header is screenshot from Red Dead Redemption 2
The Daguerreotype, Real
Julie Muncy

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game obsessed with how best to present itself. With a multitude of camera options in both first- and third-person, the optimal way to play Rockstar's cowboy opus seems to be with a degree of anxiety, switching between perspectives to find the right fit for every activity: a close, first-person gaze for a nasty gunfight, a wide distanced perspective for a train robbery, a sweeping long view for a sleepy horse ride back to camp. It communicates a fear of missing out. Sure, you're watching the scene play out, but is there a better way?

That anxiety about perspective is one of the reasons why I've found it odd to see Red Dead Redemption 2, like so many popular games, compared directly to cinema. Its celebrants in the mainstream cultural media have praised it, as often happens, as a new frontier in interactive media that places it directly in continuity with film, as if in a teleology, positioning the interactivity and narrative ambition of “triple-A” gaming as the ultimate goal of popular art. Its critics, too, have taken this tack, criticizing the game for a slavish devotion to filmic techniques and ideas. In my read, both of these positions fail to understand the language of games as distinct from the language of film, Which isn't to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't fascinated with cinema. In fact, it's in love with it. Just not quite in the way most critics seem to think.

The difference, as I've already alluded to, comes down to one of perspective. One of the most notable formal aspects of film, compared especially to the performative art that came before it, theater, is film's absolute control over the viewer's perspective. Whereas theater allows the viewer the option to choose where on the stage to focus, film holds the viewer's head, as it were, on a swivel, forcing them to look at the precise details the filmmakers want at any given time. In film, the world of the fiction exists only as expressed by the perspective of those who created it. This is why film lends itself so well to auteur theory; cobbled together from a mass of different shots, cut together into an illusory sense of continuity, it takes on the sense of a single, unified perspective, a viewpoint—a gaze, to borrow the academic register—that guides the viewer.

Games, generally, don't do this. Games are generally more theatrical—ceding the power of perspective to the player, allowing her to decide how to frame the action. This is a functional decision, largely, as it provides a means for players to experience a sense of greater control over their in-game selves. A mobile, customizable perspective—the in-game camera—serves the purpose of reducing the distance between player and played. It's an easing of friction.

Which brings me back to Red Dead Redemption 2. Like most other games of its type, Red Dead centers play over perspective, broadly ceding any sense of authorial perspective for the sake of a sense of player agency, throughout much of the experience. Whether that agency is real or illusory is another matter—Red Dead works hard to encourage it. The most significant exception is the "cinematic camera," a mode that takes camera control away in order to frame the player's actions in the most sweeping, grand terms possible—the perspective will shift over the game's natural vistas, cutting frequently, framing the player as a large and powerful presence in a majestic, vivid world. But even this doesn't really serve a traditionally cinematic function in practice. Instead, it is a means of releasing player control for significant moments, or for long journeys. It's a leavening agent, taking away player control not for an expressive purpose, but to offer something like a break.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't use any techniques that feel particularly filmic. Instead, it uses the language of games to imitate film on a more conceptual level—to borrow pedigree, genre aesthetics, and narrative flourishes. It's not a new preoccupation. All the Houser-led Rockstar titles have borrowed heavily from the idea of movies, cripping plot points from gangster films and artistic design from the look and mood of all sorts of American genre work. Red Dead Redemption 2 reeks of the American Western film genre, repeating all its best-known motifs almost verbatim. The amoral outlaw, the troubled uncertainty of morality, the frontier as a metaphor for both freedom and violence. America's self-righteousness and unavoidable guilt colliding and wrestling for control through the lives of violent, conflicted, ultimately moralistic anti-heroes. Red Dead Redemption 2 is even in love with the film of the era it's set in, washing its pause screen and menus in the blurred black-and-white of daguerreotype.

But despite being in love with film, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't cinematic. Instead, it's a furthering of a project that Rockstar has been embarking on for almost two decades of massive, big-budget releases: an attempt to translate the glitz and energy of cinema into the distinct language of games. Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't want to feel like a film, exactly. Instead, it wants to feel like the world that the film evokes through the illusion of montage and framing. It's a different sort of teleology entirely, seeing the continuity of art not as one of enhanced expressiveness but as of enhanced reality, as if, through technology and ambition, we can turn the imagined worlds of film into real, moving, living ones that we can burrow inside and never escape from. Which may, indeed, be a hollow goal. But it's important to understand what the goals of the art we consume are. Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't want to be the daguerreotype. It wants to make the daguerreotype real.


Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Asheville, NC.  She’s a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches.