Okay so a small pixel-art indie game is not going to compare to the spectacle of a western with Rockstar's full-blown production behind it. Even so, there's a lot Red Dead Redemption 2 could learn from Westerado: Double Barrelled.
The premise of Westerado, for those unfamiliar, is quite simple. Out in the Old West your home is destroyed and your family murdered. You have to then track down the culprit across a small open world in the name of revenge. The twist? Anybody could be the killer. On each playthrough they are randomly chosen from every NPC in the world, so you have to find clues as to their appearance in order to narrow things down. You'll have people tell you a single piece of information like, "he had a black hat" or, "she had red hair" and with each piece you get closer to a definitive image of them. Of course you'll still have to find them too.
But then there's the games second twist. You can kill anyone in the game world. Any NPC can be gunned down if you want and the world reacts accordingly. Kill enough bandits and the outlaws of the world will begin to flee you on sight. Murder your way through towns and you'll become an outlaw yourself.
There are quests and storylines throughout but none of them are essential and all of them can be broken. A completely free-form structure would be incredibly intimidating, but Westerado's simple and clear central goal makes the whole thing manageable. The path I carved through its world is incredibly memorable for me because each step was one I chose to make, not one the game told me to. I spared that remaining enemy. I took on an oil baron to avenge a stranger. Even in the context of a largely light-hearted little game, Westerado still managed to punch hard with certain emotional beats because they were of my own making.
The conclusion to my quest for revenge came not at the end of a trail of clues but by pure chance. I'd spent spent hours scouring every inch of the game world in search of him. I knew what he looked like but could never find him. I gave up, began roaming around seeking other activities until there on a train platform, stood beside me, was the killer himself. Stood enjoying a cigarette without a care in the world. I didn't ask questions. I just drew my gun without a word and shot a stranger. This ending was one that was both randomly generated and of my own making. It belonged to me like few game endings ever have.
Red Dead Redemption 2 will be another lavish big budget open world but it's one that will likely follow in the steps of its predecessors and dot its world with linear missions. While that's fine and an approach that's brought us many stellar games, it feels tired. Games like Westerado make me wonder just how powerful big-budget open world games could be if they more strongly embraced their spaces in their own right, instead of simply treating them as the stage for missions and stories whose form we've experienced dozens of times before.