Steven T. Wright reached out to a number of freelancers to discuss their favorite games from 2018. These lists are being hosted in Into The Spine, and all credit belongs to the authors. Make sure to follow Blake Hester’s work on Twitter.

Red Dead Redemption 2 opinion 1

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 is really big. And definitely really expensive.

The latest offering from video game titan — and questionable place to work — Rockstar Games, Red Dead is unparalleled in scale and production. Allow me to be hyperbolic and say this game is one of the most impressive pieces of media of all time, in any industry. But it arguably came at the cost of the livelihoods of many developers around the world at Rockstar’s various studios.

Red Dead Redemption 2 attempts to examine the death of the American dream — and, for the most part, it does so successfully. It also tests its players, requiring them to be patient with its systems, mechanics, and painfully slow movement speed. It’s gratuitous with the amount of things players have to remember, and it has its head 10 feet up its own ass in only the way a Dan Houser-written game can be.

It’s impossible to ignore the money and labor behind this game. But at the end of the day, it’s simply a remarkable achievement on a scale not before seen in the industry — for better or for worse.

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God of War

The newest God of War achieves a feat few games can — it manages to be self-aware. Both a sequel and reboot, the latest entry in Sony’s long-running series takes time to ask a few important questions. Such as: why? Why are we obsessed with gratuitous violence? Why do we revel in viscera? And, more importantly, how would these actions affect a person?

And while that’s all well and good, I’m not so sure God of War cares to actually answer these questions. Sure, protagonist Kratos seems to reflect his actions in previous entries during the comically self-serious cutscenes littering the game, but God of War is still horrifically violent. It’s an interesting dichotomy — one I’m not so sure developer Sony Santa Monica actually intended. God of War wants its players to feel bad about their actions, while also making combat fun and engaging. It wants players to reconsider violence in games, while also making the violent animations beautifully gruesome and bloody.

I guess I haven’t really said anything positive about the game. But it earns a spot on my list for being a game that, at the very least, is very interesting to think about. Also throwing that axe is so damn satisfying.

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Celeste

Unsubtle, yet earnest, Celeste seems to just want to help people — and also maybe make them smash their controllers. Even though portraying anxiety and mental health issues as a mountain climb is pretty on the nose as far as metaphors go, the game makes it work — usually, at least. It’s also fun as hell. Mixing Mario and Hotline Miami, Celeste constantly tests your reflexes while never being unfair. Learning the game’s levels and mastering its mechanics leads to close calls and precise moves. And even though it can be frustrating as all hell, once you complete a level, serotonin floods your brain. There’s no luck in Celeste, only skill, and I appreciate that in a game.

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Spider-Man

If I’m keeping it 100 with you, reader, I’m not sure I would have liked Spider-Man nearly as much as I did had it not come out during a really difficult point in my life. I got Spider-Man the day after surgery, having had to have a cancerous tumor removed. It was a wonderful escape from the immense pain I was in.

But, in the interest of honesty, there’s a lot I don’t like about that game. The acting is good, yeah, but the story is serviceable at best. Seeing the world at ground-level highlights how dead Spider-Man’s Manhattan truly is. All the side missions are terrible. And most of the game is just busy-work.

But it was the game I needed at the exact time I needed it. Swinging is repetitious, but fun. Combat is just engaging enough to keep itself interesting. A lot of the time, playing Spider-Man, my brain simply turned off. Ironically, a lot of that busy-work was just a good way to escape the pain. And, believe me, when it hurts to move, breathe, and simply exist, a game as mindless and repetitive as Spider-Man, a game that hardly asks anything of its player, is a godsend.

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Florence

Florence broke my heart. Which, to be fair, I guess was the whole point. Showing a relationship from its birth to death, Florence is sincere, thoughtful, and heart wrenching. It’s also charming, funny, and delightful. In only 40 or so minutes, Florence does what 99-percent of games can’t do — tell a good story while managing to be fun in the process.

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The best game I feel like shit for playing

Make no bones about it, I’m a hypocrite.

In the run-up to Red Dead Redemption, I told everyone I wasn’t going to play Rockstar’s newest really expensive piece of media. After all the stories of labor issues, crunch, and development-induced mental health problems, how could I, a morally sound human being — a man of empathy and integrity — play a game that risked the livelihoods of hundreds, if not thousands, of developers around the world. I could not be impressed by its amazing vistas, unparalleled interactivity, nor dynamic horse testicles. This was the hill I would die on.

Let me tell you about my horse Rascal in Red Dead Redemption 2. I love Rascal. I feed him lots of carrots, brush him often, and spam the R3 button so I can hear Arthur Morgan, with perhaps a bit more intimacy than necessary, say, “That’s my boy.”

Rascal is just one of the things I love in the game. That’s because I fucking love Red Dead Redemption 2. Y’all played this shit? You can take a bath in it! You have to clean your gun! The horses take funny poopies all the time! This truly is the current height of the medium. Dare I say, the Houser brothers have done it again!

As you now see, I am a hypocrite.

Playing Red Dead Redemption 2 forces you to ask yourself a question: can you separate the art from the artist? Which I think is an inherently flawed question, because I’m not so sure there’s a right answer to it. Yes, actions should have consequences. But art is subjective. The consumer of any art is supposed to take from it what they will; the consumer is not required to feel from a piece what the creator intended. Should the management practices of the Houser brothers stop someone from playing Red Dead and supporting Rockstar? Yeah, maybe. But does that also negate all the blood, sweat, and tears developers poured into the game over its development cycle? Yeah, probably.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure there’s a clear-cut answer — at least not in Red Dead Redemption 2’s case. But it’s certainly an interesting paradox; one of size, scope, and expectation.

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