“Things have to cost something to mean something.”
“We’ve always tried to make these worlds places you can get lost in. Feel like they exist when you’re not even in them – like they’re waiting for you.”
That’s the kind of world Rob Nelson, co-studio head of Rockstar North, wants to build.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s first original game in five years, and the first it’s built specifically for the current generation of consoles. It’s a fact that’s easy to forget with GTA V still dominating sales charts and amidst the constant updates to GTA Online.
Work on Read Dead 2 began eight years ago, as production drew to a close on its predecessor. “I think when we finished this one…” Nelson breaks off and gestures towards a screen behind him in his Edinburgh office; it’s running Red Dead Redemption on an old Xbox 360 debug console. “I always like to keep it close by, just to stay familiar with it and the feelings it evokes.” The TV displays the game’s title screen, which teases the player with a sliver of the game’s natural beauty.
“I think when we finished this one we decided what story we wanted to tell for the sequel,” he continues. I think that sort of informed where we wanted to go and set ourselves the challenges ahead. We always like to move to new hardware when we can go from the ground-up, because it let’s us push the core ideas we’re always chasing and playing with, and trying to realise much further. Every time. Every generation. We get to push those ideas further.”
We speak for an hour or so about those core ideas and self-imposed challenges – the fanatical pursuit of realism, how much freedom you can really give the player, and how you begin to wrangle the insane amount of detail needed to build an entire world from scratch.
In a World Without You
Underlying so much of what we talk about is one of those core ideas they’ve been chasing for a while – the notion of persistence. The ultimate goal has always been to create a world that feels like it exists independently of you, the player.
“It can’t just be like a lot of open worlds are – the feeling of life going on around you but if you stop and stare at it you’re like, ‘You’re just wandering forever. You’re just standing there.’ Flying past it at 100mph it holds up, but if you stop and stare at it, it doesn’t so much.”
Red Dead 2 unfolds at a different pace. The way in which you move through this environment is totally different – much slower and closer, whether on foot or horseback – and so the illusion of reality needs to be that much stronger. Rockstar not only wants you to observe the world its built but for you to immerse yourself in it, interact in new ways, and forge nuanced relationships with its inhabitants, and for that to feel authentic, it has to feel like it goes on when you’re not even there.
It all rests on a simple principle. “The real world runs on a schedule is the idea,” says Nelson, stripping it back. “If you’re going to have a gang that exists, they need jobs. Everyone has a routine they go through every day. […] Once we decided it was going to be about living in a gang, working in a gang – they’re going to live in camps, and these camps are going to move around as this group of people gets pushed through the world. Then they need to be believable. How are you going to make the camp believable? It can’t just be random schedules or points in the area the people go to.” That’s maybe how it would’ve been done in the past, but with new technology the core idea can be approached in new ways.
“So think about regular camping. It’s actually quite a bit of work. It all sort of revolves around eating – so the fire, and the person preparing the food and who’s going to prepare the food. So we’ve got a cook in Pearson. Who helps him prepare the food? He basically prepares the stuff, puts it in the pot, takes the pot, puts it on the fire, calls ‘Chow’, people go over, get some food, go sit down, eat it. So there’s a food chain. Once you get that working a couple of times a day, you have movement that if you watch it it looks real. It looks like they live. Chopping wood…”
Nelson continues to tell me about all the household duties required to maintain the camp beyond lining stomachs, and how the principles of camp life can be scaled and applied to a town. The amount of detail suddenly becomes dizzying. But everything Nelson tells me can be traced back to a simple and elegant idea – “the real world runs on a schedule” – upon which complexity has been added gradually, layer upon layer. A camp becomes a town, which eventually grows into a city.
The endgame is to create a world inhabited by characters who exist independently of you. Like the real world. They’ll have conversations among themselves, which will branch and change depending if you’re nearby or get involved. NPCs aren’t there simply to give you missions or upgrade your items. This world doesn’t revolve around you.
It also incorporates an idea Rockstar started to introduce in GTA V with Michael’s family. There was the sense he had a life that went on outside of the missions you spent with him. But Red Dead 2 is taking that much further. The hope is that by living beside these characters, experiencing their behaviour in a whole range of scenarios, breaking down the distinction between main- and side-mission content, Red Dead 2 will be able to create more nuanced relationships than ever before.
Nelson tries to illustrate some of this through a character we know well from the last game, Bill Williamson. “What was this dude like several years before the last game? What was he like? Is he a bit more of a slob? Does he not change often? Does he sleep in? Does he not do anything… are people bitching at him for it? You get to see lots of these little interactions between members of the camp that give you more information about who they are as characters and hopefully make you feel like they’re real. So when you’re going into big gunfights with them or whatever sort of jobs and adventures you get into with them you feel like this person beside you is actually a person you live with and know better than game characters you’ve known before. That’s a real goal for us.”
Creating more complex, independent characters was one step, but Rockstar also had to change the way in which it allows players to engage with them. Nelson explains how they started to play with this idea in GTA 5 by including simple comments, but by mapping them to the d-pad it meant players would have to stop what they were doing to interact. Red Dead 2 evolves this concept, reappropriating the lock-on system which was previously only used to aim and shoot. Now it is used to interact with other characters in ways much more complex than shooting them.
When you lock-on, each of the face buttons on the controller will offer contextually-defined behaviours. One minute you may be able to greet, antagonise, or even rob a stranger on the open road all without drawing your weapon. If things escalate, one of those options may change, allowing you to defuse the situation and move on without resorting to violence. “We basically took this [Nelson uses the d-pad on a Dualshock 4], which was a binary action potentially and opened it up to give you a greater range of possibilities. That just gives the player more choice, concerning how they want to behave in the world. There’s more ways to interact with the world than down the barrel of a gun.”
When Things Get Too Real
Arthur Morgan is Dutch’s right-hand man, and it’s clear from the 45-minute demo we saw that many of the gang’s members expect him to provide, whether that’s money to fill their pockets or food for the table. Rockstar wants you to feel the responsibility of Arthur’s position within gang but at the same time it never want it to feel onerous. One of the recurring tensions when creating a world of immense detail is striking the right balance between fidelity and fun.
“We’re constantly playing with that,” says Nelson. “Trying to make sure it’s not too realistic to the point of being laborious. All the time.” He’s talking specifically about the weapons in the game, which show a fastidious attention to detail: the way they reload, their rate of fire, the difference between single- and double-action weapons, whether you need to cock it after each shot. “[We’re] constantly playing with the timings and speeds of those things so they feel realistic, but they’re not necessarily one-to-one realistic as that would be annoying in practice.”
Similarly, animals you kill will rot over time. If you carry a dead animal around on your horse for too long, it will begin to decompose, but small kills – skinned squirrels and rabbits – those are preserved and kept in your satchel because it became too annoying to have these small kills constantly going rotten. Realism began to encroach on fun, and so had to give way. They don’t want to ever annoy the player or to constantly be throwing up menus, taking you away from being Arthur.
But sometimes the balance lies in the other direction. As Nelson tells me all about the new bonding system that exists between you and your horse, I ask what happens if your horse dies – for many, one of the most traumatic experiences in the last game. Surely with this new bonding system your horse can’t die? Surely we’ve move to an Epona-like situation? No, unfortunately not.
Nelson hints that death isn’t instant and that your horse may become seriously injured, but maybe you’ll have the right tools to nurse them back to health. But I seem to have stumbled upon a painful memory.
“A year ago or something like that,” Nelson recalls, “my horse got hurt, fell over a cliff, and he was sort of just laying there. I thought I had something to get him back on his feet, but I didn’t have it on me. So I was then running to town to get him some medicine.” He pauses. “Anyways, it didn’t work out.”
Imagine sprinting to the local town, hurriedly buying the medical supplies, frantically running back to your horse only to find it has died alone. Without you.
But something went wrong. Something that didn’t feel right. “I think there was a bug on that [so when I] whistled, he magically came back to life […] and he appeared. We were playing it, and I was like ‘that sucks’ because I was about to have a real moment here. So we’re doing that. A lot of times you’re just playing and the game tells you what it needs.”
Sometimes realism adds far more to the experience than something that would offer convenience to the player, like magically summoning a new horse with the same stats. It allows for heartbreaking memories that last way beyond finishing the game.
“Things have to cost something to mean something,” says Nelson.
The interplay between realism and fun isn’t the only tension at work in this world. While Rockstar’s games are known for the boundless freedom they offer players – you can pretty much go wherever you want and do whatever you like – this sometimes lies contrary to the quality of experience Rockstar’s designers want to provide.
The demo culminated in Arthur pulling a small bank robbery with three other members of Dutch’s gang. Given the ridiculous amount of choice and interactivity shown by the demo it felt natural to ask whether it was possible to go on that mission with other members of the gang? Or if it was possible for the mission to play out entirely differently?
“That mission you go on with those people,” Nelson says. “That robbery you’ll be doing that with them. But there’s choice within it. If you were to do it quietly, you would have a different outcome when you come out of the bank.” He’s referring to a choice you make once inside the vault; Arthur can blow open the safes or quietly crack them. “And the law may or may not be there or they may show up later. So trying to add as much choice everywhere you look. Everywhere you go, there’s options for you.”
But Rockstar is prescribing those options to some degree to ensure each outcome is satisfying and of a quality that meets its exacting standards. “We played around with those ideas of procedural companion missions. We did have that in there and we found that we could not get the level of connectedness and sophistication that we wanted for those sort of experiences.”
To ensure these characters and missions meet its level of quality, Rockstar has to maintain a degree of control. It has to silently author these experiences. “There’s as much variability as we can get in that particular set-up, you know, it’s not going to play out in the same way every time and the combat AI is greatly evolved from anything we’ve done, and the companion AI does things like that, but we want the gang members personalities to be consistent on these mission and off the missions so you really feel like they are people.”
Similarly, at one point in the demo, Arthur explores a charred forest and town. The atmosphere palpably changes as he rides through this eerie location. It prompts the question of whether it’s possible to burn down a section of forest and create one of these scorched areas. “It would be nice, but no,” says Nelson. “Because it’s not practical. You could burn structures down, but a forest fire would change the map in such a way it would have to change the feeling of the world and the things that are in there.”
It sounds like a great idea, but allowing that degree of procedural creation to run wild is counter to the authorship Rockstar maintains of its worlds. Nelson admits it’s technically possible but it would compromise their creation. “I suppose you could do it, but then you would sort of… the way that we make these worlds is basically handcraft them. And so that would be some sort of procedural thing that would happen, and the content there – it’s just not practical and then have the resolution of the content that would have to come in there. [For it to] feel consistent with what we’re trying to achieve with the world.”
You could construct a world out of these procedural systems, allowing the player to take whomever they wanted on a mission or burn down an entire forest or town, but it would be chaotic and inconsistent. The technology isn’t quite there yet. Whatever the code could produce procedurally wouldn’t be able to match something essentially handcrafted. It’s your world to explore and make choices in, but it’s one that’s silently and skillfully orchestrated by Rockstar’s developers.
Open-world games and story-driven narratives aren’t the easiest genres to reconcile. The stronger the narrative the more likely it is for the player to act in ways that feel inconsistent with the character they’re controlling. It’s something Nelson and his team is acutely aware of, and something they’ve spent a lot of time trying to accomodate.
Red Dead 2 invites you to play as Arthur Morgan, a character with specific duties in Dutch’s gang. The game promises more sophisticated interactions with NPCs than ever before, so how does the game’s narrative accommodate a player who may abandon the gang for days, even weeks on end? Arthur wouldn’t do that.
“We play with that a lot. I think, you know, something with this game that we’re really interested in is feeling like that everything you do is consistent with what Arthur would realistically do.
“Some people might want to be very diligent about taking care of the gang, helping out as much as they can. Others might not – others might just want to f**k off and be gone for a long time, and that’s okay too.”
The gang will survive, but Arthur might be treated a little differently upon his return. It’s not, however, going to affect the overall narrative. “So you can stay out as long as you want really, and when you come back, they address it accordingly, but you still have to be able to continue on playing the game. […] They’ll notice if you stay out for a long time; they’ll notice if you’re not pulling your weight around the place.” The game will acknowledge differences in how people approach the game and thread them into the narrative in these incidental interactions. “We’re trying to cater to as many different types of players as we can and have their experience make sense with this character.”
The real hope, however, is that the central narrative will be so involving that players naturally assume the role of Arthur. “We’ve got a really compelling story where they’re just trying to survive in a world that’s rapidly changing around them, and doesn’t really want them anymore. I think you get to feel like you can role play as this character that is hopefully as immersive as anything we’ve done.”
A New Way to Make a World
Rockstar has spent the last eight years building a world. Not generating one procedurally but crafting one by hand. Red Dead 2 embraces new technology to realise those core ideas in new ways – a more detailed, immersive, and interactive open world, where fun is every bit as important as fidelity. But this new world, unlike previous ones, hasn’t been made by a single Rockstar studio but all of them, functioning as a single team, working constantly, for the best part of a decade.
“We’ve done it out of necessity. It used to be that a 50-person team could make a game, and then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Nelson tells me. Since work began on the project, Rockstar has gradually consolidated all of its studios into a single team spanning the globe. So whereas previously it shipped games made by Rockstar North or Rockstar San Diego, Red Dead 2 will be presented as a Rockstar Games Production. A global effort.
Think about that for a second. Rockstar has made some of the most celebrated video game worlds, but in order to realise the ambition of Red Dead Redemption 2, it had to fundamentally rethink how to make this type of game. There was no other way.