There are parts of the game that seem to be designed expressly to be frustrating
Red Dead Redemption 2 is weird, especially for a AAA game. Where many titles in that space aim to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, Red Dead Redemption 2 really doesn’t. In a lot of ways, it’s uncompromising. I’d go as far to say that it isn’t even concerned with being all that fun. Of course there is traditional video game fun to be had; we get shootouts and chases and [LENNY] but between all that, there’s a lot of slowness. Rides across multiple state lines, lengthy conversations with members of the gang, 5-hour long animations of skinning an animal. Large portions of RDR2 are intentionally tedious. That’s not to say they’re bad, but the main goal of those moments doesn’t seem to be traditional fun. At best it’s type 2 fun which is when something isn’t all that much fun in the moment, but is fun to look back on. Even then though, there are parts of the game that seem to be designed expressly to be frustrating.
And no section of Red Dead Redemption 2 exemplifies this better than it’s fifth chapter, Guarma.
After a few dozen hours of becoming familiar with the various territories of Red Dead’s America and trying to find a foothold for the gang somewhere in it, chapter five takes Arthur and a few members of the gang to an entirely new part of the world. They have a job go wrong, hop on a ship to escape, get caught in a storm, and find themselves stranded.
This whole part of the game is hard to play. I don’t exactly want to call it bad, but, yeah, it’s kind of bad. There isn’t all that much to explore or do on the island, so pretty much the only option is to mainline the story missions, all of which are not super interesting. Mechanically, most of them revolve around moving from shooting gallery to shooting gallery. The non-stop combat gets exhausting pretty quickly, and on top of that, the section doesn’t even have all that interesting of a narrative. The gang gets wrapped up in a local rebellion aimed at the owner of a sugar plantation as they see it as the only way to be able to get off the island, and none of it ever really feels like it matters as it is so separated from the world and story the player has spent the past 30 hours caring about. Furthermore, the members of the gang who are alongside Arthur in Guarma are all the worst. Micah is cruel and unpredictable; everytime he has a plan it ends with Arthur having to kill people who don’t deserve to be killed. Dutch has fallen deeper and deeper into delusions of his own grandeur, and can’t seem to help himself when it comes to putting the gang into terrible situations. Bill is reckless and rough around the edges; almost always having something to complain about. And Javier, while probably the most likable of the bunch, has a fierce loyalty to both Dutch and Bill, meaning he fully buys into the terrible plans that those two cook up. For folks who have played the original Red Dead Redemption, there is far more baggage as Dutch, Bill, and Javier are three of the primary antagonists. And during the time between the two games, they’ve become even more brutal and unhinged, making it hard to connect to them in any sort of positive way. To be clear, I think, at least in RDR2, they’re all interesting and well-written characters, but I don’t like being around them, and I especially don’t like being stranded on an island with them. All things considered, this section of the game only takes 2-3 hours to complete, which really is nothing in this game, but while playing it, I swear it felt like it took forever.
At first I thought it was a failure in the game’s design. Rockstar had presented me with a world and characters that I had grown to care a fair bit about and then they pulled me away from it all right when the tension was highest just to funnel me through a handful of boring fights with stakes I had little connection with. And honestly, it’s still hard for me to look back at that section with anything other than frustration, however, it ended up having a pretty huge positive impact on how I approached the rest of the game.
See, before even getting to the Guarma section, I had started to rush things a little bit. After putting in so many hours, the exploration and side activities had lost a bit of their luster. Also, I could sense that the game wasn’t too far off from ending, although it was definitely further off than I thought, so my natural instinct was to keep moving forward with story missions so I could see how everything resolves. By the time I hit Chapter 4, I was ignoring most things that didn’t progress the story, and without those quiet, slow moments between missions to help recenter me, a sense of fatigue with the gameplay was starting to set in. When I actually got to Guarma the pace sped up even more and that fatigue skyrocketed. Along with that I wasn’t even enjoying the story anymore because I didn’t care about what was happening in Guarma or what stupid plan Dutch had to get us out of there. I was miserable.
So when I finally got off the island, the last thing I wanted to do was more story missions, especially ones with a D or an M. I needed a break from the constant grind of dealing with the Dutch’s bullshit, so after reuniting with the members of the gang I cared about, I went off to do my own thing. I explored the land for the fun of doing it. I met new people for Arthur to befriend. I took a breath for the first time in what felt like a dozen hours. And I started to have fun again. Mostly the type 2 kind, but either way, I was enjoying taking things slow again, honestly more than I ever had before.
Chapter 6 of Red Dead Redemption 2 is all about self-reflection. It has Arthur questioning what matters, and for the chapter to work, I think it’s very important for players to take their time with it. To soak in the world that is so easy to just ride through. To engage with the things that you’ve started to take for granted after countless hours of playtime. That is how I experienced the chapter, and it honestly is one of my favorite sections of any game ever, and I can pretty confidently say that if it weren’t for how much I hated playing through the one before it, I would not have played it in the same way. Guarma made me aware of how tiring my approach to the game had become, and it disrupted the pattern I had fallen into. This led to my playstyle shifting in a way that mirrored the themes being presented in Chapter 6, which made everything hit harder.
When looking at the use of frustration to highlight certain themes or playstyles, things get a bit murky. For instance, when looking at these moments, it can be tough to tell what is an intentional choice by the developers to try to elicit a certain response from players and what is just flawed game design that inadvertently works for some folks. Unless the devs come out and say what their intention was, it’s pretty much all guess work. Additionally, there’s an argument that intention doesn’t even matter because if a player has an enjoyable or terrible time with a game due to some frustrating aspect or mechanic, whether or not it was intentional doesn’t change the player’s experience. Personally, I think intention largely matters because every developer goes in with a vision of the experience they want players to have, so if a design choice accidentally shifts that experience, even if some players view at as for the better, it is a failure of sorts.
In Red Dead Redemption 2’s case, I think Guarma’s frustrating design was an intentional choice by Rockstar. Certain aspects of this are easier to support than others. Like, the fact that Arthur is stuck there with Dutch, Micah, Bill and Javier can’t be a coincidence. Between some of them being villains of the first game and all of them assholes in this one, I can’t imagine that Rockstar didn’t want to agitate players with this choice. The vibe of the section would be far different if Arthur had been there with say Charles, Sadie, Lenny, and John. Having the characters with him all be antagonizing forces had a purpose. I also think taking away the ability to explore makes most players recognize how important it is to the game to be able to wander. It takes away player choice which goes against everything the open-world has represented. It’s harder to determine if things like the missions being boring was an an intentional choice or just bad missions, but given the pace, it seems like they were meant to stress players out. Either way, it all added to a mood that it seems like Rockstar wanted to cultivate: that being an intentional feeling of frustration used to make players appreciate the slowness that is so easy to speed past.
Of course, the biggest question that pops up when looking at the intentional use of frustration in video games is: is it worth it?
Like any creative medium, there are countless emotions games can evoke from players, and frustration is one of the most powerful that a title can tap into. For those willing to push through the frustration and come out better for it on the other side, it can create a huge emotional connection between the player and the game.
One of the most obvious examples of this is Dark Souls which has bred a community of diehard fans through the shared experience of suffering. They trudged their way through trapped corridors and poisonous swaps, they clawed their way through each area, learning how to get past enemies without losing all their heals, they bashed their heads against tough-as-nails boss fights that sometimes just seem unfair, and eventually, they got good. People love From Soft not just because their games are well made, but also because players become personally connected to them. Like, I didn’t know the true meaning of anger or joy until I fought and later beat Orenstein and Smough. All of those hours of frustration players put into the game are rewarded with an incredible sense of relief that is almost addictive. Players feel linked to the various worlds From Soft creates partially because they earned their way through them.
Of course, the tradeoff is that certain players will have absolutely no interest in playing a game that’s centered around being frustrating. While I generally have a high tolerance for dealing with these kinds of aspects of games, there are a handful of titles that I tried my hardest to get into, but just couldn’t handle. The most notable being Pathologic 2, which on paper sounds like it should be one of my favorite games ever, but in practice made me miserable. Every action I took used up valuable time or resources, and I’d go off to do something, and come back with nothing to show for it except more hunger and exhaustion. It’s a game that I want to revisit and that I want to get through because I envy the way people who adore it talk about it. They hold the experience in such a high regard, and I want that feeling, but any time I plan to boot it up, I just can’t bring myself to play it as I don’t want to deal with the stress.
For this reason, a lot of games that seemingly use frustration as a tool to elicit certain player responses end up being extremely polarizing. For every person who buys into the frustrating aspects of a game and connects to the material because of it, there is also someone who found no benefits in the frustration and walked away without any meaningful payoff. And that can be really disappointing to experience, especially when it’s a $60 game that you thought you’d love.
Take The Last Guardian. When people talk about it, there is very little middle ground, because it was a long awaited follow-up to one of the greatest games of all time, and instead of scaling massive beasts in order to take them down in an epic fashion, you spend most of the game waiting for one to understand what you’re trying to get it to do. Trico is slow and disobedient and often annoying, but there are these moments where your new giant pet comes through for you in ways you didn’t think possible, and it just feels good. Struggling with the messy controls and seemingly inconsistent AI is what makes The Last Guardian work; because when you figure out how to rely on Trico and have Trico rely on you in spite of all the barriers of communication that get in the way, the struggle starts to feel worth it. It is one of the few games I’ve experienced where I felt like I personally bonded with a character and it’s impossible to forget that feeling. However, many others walked away from it feeling like it was just a janky, dated, disappointing mess. And, it’s hard for me to say they’re wrong because I do get it; it’s just that those frustrating aspects resonated with me in a way they didn’t with others. The Last Guardian took a lot of risks with its tone and mechanics and those choices didn’t pay off for a lot of people.
This general philosophy applies to everything in life. Some people like stuff that others don’t, but it is hard to ignore that these kinds of games evoke stronger feelings of love and hatred than ones that don’t take the same risks.
The most intense example of this I’ve ever seen is with The Last of Us Part II. It’s a title where huge chunks of people view it as one of the most meaningful games they’ve ever played while many others see it as manipulative and poorly written. And certainly some takes have been made in bad faith, but obviously not all of them. The divide is massive, and when I hear people talk about it, it sometimes sounds like everyone played different games. At the center of a lot of the love and hate this title gets is the character Abby; and look it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this topic without getting into some spoilers, so while I’m not gonna ruin everything, I will be going into some major events that happen throughout. So, at the start of the game Abby kills Joel, and it made me feel bad because after playing through the first title I had grown to care about apocalypse dad a decent amount, so to see his time cut short in such an unceremonious way, hurt. It was so sudden and, to be clear, going in I was pretty positive Joel would die, but I thought it would be doing some heroic shit to save Ellie or something and not this. And as I played as Ellie on her quest for revenge and experienced the flashbacks of her times with Joel, I started to feel something close to actual grief, which is pretty wild to feel with a fictional character. Honestly, it was an uncomfortable thing to carry with me throughout the game, and that feeling was compounded by the way the narrative explores Ellie’s. I watched as she learned of the ways Joel had lied to her and taken away her agency. I watched as Ellie learned of the ways Joel had lied to her, had taken away her agency. I saw that conflicted feeling of love and anger towards him boiling inside her. It was complex in a way that actual grief is. I wanted Ellie to feel some kind of peace, and I wasn’t convinced revenge would give that to her, but I knew she needed some sort of confrontation to be able to work through it. And then right when I thought a resolution was coming, the momentum that had been building for the past 12 hours came to a complete halt, and I was sent back to the beginning of Abby’s story. And this choice lost a lot of people. It was hard enough to deal with Joel being dead right off the bat when everyone thought this game would be another adventure with him and Ellie, but then to play as the person who murdered him just feels cruel. And it is, but there’s obviously purpose to it.
As I watched Abby’s story unfold, I began to understand her and care about her partly because she reminded me a bit of Joel; I never forgave her for what she did; in fact, even now a part of me still hates her for it, but I did understand her, and as I learned about her life, I wanted the best for her. And yeah, narratively, it was frustrating to be pulled away from the characters I had gotten attached to and put in the shoes of one I was predisposed to hate, but it made opened the door for me to connect to her in a complex way.
A major theme in The Last of Us Part II is learning to live with someone that you can’t forgive. This is primarily explored through Ellie as she tries to navigate her complex feelings towards Joel who is someone she loves but has also been hurt by. Once Ellie learns of what Joel did in Salt Lake City, something between them breaks, and the idea of forgiving him seems just as impossible as never forgiving him; and then he dies, which completely takes away the chance for the two of them to truly mend their relationship. So Ellie is forced to learn to come to terms with it, which after many missteps, she eventually does.
By the end of the game, that’s how I felt about Abby. I couldn’t forgive her. But by playing as her, I learned how to live with that. It’s a complicated player character relationship. And I found this really impactful. I wasn’t just shown a major theme of the game, but I actually experienced it, and that’s a huge reason why I care about it still.
The thing is I don’t blame anyone for not enjoying going through that, and it’s not surprising that tons of folks didn’t make the same emotional connections I did. We all respond to things differently, and certain approaches won’t work for everyone. Ultimately, this was how I experienced the game, and no amount of discussion will get someone else to retroactively experience it in the same way I did.
And given that it was made in a way that would inherently lead to a divisive response, brings me back to the question: is it worth it for games to include intentionally frustrating design?
There are a lot of ways to look at it, and I think scale matters a fair bit. For instance, the vast majority of games that center around using frustration as a mechanic are indie titles, and this largely works as they are aiming to appeal to a niche audience who would be into that sort of thing. So in that case, the easy answer is yes, of course. Things get muddier when looking at bigger titles though. From a consumer standpoint, a studio putting out a game with an established fanbase and then adding elements that will knowingly agitate a sizable portion of the folks who buy it is a tough look. Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t draw nearly as much anger as The Last of Us Part II, but both have caught a lot of flack for being so uncompromising in their vision. They are unafraid to leave people who don’t buy in behind, and for those who enjoyed previous work they’ve done, I imagine that feels bad. From a developer standpoint, putting out a game that is the exact one you wanted to make, seems incredible. Most games, especially AAA titles that cost a lot to make, have to compromise to the mass market; and to be able to break away from that is something I’d guess most creators dream about. Really, the success of The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption (along with pretty much everything else Rockstar has done) made it so their sequels were guaranteed to sell well, putting both in a place where they could take risks, so it isn’t a huge surprise that they did. I think if a developer has a specific vision that they want to make, they have every right to do it, but obviously have to go in with the understanding that folks who used to be fans might not be anymore. From a selfish standpoint, my answer depends on how I responded to any specific game in question. If it worked for me, then it was obviously the right choice.
And certainly you could measure whether or not it was the right choice based on retention percentages, long-term sales figures, and all of that stuff. So, the answer to the question is a somewhat unsatisfying: I don’t know, it depends on what’s important to you.
To be clear, if you think something is poorly designed or written, you shouldn’t excuse it just because it worked for other players or was an intentional choice by the developers. However, I think there is a lot of value in trying to understand why people both love or hate a specific thing. Personally, I think frustration is a very valuable tool, and I am interested to see developers continue to experiment with incorporating it as it can create such a powerful connection between the player and the game. I just hope that the next game I play that uses it, works for me.
Most of this video focused on bigger titles that use frustration as a feature, but obviously there’s tons of games that do it, so I have an extended discussion where I talk about and recommend a couple indie titles that fall in the same vein over on Nebula. For those unfamiliar, Nebula is a streaming service made and owned by creators. It gives us a place to post our work without having to worry about demonitization or the algorithm, and it gives you all a place to watch some of the best creators out there ad free. So over there, instead of this ad, you’d get that extended discussion. The best part is we’ve partnered with this video’s sponsor, CuriosityStream in order to get what is honestly one of the best deals out there. Right now if you sign up for CuriosityStream, you not only get access to the thousands of incredible documentaries on their site, but you also get a free membership to Nebula for as long as you’re signed up with CuriosityStream. Currently you can get 26% off by clicking the link in the description, which comes out to less than $15 for the YEAR. On its own, CuriosityStream is awesome. Its library is ever expanding, and there are good documentaries on pretty much every topic you could imagine. I recently watched one called Beer: A Love Story that examines what goes into brewing beer and running a microbrewery, and it was fascinating to hear different stories from brewers as they’re so incredibly passionate about it.
Anyway, for less than $15 a year, you can get all the great stuff on CuriosityStream as well as tons of extra content from awesome creators over on Nebula. It is a stupidly great deal, that helps out creators like me a fair bit, so give it a look.
Anyway, thanks to CuriosityStream for sponsoring this video.
For all of you still here. Thanks! I appreciate your support and viewership. Tis channel is partly made possible because of my patrons, so thank you to them for the support. And an extra shout out to Elfinrez and WilliamGlenn8 for being an honorary bagbuten.
With that, I hope you have a great day and/or night, and I’ll see you in the next one.