I’ve often alluded to, but never described in full detail, how Red Dead Redemption killed the magic of game industry hype for me.
It helped me realize some innate flaws in myself, and my approach to gaming fandom. And the ways in which the industry manipulates its fans in order to get them to defend multi-million dollar corporations.
It all happened because of some stupid smoke.
THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT
When GTA III came out, I didn’t fully understand its popularity. I didn’t own a PS2 yet, and I only knew a few people that were into the game.
But by the time Vice City released, I had a system and I bought a copy. And then I understood…though I didn’t totally buy in.
To me, the early GTA games were weird clunky chaos simulators that also had grand ambitions to be movies. They were an awkward jumble of systems and concepts that were quite fun to play, but never came together in the way I personally wanted them to.
And then GTA IV happened.
2008’s GTA IV was the coolest thing I had played, up till that time. The storyline took dramatic steps forward in complexity, writing, performance, and emotional impact. The gameplay was greatly enhanced by the addition of realistic physics simulation and NaturalMotion’s Euphoria animation system, and the controls worked in a way that was similar to other popular third person action games of the time.
It all clicked together into a beautiful thing.
So when Rockstar announced that the follow-up would be Red Dead Redemption, I got very excited.
I love Westerns. The genre is under-represented in modern films and games because…well, it doesn’t make money. Usually.
I grew up watching classic Western movies and enjoying terrible-but-fun FMV arcade games like Mad Dog McCree. Whether it’s tropey, pulpy, or truly inspired, the Western genre has a whole toolset of iconography, themes, and story concepts that give it an almost fantasy-like realm in which to explore humanity and the harshness of life.
Red Dead Redemption was not Rockstar’s first stab at the genre. It’s their second game in the franchise. The first was Red Dead Revolver. Originally conceived as an arcadey shooter with design influence from legendary Japanese publisher Capcom, the final product was a straightforward action game sprinkled with hints of Rockstar’s cinematic ambitions, and an amazing curated soundtrack with licensed tracks from across the history of Western cinema.
I think that myself and about 8 other people truly loved Red Dead Revolver. It had the same goofy spirit of old arcade games like Mad Dog McCree and Wild Gunman, with just a hint of the sad/dark pathos that Rockstar likes to put into their stories. I played that game through several times.
I never thought we’d get a sequel.
I devoured every piece of promotion they put out after Redemption was revealed. I wrung my hands when the release date was announced. I shouted to the heavens when it was delayed.
I literally shouted and slammed my hand into the dining room table.
I didn’t realize at the time that I probably shouldn’t be getting so worked up about a video game. It would take playing the game for me to truly figure that out.
THE GAMEPLAY SERIES
Red Dead Redemption was the first major game to make use of what Rockstar called a “Gameplay Series” of trailers. These were in-depth trailers on all sorts of topics, teaching you about all the cool little details in the game while a sly narrator calmly explained all the ways this game was about to blow your mind.
It’s a marketing trick that many studios, Rockstar included, have since replicated, though it’s fallen out of favor in the last couple of years. Red Dead Redemption II got only a couple of trailers in this style, far from the comprehensive treatment of the first game.
All of the cool details and systems were coming forward from GTA IV, but with two years of improvement and a western milieu. I figured…if anyone can make a Big Budget Western work, it’s Rockstar.
And I was really excited about the way that the smoke looked coming out of the guns.
It’s no secret that combat forms the core of 90 percent of big budget video gaming, for better or worse. This was a Rockstar game, and the vast majority of it would involve shooting things.
So when I saw the above trailer, I was enchanted by the little puffs of smoke that came out of the ends of fired guns. The smoke seemed to have a simulation component, and it looked realistically volumetric. It was bigger for rifles, smaller for pistols, and huge for a machine gun, leaving a trail of puffs that seemed to linger and hang in the air.
It was the sort of smoke detail that no game had really attempted at that scale.
When the game finally came out, most of the smoke had been deleted.
I immediately noticed, on first firing a pistol early on in Red Dead Redemption, that a small cloud of smoke did not hang in the air. I was greeted instead by a small muzzle flash effect…and that was it.
Dismayed, I thought surely this cool world-enhancing detail wasn’t cut out during development.
But it was.
Occasionally, enemies that are very far away will have simplified smoke coming out of their guns to better help you see where they are. And train smokestacks still emit a relatively-convincing plume of the stuff.
But none of John Marston’s guns do. They listened to the Surgeon General and quit before it was too late.
Why were these effects deleted, and why is it so important to me? I understand that games have graphical changes right up until release, and even in post-release patches…so why did this change bother me so much?
It might have been done for the sake of performance. The eagle-eyed among you will notice in that trailer above that the framerate is…not so good. In fact, the last couple of trailers for the game had the smoke reduced, and coincidentally the game performs much better in those videos.
Alpha-tested volumetric smoke blobs with simulation and animation components aren’t the most performance-friendly things in the world.
Maybe in testing/QA they discovered that the smoke was obscuring player vision, making it harder to complete the missions. If a whole battlefield is filled with smoke, it’s going to be quite a challenge to see where to aim.
But on the other hand…what a cool detail this would have been! Geez, look at me, I’m still thinking about this almost 10 years later. Rockstar is a company that prides themselves on detail above all things, especially once the 360/PS3 generation started, and it was a huge bummer to see this go away.
I mean, they practically marketed the smoke directly to me with that trailer up there, showing me how cool it could be in what’s clearly an early and subject-to-change build of the game.
And there’s the crux of it: I bought completely into the marketing hype. And was then immediately let down by production realities.
I was let down a second time when I finished the game in around 18 hours. GTA IV had an achievement for finishing it in under 30 hours that wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, and I was expecting more from RDR after all of its development struggles.
TO THE FUTURE
I stopped going to midnight launches, hyping myself up so much about games that I hit my table, or buying fully into marketing after 2010. I still get excited about games that I think look good, but I almost always wait to buy them till after the release, often after the first discount…and my rare pre-orders are digital with automatic unlocking.
I no longer stand in cold parking lots to get the next big thing. And I’m much happier overall.
But the industry kept right on going. It relies on gamer hype in order to sustain itself, and games still do most of their business in the first couple of weeks of sale.
GTA V didn’t have any major gun smoke effects, though it did have a small animated transparent blob on each weapon firing. I thought it was a totally fine game, though I hated Trevor.
Red Dead Redemption II has a smoke effect in it as well, though it’s not quite as obvious and majestic as the volumetric clouds in the almost decade-old video above.
But it probably runs better.
I gave up on game hype because I didn’t want my whole life to be me exclaiming to everyone I knew how cool a smoke effect looked, only for it not to be in the game. That’s no way to live, enthusiast or not. Corporations don’t need my help defending them. I have to watch out for myself and not lose sleep over graphical effects.