Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game, ostensibly, about realism, and about bringing the American frontier to life in video game form. Of course, we can sit here all day and criticise the actual truthfulness of Red Dead 2‘s depiction of this era forever but there’s not much point; the world of the game isn’t meant to be truthful, but reflective of a certain ideal of the frontier that has propagated through media from the pulp novel to the spaghetti western to prestige television. It needs to be noted that this devotion to realism, which tries to cover the machine parts of the game itself to create an “immersive experience”, also exists to divorce the labor inherent in the game with the actual content of it; the seven year development time and hundreds of employees working away on it are disguised under layers and layers of paint designed to make that labor look more like a magic trick than actual labor. In fact, studio head Dan Houser literally said this; in a GQ profile he states that “games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV.”
This ‘magic trick’ exists not only to disguise the game as a commodity but also to disguise the game’s ideology as a mere fact of life. Practically every Rockstar game espouses neoliberal policies and libertarian ideals and Red Dead Redemption 2 is no exception; the protagonist Arthur Morgan is an all-American hero, and no matter how crooked he might become over the course of the game, he is still an icon of American exceptionalism, an individual in control of his own destiny. This narrative position reflects back into Rockstar’s (now very public) labor conditions – according to them, you crunch because you want to and not because you were made to, and if you suffer for your work it’s your problem, not theirs, despite a “culture of fear” that incentivises showing loyalty through harsh work hours. In a Kotaku article titled Inside Rockstar Games’ Culture of Crunch, an anonymous employee sums up the company’s attitude well; “The temperament from these guys has always been: It should be a privilege to serve in this organization, […] and if you don’t agree with that, there’s a long line of people waiting to take your place.”
Nothing in Red Dead Redemption 2 highlights this fact more than its depiction of patent medicine.
When the player visits a general store, rather than a game menu listing all the items you can buy you’re presented with a painstakingly illustrated catalogue listing the items you can purchase, which you flick through manually before making a decision. Amongst the rifles and clothes and assorted goods you can buy there are also listings for products like Health Cure, Miracle Tonic and Cocaine Gum, all of which bestow the main character with restorative effects like regaining health or Dead-Eye meter. A big full-page advert informs you of the existence of Hair Tonic; “Put simply it is the GREATEST HAIR TONIC On Earth”.
The concept of food restoring health in video games has been around forever. In the Yakuza series, for example, you literally drink an energy drink called “Tauriner” to restore your health. In Castlevania, you found suspicious wall meats that did the same. Even in Red Dead 2 itself food is used to restore health and energy. What distinguishes the use of patent medicine from these depictions of food or drink restoring energy, and what makes it particularly noteworthy, is the history behind patent medicine itself. Usually what was contained in it was a mixture of herbs with things like cocaine, opium, alcohol, and occasionally highly dangerous substances like mercury, silver or radium – none of which were revealed to the consumer, of course. They would claim to cure all sorts of diseases (emphasis on “cure”, a word that became central to their advertisement) while more often having the effect of an extreme laxative, emetic or just a drug high put in to present the body “doing something” as it working. A lot of patent medicine creators found themselves filthy rich as a result of many factors – for example, in states where alcohol was prohibited but medicine wasn’t, the high alcohol content present in many patent medicines made them an attractive proposition. But of the various agendas that patent medicine companies had when making these brews, actually healing people was very, very low on them.
In a video titled “Red Dead Redemption 2 Beard Tips”, Kotaku’s Tim Rogers tries to grow the biggest beard he possibly can in-game, as soon as possible. In order to do so he spends every cent he owns on hair tonic from a nearby general store, drinks every single bottle, goes to bed to restock the store and grow his beard, goes to the barber to “check his beard level”, rinse and repeat. He concludes that “tonics definitely help, and no tonics definitely halt one’s progress before it begins”. By the end of the video Arthur Morgan looks like a rug that stood up off the floor and put on a ten gallon, with nary a side effect from the tonics.
They’re literally magic potions.
On October 14th Vulture published an article titled How The West Was Digitized, featuring an interview with game director Dan Houser. At this point the article lives in infamy – Houser describes 100-hour work weeks, absurd numbers of “300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue” and so on. A few weeks later Kotaku reported on inside stories of work conditions from the company, such as one where in the game’s final year of development the studio added several weeks of work to people’s schedules for a late change to something already completed. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Red Dead 2‘s enormous world, its extreme attention to detail and gigantic list of content exists only on the backs of exploited workers, people forced to work unsustainable hours in order to line the pockets of their superiors. Dan and Sam Houser are due to make several hundred million dollars from Red Dead Redemption 2 royalties alone.
The whole “American Dream” idea that the spaghetti western is centered around is one that has similar links to the tech industry (and the rest of the private sector)’s current belief that it’s a meritocracy, that unions and worker protections are a hindrance to the industry because they “undermine individualism”. Within Rockstar itself crunch is depicted as “voluntary” despite the fact that the company culture aggressively pushes for employees to engage with it to show their commitment to the project or company or so on. The enduring cultural myth of the genius coder who can write an entire programme without external help also attempts to force the tech industry into individualist ideals, idolising singular people able to perform the same task that an entire team could do much more easily and safer.
When viewing patent medicine in this context, not as an industry of exploitation both financially and health-wise, but as an industry of entrepreneurship and individuals thriving by their own work, it makes a lot more sense as to why Red Dead Redemption 2 frames it the way it does. This is not to say that Red Dead as a franchise does not question their effectiveness in parts – in the original you can view a silent film about “The Dangers of Doctors and Patent Medicine” created by the Anti-Saloon League, and the minor patent doctor character Nigel West Dickens is treated both as a half-joke character and a con artist. However, the criticisms are few and far between compared to the products themselves – in fact, West Dickens will sell the player a tonic that gives them strengthened abilities, and even assists productively in the central plot.
Like its predecessor, Red Dead 2 gives a wink and a nod to patent medicine’s harmful effects – cocaine gum comes with the descriptor “children love it!”, certain medicines have minor negative effects but nothing severe (they are, after all, magic) – but the game holds no serious, sustained criticism. By making them normal consumables Rockstar creates the implication that patent medicine was inherently not a bad thing, perhaps misguided by old-time beliefs and science, but by and large designed to try and help; the bad parts of patent medicine must therefore be rogue agents who use the industry as a tool for crookery, a fact that is clearly rejected by even the most rudimentary history knowledge (in fact the game even reinforces this– an early bounty is for the head of a man selling “harmful substances as ‘miracle medicine'”).
With the discussion of the game since its release there seems to have been two different discourses running simultaneously; that of the game’s success, its quality as a product and so on, and its labor conditions and stories of overworked employees. When both are combined the question often becomes “is it morally okay to enjoy this game knowing that it was made with exploitation?” not recognising that it is exactly the conditions under which it was produced that informs the worldview and the politics of the game itself. Rockstar creates worlds where the accumulation of Capital is the natural order of things, and personal choice trumps all other circumstances; if we’re to confront not only their company crunch culture, but the entire industry’s, we need to also interrogate the ideologies of the works that it creates to propagate it.