Red Dead Redemption 2, on its surface, is not an historical game, at least, not in the same sense as Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft’s long-running action RPG has taken an increasingly devoted interest in its various settings and time periods, an interest culminating in the addition of a dedicated Discovery Tour for both Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, in which players can explore the respective Greek and Viking-based game worlds as a kind of virtual tourist, and uncover information about landmarks, notable figures, and ancient culture.
Admittedly, there’s a well-meaning educational quality here – out of Discovery mode, the Assassin’s Creed series has developed a reputation for providing more worthwhile gaming experiences than some of its sandbox rivals, ostensibly offering an intellectual reward as well a more rote mechanical one. But the style of teaching offered by Ubisoft’s stealth sandbox is, in several ways, more shallow than that offered by Red Dead Redemption 2. The games have very different approaches to presenting history and historical themes, but one is much more successful than the other.
When I was an English teacher, I was naturally responsible for explaining good essay practice. There are a lot of rules, but one applied to all year groups – and to all essay-based subjects for that matter – and that was to keep your interpretations, either of quotes, characters, or narrative themes, very narrow, but very deep.
Taking a small part of something and exploring it at length is more interesting and more convincing than taking a truncated look at a lot of things. If you want to know what Shakespeare is trying to say in Hamlet, for (a slightly pompous) example, analyse each line of the famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. If you want to understand, say, injustice in the American legal system, do what a hundred Netflix documentaries have done and select one case, and keep digging and digging and digging. It’s what we might call in videogames taking a vertical slice, this idea that you can isolate a single, particularly abundant section or level, and use it to communicate a game’s entire essence. It’s how developers showcase massive games years ahead of launch in order to win over investors.
And it works with history. You could teach someone a hundred facts about a hundred different places, or people, or events, but if you give them one especially rich story about a single moment or individual, then that’s what they’ll remember. I can’t retain all the facts and figures about the Crimean War despite taking an entire course on it, but I sense and feel and remember that it was brutal and dreadful because I learned about Florence Nightingale. And this is where Red Dead Redemption 2 succeeds above Assassin’s Creed.
By focusing on one character in the form of Arthur Morgan, or even a small group of characters in the Dutch van der Linde gang, Red Dead Redemption 2 consistently and vividly illustrates the realities of its particular time period. There are no landmarks in Red Dead Redemption 2, no Pantheon, no Acropolis, or Stonehenge, but there is a constant battle for money, and an overhanging threat of tuberculosis, and a group of very plausible, very identifiable people talking with each other about how they feel now it’s the end of the 19th century. That, I think, is significantly more powerful than the more zoomed-out version of history offered in Assassin’s Creed.
The emotional journey of Arthur Morgan, and the lengths Red Dead Redemption 2 goes to with regards to exploring his feelings, his psychology, and his personal experiences, does more to communicate what that era was actually like for people than the expansive, infromation-rich overview provided by Ubisoft’s flagship RPG series.
I’d like an Assassin’s Creed that takes place over six months rather than an entire era, or one that’s set in one region rather than the entire country. I’d like an Assassin’s Creed where the focus was not on attempting to include each, relevant, textbook part of history, like when you arrive off the boat from England in AC3 and immediately bump into Ben Franklin, but instead on a more singular, thoroughly explored, personal history. A cliche perhaps, but the most resonant and urgent history, ultimately, is the history of people and individual experience, something that Red Dead Redemption 2, with its devout focus on characters, captures profoundly, and above Assassin’s Creed.
If you want to dive into some more Red Dead Redemption 2-esque history, you can try out something from our list of the best western games. There’s also our guide to best sandbox games on PC, and plenty to learn about Rockstar’s next opus in our guide to GTA 6 release date rumours, news, and speculation. If, however, you want to go a bit further back in time, check out our guide on tips for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla beginners, or, if you fancy our chances, our Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla romance guide. Love is timeless, after all.