted events sometimes feel obvious. There are definite times when it's really obvious that the game is trying to get you to engage with its mechanisms. Wildlife will spawn near you and then run or fly off as you approach, NPCS will suddenly run out of the bushes as you near, always running in a direction that takes them into your line of sight. Voices will always be loud enough that you can hear when someone is a quest giver rather than just a "Filler" NPC. Their dialogue is also often an obvious hint that they have a quest just for you.

      For the most part Rockstar have straddled the line between making it feel organic and making it obvious to the player what is a quest and what is chatter. There are just a number of on the nose moments though where the game goes "Hey look. This is an event. Hey, hey, do this event. No really, dooo eeeett."

        It’s a game. There are going to be concessions for the sake of gameplay. Everything in game is for the player to play with. I don’t think the author has any genuine concerns with how content is delivered. Rather I think they just wanted to whinge that the game doesn’t suit their own narrative that they wanted to create. Pinning it to a complaint that applies to just about every game ever made is disingenuous at best.

          I get that it's designed to be player centric and maybe I'm filtering it through my own complaints but we still haven't really gotten away from worlds where everyone is incapable of solving their own problems and need you to solve it for them. RDR2 kind of feels like it was poised to be an example of how games can create a world in which the player can both be the hero and a bystander but it still falls into the trap of everything centering around you.

          Basically, I want to sit there on the side of the road and watch someone fetch their own thingamajig for once.

            There are games that have tried that and lots of people find it boring. It’s still just scripted sequences except you have nothing to do with them and you probably have no idea it even happened in the first place. It wouldn’t have changed anything Heather mentioned - they’re still just scripted sequences.

        I think the wildlife, events etc spawning near you are more a technical limitation. It would not be feasible to render the entire map and every animal from bison to mouse the entire time across the entire map and have them living out their lives. I don’t think we are anywhere near that kind of processing power, also I don’t think that it would improve the moment to moment gameplay by all that much.

        I think you've got it right, plus the author's trying to write in a really poetic 'wow' kind of tone and i don't think it's really coming across the right way.

    Ding, ding, ding!!! Who had 5 days from release for the Toxic Masculinity story to be published? Come and get your prize!

      Damn, I had 3 days. Still got my ticket in for how many articles complaining about the portrayal of certain types of characters in the first month of release though.

        Young Turks rushed out their "Where are the black people?" video the other day, friggin hilarious...

        Where are they? ALL THROUGH THE GAME!

      Uh, where's the toxic part? Crank your detector down a few notches. There's plenty to argue that RDR2 isn't toxically masculine. But can it be argued the game doesn't focus on masculine tropes, abilities, achievements, etc?

      Dude, you should be happy it celebrates how awesome men are!

    I knew there was too much positivity surrounding this game on kotaku.
    Someone needed to shit on all the fun and good vibes.
    Keep being you, kotaku. Good journalism.

      You don’t have to like gaming to be a games journalist it seems.

        You also don't need to be a good writer it seems.

          I’ve never seem someone use so many words, to say so little...

    This is the weirdest article yet. It's like it's written by somebody who's never even heard of the concept of a videogame and coming across RDR2.

    Of course the NPCs are just puppets with no lives and can only interact with the player. They literally can not exist until the code triggers them.

      It's so weird. Its so many words but so little substance. There are interesting parallels and discussions to be made for comparing the actual media and way we interact with it of WestWorld and RDR2 - but to be critical of a game for not being an actual functioning simulation of the universe is so bizarre. I'm just confused at what the writer was trying to get it.

      Last edited 30/10/18 1:02 pm

      Right?! It’s got to be click bait right? I mean surely a games journalist understands this...
      It’s not like westworld where hosts become sentient and act independently.

      I am amazed at the level of NPC activity they have manage to simulate! Better than anything I have ever seen - but I guess it’s still not enough.

    This comes across as a half-hearted attempt to find fault with the game. Doesn't read as genuine at all.

      It’s a troll job, she shoehorns left-wing hysteria into everything to bait clicks from gamers.

      Just don’t click on any more of Heather’s articles. That’s all you can do.

      you do know that even beloved things can still have faults, just because you dont see them or just because they dont upset you, that doesnt mean they dont exist.

      Besides if you wanted to find fault with this game you could write an article this long about how Arthur is secretly pro gun control as he tries to unequip all his weapons every opportunity he gets.

    Yay another armchair expert shitting on other's hard work AND putting in the toxic masculinity dig to boot. Let's just dust off the "You must be real fun at parties" line and move on. The contempt I feel for this author ain't worth the effort of describing it further.

      Rockstar has a long history of catering to toxic males, GTAV is riddled with it.

      The contempt I feel for this author ain't worth the effort of describing it further.why on earth would you have contempt for someone just saying how they see things? What are you, 12? Or one of those toxic males, the idea that you cant read something you dont agree and simply shrug your shoulders and move on, says it all. Nah why do that when you can hold CONTEMPT for someone you dont know, based on the words to an article.

      I dont necessarily agree with the article but at least she put forward an intelligent argument, put a theory forward, back it up with proof as she sees, thats way more than what you are offering.

        He's either 12 or a toxic male... Wow, look in the mirror. You're part of the problem.

          how so? I am old enough and capable of reading something I dont agree with, without using words like 'contempt' for the author

            Yeah, when you read something you don't agree with you just call the author toxic or a child, that's way better.

        It’s not an intelligent argument, it’s a load of nonsense. “Games are scripted and toxic masculinity because NPCs don’t act like Westworld hosts” isn’t an intelligent argument. Heather knows full well how games work, and how hard it would be to even create the content for what she suggests - but she’s willing to ignore all that to write some nonsense and work in toxic masculinity because you’re bad for liking games and you should feel bad.

          and how hard it would be to even create the content for what she suggests

          Amd games developers have been striving for that level of NPC for years. It’s a day dream, a fantasy, it’s like listening to Musk tsk about going to Mars, the human race would never have got anywhere if they didn’t strive for ‘what ifs’. She wasn’t saying the game fails for not having it merely pondering the fact of it the game had how much more dynamic it would have been.

          And dude Rockstar has gone hand to hand with toxic masculinity for years, for as great as GTAV was its view of woman across the board was appalling.

          At least in this game some what has a reason to put its woman in the normal place Rockstar puts them, given the setting, but it was also opportunity for them to raise above and tell interesting female stories as well. It didn’t. Hell on Wheels and Deadwood both managed to do it, while keeping the hard edge feeling of the era.

            Not everything has to be a social commentary, and Rockstar in particular aren’t great at social commentary beyond stupidly obvious shit. Not every game has to pander to your political perspective or be crucified for not following your views.

            Come on, this article was awful. The author was desperate to write an article about RDR2 and toxic masculinity but knew it wouldn’t go down well - so she worked in some sort of half-arsed complaint about NPCs which makes absolutely no sense beyond first glance. It’s a crap, borderline baseless criticism desperately tacked to a topic that people are sick of hearing about.

            And yes, GTA has had issues with power fantasies and depiction of women in crime, because it’s a caricature of the criminal underworld and didn’t start trying to grow up until GTA 4. But that doesn’t mean I put down the controller and go pimp slap my wife and shoot hookers to get my money back - that argument has been well and truly debunked.

        Just go back to shilling for destiny mate. Contempt is a word I find rather apt for this discussion and too lightweight for what I think of you, Mr Avon. So unless you, -Mr Word-cop-have a warrant out for me, I'll choose whatever damn words I like to describe this article thanks.

    Newsflash. Open world game has side quests.

    this Article (and many others on Kotaku recently) come across as someone depressed, jaded, and cynical about games. When you say less real - less real than what? Real life? Come on - don’t make me say it.

    Maybe it’s time to take a break from games and find that passion and wonder again, articles written by someone in that frame of mind would be something I’d like to read!

      Hi Pony, I agree. Feels like its less and less about the video games around here and more and more about "other stuff" most of the time.

    Bit ironic an NPC is complaining about NPCs.

      lazy troll is lazy

      edit: Yeah fair enough. On reflection a less snarky approach would have been preferable, my bad.

      Last edited 31/10/18 2:26 pm

    You make it seem like making a believable 3D dimensional world with sophisticated artificial intelligence that runs on computing power you can buy for a few hundred dollars is really difficult or something..

    To convey something in the parlance of the day.."what a load of horse shit". Contrarian hipster stay ahead of the edgelord event horizon reporting. For one there is enough hints, missions,side quests in the game of woman empowerment which are done well and subtlety enough not to be rammed down your throat in the game. There does seem to be a growing edgelord hate something just because it is good and loved going about on the interwebs lol even Jim Stirling who i love is getting in on the act. Superlatives incoming... Iave never felt so immersed and caring in a game for in game characters ie my camp family , it feels good just roleplaying and doing camp stuff and interacting with the camp. They have done a good job of the simulacrum. isnt that what games are after all. The game is fantastic and I also have never in a Rockstar game felt the weight of my random killings hold such weight before such to the degree that I really never do it as it just doesnt feel right and the witness stuff is great.In many ways this is a more mature Rockstar. More of this please. I may try a second evil run through if I play it again. I guess this is just Heathers opinion which is fine but it is rather odd.

      Unfortunately, it seems my first run through is fast becoming my evil run through. One of many examples: lady calls out for help, I find she is stuck under her (dead?) horse. Ok then, I need to talk to her to help...I press L2... shotgun to the face. Damn, L1, L1, I meant to press L1 damnit!!! Hahaha oops oh well no one saw it. Move along...

        Oops that's supposed to be R2/L2 where applicable... lol

          yeah ive had a couple of accidental killings along the way. Nothing a little camp donation or camp chores cant fix.

    I’m done with this website and I’m deleting my account. It’s sadly and increasingly full of click-bait pieces written either by trolls or complete morons hired by management to write idiotic, inflammatory drivel for clicks.

    I don’t know which you are, Heather, but it’s a Western game. It’s a tribute to the films and stories set in the time, it’s supposed to tell entertaining stories of isolation, challenge and the good and bad of masculinity. It’s not supposed to be an all-inclusive tale of politically correct emotions set in 2018.

    Writing these kinds of articles just to piss people off for attention is a scummy way to make a living. I’ve said before that working on a games website shoehorning left-wing hysteria into everything purely to agitate young men (and push them to the fringes) is no better than it is to work at Fox News pouring irrational fear into the public discourse.

    Both sides are profiteering off making the world a more divided, agitated place.

    I’m out, you’ll get no more comments from me.

      What this guy said nails how I feel about this site 100%. Who made the call that Kotaku was to go this way in first place? I should have left when the site no longer had a savvy Scottish writer anymore.

        The business end of the site. That's who made the call. Kotaku has devolved intolittle more than a click-bait ad generating soulless machine.

        This is clear by the lack of effort that has gone into this article, I doubt Heather even cares what she writes, its just a money thing at this point.

          I honestly think that Heather means what she says - I don't think it's trolling for the sake of clickbait. It's sad that she holds such viewpoints. But that doesn't excuse these long screeds of hangwringing and moralising with a tone of arrogance to match. Kotaku US is becoming progressively worse as it tries desperately to shoe-horn US politics, gender politics, and whatever social justice narrative is the flavour of the day into articles about video games. Even without looking at the authors I can tell when an article is from a AU author or a US author - because the AU authors aren't constantly trying to tell me that I'm a bad person and problematic because I'm white, male, and like video games.

          I'm basically only here for the Australian news at this point, the US articles are just a never ending parade of 'This is why you should feel bad about yourself.'

            Completely agree with what you just said. I usually enjoy the majority of Australian articles except for one particular author who only seems to post cosplay pictures and buzzfeed level content.

          At least it was an article about something non-Japanese, that's refreshing.

        Come back Mark Serrels, Kotaku needs you!!

          Probably why Mark left. Saw where all the allure sites were heading and wanted to actually inform and entertain people rather than essentially being a human bot spewing out rubbish.

      Sad to hear, foggy. Even though I think we probably disagreed more often than not, I still enjoy seeing the opposing views come through in comments sections especially from those who bother to write the more lengthy responses.

        I'm gonna be straight up and say I'm almost at the same point Foggy is. I've been around since 2007 according to my history, I've been trying to hang in there lately but the identity politics this site is pushing has become that toxic, it's really pushing me away. Sucks, but at some point, everyone's gonna say enough.

          Tbh I'll probably stick around anyway because I'm a creature of terrible terrible habit and don't really have anywhere else to go :P

          I do rather miss old kotaku.

      Its the American articles that are mostly trash. I visit sites like io9 and for the last couple of years, all the good writers have left and its all clickbait opinion piece rubbish. It used to be cool science and sci-fi articles.

      Kotaku AU gets a lot of its content from the US site and its in a similar vein.

      Well said Foggy, won't be the same around here without you. Add me on Steam if you can, named Weresmurf on there, or PSN, named Weresmurf there too.

      This blowing of the stack every time someone mentions "masculinity" makes people like you look weak as piss. You're not the only one in these comments to just see red at the word and make up that the writer was criticising men in any way at all.

      The writer says "rugged, self-reliant masculinity" and "mythic masculinity". Not "myth of" or "mythical", just "mythic". And I don't reckon you can argue that a Western DOESN'T tell tales about blokes doing bloke things.

      Are you really wound so tight that someone just using the word "masculinity" sets you off? Jesus!

        Just going to point out here that the article was edited, they replaced the term toxic masculinity with mythical masculinity. It's not a case of 'blowing your stack', you can construe it in any way you want. It's a case of being tired of seeing Kotaku turned from a gaming website into a site solely concerned with identity politics, where it's gone from being a culture about games, to being a toxic culture where the readers themselves fight, infight and berate each other over even the most trivial of shit. Just like this. Have a good one friend.

          Yeah I found that out a few hours later and thought "shall I also edit my post? No that just prolongs the cycle of bulldust..."

          So yeah, I'm not sure I'm done with Kotaku, but I'm definitely done with defending games writers.

          Totally pathetic on their part. Sure, there is an argument that Westerns explore how "vengeance" always messes you up, and how just shooting a man down doesn't really solve anything because he just gets replaced by the next lawless scumbag etc.

          But yeah I don't really know what that has to do with pointing out that some of the dynamic sidequests don't mesh with the world that well.

    Are you suggesting that there was a 'developer' who painstakingly crafted these virtual NPC lives? I refuse to believe such heresay. They are real people damn it!

    Last edited 30/10/18 2:17 pm

    Congratulations Kotaku, you've proven once again to write nothing but trash articles.

    Y'all need to remember that people poured their hearts and souls into this game, and the things you write can have an impact on the way people view it. Stop being trash.

    Heather, quit writing, you're clearly only interested in pushing your left-wing propaganda rubbish.

    I'm with @foggy - I'm done.

    Yet another piece of trash published by Kotaku. OMG.....heaven forbid a game about a man in the wild west resembling something to do with masculinity or reality.

    Red Dead’s characters are always leading you somewhere, instead of just being people.Which part of NPC - non-player character - was unclear? You will always, always see the strings if you go looking for them.
    Arthur and the player’s actions are expressions of a mythic masculinity. We rescue women and lesser men—after all, better men would be able to fight off bandits and manage their horses - and compete against would-be gunslingers while using unique abilities like Dead-Eye to our advantage. We tip our hat like a proper gentleman, and we kill anyone we want.I really don't think this is a good criticism of a game set in 1899. He's a stagecoach stealin, train robbin outlaw in a lawless land. Seems pretty characterful to me.

      I really don't think this is a good criticism of a game set in 1899.

      How is it a criticism? It's just a description of what the game is. It's a Western so the hero has to be "better" than everyone else in some way. The best shooter, the most loyal, the most something, following a deeper truth, righting a great wrong. Whatever. He's the centre of the universe. It is what it is, and it explains WHY the random encounters don't mesh as seamlessly into the world as the much more basic encounters of GTA V do.

      In GTA V there was a sense that you were just a dude (well, several dudes) in a big city. The city didn't care if you lived or died, only YOU (and your friends) knew you were really a badass thief etc. The point is that RDR2 is a world where opportunities to be a Great Man pop up as if by magic...

      ...and that's fine for a Western but it does make the world seem more contrived than some other open world games.

      Look, it's all random number generators at the end of the day right? We know this going in, so the game designer's job is to fool us into forgetting that the random encounter we just did was random.

      The best - well, certainly the most epic - random encounter I ever had in a game was in X3. I had read about a thousand forum posts explaining how to play the damn thing, and I'd decided to do an Argon Trader start, nice and easy. Go to the Ore Belt, they said, and shuffle resources around the stations there until you make your first 100 million then buy sector traders blah blah etc...

      ...and so I was happily delivering silicon wafers or something, when this absolutely gigantic Khaak fleet zapped into the system and proceeded to destroy every single structure and ship in the place. This was max three hours into my playthrough. I hid in the corner of the map and watched this huge cloud of red munch its way through what was supposed to be a low-threat, high-security inner system.

      When the Khaak finally left there was nothing, not a single station. (The game respawns them over time.). I was sitting there with my load of silicon wafers thinking "now what?"

      It was awesome. At no point did I think "well that's dumb if the algo can generate such a huge fleet so early in the game". All I thought was wow yeah those Khaak sure are a threat, as I restarted...

      It gave me a false sense of confidence though. Next game I fronted up to a couple of weedy little pirate ships... but I turned out I misread the scanner and there was a Carrack there as well, with extremely large guns. It went badly.

    Well here it is.. We all knew it was coming yeah? The click-bait article in which Kotaku try and push an agenda into a game and find fault for faults sake . This one is perhaps the most lazy and insane one yet, we have a half assed attempt to push anti-masculinity in the middle of what appears to be a stoner like reflection of video games 'ohhhhh shhhhhiiiiit the NPCs in this game only exist because I do"

    I'm disappointed Kotaku, even your click-bait articles are so lazy these days.

    I can sorta understand where the writer is coming from, I do find slight annoyance when a random event NPC appears nearby when I'm doing something else, but it's fleeting at best.

    Last night it was some turnip getting killed by his horse while I was trying to hunt deer, or the guy getting attacked by wolves while I was trying to finally sell my stolen items to a fence.
    Either way those interactions are eclipsed by the more interesting and fluid interactions and it's a hell of a ride overall.

    his slow gait seems an attempt to separate him from faster, video-y game contemporaries like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Kassandra.
    This was funny to read because playing through Odyssey I felt Kassandra moved painfully slow and like that was an attempt by the devs to make her seem more real and less video gamey. It's hard to imagine walking around even slower than that.

    This shit is even more predictable than the NPC routines. What a boring human being.

    Article doesn't go far enough. It mentions 'problematic' and has several instances of 'masculinity' but shies away from spelling it out (toxic masculinity). In current year this is gutless behaviour and hopefully Polygon/Vox/Buzzfeed/Marysue will stand up for the oppressed and gives us the righteous signal we can proudly boost.

    Is there any way to block the US content?

    Last edited 30/10/18 4:39 pm

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