So You Wanna Be a Cowboy?
Why Red Dead Redemption 2 Might Be the Greatest Game Ever Made
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have a showdown with a notorious gunfighter, rob a stagecoach, get into a knock-down-drag-out bar fight, or track and hunt wild game through dense, verdant forests — all without getting your boots muddy — then Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game for you.
And chances are you already know this. The game was released three years ago in 2018 to critical acclaim and had the largest opening weekend of any video game, making over $725 million dollars in three days and selling over 17 millions copies in a mere two weeks. It smashed numerous industry records for pre-order sales and would go on to win the coveted “Game of the Year” award from not one but several prominent video gaming publications.
Amazingly, three years later the game — and its rabid fan base — are not only going strong but growing. A quick glance at the Red Dead Redemption subreddit page on the popular social media site Reddit shows that there are over 839,000 “outlaws on the run” — and those are just the members who joined up. So why the popularity?
When we’re first introduced to the game’s main character — a cowboy and outlaw named Arthur Morgan — he is on the run from the law as a vital member of the infamous Van Der Linde gang: a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells led by Dutch van der Linde, a black haired, well-heeled charismatic criminal commander who believes in living free and fighting against the oppressive overreach of a civilization that is not only settling but also taming the wildness out of the Wild West. Dutch fancies himself as a sort of Western Robin Hood and he and his gang frequently target the symbols of this oppression — banks, railroad companies, and oil tycoons. It’s all about robbing from the rich to give to the poor — at least that’s what Dutch tells the gang — but do he and the other gang members really care about “fighting the power” and helping others?
Interestingly, Dutch is the only one who ever seems to be holding all the money…and Arthur Morgan is his loyal soldier. He often serves as the gang’s muscle — and he’s good at it. He’s quick on the draw, can chase down, lasso, and break a wild stallion, and he’s got a mean streak inside him (as well as emotional pain and self-loathing that he isn’t so great at hiding) that he knows how to take out on other people — with his fists, his hunting knife, or at the point of a gun. He’s well respected and liked by the other members of the gang, which is composed of a diverse group of people from all walks of life such as: an elderly preacher who is a closeted heroin addict, former African-American slaves who have escaped slavery to strike out on their own, an Irish immigrant scofflaw, a Mexican-American on the run from the law, and a biracial African-American and American-Indian who teaches Arthur how to track wild game, use a bow and arrow, and hunt.
The real beauty of the game — and part of its immense and sustained popularity — is the amount of freedom that the video game programmers allow players coupled with breathtaking graphics. Players can move through, interact, and play the game in a multitude of ways. One could play the game for its main quests and story line, do side quests, explore the game for hidden gems like fossilized dinosaur bones, rock carvings, or cave art. Or one could spend hours — days of playtime — hunting, fishing, exploring, and communing with nature.
Go take in a sunset or sunrise. Bask in the moonlit glow of the night and watch as screech owls glide silently across the skies hunting for prey. Listen to the wind howl and moan through the trees. Or, just to satisfy your sense of fashion and sartorial curiosity, go make yourself a nice pair of moccasins or a vest out of that moose you just hunted. It’s completely up to you!
Perhaps you’re not into hunting, skinning, and butchering wild game to eat — or seeing people leaking buckets of blood across the ground after being shot or stabbed? No worries, the game has an option to turn the gore on or off. And for those people who are vegetarians or vegans, believe it or not there ARE meatless and vegetarian food options in the game for your character. There are plenty of wild berries, edible mushrooms, and medicinal plants that your character learns to eat and use, but the options don’t stop there — you can always go into one of the towns or cities that dot your map to visit one of the general stores to buy cans of baked beans, kidney beans, peas, canned sweetcorn, apricots, peaches, strawberries etc. You can even start your morning with a nice warm bowl of oatmeal at Keane’s Saloon in Valentine — then chase it with a shot of whiskey.
And what an experience simply going into town is! Wagon wheels and horse hooves cleave into the mud, leaving wheel ruts and prints that deepen with the rain. Townspeople can be seen doing construction, working in the fields with their livestock, or serving drinks and food in bars and saloons. Shady characters hang out in alleyways, smoking cigarettes and whittling away at a piece of wood with a knife. You hear someone say, “There’s the jackass I told you about,” as you stroll across the street. Wait a minute — did that guy just spit when you walked past him? It’s up to you whether you want to brush it off or let your fists do the talking.
Or maybe the sights and sounds of the big city are more your speed. You can rent a room at a hotel, freshen up with a hot bath, play black jack or poker at a saloon, and listen to the piano player bang out Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” You can even take in a variety act or see a picture show at something called a “movie theater.” There are countless surprises you’ll discover just by walking the streets and following your ears. People strum away on guitars, pluck away on banjo strings, and there is even a woman living in the slums of Saint Denis who pulls out a fiddle to cut a sprightly tune that causes you and others in the game to gather and listen. And then there’s jazz….
However, what makes the game really shine (in my personal opinion) are what your character comes across on their travels away from the towns and cities.
In the mountains wild rams can be seen battering each other and butting heads for dominance in their pack. Somewhere in the distance a bull elk lets out a wild bugle-like roar hoping to attract a mate. A golden eagle swoops down from the sky — the sun at its back — and dives into a crystalline lake and snatches a salmon in its talons that it carries away through the air. As you gallop along you hear a pack of timber wolves snarl and howl as they catch your horse’s scent and begin pursuing you across the tundra. Your horse rears back, throws you onto the cold, hard ground, and bolts away, becoming a distant speck on the horizon…and you find yourself stranded in the snow with four timber wolves, circling you.
Too much excitement for you? No worries. You can always go fishing.
The game is littered with numerous streams, creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes. There is nothing quite so relaxing — and even meditative — as strolling up to a lake, searching through your tacklebox to settle on the best bait, and casting out your line to see what bites. Time seems to slow down. The background music changes; somewhere a single, lonely harmonica breaks the silence, its notes warbling and harping through the air (and your television speakers) as you watch your fishing line for signs of a nibble.
As if the absolutely breathtaking graphics and astonishing levels of detail weren’t enough, the fine people at Rockstar Games even provided an in-game photography mode. Numerous editing features allow the photographer to zoom in or out, elevate, lower, or rotate the camera’s point of view, and even add filters and effects to the images so that they look like old 19th century daguerreotypes.
It’s this photography mode — as well as the online version of the game where players can create their own characters — that has helped spread the game to others and increase its popularity. Thousands of players routinely post in-game photographs they have taken to the Rockstar Games Social Club. Others post photographs or upload video streams of their game play to platforms such as YouTube, Twitch, or the large community of Red Dead Redemption fans on Reddit.
Interestingly, with the advent of lockdowns and social distancing from the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have taken to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 as an escape or a distraction from the stresses of the world — adding tens of thousands of new avid players to an already wildly popular game. And since not everyone can just hop on a horse and gallop away into the wilderness to relax and recharge, the world of Red Dead Redemption has served as the next best substitute — especially for those who enjoy the game’s on-line mode.
Even as the lockdowns thankfully end for some people and life returns to normal, it is safe to say that the game will remain as popular as ever. Fans will continue to post their pictures, live-stream their game play, and there is even a thriving community of those who create fan art or craft cosplay outfits to dress as the game’s characters. With fans as active as these Red Dead Redemption 2 is definitely here to stay.
Images and Works Cited
Images: All images were personally taken by author, Lyndon Moore.
“List of Accolades Received by Red Dead Redemption 2.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 May 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accolades_received_by_Red_Dead_Redemption_2.