Red Dead Redemption 2's Open World Is Amazing Because It's Designed Backwards

Opinion - Mark Delaney, 14 days ago
Spoiler warning for Red Dead Redemption 2.
Because I like keeping my finger on the pulse of the games industry, I play as many big releases at launch as I can, and when credits roll, I'm happy to move onto the next game no matter how much I enjoyed the previous one. I loved Red Dead Redemption 2 when I beat it in early November. I truly feel it's the most impressive open world game I've ever played, but when credits rolled on Arthur's 90+ hour adventure, I was on to the next game, trying to stay in the know of what's new. Recently, a relative drought in the games calendar (and a binge of Deadwood on HBO) has led me to revisit Rockstar's magnum opus to see more of what I may have missed before. Despite doing every story and stranger mission that appeared on my map, taking close to triple-digit hours to see it all, I'm finding that I had only really scratched the surface last fall. Red Dead Redemption 2's open world is designed backwards compared to the rest of the industry, and that's what makes it amazing.

Red Dead Redemption 2

There's no shortage of massive, open world action-adventure games these days. A few years back, I wrote about feeling some open world fatigue, and I pointed to cluttered maps like those in Ubisoft's games among others as chief causes for my weariness. Staring at a map with hundreds of missions, side missions, collectibles, and other points of interest feels daunting. It makes me ask "why bother?" because it feels like there's too much to see, more than I have time for. Red Dead Redemption 2 flips this tired design on its head, and discovering just how much is hidden beneath the surface has reinvigorated my love for the game and the genre alike.

When you look at RDR2's map post-game, all that is certain to remain are shop icons and fast travel locations. You'd be forgiven to think, like I did, that's all there is left to do. Ride a horse, buy some clothes, switch to the online mode for the rest of the action. Happily, I was so wrong. I've put in another 15 or so hours with the game over the past week, and it's remarkable how many interesting things I've discovered. I've encountered a ghost haunting the swamps of Lemoyne, alien spacecrafts flying overhead, more than one science experiment gone wrong, mammoth bones, and — my favorite — a cabin that seems to belong to The Strange Man from the first game, an apparently omniscient character whom many players believe is Death incarnate or something like it.

There's a slant toward the supernatural in a lot of Red Dead's secrets, but that's not all there is. Scripted encounters like that which I had last night with incestuous thieves at the Aberdeen Pig Farm are available all over the game world, but unlike in Assassin's Creed or Batman Arkham or every other sandbox, Red Dead hardly ever informs you these things are there. The in-game 100% completion tracker clues you into some stuff, but even there it will keep some things off of the page until you've initiated the questline. Even on the map, the western world can seem quite sparse before you happen upon these points of interest, but once discovered, they're given icons and often jotted down in Arthur's journal, like favorite memories. Rather than slowly collect small check marks next to hundreds of icons there since the first minute, you fill out the map with sights you've seen, people you've met, stories you've discovered.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Plenty of developers hide Easter eggs in their worlds, but Rockstar takes it to never before seen levels by hiding everything but major missions off the map. This approach takes the Ubisoftian checklist and morphs it into an exciting scavenger hunt where every discovery feels earned and every moment is a memory. Rather than looking at the map and wondering how to most efficiently collect an area's six collectibles, two side quests, and one Easter egg as though I'm trying not to go down any grocery store aisle more than once, I'm instead invited to ride around and happen upon unique moments and intriguing plotlines all on my own. The game regularly throws irresistible moral decision-making events at you too, and sometimes these come back to you later in a way that makes it feel like you're more than just a collectible-vacuuming avatar in a virtual world.

It takes a high level of confidence to carve out so much content for your audience and then hardly ever tip them off to its existence. It's a trail only Rockstar could've blazed because they have that sort of confidence as well as unwavering trust from their fans to deliver experiences which have no equal. I saw the end of Red Dead Redemption 2 four months ago, but this week, I'm finding that was only the beginning.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox One Third-Person Shooters Available in 2019 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.