Red Dead Redemption 2’s Musical Mastery Dead Redemption 2’s Musical Mastery

Not a moment after its release, four months in fact, I have finally seen off Arthur Morgan’s rootin’ tootin’ questline in the ubiquitous, life-consuming, multi-faceted achievement that is Red Dead Redemption 2.

If you’ve come to expect current affairs on this site, I don’t know why you’re still here

Tearing myself away from hogtying rude strangers on the side of the road and trying to catch ghost trains, RDR2’s narrative ended up being as emotional and poignant as it was initially bullish and off-putting.  2D characters gained themselves a third dimension, the world began to live and breathe and age, and everything was tied up in the dramatic irony that you knew what was going to happen next (if you’d played the first one). And what a journey it was to the end.

I hogtied ONE guy I swear, and he gave me lip – otherwise I was the perfect cowboy.

Cheer, coo, yell profanities of admiration if you like, I know how impressed you all are anyway. As is usual with this site, there’s very little point in my gushing out a thousand words on wot i fort and whether or not you should buy it. You’ve read the reviews, you’ve likely played the game yourself by now, if you have any interest in it, and have decidedly, made up your own mind. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t have enough ineloquent musings on the Western epic to bore your little digital spurs off, so let’s get going with the most relevant one to me, shall we.

I keep banging on about it, but I work 9-5 (6-8) in the music industry now. It’s changed my life, my game playing habits, and the things I think about on a daily basis. Things like, will I be home in time to eat tonight, and why does this man next to me on the train smell like a rotting corpse. Also things like, hey the music in this game is good.

They really do smell like rotting corpses

Like most of you out there with these opinion things they have now, I thought the first Red Dead Redemption was one of the finest musical achievements in games to its date. With the second entry, the series seems to have carved itself out a cowboy-shaped hole in the games industry right between the Great Narrative Games and Winning Musical Implementations section.

I can’t help but consistently recall that moment in RDR1 that everyone goes on about, where you finally get on your horse and embark on what seems like the dullest journey you’ll have to make in the game – a thousand hours tapping X and holding forward on the analogue stick as you saunter on over to Mexico. At just the right time though, Jose Gonzales kicks down your door and storms into the room supplying a beautiful, moving musical accompaniment to your journey that nails the narrative tone. It’s surprising, poignant, and it pulls you, collar-first, into the world.

Though I have now put a restraining order out on Jose Gonazles.

You’re unsurprised to hear this trend is something they continued in RDR2, and utilised if anything more so. At several points throughout the game you’re treated to a departure from the standard, stellar score, and, dynamically, a full track plays out for you in-game.

When Willie Nelson’s ‘Cruel Cruel World’ spins near the very end of the game, it came loaded with that exact reverence that Gonzales brought to the table at that moment in the first one. It’s a superbly chosen piece of music, dropped in with precision storytelling timing; it happens ambiently, while you’re in complete control, but journeying to somewhere specific.

The music ties these moments together in a way that submerges the player. You’re still the one driving, still in control of what you’re seeing on screen, and yet a word-perfect soundtrack is accompanying your every move. It’s clever and satisfying and I cannot think of a game that has done this as well as Red Dead.

Genuinely would love to hear suggestions of other games that do their music similarly

Nothing I’ve played over the years sprang to mind when I was trying to find a comparison locked up in the dusty corridors of my tired old clockwork brain. And even some extensive Googling couldn’t offer me a potential contender. Bobby Darin’s Somewhere Beyond the Sea in Bioshock was a great singular, scene-setting example. The Tony Hawk’s soundtracks of yesteryear helped expose basically an entire subculture. But in terms of poignancy and delivery of an artist’s track in a game, Red Dead Redemption wins out in both for me.

It speaks for the power of cinematic-style music implementation in games. The score in RDR 2 is undeniably genius; carefully crafted to create a very specific environment, a tonal embellishment to the incredible job the art team did on that scenery. And yet it’s these moments, the ones featuring Willie Nelson and D’Angelo and Rhiannon Giddens, that drive home every thought and feeling the narrative and game world worked so hard to conjure in the player.

I feel like this is a mechanic many developers feel largely distanced from right now. Some of the devs I’ve managed to speak to personally have told me they know they should focus on crafting a more authentic or complete musical aspect of their game, or even ‘brand’, but they don’t necessarily have the means or the compulsion to get there.

***n.b not a slight on game developers***

Of course it’s all well and good popping in jaw-looseningly innovative musical techniques like it ain’t no thang when you’re the global behemoth that is Rockstar Games. But if you’re hammering your releases out of the door, likely via the conduit of a spring-loaded Publisher Deadline Launcher, are you going to have the time and the patience, and the budget, and the inclination to want to explore new musical frontiers? Maybe not. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen much in the way of audio exploration recently.

It’s something developers are likely to look more toward in the future though – especially if the tools to implement new and exciting scores become readily available.

In fact, both Red Dead releases’ methods for creating their living, breathing score involved much more than a cutely timed Willie Nelson track and a bit of guitar noodling. According to an interview with the Music Supervisor for the game, the score is written entirely in the same key, with stems (recordings of individual instruments as part of a full ensemble) crossing over and fading in and out to allow the music to move fluidly and dynamically from one tonal area to the next.

It’s an incredible feat; something you wouldn’t necessarily ever really pick up on, and yet creating that naturally flowing soundbed is so imperative to this game’s consistently arresting, absorbing atmosphere.

As a proponent of music as well as games for longer than I can remember (yes, longer than three weeks) I love seeing these worlds collide, especially in ways that are as heart-string-pluckin’ as they are throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. Will it change music in games forever? Maybe not, but It might just be the next rung on the ladder toward bringing these two entertainment behemoths closer than they have ever been before.

More on Respawn soon!


Author Description

Rob Vicars

Rob is a writer, wearing many hats that do not belong to him. When not scribbling ardently for his games blog Respawn in... 5, he pretends to be a musician, a videographer, a game developer and an alright guy.

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