Whenever you load into Red Dead Redemption 2, chances are Arthur Morgan's doing nothing of consequence. Sometimes he's napping against a rock, other times he's swatting flies away from his head. The camera's always situated a bit closer than is defaulted, with Arthur respecting that sweet rule-of-thirds as he chills out. It's a nice little extra detail as we're getting ready to soak in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it's the exact opposite of what we once saw in Grand Theft Auto 5.
Over five years ago, back when Grand Theft Auto 5 was gearing up for launch, one of the sticking points in previews and interviews was its ambitious three character switcheroos. At any point in its campaign, you could hop between the characters Franklin, Michael, and (groan) Trevor. Whenever you switched, you always got a taste of their life too. Maybe Franklin was walking his friend's adorable dog, or maybe Trevor was being abandoned in the middle of a desert after seemingly pissing someone off. No matter who you spawned to, there was a micro story of why they were there.
It helped build on one of the key aspects that makes Rockstar's open-world games resonate with so many: it felt alive in a way. Even when its story faltered and the satire got a little too grating, that zoom-out, zoom-in mechanic to plop into another person's shoes never really got old. Even today it feels novel. While we see more involved idle animations in pretty much any major game from a third-person perspective, from Nier: Automata to Uncharted, it's rare that we get a glimpse of what these characters are really doing in theory when we're not pushing them forward with a tilt of an analog stick or the click of a mouse.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn't have that luxury of multiple protagonists. It's just Arthur, his horse, and the rest of Dutch's gang. When you load in, the liveliness endowed in Grand Theft Auto 5's character-hopping is offered at a much slighter capacity; rolled back to better suit the quiet wilderness of Red Dead Redemption 2. When we press start to launch the game from its main menu, we don't need to see Arthur skinning deer or catching his breath after outrunning the law in a robbery. Instead, the glimpse we get of Arthur is much more relaxed. Almost like he's waiting for us, catching the one breath he can get without a player steering him around.
While not groundbreaking by any means, it does add to the meticulous detail I've come to appreciate in the early hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. It serves as its own little photo mode, one not controlled by me though. Without fail, I've taken the most screenshots of these idle load in animations, as they're usually perfectly framed moments. Maybe I'm spoiled after the excellence of Spider-Man and Assassin's Creed Odyssey's respective photo modes from this year, but one of the sorest spots of Red Dead Redemption 2 is its own bare photo mode, making these slight spawn ins almost the real photo mode in my eyes. In bending to its "realism" mantra, the in-game photo mode is actually just a camera that Arthur has access to. It reminds me Link's tablet-camera in Breath of the Wild—just as obtuse, just as impractical. It leaves me wanting more, especially when you behold some of those sunsets.
Grand Theft Auto 5's character vignettes were memorable—arguably more memorable than most of the game itself—because of how it made its characters feel like they were leading lives without you. Red Dead Redemption 2, weirdly, feels the opposite, but it's almost better that way. Where Grand Theft Auto 5 benefited from larger than life vignettes of mundane and ludicrous moments you were dropped into, Red Dead Redemption 2 benefits from catching Arthur on his break. Sometimes he just wants to chill, and for how sparse the action sometimes is in Red Dead Redemption 2, I can appreciate the laidback slice of life bits too.
Booting up the game, it may feel like the opposite approach to Grand Theft Auto 5's cacophonous city, but it suits the more relaxed, easy-going vibe that Red Dead Redemption 2 is going for. We get to see Arthur in his natural habitat, as we once experienced with the unlikable protagonists of Grand Theft Auto 5. Only, despite his outlaw demeanor, Arthur's never getting into too much trouble.
As for now, I wonder if I'll ever make it out of this area near the towns of Valentine and Strawberry. I'm maybe ten hours deep in Red Dead Redemption 2, but I keep getting distracted by everything. I'm roleplaying the gruff Arthur Morgan as an asshole with a heart, who doesn't ever bathe or shave. When I go into detective mode, I can see the stench radiating off him. I love it. (I'm pretty sure it's why in an early mission where he helps out a former lover went only platonically.) And I know that the next time I load into it, Arthur's going to be doing something boring. Like basking in a view, or kneeling at a campfire. I'll linger for a bit, take a screenshot, and then it's back on that damn horse.