Do you watch Westworld? It seems everyone who heads over to the park is out to murder, assault, and generally cause mayhem. It makes for a great TV series, but that isn’t what I would do. I’d just want to hang out and gape at the old-timey food in the stores, perhaps take in the sights on horseback and learn how to shoot a rifle.
When I got Red Dead Redemption 2, it was like taking a little trip to Westworld, and I was ready for some Western immersion. You can make a zillion choices in that game, from constant murder to hours of soothing horseback riding. No judgment about your murder choices. These NPCs aren’t hosts discovering their humanity. It’s a game, and it’s a blast to follow your darkest impulses. In fact, that's one of the things that gaming is for. For me, however, this was a chance to do what I’ve always wanted. I could spend 10 hours just experiencing the Old West (well, slightly East of West). Even better? I didn’t have to smell anyone.
To be clear, you do have to do some work in Red Dead to get the full experience. You’ve got to get through a snowstorm and chat with some pretty surly people. You’ll also have to hunt a bear to buy a horse (I swear, that makes sense in the game.) Still, you can make it through an awful lot just by wandering around and living. Once you have your camp set up, you can experience what it would have been like to live back then, without having to deal with outhouses. Well, as a man anyway. If you're hungry in camp, you can grab some stew from the pot or eat a rind of cheese from your saddle bag. You can decide how much of a fancy beard you want to wear, if you want to look like Josh Brolin with your hair all loose or like Sir Jorah Mormont with it pomaded back. You can sit by the fire and contemplate the stars, or hear one of the women in camp sing a song about some woman named Lorena. There are no coms blasting out orders or attacks from robot armies, like games set in a more futuristic world. You can just sip your coffee and breathe for a spell.
Red Dead sort of feels like a meditation. The horseback riding is more soothing than watching an episode of The Great British Bake-Off. In the beginning of the game, you have no choice but to ride your horse everywhere, taking time to see the landscape, which is frankly mind-blowing. You can watch the weather. Sound boring? It’s not. Watching the dark clouds move across the sky, or a wild lightning storm blasting the world around you, is beautiful and moving. This is why people camp, or live off the grid. This is what we’re going to miss when global warming finally burns the world to a crispy biscuit. You can get off your horse for a bit and feed him apples. You can brush him and pat him and mutter comforting things to him. If you ride with friends or co-workers, you can have conversations about the world or past loves. The game is like a song (Bear with me. I had a whole lot of time to think about this while riding down to Valentine.) It starts somewhere low key, then there's only somewhere powerful to go. A lot of games just drop you in and boom, you’re in a war. Here, you establish yourself as a real person with a real life before things start to happen. You learn backstory and figure out what day to day life could really have been like. The action means so much more when you know what’s at stake for you personally.
Even when you’re looting some dead body on a train (it’s still a story about outlaws, of course), you’re not picking up magical potions or enchanted gems. These are real items that a person might have, like half a bottle of gin or some snake oil you acquire from a huckster. Rip apart someone’s house (if they owe you money), and see what it was like to live back then. You didn’t own a lot of stuff. You might have a hairbrush in your bedside table, and maybe a single letter from a loved one. You probably used the rest for fire fuel. You have a simple framed picture. If you’re a little fancy, you might have wallpaper. No fridges here, and you’re unlikely to find enough food to sustain you, so you should probably head into town to get supplies.
After a while, you start to feel like your character, wanting to get away from all that pesky civilization. One person on a horse passes you as you ride and it starts to feel crowded. A wagon goes by and you want to head for the hills.
When you enter the town of Valentine, however, there is even more for fans of the past to love. Walk into a store and check out the old packaging for crackers (you can find those on bodies as well). You can head over to the saloon and grab a drink or four. Okay, this is part of the storyline, but you get drunk with a buddy and very odd things happen. Your vision starts to go as you get wasted. Even the subtitles start to spell your friend’s name wrong. You wrestle with him in a pig pen and he starts to look like other people. You pee. Yup. You can see the stream. Perhaps I could have lived without that part, but it’s pretty funny. I will also admit to laughing every time my horse poops. What? Poop is funny too. It’s a chance to live another life in a world that is long gone and won’t happen again.
Part of the draw of gaming for me is getting to live in another reality. I can live in Azaroth when playing World of Warcraft, fly on a griffin, and see magical creatures as I roam the land. Forget quests. I can just exist in an arcane reality. In Red Dead Redemption 2, I can see what it was like to live before computers and cars and 24-hour news cycles. It’s relaxing. Oh, I’ll get to the bounty hunting and the train robbing down the line. For now, I just want to buy some whiskey and sit by the campfire, listening to my horse making contented noises and my camp companions singing.