Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption titles aren’t just the best Western games ever made. They’re arguably two of the best Westerns made in any medium. Those who have played these games will know the lengths to which Rockstar’s developers have gone to make the experience feel authentic.
From topography to architecture, and from clothes to conversational cadence, these games make players feel like they’re part of the Wild West. It’s a massive undertaking. And according to Michael Unsworth, Writing Director at Rockstar and one of three lead writers on the 2018 sequel, it all starts with the characters themselves.
Finding the characters’ voice
Red Dead Redemption 2 tells the story of aging outlaw Arthur Morgan at the decline of the Old West in 1899. Morgan is part of a gang led by charismatic gunslinger Dutch van der Linde. Following a botched heist, we first meet the gang evading the law in the snowy mountains that make up the fictitious state of Ambarino.
“The first challenge is that we weren’t making a game that wasn’t based on a present-day city like New York or LA,” says Unsworth. “It’s a world that necessitates a lot more research. For me on the writing side it was finding the character’s voice which was a challenge to start with.”
“You start to dig into a lot of historical material,” says Unsworth. “How did people speak back then? How do we create interesting characters [from that era] who are compelling to a modern audience?”
Crafting the vernacular of Red Dead Redemption 2
It took time to develop the dialogue in the game. “Some of our earlier attempts kind of veered into rootin’-tootin’-old-western territory in terms of dialogue,” says Unsworth. “Even though some of it was authentic it started to sound very cliched, so we had to take a step back and have a rethink about who these characters are and then find a rhythm of speech for them.”
Research on the language of the late 1890s helped them to avoid anachronisms. Yet, says Unsworth, “The rhythm of speech had to be natural and relatable to modern players for a game of this scale.”
“When you’re playing a game that lasts over 50 or 60 hours, if you start to descend into that stereotypical Western type of dialogue, I think it starts to fall apart and starts to feel forced.”
Writing the disintegration of a family
Dutch van der Linde is a father figure to many in the gang, including Arthur. However as Arthur begins to see splinters in Dutch’s usually smooth manner, he questions how long their band of rogues will hang together.
For Unsworth, the story “felt true to the time, but relatable to a modern audience. We did this by finding truths and themes. When you think of the first game, which was an outlaw being drawn back into his old life to protect his family, that’s something anyone can relate to.”
RDR2’s story picked up the theme of family. “With Red Dead Redemption 2,” he says, “it was more about the experience of being in this gang and watching the disintegration of a family, which is very relatable to a lot of people.”
However creating a connection between players and a “nineteenth century outlaw that no one has any point of reference for” posed a challenge. “It’s interesting,” says Unsworth, “the push and pull between creating a world that feels very much of a time and place and historically accurate, but also something that’s in the genre of a Western, and how we balance those things.”
The Western experience
Governing Unsworth’s approach to balancing authenticity and romanticism was a concentration on character. “You get that Western experience which is, by definition, quite a romanticised and idealised period,” he says. “The way to avoid creating stereotypes is to focus on the characters and their stories rather than create some sort of perceived common experience.”
For Joshua Bass, Co-Head of Rockstar San Diego and Art Director on Red Dead Redemption 2, the strength of the writing team was a crucial asset in the creation of the game’s world.
Bass indicates the challenges of creating Red Dead’s frontier, with its rickety frontier towns and sequoia forests, from a visual development standpoint. “With television, with film, with photo references you have these singular moments where everything is very controlled,” says Bass.
“For us, we had those moments, but we’re pushing you through a mission or driving you towards a goal, but the player has all this freedom to stop at any time, and look left or right or up or down.”
“This could happen at any time of day during any weather condition,” says Bass. “They were in a world that was believable and immersive, and it exists without the player.”
A world that feels both populated and very lonely
This required a lot of planning and refining. The developers needed to make sure they had the right amount of distance between towns and structures, as well as making sure the landscape undulated and varied naturally. Players would be pulled out of the world if they were to, say, look rightwards and see a snowdrift while they were plodding through a swamp.
“Giving the cadence of each of the visual notes,” says Bass, including “the way that the player stood and moved, the character shifting its weight, the ecosystem, traffic going by, which grounded the player in this world, that was at once populated but very lonely, was probably one of the hardest challenges we faced.”
“In all the time I’ve been working at Rockstar that’s something we’ve always swung for,” he says. “Getting this right has been an incredibly challenging aspect in creating the worlds in Rockstar’s games, worlds that would hold their own without a single line of dialogue or a mission firing off.”
Chronicling the vistas of the Old West
The Red Dead Redemption games contain world and landscapes containing vast amounts of terrain, much of which has disappeared through the last century or so. Even though the vistas of the Old West are often confined to small pockets of the modern environment, Bass explained that there was still a lot that the developers could use to make the world look as it might once have.
“Rockstar has an amazing research team,” says Bass, “that is dedicated to bringing the visuals elements of the world to life.” This helps them to avoid the easy mistakes. “We don’t get bogged down in the sort of mistakes that Hollywood made in the past about fashion or what fonts were used, or what materials were used at the time for construction,” says Bass.
Unsworth agrees. “Wikipedia isn’t really going to cut it,” he says. “We ended up using the Library of Congress, Columbia’s Architectural Library, the New York Historical Society and more, trying to get pictures, old books, newspaper articles and visual references to make the world come alive.” He notes that “one old book on bridges” was “a gold mine on how they were constructed at the time.”
Where myth meets reality
Beyond the grounded world it offers players, the Red Dead Redemption games are underpinned by stories that meld Old Western myth with reality. Red Dead Redemption 2’s story was “a constant conversation throughout,” says Unsworth. “After all, we’re not making Little House On The Prairie but we’re not making Bone Tomahawk either.”
“There is history and myth and we were aware of both,” he says. “The Old West was a tough and bleak time and people didn’t live very long. But that wouldn’t be a very fun game. [Perhaps] if we were creating some 19th Century survival simulator.”
According to Bass, the story “was about justifying, through the storytelling and the profound relationship between the characters, why the protagonists did the things that they did. Some of it was down to survival but some was down to the actions of the characters themselves.”
The pair agree that the script is just one part of Red Dead Redemption 2’s success. Research, story, the accumulated effort of technologists, artists and designers, all contribute to the game’s compelling world.