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My week with Red Dead Redemption 2 and the guilt of digital murder

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Nov 13, 2018, 4:11 PM EST (Updated)

This is not a story about a video game. This is not a story about a guy playing a video game that's based on the fictitious story of an outlaw. This isn't even a story of how the player (and the outlaw) changed their ways, though that does feature into things. When we get right down to it, this is a simple story about a man and a horse.

The world of Rockstar Games' latest smash hit open-world whiz-bang, Red Dead Redemption 2, is a wonder. After nearly breaking the backs of the people who made the game, it certainly should be. I'm going to tell the tale of my experience with the game thus far, which I've been playing for a little over a week. It doesn't feel like I've been playing a game — every time I load up my Playstation 4 it feels more like I'm entering a holodeck. I've had similar experiences (most recently with Witcher 3) but no other game compares to this one.

This old west poke-around is a prequel to the first game, and you play as outlaw Arthur Morgan. You're not on your own, either, you're part of a gang. I found myself thrown right into the middle of a royal mess — my gang, long led by my mentor Dutch Van Der Linde, were run out of town after a job gone wrong. We were hiding out in the snows of the Grizzly Mountains, and somehow managed to survive. This first snowy section was mostly a tutorial on how I would handle basic functions in this new world, and before long we were moving the entire group out of the snows and into more pleasing territory. When this happened, the immersion was more or less complete.

I admit, I made some very bad decisions. Some of them may have been about testing things to see what was possible, and some of them might have been due to pent-up aggression. I'll just say that an innocent man got lassoed and dragged behind my horse for about twenty minutes… he stopped screaming after ten. I offered to give a helpless woman a ride, but then realized her destination was too far out of my way. I rode into the woods, took her off of my horse, and shot her in the face. I also looted her corpse and sold off her jewelry to a fence.

Short story long, a lot of people got shot. It was as if the person controlling Arthur had never seen Westworld before, and had no idea what happened when visitors to fantasy western parks start acting this way. A digital NPC (non-player character) isn't the same as a Westworld host, right? These aren't real people, they're digital creations (are they though???) so I rampaged my way across the plains shooting, roping, and killing everything I came across. There were missions and quests to go on, but so what. The worst thing that went down? I kept being told by the cook at our camp to bring him back some meat. In an attempt to shut this guy up, I stabbed a dog in the face. It was right in the main street of town, and everyone saw me do it. Everyone rightly came after me — including the dog, who had survived. Almost symbolically, one of the many (many, so many) lawmen shot the black hat right off of my head before I was ultimately taken down in a hail of bullets. The camp went without the dogmeat I was intending to bring them.

I was not proud of myself. This wasn't anything like Grand Theft Auto V, where behavior like this is almost a part of the game… this felt so much more real than that. My journal entries were bleak, and the honor system that charts my character's standing was as low as it could go. I had had plenty of violent delights, but they didn't feel so delightful. I deserved a violent end right then and there, and the bounty on my head was so high that there was no chance I'd ever be able to pay it off. I walked to the top of the nearest stone cliff, and I threw myself off. After doing so, I stopped the system from respawning my hateful self and I did something that I never do — I erased every save game file I had made. Violent end achieved.

I decided to start over, and this time I would not go down the same dark path. Things were different, and they were different because of a digital horse.

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This time I resisted my awful impulses. I was still haunted by the ghost of the NPC woman that I had shot in the woods — this Arthur Morgan never did that, but me, the player? Yeah, new save game or not, that happened. It doesn't matter that this was a different visit to the park. It happened.

Even without my crazy violent delights, the normal flow of the game has plenty of violence. Once I truly engaged with the story, I became hooked on it, with characters (all of them dear digital friends now, except for two of them) that are vivid and very real. The pull towards violence still existed, but thankfully I was eventually able to purchase a horse of my own.

She was beautiful, and she was fast. I was taken with her instantly, and I decided that no harm would ever come to this creature. In a fit of Don Quixote-esque whimsy (or recalling The Expanse, more likely) I gave her the name Rocinante. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Roci saved my soul.

Death isn't permanent for the player, of course — you will always respawn and be allowed entry back into the park to question the nature of your reality. Death is permanent for everything else, however, including your horse. If Roci dies, that would be it. She'd be dead for good.

This was especially troubling because of the "horse bonding system" which is featured in the game — as I took care of Roci (feeding, brushing, patting, calming, telling her how great she is, etc.) the more our bond grew. We're at the point where she comes to my aid whenever I whistle, and she never comes close to bucking me off. There was a dark moment after I was fleeing from a successful bank robbery (having cracked all six safes, thank you very much) when Roci and I took a tumble down a rainy, rocky ravine. She was on the verge of death, but thankfully I had a horse reviver on me. If she had died, I would have hit the roof. I realized that I cared more about this digital horse than I care about most real, breathing human beings. Make of that what you will.

I had no fear for my own life, but I greatly feared for Rocinante. That's why I really started to behave, truth be told, because I would sooner die a million times than let anything happen to her. Together, we've traveled across the entire map too many times to count. She's never let me down. I started to care about my fellow gang members as well, and began to be much nicer and more helpful around our little corner of the west. I did chores, hunted game, and talked with everyone. All the while I made sure that Roci was always comfortably hitched, fed, brushed, and loved.

As I was taking care of this digital horse and keeping digital outlaws fed, my real life suddenly came into sharper focus. Why not take care of my own apartment like I take care of this digital camp? Why not smile and nod to people on the street in real life like I do in the game? Sure, in the game I'm doing it because of the aforementioned honor system, where I am now firmly in the upper decks… but still. Aren't real people and real apartments due the same courtesy and care as digital ones? Questions for another time, maybe.

My honor might be high, but I'm still no saint. I've ruthlessly gunned down members of a rival gang, and helped to burn an old confederate woman's house to the ground. I've also helped a stranded circus performer round up his lost animals, marched in a suffragette parade, found a girl chained up in an outhouse in the woods, and fought a lion. I've killed every member of an evening Klan meeting with a single stick of dynamite (one survived, but not for long) and have robbed quite a few trains. Still, there is honor in this life. Even when there isn't, there's always Rocinante.

I'm not finished with my adventures in the west. The game is huge, seriously huge, and there is so much to see and do. I'm almost loathe to go further in the story, because everything is moderately good right now. Roci is alive, and the gang is mostly happy. The "good old days" are slowly fading and the time of the outlaw will soon be a thing of the past, but we aren't relics yet. They say that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is where you choose to end the story — if it ended now, it wouldn't exactly be a comedy, but it wouldn't be heartbreaking. The true ending will be rough, and I am growing melancholic just thinking about it. Some of my favorite characters have plot armor (thanks to this game being a prequel) but not all of them do. Roci has no armor of any kind.

My time will come, and my violent delights will once again have their much-deserved violent ends. Redemption does not seem possible, but I will strive for it anyway. As for myself (the one playing the game), well… old Mary Todd's calling. Time for me to dust my actual apartment and do some dishes. I won't get honor points for it, but I may become something that resembles a functional human being.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available right now. Ride like history is biting at your heels… because it most definitely is.