Rockstar Games is a developer with a long and rich history. Most of its releases are the biggest events of their respective years, and the popularity of the company has continued to skyrocket as time has passed. Red Dead Redemptionand Grand Theft Auto have quickly become accustomed to overwhelmingly strong sales with each new entry, but it's apparent that the developer has neglected a handful of its franchises like Bully, Max Payne, and L.A. Noire in favor of ensuring that just two are nurtured to be industry leaders in storytelling, presentation, and realism.
With the shift in focus, it's become far easier to compare the two franchises. Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto have become the bread and butter for Rockstar, and as both deploy an open world and place heavy emphasis on character development and cinematic storytelling, it's easy to point out minute similarities. The differences are as stark as the similarities, though, and there will be players who adore one, while never seeming to enjoy the other.
Red Dead Redemption is About Story
While the Grand Theft Auto franchise has included a narrative since the very beginning, the storytelling in Red Dead Redemption has always been a cut above. The damned tale of John Marston and the life and times of Arthur Morgan are some of the best stories in gaming, with both entries seamlessly fitting together to forge a western experience unlike any other in the video game space. The setting that each game presents has plenty of side activities that can keep the player entertained, but the main event always seems to be the story as they each suddenly switch to a stylish and cinematic affair when a mission is undertaken.
This doesn't seem to be the case with Grand Theft Auto's storytelling. They each include a story, and in Grand Theft Auto 5, it's presented in a way that's not completely unfamiliar to fans of cinema, but the franchise has yet to present a tale that truly rivals anything else in the gaming sphere. The main quest line in Grand Theft Auto always feels like another thing that players can do if they so desire, alongside undertaking side quests and scooping up collectibles. It's not compulsory, unlike how it is in Red Dead Redemption. In Red Dead Redemption, it's the story that's the most likely to stay with players after the credits roll, whereas in Grand Theft Auto it's usually the wacky and unpredictable moments created by the player while distracted from the main narrative.
The Social Commentary of Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto relies so heavily on the current socio-political landscape, as it has always been a parody of life itself. So many of GTA's comedic or depressing moments are because the events of the game parrot what's happening in the real world, albeit in a far more exaggerated way. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a shining example of this, as Los Santos pokes fun at modern-day Los Angeles and the people that inhabit it, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a clear parody of the drug-fueled Miami in the 1980s.
Red Dead Redemption being set in the wild west means that it can't rely so heavily on modern social commentary, but does well to sprinkle in some historical issues of the time like women's voting rights and Native American survival. Grand Theft Auto feels more heavy-handed with its handling of social issues, but maybe that's the point. Red Dead Redemption isn't a franchise that relies on comedy as a pillar of its success like Grand Theft Auto does, so naturally, it's going to be different in its tone as well as its handling of real-world events and talking points.
Red Dead Redemption Has Character, GTA Has Setting
Grand Theft Auto has had a long line of protagonists that have headed up each new entry, but none seem to stand out alongside personalities like Kratos, Joel and Ellie, Master Chief, or Cloud Strife. John Marston and Arthur Morgan absolutely deserve to be alongside the aforementioned characters as some of the finest in the medium, so it's clear that Red Dead Redemption prioritizes a more character-centric experience. Tommy Vercetti's ascent to the top of Vice City is enjoyable, but Arthur Morgan's often-reluctant journey towards the light or Marston's constant grappling with the past he left behind are simply far better. Red Dead Redemption is loved by players who require a complex protagonist, but GTA has yet to provide one quite as memorable.
Where Grand Theft Auto excels is the setting. New Austin feels like a characterless dust bowl, and New Hannover (as well as its surrounding areas) is gorgeous and diverse, but lacks any real identity. Because GTA's settings are inspired by places that players can travel to, they are so much fun to explore and simply exist in. Hogtying an unassuming NPC and finding the most innovative way to dispatch them feels as though Arthur or John are thoroughly ruining their day, whereas creating mayhem on the sun-soaked streets of Los Santos or the drab, purpose-built structures of Liberty City feels like it's upsetting the apple cart of the city as a whole. The setting is so much more important, so Grand Theft Auto doesn't need a compelling protagonist. The true main character is the area that players are exploring.
Some Similarities, Even More Differences
Both Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption boast expansive open worlds, a third-person perspective, and stunning visuals and production value. On the surface, it would be easy to presume that one is a copy of the other, just in a different setting, but this couldn't be further from the truth. There are mechanical, tonal, and philosophical differences between the two that make each franchise feel justified in its existence. Red Dead Redemption satisfies players who want a compelling story told to them, and GTA will appeal to those who want to forge their own story by using the tools the game provides.
Time will tell if Rockstar Games is right to place other franchises to one side as it focuses on the pair of industry titans, but it's clear that both cater to different ends of the single-player spectrum. The similarities are evident, but the differences between Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto are what make them great, as well as ensuring Rockstar is still one of the most beloved developers in gaming.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now on PC, PS4, Stadia, and Xbox One.