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Minor spoilers for early in Red Dead Redemption 2

Butch:

Ok, so did the rather relaxing Hosea mission (still in tutorial mode, game, aren’t you? Can we get past that?), and did the Strauss bit.

I have thoughts on the Strauss bit.

BOY do I have thoughts on the Strauss bit.

I did see some themes there, some timely themes at that, at least in the part of the Strauss bit I did, but, that said, game? We gotta talk here.

You do that?

Feminina:

Yes. Yes I did.

Well, I did the first one. The closest one. Wroble, the Polish guy (speaking of the Witcher)? Did you do that one?

I also had thoughts. They were along the lines of “I do not enjoy doing this.”

And yet, this is the semi-legal part of the gang’s business, as Mr. Strauss points out. (Money-lending itself being legal, but threats and assault presumably not technically.)

And then I started thinking about the ethics of money-lending, and usury, and antisemitism (I’m not sure if Mr. Strauss himself is explicitly shown to be Jewish, but there’s that whole history of Christians not being allowed to lend money at interest, so Jews fill the niche, and then the Christians depend on the service and hate them for it), and how people DO need to borrow money sometimes, and sometimes they legitimately can’t pay it back and is that really their fault if their crops failed or whatever? But also if your business is lending money you can’t make a habit of forgiving debts because you feel sorry for people, undoubtedly they’ll take advantage of you and then you’re broke and what good does that do anyone?

At the end of these thoughts, I definitely do not enjoy being a debt collector. And I still have to go do more missions (or not, I guess–I could just ignore them).

And again, I noted that this is a scene where we as players don’t have any real choice in the matter. We can’t decide to just forgive the debt: the options are, threaten the dude, or beat him up. I threatened a lot, until he caved and told me to loot the house. Presumably, there will come a character who won’t cave and I’ll have no option but to beat him up.

Well, no option but to beat him up or forfeit the mission. Play the game the way the game is set up, or don’t play.

And we’re not really playing the character of Arthur Morgan, since we don’t make any meaningful decisions for him: we’re just riding along on his shoulder. Which is exactly the case in plenty of other games. Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, etc. We’re not making choices for those characters, we’re just accompanying them on their journey through the established story. And it’s fine!

But it’s fine in large part because we — to a greater or lesser extent, certainly — like those characters and enjoy spending time with them. I often don’t like Arthur very much and don’t really enjoy spending time with him when he’s doing anything other than riding along peaceably on his horse (though his dry commentary can be quite amusing), and this makes me wonder about spending another 200 hours in his company.

Although on the plus side, I suppose, I am already 20% done according to the save counter, so that’s 1/5 of the way…maybe it’ll only take 150 hours. Ha.

Anyway. Thoughts.

Butch:

Two thoughts, much along the lines of your thoughts:

First, I didn’t enjoy it either, but I don’t think we were supposed to enjoy it, per se. I’ve said before I think Arthur is a stand in for that idealized Americana, an ideal that is, let’s face it, deeply flawed. Here, we have Great Big Powerful American Man beating up….an immigrant. Poor guy came here to make a better life, only to struggle and be beaten up by someone who looks like a Kenny Chesney fan after a bender. That has some resonance today, yes? I think the game wanted us to be, frankly, nauseated by that. Given that the other two folks who owe are a woman and a person of color, I anticipate the game forcing us (or not) into something that it doesn’t WANT us to enjoy.

Ah, see, there WAS a choice. I think the game set up that choice beautifully. After beating the guy, which would make anyone with a soul feel like shit, the game says “loot the house.” Usually, looting is fun. This looting was not, right? And, by chance, I got to the wedding ring he was protecting last. And I didn’t take it. I wouldn’t. If the quest had made me take it, I would have just left. But when I closed the drawer, letting the poor guy keep the thing that was most important, Arthur just said “Well….guess this will do then….” and off I went. I DID have some agency. I COULD choose to say “No. I don’t want to be that awful person the game just made me be.” I could choose NOT get all hyped up into an adrenaline looting frenzy, as one does. I could choose to ignore the game when the game told me to “loot the house” because I did not WANT to loot the house.

And see, I bet there were a lot of players that did take the poor guy’s ring because they felt they HAD to because they were TOLD to. I think there were players that took it and felt like shit. I bet there were players that enjoyed every bit of this. The game, in the end, made you think about why you did what you did and felt what you felt, and THAT is good game design.

Not ENJOYABLE game design, but good game design.

Did you take his ring?

The other thing….the way Strauss is portrayed….I had more trouble with that.

Some of this is personal. In my parents’ house, they have a framed invitation to the wedding of my great times three grandparents. They were wed in 1883, around Arthur’s time. The bride was young Millie Valkenburgh, who takes the crown of “ancestor of mine with the best name.” The groom was a young, educated, relatively well off for the time German immigrant named….seriously….Alexander Strauss.

Sorry, left something off. He was a young, educated, relatively well off, German, JEWISH immigrant.

So this shit….stung. Because not only is the “greedy, usurious Jew” a terrible one, there is also the “greedy, usurious WIMPY Jew,” which is worse. Strauss (in the game, not my ancestor) ISN’T a tough guy. He’s pretty wimpy by gang standards.

This did not sit well with me.

Because yes, you’re right: there’s nothing patently Jewish about him. He isn’t a bearded Hasidim, wearing a yarmulke. I’m sure there were lots of German immigrants named Strauss who were not Jewish. But still……this whole thing seemed off.

I dunno. Given my own family history, am I taking this too seriously?

Feminina:

I don’t think you’re taking it too seriously–I think it definitely deserves interrogation. It’s very true that the character is not only usurious, but also physically weak. All those stereotypes of grasping (Jewish) bankers who squeeze the last pennies from people but have to hire goons to enforce it…not nice.

The immigrant question is also interesting because not only is Arthur beating up an immigrant, he’s doing it at the behest of another immigrant. Both of these two (and the woman and person of color whose debts I haven’t attempted to reclaim yet) are in the position of ‘outsiders’ compared to the ideal of the sturdy, red-blooded white man who naturally rules the land.

And yet, rather than sympathize with these people, Strauss has them beaten up for money. There’s no common feeling there (as, of course, there often is not among disadvantaged groups, so it’s not as if this is implausible–it’s just another interesting point to how unsympathetically Strauss comes across).

I mean…again, we have to consider the role of the moneylender. If the banks won’t help you (and the morality of the practices of banks are themselves questionable, but at least they represent the values of the larger social system), people have to get money from SOMEWHERE. Without it, they lose their land, can’t eat, etc. Therefore, Strauss DID help them, presumably, by giving them access to money that they needed, when no one else would.

But. That money was probably provided at outrageous interest rates, and repayment is demanded with the threat of violence. These people, in the end, have neither the money they borrowed nor the goods Arthur seizes to make up for it. Maybe they were able to make a mortgage payment in the meantime? Maybe they are slightly better off? Who knows.

As for the choices available to you, it’s true that you can to some extent choose how far to go with the looting. I didn’t take the food out of the Polish guy’s cupboard, because damn, he needs to eat. I also didn’t take his horse, although I thought about it when I was poking around looking for items of value. And yes, that’s a choice we can make, and maybe we can feel a little better about ourselves, but I’m not convinced it’s actually a choice the game cared about. It’s not as if there was some recognition that “oh, you didn’t go as far as you could have, that was a moral choice”. I got the strong sense that I could have taken everything and there would have been no consequences (although since I didn’t test that, I might be wrong).

Not that our choice to hold off a little is meaningless because of that–not every action needs to be acknowledged by the game in order to be significant to the player. But the fact that it’s not significant to the game does influence the way I perceive the game: it means that in order to consider the action significant we have to read between the lines to assume that it matters.

Also, I didn’t even see a ring, I saw a silver earring that he protested about, and it was taking that that made Arthur say “I guess that should cover it” or whatever. And his protest wasn’t about any sentimental value, that I heard, it was “I need to eat!” Like, “this is the only thing left that’s worth anything and I need to exchange it for food!”

Which was in part why I left the food. “Good point, dude: you DO need to eat! Here, keep your canned peaches, even though those are totally my favorite.”

Butch:

Not nice at all. And I don’t think intentional….I think. It sure would have been worse if he was overtly Jewish. We’re reading “Jewish” here because my ancestors with the same name were. So….I dunno. But it’s sure close enough to feel off.

That said….Strauss does point out that what he is doing is legal, even with the harsh means of collection. He points out that real banks throw debtors in prison, so it isn’t like today when loan sharking really is criminal. Strauss ain’t going to jail for what he’s doing, whereas everyone else would hang. And likely will.

It’s also telling that Strauss’ way of life isn’t ending. The twentieth century saw the end of gunslingers and train robbers, but lord knows it did not see the end of bankers. Strauss’ way is the way of the future, and he’s the least likeable person in the game thus far.

Hmm.

Oh, I agree that there were (likely) no in game/story consequences for anything. But that doesn’t mean that how you approach it as a player and what you do as a player can’t make you, the player, think.

Well, the consequence, I guess, is less money for the camp and, therefore, less cool stuff and worse medicine. It is true that upgrades are more than just cosmetic. The food does more, the tonics do more, etc. So we did, in some way, choose to sacrifice certain gameplay advantages because we didn’t want to “do bad things.” That’s something.

Ah. The ring was in the drawer. He obviously is standing in front of it to protect something. The jewelry was on top of the table, and was there as a red herring. IN the drawer, is a “gold wedding ring,” so nice Arthur’s all “what do we have here?” The impression I got was that this was worth more than everything else put together, and, when you find it, he starts crying. Not pleading. Crying.

I figure that it would have been enough to get a camp upgrade. But I left it.

So that’s something.

Feminina:

Ah, that was nice of you! I didn’t even get that far. I found the earring in one of the cupboards, Arthur said “that should about cover it” (presumably when added to the watch and fine brandy and what-not I’d already picked up) and I pretty much got the hell out. I did notice he was hovering over that table, but figured whatever, I didn’t need to knock him over if I had what I needed.

I guess that was nice of me, too.

But also an interesting touch. If he HAS all this jewelry and fine brandy and stuff, why didn’t he just offer us some of it to start with? Why did we have to threaten him repeatedly before he finally admitted he had anything valuable? Maybe he WAS trying to cheat Strauss.

“Why should I give that possibly Jewish weakling anything? As a fellow immigrant (and possible Jew), it’s not like he’ll be able to get the law to care about his problems.”

You can’t trust anyone.

I should have beaten Wroble up instead of just threatening! You should have beaten him up MORE! I should have taken his horse and all his food. Jerk.

Or not. Maybe he just didn’t understand us well enough to think we might accept a silver watch and an earring, and was genuinely panicking.

I’m getting a bit of moral whiplash here with all the back-and-forth about whether or not I feel sorry for that guy.

Regardless, I don’t enjoy debt collection.

I think we do want to keep an eye on this ‘possible Jew’ angle, too. It has a pretty big impact on how we read that character. I mean, if it turns out Strauss is a Methodist he’s still kind of an unpleasant character (or not! maybe he’s genuinely trying to help while all his clients villainously try to cheat him!), but at least he’s not a hideous stereotype.

Butch:

You see? Moral whiplash! Themes! We haven’t done anything this deep in months!

One of these days maybe we’ll get to talk about all that in a game that we are actively enjoying.

Still, we’re playing it. I’m 14%, you’re 20%, and we never get to 100%, really. And I’m not doing challenges and finding every species of rabbit, so there goes 100%. And that’s in a little under two weeks. That’s pretty quick!

Maybe you ARE liking it!

Feminina:

I don’t know, man, we got pretty deep in parts of Mafia 3. There was some heavy stuff in that game. Don’t sell us short! We’re always brilliant and thoughtful!

Just maybe not quite AS brilliant and thoughtful in the last thing we played.

Fingers crossed for Horizon Zero Breakfast, when we can do themes AND love.

Butch:

I’m still anticipating some love here. I got a love letter! And that Sadie is gonna come around.

As for planning, though, I talked to Dutch, realized that whole “rescue Micah” thing would be long and said “Fuck that noise.” How long is that mission?

Feminina:

I don’t know, because every time I look at the marker on the map I think “fuck that noise.” Seems like something that’s going to be long. Haven’t done it.

Hey…we’re basically at the same place again, aren’t we?

Butch:

Then how are you seven percent ahead of me? What have you done that I haven’t? I sorta figured it was that.

Feminina:

Hm, good question. Because it was definitely not that.

Oh, I did do the Reverend Swanson bit–that was probably it.

Butch:

So that doesn’t move us into chapter three? Or does it?

And, for planning purposes, how long was that?

And was the gunslinger there the one that vortexed you into St Denis?

Feminina:

No, not unless chapter 3 is incredibly subtle. Maybe rescuing Micah will do it.

In which case, neither of us will get around to it for weeks.

It wasn’t that long, though. Half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, depending on if you want to get into an in-game game.

And yes, that was the gunslinger, there at the train station. Don’t look for him unless you want to end up in the big city.

Butch:

Not this day.

Tomorrow ain’t looking good, either.

Half an hour I can do…..

Feminina:

It’s going to be great. You’re gonna love it.

Butch:

I always do.