Red Dead Redemption 2
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We’re moving fast and getting faster. I’m kicking hard to push us forward into the dark, or through it. A straight line, riding parallel to the coast. I can feel the steady rhythm of the animal below me and he can feel me wet and cold above. The sound of his movement on the ground is blunted against the wooden tracks but I can hear knocking in the moments between thunder. It is hard and dense. Pulled from somewhere in my chest, we’re making heavy speed, taking heavy flight; we’re becoming a part of the storm.
The scene to my right is a broken openness of trees and rocks and places nobody goes. It is a blur in the rain and then it’s gone. To the left, only the sea. It is lying down in a long, black shadow to watch the sky’s performance above. I can see the sharp lightning strikes in my periphery flashing the curve of the horizon: the edge of the map, new land in the distance, or a place for the shadows to stretch. Lightning casts under-lighting on the faces of the clouds who become quick villains in the sky. And I’m moving still, riding down the empty pathway of the rail tracks that run between the forest and the sea. The sand beside me reflects the grey moon. The ground has been torn like wet paper to make a rough end to the land, and I ride down its edges.
The rhythm, the weight, the direction, the line. The railway will take me out of here, and it does. I ride until the night has given up. I ride until I outride the storm.
Days later and it is early afternoon. I’m following the tracks again. Low hum, fireflies burnt out husks on the floor. I left the hot city to begin my route north-west. It’s cool there and I can find the quiet I need.
This journey is taking a long second to start though. The scene won’t let me leave. I’m trying to go but the black smoke of Saint Denis is clinging to my back like a ghost caught out in the sun. I ride to shake it off me, to forget where I have been. And as I move, I feel new heat. Sweat slips down my forearms. The air folds over from black city smoke into a yellow-brown haze. I can sense it getting thick around me, can feel the mist dirtying my already un-clean cheeks. The air is present in a way I think I could take a hand off the reins to hold onto it. The colour, temperature — it’s like the sun is here somewhere but also nowhere in particular; like it’s gotten lost on its way down from the sky and fallen flat on its face in the mud. I can see where I’m going but not where I will end up. I follow the tracks below me through to the other side of the haze and hope for no surprises.
The railway starts to lift up off the ground and bends over to the right. I guess it was made to raise its passengers above the swamp. Maybe there is a lake here in other seasons; maybe now the heat has pulled the water up into the mist I’m choking on. On either side of the track, there is only dirt shining with moisture like a trap. I can see birds fixed on top of it, stuck or sinking, and further down an alligator is resting on the bank. I ride slowly along the centre of the path, careful not to fall off incase I wake it.
The bend of the railway is the only movement here. In the wetlands, everything is weighed down by the heat. It’s flat, still. Even the trees look exhausted. I pass bald cypress giants wearing only the long, dry hair of Spanish moss. I am beginning to slow down, I realise. And just as I feel the atmosphere dragging me into itself, it breathes me out again. The tracks slope back to the earth, the daylight fog quits. And when the colour returns to the sky, I let myself breathe in.
We’re nearly there now. For weeks, I have been riding the line, seeing nobody. I have only followed the tracks, riding them low and high and off the ground. Vast bridges have taken me across canyons. I’ve seen cliff edges spill over into waterfalls; the crash of water echoing between the rocks below has carried on in an echo in my mind. The sound aches until the sound collapses whenever the tracks lead me into tunnels under mountains and into the dark. Every tunnel is a dare and a death wish. The silence below the earth always feels like a lie about to be revealed: the steam whistle of a train ahead or behind me is a real nightmare I start to imagine, and a sound that wakes me up at night. But I go in hard and I do not stop until I’ve reached the arc of light at the other end. I always make it through.
At times, I pull the reins one way or the other to find a clearing to rest in. The gravel gives way to greens and reds. I lie down below fir tree silhouettes, sometimes lilac skies. I have shot rabbits and deer quietly on foot with my arrows, and carried them on my horse until I could make camp. I raise the tent wherever I can be closest to the moon. A ride, a hunt, a rest. I cook on the fire and then sometimes draw what I have seen. Yesterday, an eagle I hadn’t noticed flew away in a start when I was crossing a stream: a fast second of gold. A flower I can craft into a cure, an abandoned home, a stranger I saw long ago. My book is full of these moments.
It’s better here, like this — to be me out here like this. I understand what to do with myself more than I do when I’m squeezing through the city, head dipped low. Out of time with the big, loud world that has picked up its pace. When I’m here, I don’t need catch up with anyone. I already know myself, know the place. I make more sense here, like an animal too wild to ever be brought inside. Too filthy, too quiet even. And I don’t think anything is lost in living a life like this. I see more than I ever would otherwise. I feel steady even when I’m on the road.
I ride the tracks for weeks until the cold finally comes in snow and clouds of frost. I pull away from the rails one last time to enter the mountains, and then the cruel world is gone.
At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, we are told that an America of outlaws and cowboys and shoot-outs and chaos is no longer allowed. That, at the turn of the century, the government will be hunting down the kinds of people that made the wild west so wild, to make sure they stay in the 1800s where they belong. We are then dropped into the Van Der Linde gang who are intent on trying to outrun this problem. (Or maybe not outrun it but run through it). See, if only they could rob enough money, they wouldn’t have to rob anyone ever again. They’d be free, in one sense, they think.
The story of Red Dead Redemption 2 is about the struggle of this promise. It’s about how two wrongs don’t make a right. And it is through the conscience of the gang’s second-in-command Arthur Morgan that we think through the dilemma. Everything Arthur does, he does for loyalty to the gang: for the criminals and stragglers, his old friends and one of their kids. But as he lies, cheats and steals his way to freedom, he knows how much it is putting everyone at risk. He wonders quietly if there might be another way out of this life. He wonders if there even is an end in sight. It’s impossible to know, of course. And as the player, I felt as lost as Arthur. I couldn’t tell which way things were heading. I got hopeless. I got the sense that I was only making things worse. I felt guilty, responsible, directionless, worried — and that’s when I decided it was time to go. I packed my bags, jumped on my horse and I left. As far as I was concerned, the problem could wait until I got back. I wasn’t ready to deal with it just yet. No, I had to run away.
It was somewhere between the midpoint and the climax when I took off. I found the seasons in sync in the four corners of the map and changed my outfits accordingly as I made my way between them. Snow, desert, rain, and autumnal plains. I wasn’t thinking about anything that wasn’t directly in front of me. I trailed beavers around a lake, and saw a moose swimming in slow-motion through the same dark blue water. No one could reach me out here, nobody knew where I was — nobody but the wolves and the mountain lions I tried to fight off. I often wouldn’t see them coming, creeping up behind me in the hills. I would die and come back to life, ready to try again.
In low pools of mud to the east, I studied birds I had never seen before, and watched a frog leap across my feet, off on his own adventure. Occasionally, when I was veering near a path, near civilisation, I would ride past someone who needed my help. I’d always give it to them. In the north-east, I found a woman drenched. She was alone and starving. She was also burying her husband in the middle of a storm. Charlotte. She had no one left and so I showed her how to survive. I helped her back on her feet. It was a dark time and I felt for her. But really, I think helping her helped me. And she could sense what was going on — that there were problems of my own I should be dealing with. I think, I don’t know. She never pushed me on it, she just let me know that I was welcome to stay as long as I needed to. And I did. I found water nearby and went fishing. I went in and out of her house, and broke bread at her table even when she wasn’t there.
I had needed to leave and that’s exactly what I did. Now, I realise that it was a wonder I even could. It is a full, relieving, mournful wonder that the form of the open world role-playing game allows for active escapism in a story precisely about making an escape. Red Dead Redemption’s story pushed me slowly over the edge but the game was there to catch me. There is huge accommodation in game design and narrative design that mean this is even possible, that both the game and the story can hold on until the player is ready to stand back up and finish what they’ve started. And what other media can match that? It would be like getting to a tense point in a novel and finding that actually, there are smaller stories inside if you move the pages in new directions, or turn the whole thing upside down. Lighter things, tales to encounter at your own pace. It would be like pausing a film before the action really got going in the final act and just going for an explore around the set instead; chatting to that background character you wanted to know more about; and asking the actors if they would be okay to wait while you got yourself together, all while you stalled in feelings of peace before the climax and resolution rounded things off.
I stopped, looked away, but I didn’t stare into space — emptiness didn’t greet me, but plenty of other stories. Side quests, activities, challenges, and a compendium to fill. All of it came together in my own version of events, in my own order too. It was my style of play. Because I could do what I wanted, I was writing and reading my own game. Because I could do what I wanted, I became very attached to Arthur; I wasn’t just taking him through the motions but moving him of my own accord. And I was moving him in ways that make me laugh now, thinking back. In a game where you can be the most terrifying cowboy in the land — shoot anybody you come into contact with, kill every animal, steal every wagon, fence every stolen good — I was off taking my horse for a bath. I was admiring the drawings I’d made of squirrels and crabs. The game told me cowboys weren’t really allowed anymore and I said don’t worry, that’s okay. My heart can’t handle it anyway.
I didn’t make any unnecessary trouble. I was busy escapism-escaping. I didn’t want to accumulate anymore drama, couldn’t hack it. I was on my cowboy sabbatical, feeling out an early retirement. I think that’s why I found myself drawn to the railways. There, I could avoid other people — strangers and gang-members alike. Even in that setting, my time and space away didn’t always go far enough. It didn’t free me from the problems or neutralise them like I wanted. In lieu of the main story, I found myself filling in the blanks, thinking through the silence (as though I was having mental arguments with myself in the shower, preparing for future confrontations to come). I was riding the tracks but I was also creating fiction, creative non-fiction, or simply projecting. And what I’d project was the sadness of the dilemma I was trying to get away from. The rides down the railways in this huge fictional America became a simulation that peeled at the edges of my diversion. A horse in place of a steam train; alone with no other passengers; it was everything I had known versus the modernity I couldn’t stop from coming my way. It was Arthur trying to find a way to survive in this century without seeing a clear path forward, but moving regardless, trying to break through. It was a rock and a hard place; the gang and a future alone. I was riding for miles, always nervous a train would appear at the other end of the tunnel and we would find ourselves face to face. Arthur couldn’t avoid his problems forever. Eventually, they’d catch up or he would run into them head on.
It was like I had shifted from the action-adventure genre to adventure-only, and in that rolling openness, I felt Arthur’s character shift too. It was a change in him the story had started, but it was in my play that he settled; like I had taken him away from the main story in order for him to grow. When other games have gotten rough like this, and I’m thinking of The Last of Us series in particular, I simply stopped playing for days or weeks at a time. The shape of Red Dead Redemption 2 meant I could be present for the hardest parts. I think it meant I spent even longer inside the game than I usually would, sinking into my own recovery. Riding, hunting, exploring, and taking my time with everything. I waited until we were both ready to face our conclusion, and I knew when it was time to go.
I had been living in the snow for so long that even at night my eyes were stunned by bright reflections of ice and light. I had thought I needed to come here, to get away for a moment and feel free. Let go of the cruel, cruel world. But I never got used to the place. High like the land and the sky were no longer separate entities. Walking back and forth across the frozen lake, losing the edge and my direction. Animals, invisible, only white moving over white. Tricks and lies. It felt like a more vague world to me; like a corner of the map that had faded over time. But I made peace with myself up there because I realised I wasn’t ready to fade with it just yet. I had to go back and carry on with my story. There was more in me left to give.
I felt my bones warm up and move again on the way down from the mountain. I saw water running, unbound. Dark alpine greens lifted. I found the railway again. I went back the way I came — over canyons, under mountains, tunnels, bridges — I rode. I went as far as I could until I pulled off the tracks and into the forest. I slowed down. Undercover, careful, a safe camp of those I have known. I found the gang just as I had left them but I was coming back to them somebody new.
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