RDR2 – Guns Down

I’ve reached the end of the road in RDR2.  Some thoughts.

*Spoilers, clearly*

There’s something to be said about the end of a story, and the feeling of being on-rails until the end.  Ever since Saint Denis, there was only one path for Arthur and the gang, and sure enough, it delivered.  The game had delivered all it’s splendor, and it was a choice to either keep exploring (and side missions) or take the main story to completion.

Given I had the best horse, full stats, and the best guns, there wasn’t much left to improve RPG-wise with Arthur.  The optional story bits had some interest, but they were starting to feel more like busywork that actual value.  Don’t get me wrong, each side quest is a decent nugget of storytelling and/or actin, but when all the mechanics have been revealed, there’s only so much blood left in that stone.

The rest of the main quest takes a rather dark path, at least as compared to the rest of the game.  The gang is clearly on edge being chased by the Pinkertons.  They somehow manage to tick off the army too, while instigating an ever-escalating war between the native tribe.   Cowboys and Indians are portrayed through stereotypes.  The model of the latter is deemed unacceptable in today’s society.  Rockstar does a so-so job of portraying the history of that culture being conquered by the american government.  Many a time Arthur will pipe up that the situation is very complex, but the story never actually does that justice.  It feels like window dressing.  Sort of like the Women’s Suffrage quest where all you do is drive a cart.  Or the one where you recover a black man’s wagon of doctor supplies.  I had more interaction with a random stranger who I saved from a bear trap.  Compared to other games, it’s more than enough.  Compared to some of the storylines in RDR2… it feels less.

The near entirety of the 5th act is focused on external forces and Dutch’s want to manipulate them for monetary gain.  There’s a descent into madness from the start of the game, but it really goes off the rails in the end – and quickly.  The gang can see the signs and slowly leave camp.  The wheels are coming off.

Chaos ensues, a few more robberies where Dutch leaves his gang to their fate, a final train robbery that just barely gets by and then the final show down.  Arthur finally gets the Pinkerton boss, and they come after him to the camp and it’s a mad-dash chase to get away.  After a confrontation with Dutch and another, he slowly fades away at the top of a cliff to see the sun set.  It’s a fitting end to a bad guy trying to do good in the world.

The game then continues with John Marsten 8 years later, trying to set up a new life.  I am not interested in that story.  Clearly he finds a good place, then the Pinkertons pick him up for the events of the first RDR.  There really aren’t enough loose ends for me to care to see the rest of the epilogue through.

Final Thoughts

RDR2 is one of the most complete and amazing games of the last 5 years.  It is an amazing story telling engine, a great effort at simulation, and a believable world.  It is massive without grind (more on this).  Arthur Morgan is well written and acted, so that I felt an attachment to the character and the gang’s plight.  The majority of other characters had nuance and fit in, with Mary being a high point, and Micah a low point.  The world systems and how they keep going even when you’re at a different point… that’s amazing.  Nearly every single NPC has their own life and schedule.

The downsides relate almost entirely to the gameplay mechanics.  The controls are slow and confusing.  Combat is a major part of the game, but it feels incredibly loose.  The travel time between activities is double what it should be.  I’m sure I spent 15-20% of my gameplay time just riding on my horse between places.  The fact that some quests will include quick travel TO the location but not BACK, make that point all the more solid.  It was one of the main reasons I stopped doing side quests – I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes travelling there and back. The engine feels like it’s 10 years old, with updated graphics.

I will have to compare to God of War here.  That game had amazing controls, a superb engine, the world felt real, the story was engaging… it is hard to find any part that wasn’t great or near-great.   It remains my gold standard for a console game.

That said, RDR2 is darn close and really a must play for anyone who has a console. I do hope they release it on PC, just to let a larger audience get a view as to what a massive achievement they have brought to the table.

Canadian Weekends

Ultra stereotype, but this weekend was spent entirely dedicated to a hockey tournament for my eldest daughter.  From Friday at 8am until Sunday at 3:30pm, she played 6 games.  I’m one of the coaches, making the stress levels a tad bit higher than when in the stands. Throw in a family party for 6 hours, and it was an exhausting weekend.  The great news is that they wont the tourney, took home some hardware, and a pretty large banner.  I am extremely proud of what those girls accomplished.  Was an amazing feeling to share that event with them, the other coaches, and the parents.

I am extremely biased towards hockey.  I spent the most of my youth winters either playing or being in a rink watching others play.  Ball hockey started on the street once the snow melted.  It is a stupidly expensive game, and requires subsidization for those that could get the most benefit from it.

Team sports in general provide tremendous benefits, in particular ones that can be played from childhood until you retire (or beyond).  Generally, team sports focus on bonding since it really isn’t possible to win all by oneself.  There may be dominant players, but they are not always actively playing.  It builds interpersonal skills, tolerance for others, the ability to work together to solve a problem, and just basic chemistry between people.

It provides a framework for a work ethic, in that you get out what you put in.  Practice and effort can provide tremendous output.  The main message is that continual improvement is an overall goal.  Even the best players/teams continue to practice.   In specific cases, that you can succeed even if you make mistakes.  That you can lose if you make none.  That the outcome of a game, or a tournament is not the outcome of a season.  It build personal confidence in one’s abilities.  Personal experience and subjective anecdote – people who stop team sports, will stop for this particular reason above all others.

It provides an environment to have fun while doing something strenuous.  As hard as the game can be, or the moment-to-moment action, you should be able to enjoy it before, during, and after.  There’s a reason they call it a game.  It provides a focused environment where the rest of your life doesn’t matter, only the game.  Being able to see through all that and still have a smile.

It includes fair play.  Nobody cares what you look like, what you dress like, who your parents are, where you live.  All hockey players are judged on their ability to play hockey.  It isn’t about injuring the opponent, it’s a test of skill.  It isn’t about dominating a weaker team.  When the game is over, you shake hands.  As an adult, you may end up at the pub with them later on.

These values permeate through team sport into nearly every other aspect of life.  School, work, personal growth, relationships…I still meet people on a regular basis that I’ve connected with prior through sport.   It isn’t to say that all hockey players are like this, or that this particular skill set is only found in team sports.  At the larger trend level, you’ll simply find more of this in team sports, otherwise the sport itself wouldn’t work.  And for the best coaches, success isn’t measured in the game, it’s measured in the growth of the players.

I love this game.

 

Opposing Views

Technology is a tool, how we use it depends on who we are as a people.

I like blogging, I like reading other bloggers.  I tend to follow bloggers that have interesting stories, and points of view.  The ramblers are as fine as the short and sweet.  I find that I generally agree with most view opinions, though rarely in their entirety.  I do follow some folks just to see the other side of the fence, because it’s good to have differing opinions.

I think I fall in line with the majority of urban Canadians in my age group, when it comes to general views.  I know that my parent’s generation tends to be more fiscally conservative and less socially liberal.  We tend to be fiscally conservative, and socially liberal.  I do not agree with most “winged” party views, as a lack of balance on any one of those items causes a massive shift over time.  The world is just too complicated to boil it down to broad statements of X will do Y.  And while I live in a city in Canada, I also share the planet with 7 billion other individuals.  That sense of scope makes it a really hard to get past our own personal Monkeysphere.

I used to have a large list of “friends” on Facebook, back when it was used to provide personal updates.  That was replaced by Twitter.  Which is replaced by a dozen other tools.  I stopped using Facebook a few years ago when it became pretty clear that the feed was focused on link dropping.  Most of those links were sensationalist opinion articles, that progressively got more and more out there.  It became an echo chamber.  And frankly, Facebook is one of the worst ways to have a debate/conversations on a topic.  I kept Facebook for the contact information and group invitations, but ended up deleting it nearly 2 years ago when I realized there were better options out there.  I still keep Twitter, but I’m not quite sure why.  The early intent was sound, but short sound bites make for a dumb population when trying to be used as a news machine.

Finding differing view points, dissecting their arguments, and coming to your own conclusions is important.  Being able to defend a position with reasonable arguments is the foundation for decision making.  Arguments that include the words “any”, “all”, or “always” tend to be self-defeating, yet that’s what gets the clicks/eyes/ears.

Confirmation bias is a real thing.  It narrows our potential for growth, by making us take the same decisions again, and again.  A whole lot of the golden age of sci-fi was built upon this concept, of arbitrary separation between groups.  From the outside, it looks ridiculous – see Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

It’s possible for two people to have different opinions on a matter and both be correct, or both be wrong.  The context and perspective of each individual matters when forming an opinion.  Financial management is much different for someone with a relatively poor background vs someone with no financial burdens.  I get it.

But we didn’t get to this point in history without talking to other people.  Without trusting other people.  If we didn’t have disagreements we’d never have seen a telescope, a lightbulb, calculus, or space exploration.  Civilizations that became self-absorbed in their own righteousness rot from within.  As soon as we start suspecting our neighbors, we’re already heading down that slippery slope.

And to think, we have tons of history to show us the end result of that mindset.  We have much more in common with each other than differences.

RDR2 – The Great Demise

I am a firm believer in karma, rather than some arbitrary being that picks a favorite.  In that there are direct rewards for an action, and indirect rewards.  Life just finds a way to balance itself out.

*Spoilers.*

Last I left RDR2, I was heading into Saint Denis trying to find the big score so the gang could buy some land and freedom.  Well actually, I was there to rescue a kid that was taken from a mob boss.

There’s the adage of big fish, little pond that applies well to Dutch, the gang leader.  He espouses some amazing views from his pulpit, but they are just hot air.  From a player’s perspective, that seems somewhat obvious, but from the character perspective you can see the attachment.  As the game progresses, you can also see the cracks start to show.  Dutch’s plans never really work out, there’s always someone else a single step ahead.  He’s never as bright as he thinks he is.  Always trying to reach for the sun and getting burned at every step.

Every job in Saint Denis goes wrong, at different levels too.  The one that seems to go well, takes a massive nose dive when the Pinkertons show up.  You lose a lot of good people whom you’ve spent hours/days getting to know.  Things go so awry, that you end up stowing away on a ship to Cuba, get shipwrecked, lose all your money, and end up freeing a slave camp to get out of there alive.

The trip back to town… the game throws you in a semi-dream state with the only voice-song that I’ve seen so far.  (Neat effect – you see more deer if you’re honorable, you see more wolf is you’re dishonorable.  Very reflective of native mythology.)

When this finished, I just stopped for a bit and started thinking.  After all the hell that Arthur goes through, he’s still bent on finding his people and trying again.  He’s doubtful of Dutch, but still trusts in his intentions.  The entire gang really starts to question the sanity of the man, and the decisions over the past months/years.

Blackwater is the watershed moment.  It’s when all the luck runs out and the dues start being called in.  Where Dutch is focused on the micro, the world around him is just taking massive strides.  Day by day, mission my mission, each previous decision has repercussions on the next set of events.  When you find out why the bank job went south, it’s a really impressive piece of art.

I’m nearing the clear end point now.  Arthur’s journey towards the grave is assured, it’s all about the timing.  And for the walls of the house of Dutch to fall down.

Rink Building Time

Winter is nearly a month early here.  The first snowfall stuck, and it’s consistently below freezing.  That means that it’s time to build the backyard rink.

The first year I had a tarp.  Last year I had boards.  I made sure to number them when I stored them for the summer months, making the setup a whole lot easier this year.  It’s more like legos… if legos had screws.  Better news is that lessons learned from last year were applied.

  • Layout of tarp on the most level part of the yard.
  • Layout of the board components and braces.
  • A bag to carry the screws and joints.
  • A fully charge power drill!
  • Tighten the tarp as much as possible to avoid folds/ripples
  • Set up before the snow

What took close to 6 hours last year was done in about an hour this year.  Including having an 8 year old on the drill this year.

 

Filling in the rink is the perennially painful part.  The most level part still has a near 1 foot drop from one corner to the other.  It takes a surreal amount of water to fill that in. A slightly different take this year is to wait until there’s snow, which generally auto-levels itself.  Then apply the old-school misting of water to build a foundation of ice.  The downside to this is that it has to be at least -10C for the water to freeze in a reasonable time and not melt all the snow.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  It can’t snow during this time (usually a few days).  You can’t stand on it for a while, let alone skate.  And it’s been snowing nearly every single day for 3 weeks now.  Not exactly easy to get rid of the snow to put more water… keeps breaking the ice.  But I’m about 75% of the way now, with 2 more nights of watering to go.

The tarp would be a whole lot more useful for a really level ground.  I could fill it 2 inches and let it freeze and be done in a night.  Some engineering work for next year.

If things do work out, I should be able to run the rink until mid-February.  Considering my kids were on it 5 nights a week last year, that’s a whole lot of use considering the effort to create/maintain it.

Plus, you aren’t really a Canadian unless you play on the outdoor rink, right?

RDR2 – Satchel Interlude

Mainly due to another game not actually being playable all weekend.

RDR2 has 3 main branches of activities. The main quest (MQ) is scripted like a very long interactive movie.  It gates a lot of the other content in the game, and the activities you can undertake.  So if you’re playing and wondering why something seems possible but isn’t, it’s usually due to the MQ.

A second branch is the stranger/sub-quest activities that present themselves.  These are preset activities that you can undertake and open up nuance to the world around you.  They are not as formal as the MQ since they rarely focus on the gang, but instead the world building around you.  Some of these quests require you to explore the world to complete, such as finding dinosaur bones, legendary animals, or trading cards.

The third branch is the sandbox and random events.  It has general directions but nothing specific or trackable.  It could be that you get a tip about a house you can break into, or you meet up with a gang taking some hostages.  It provides a significant amount of life to the world around you.  One track of this is the upgrade system, which is predicated on collecting specific items – typically from hunting.  Of great value are satchels, which improve your carrying capacity.

I opened up Saint Denis and Chapter 4.  I figured with nearly all the map open and access to most weapons, I could focus on general character improvement.  Camp has an upgrade location where you hand in perfect pelts and get credits for some decent upgrades (non-cosmetic).  Some of these are easy (deer), some of them are hard (badger), all of them require work.

Perfect Hunting

Hunting requires planning and preparation.  To get perfect pelts, you need to find 3-star animals.  First you need to find them!  Some are really found in specific spaces (panther, badger) or spawn at certain times.  They have a random chance to spawn with normal animals, but to detect them you first need to study the animal (with binoculars).  To kill them, you need the right weapon: Bow + small game arrow, Varmint Rifle, or Scoped Rifle.  If you don’t kill them in a single shot, or with the proper weapon, the quality of the pelt drops.

That sounds oddly simple.  Did I mention that animals can hear and smell you?  That they leave tracks you can follow?  That predators hunt other prey?  So the execution isn’t exactly straightforward.  In particular for animals that are more cagey than others (damn squirrels).

For most animals, you can carry their pelt in your belt or on the back of the horse.  For large animals (bison, elk, gator), you can only carry one at a time on the back of the horse.  And stuff on the horse will disappear if you leave the horse for too long, or fall off if you stumble.  Let’s just say it’s painful to hunt a Bison up north, then travel all the way south to hand it in, only to be ambushed on the road and lose the pelt.

Open World

The best part of hunting is that it forces you off the main road.  This has you find some neat hidden spots in the world, and some extra story.  Found an abandoned oil rig, where the owner was killed because he didn’t want to sell.  Found a bunch of cannibals.  Found some ghosts.  Some hidden treasures.  A jail break.  Thieves blowing up a safe.

You really get to appreciate the finer details within the game. And there are a lot of details.

 

RDR2 – The Dream Dies

Plot spoilers?  Can you actually do that for a prequel?

RDR1 is the closing chapter of the American frontier, the end of the West.  RDR2 is the same theme, but a larger scope since it’s set earlier.  It certainly is about the impacts to the main character, but it’s also a heck of a commentary on society.

I am just entering Chapter 4 (I guess 50%?), where you can start to see the wheels really come off the dream-wagon that Dutch is pushing.  Backtrack a bit, and you start off in a blizzard, in a run down town.  You move to a small frontier-like town that has only one street.  You then move to Rhodes which has a couple streets and electricity.  Then off to Saint Denis which is a large industrial town.  Each one feels like I’m travelling 10-20 years into the future.

The parallel to today’s urbanization is evident.  Small towns are drying up everywhere as people chase jobs/money in the “big city”.  Something like 90% of Canada lives within a 2 hour drive of the US border.  The people I know who live in small towns mostly work in nearby large cities, and have regular runs into the to do complex errands.  Driving an hour is easy for them.  People in the city freak out about a 5 minute walk.

RDR2 is predicated on the charm of Dutch’s american dream of freedom and choice.  He sells it well, and his flock certainly believe him.  As the world around them closes in, he makes more and more rash decisions that lead to even further disaster.  Just the fundamental principle of “get enough money to buy some land” makes no sense if Dutch really believed in freedom.

As much as the game has you playing as Arthur Morgan, the story has little to do with him.  It’s about watching the dreams and the people around you die a slow death.  Even the mail carriers are aware that they are no longer relevant in a world with carriages.  It’s incredibly depressing.

Spectacle

The true testament to the success of this game is in the use of spectacle to provide depression.  One mission has you find mementos of an old vet who has turned to drink – you empathize with his descent, as you slowly discover he was a slave trader.  Another has you destroy the livelyhood of an old blood family, burn down their house, and make their matriarch go off the deep end.  There’s a giant firefight in the middle, and the final view of the event is straight out of any period film.

I am convinced that West World changed the direction of this game.  Sure the themes are not identical, but the concept of a very grey western, dealing with oppression, lack of power, the chase… all of it feels refined.  RDR1 (and GTA V) had a lot more black/white decision points.  The characters filled archtetypes.  RDR2 just has people.  People that are driven by their own motivations rather than the plot.

Crafting your own story throughout is extremely personal but you are only making tiny changes on the larger path.  Do you want to rescue the lady being kidnapped for who knows what?  Do you feel the need to help the farmhands defend themselves, and then rob them?  Help or hinder the drunk who crashed his cart?  Arthur has a set path – he’s an outlaw through and through.  But maybe he’s more like Robin Hood than El Chapo.  Maybe you prefer quiet to guns blazing.

Seeing it Through

I really enjoy The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  I’ve seen my fair share of the Duke.  There very few good “happy” westerns.  The hero is not meant to win, he’s meant to barely survive.  Shane anyone?

I know how the next game starts, so I have a pretty darn good idea how this one will end.  The destination is still a bit cloudy, but that’s really in the details.  Dutch, Javier, John, and Bill all live.  The rest… who knows.  But that journey is ridiculously captivating.  Watching the world close in around, slowly picking away at the dream until there’s nothing left.  Seeing the world trying to accommodate them, but the old style not wanting to give in.  People fight so much harder when they think they are losing something, rather than trying to gain.  It’s quite a mirror to today’s society… making it all the more enjoyable to experience.