Rockstar has made a name for itself based on games set in vast, detailed open worlds that, like many large and varied settings, have a substantial decoration of minigames. Although these diversions can play a very important role in world-building and changing up the pace of play, they typically get almost no mention in reviews, unless they form a significant part of the gameplay (GTA: Chinatown Wars‘ drug-dealing minigame) or have a unique aesthetic (No More Heroes 2‘s jobs). Red Dead Redemption, in an effort to add texture to its Wild West, includes a number of these side games scattered across its countryside. Unfortunately the result is something of a mixed bag.
One of the best things a minigame can do is help to create the game world. The deep and detailed Blitzball RPG within Final Fantasy X helps to define sports-mad Spira and the main characters. The monster arena in Dragon Quest VIII developed extra personality for the game’s already-engaging creatures. Red Dead Redemption aims to create a world of the Old West, which in the popular imagination is inextricably tied to gambling. Almost every Western ever made has a card game, or at least a wager, at some point. So, naturally, almost all of the side games are based around bets.
The most explicit gambling takes place in the saloons and cantinas, where poker, blackjack, and liar’s dice are available. Of these, the weakest (though probably the easiest to code) is blackjack. This isn’t a game that’s typically associated with the West in the popular imagination. For me, at least, it’s also dull to play, and the addition of more computer-controlled players bogs down the action without making it any more interesting. If they felt like they really needed another card game, Rockstar should have gone for Faro. It’s from the same family of games, is widely associated with the Wild West, and because it’s rarely played now due to unfavorable house odds, would provide a genuinely novel experience for nearly all players. Liar’s dice is a similarly wet blanket, a lengthy and silly game that would perhaps benefit from the threat of violence.
The poker game is also something of an odd choice. Historically, “draw” poker was widely played in the West, but the popularity of that game has been eclipsed in recent years by Texas hold ’em, and Rockstar elected to include this game instead. This has its advantages, particularly in that it lends itself to high-stakes gambling and huge, winner-take-all pots. I can’t help but feel that it loses something from being so open, though. The truly legendary card cheats played draw, which allowed them to pull off tricks like dealing every man at the table four aces. While John Marston will eventually get accused of cheating at poker, a dispute over whether he was looking at someone’s cards feels childish rather than fraught. When it escalated into a duel I laughed, although any hope of this moment being serious evaporated with its joke about the “Mexican standoff”.
The poker game had structural problems as well. The text could be difficult to read, and entering bets (especially large bets) was fairly imprecise because it used the stick to run a counter up and down. Perhaps more serious was the strange behavior of the AI, which could quite easily get stuck escalating bets even from a fairly weak position. This behavior seemed to be especially common in the first round of betting if an AI player was dealt a half-decent pair. The table talk was also a bit of a problem in that there wasn’t enough of it to stay interesting.
Of course, games of chance and bluffing weren’t all that the West had to offer in terms of gambling. Wagers would be laid on physical struggles as well, and Red Dead Redemption has several of these games available, though thankfully there’s nothing as dangerous as testing a knife against a gun as in The Magnificent Seven. The most challenging of these for me was actually horseshoes, which required fairly precise control of moving the stick and hitting the release button. I really liked the game, however, as the interface was reasonably analogous to the real-life motion, and it was integrated in reasonably rural places like MacFarlane Ranch. One deficiency of many role-playing games is that they take an assortment of side games that don’t really fit the main game very well and lump them all into one spot, typically the world’s only casino (I’ve played a couple of Tales games that do this).
The arm wrestling game was also well-located, being available at work camps like Plainview and the railroad site. It had less intuitive controls than horseshoes, relying as it did on a balance between tapping (for sharp exertion) and holding (for endurance) the A button. However, this helped it fit into the rest of the game, as the tap/hold A convention controls running and spurring the horse in a similar way. Adopting control metaphors that apply to the rest of the game is a wise choice in any minigame, as it allows the player to move into the side game without shifting mental gears too much. Horseshoes had some of this too, as its stick motion was also an optional way to draw your gun in duels.
The odd man out here is the five-finger fillet minigame, a memory and rhythm game that displays a pattern of buttons to press. Showing this onscreen prevents the control scheme from ever becoming invisible to the player, which is a problem, but more fatal, to my mind, was that I actually had an easier time with this one if I looked away from the screen after assessing the pattern. This is a terrible thing to happen in a game at any point, and its even worse to see it in this kind of optional activity. Don’t encourage the player to expel himself from the game world unless you’re doing something really interesting with it. Five-finger fillet is not Psycho Mantis.
The principal virtue of Red Dead Redemption’s minigames is that they fit the context. They’re not just a bunch of gambling games shoehorned into the world so that the player has an occasional diversion. Rather, they generally seem to have been chosen to fit in with our ideas of the west and positioned in places that make sense. They’re a diversion within the game world, and for the most part they do a good job preserving immersion while allowing the player a break from all the murder and mayhem. Whether a player would actually find these games interesting enough to warrant their attention (absent the enticement of an achievement or outfit scrap) is somewhat more up in the air.