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From Red Dead Redemption 2 (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

On May 13, the Twitter account Can You Pet the Dog? offhandedly made a somewhat surprising tweet: “Note: A Plague Tale was first brought to my attention by @rthurpieri. I then requested and received a review copy to cover the game for the account.” “Cover” is generous. All the account does is answer the question its name asks, testing whether players can pet dogs in various video games. (In case you’re wondering, yes, you can pet the dog in A Plague Tale: Innocence.) And yet it has accrued nearly 250,000 followers, and is now receiving $60 video games for free. That’s a rather impressive haul, all premised on the simple idea that we care whether we can pet dogs in games.

Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption 2 kicked off a minor virtual dog-petting frenzy when it was released last October, nearly five months before the beloved Twitter account was created. Gaming and non-gaming sites alike noted that you can pet the dogs in the game. Amid social media posts fawning over its realistic ecosystem and graphics, or paying tribute to fallen horses, there were videos of player character Arthur Morgan petting the good boys (every dog, according to Morgan, is a “good boy”). This past decade in AAA game design has been defined by a push toward open worlds, games that promise to allow the player to go anywhere and do anything. At the same time, the ludonarrative dissonance (when the story tells you one thing but the gameplay tells you another) of titles like Uncharted, as well as the ethical questions raised by games like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, have created a demand for nonviolent methods of player interaction.

Indeed, the fundamental difference between Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption 2 is the incorporation of an action vocabulary that goes beyond violence. What could be more realistic, down to earth, and antithetical to pop culture’s view of the seemingly inseparable relationship between games and violence than petting a dog? Did I ride into a town to rescue a member of my gang and kill a dozen police officers in the process of bailing him out? Yes, but when I returned to safer territory, I pet all the good boys I could find, so clearly Arthur Morgan is not such a bad guy. He’s gritty, complicated, even realistic, right?

The question of whether one can pet a dog is a check into the breadth of a game’s verisimilitude. Every game has a “masking system” that places a limit on what the player can do. Take a hack at a non-playable character, and perhaps the weapon will go right through them. Point a gun at an ally you’re not meant to kill, and the player character might lower the weapon, or the game might not let you pull the trigger. Maybe if you push the game in a way the makers did not anticipate, something strange happens …

Testing masking systems is something of a time-honored tradition among gamers. But RDR2 is different, at least for this player. Perhaps that’s because the game is so tightly constructed and its limits don’t frequently show. More generously, it is because for the first time, a piece of interactive fiction is strong enough in its storytelling, character writing, and setting, and its ludonarrative dissonance is sufficiently muted, that I’m compelled to play in a manner consistent with what optimizes the game’s coherence. This in turn allows the limits of its verisimilitude to go unnoticed.

Verisimilitude has become a calling card of video games in the new millennium. Whatever cultural forces have made that quality part of film and literature, games have been pushed there for at least two additional reasons. First is the desire to be taken seriously as an art form, which led developers to mimic the aesthetics of other storytelling modes. Secondly, verisimilitude only became possible as technology improved, so it seems like a teleological goal (this is partially true for cinema as well).

Rockstar put a great deal of effort into stretching the verisimilitude of RDR2 as far as possible. If you choose to keep petting a dog, Arthur might draw it in his notebook. Kill the dog, on the other hand, and you might find yourself arrested or chased out of town. Kick it by mistake? Maybe you try to hide in a bar, but the bartender hears what you did and kills you himself. This isn’t the first time a game developer has been attuned to the treatment of animals, of course. But if mass murder in games is so often acceptable, the ludonarrative consistency of drawing a dog or being chased out of town for hurting one is a welcome change of pace.

Yet the cracks still show, as they always will. When I first played RDR2, I attempted to give a starving prisoner some food. The game did not give me this option explicitly, but I thought perhaps setting food in front of him would work. Instead I watched as Arthur disdainfully flung the plate onto the ground. My irritation was surpassed only by that of the prisoner. What I wanted to do was antithetical to what the game needed me to do, which was wait until he was hungry enough to dish out some essential story information. (Another thing too many blockbuster games love is torture that works.) While exploring the world a bit later, I came upon a woman calling for help. I stopped and listened as she explained how her horse died and she was stranded far from home, and I agreed to take her back. It was a great detail … at least, until an hour later, when I encountered what appeared to be the same woman with the same story. Even a game this meticulous has its limits.

Those limits would be easier to find if not for the fact that 2,800 people worked on RDR2 over seven years, many of them logging 50, 60, or even 80-hour work weeks doing so. The cost of such realism is ruined marriages, parents who see their kids only when they peek into their rooms after dark, and crushed dreams. It’s reasonable to wonder if it’s even possible to expand on RDR2’s verisimilitude. To do it equitably seems impossible, especially as other major game studios shut their doors or lay off employees. Whatever comes next in gaming may have to either do without petting dogs or find a way to make such small gestures more meaningful to their whole, the same way Ico toyed with the cliche of rescuing a princess in a castle.

Forrest Cardamenis

Forrest Cardamenis is a critic and film programmer living in Queens, New York. He received an M.A. in Film Studies from New York University, and has written for MUBI...