It is just my rifle, my pony, and me (cue the Dean Martin song). In a random moment of curiosity, I booted up Red Dead Redemption 2 for the first time in ages and decided to check out Red Dead Online. That was a little over a month ago and, well, Red Dead Online is literally the only thing I’ve played since. It is a weird, special, and slowly rewarding experience that turns the mundanity of everyday cowboy life into an elegiac multiplayer suite that surprises as much as much as it remains unchanging—a daily slew of tasks, money to make, debts to pay, and the occasional bout of gunslinging. Red Dead Online is a mundanity simulator with random bursts of loud, often confusing violence, and that is what makes it endlessly compelling.
Multiplayer, for me, has always meant either Call of Duty, Halo, and The Lord of the Rings: Online. Those are the multiplayer experiences I’ve sunk the most time into and I’m quite sure that I’ll put more time into Red Dead Online than I did in any of them. It is literally just a cowboy simulator where everyone is rugged, probably has jaundice, and time goes by at a snail’s pace. The experience starts with a character creator and then leads into a story mode that familiarizes players with the mechanics and game-flow of Red Dead Online. Gold bars are the main currency in the game, while cash remains in order to buy weapons, ammo, clothes, camp upgrades, and more. Acquiring gold bars is a slow grind that is done by taking on story missions, side missions, playing in PvP modes, completion of daily challenges, and by finding treasure. I am by no means yet an expert on Red Dead Online, but I know that everything revolves around acquiring gold bars through acts of violence or engaging with the world’s economy—old west capitalism, baby. All of these mechanics, tasks, and overall flow-of-play ushers the player into a game world that, more or less, just is. Comets never break the earth as the new battle pass begins—sometimes it rains, dust storms may kick up, and bandits might cross one’s path. But that is really it. Red Dead Online is less a game about change as much as it is about embracing the everyday sameness of the tasks therein, and making the most of it. The expectations placed on the player are not as much about getting better as they are about staking a claim and rooting one’s self in the game world and economy. And doing so starts with the camp.
In the opening hours of Red Dead Online players are given a camp that can be placed, for an in-game fee, out in the open world somewhere. This camp can be upgraded if one is a high enough level and has the in-game cash to spare. I do not. Nine hours into playing I realized my cowboy was barefoot. I’m an idiot and my cowboy is just an extension of myself, but they have a cool outfit and mutton chops. There is a camp fee that must be paid daily, as well as a stable upkeep fee for the horse stable given to the player a few hours into Red Dead Online. Something always needs fixing, thus money must always be spent. In that regard, it would seem that the experience would be annoying, but for me it is quite relaxing.
Once players get 15 gold bars, they can choose a career path—yes, you get a job in Red Dead Online. Of the choices available, the frontier trader seemed the most compelling to me because I am doing all I can to avoid violence in this mode. I just want to embrace the mundanity of it all and ride my horse from steppe to desert and pick herbs and berries. The trader turns one’s camp into a frontier business that trades in furs, sellable wares, and the like. The gameplay loop I’ve created for myself involves hunting and skinning wild game, bringing them back to camp, selling them, and then going back out to pick herbs and fish in the ponds that dot the open world. It is a simple life, an easy life…a cowboy could get used to this. But all is not right on the frontier. First off, the story missions are pretty much necessary as they grant players lots of money and gold, and all of these missions revolve around violence. Furthermore, as a trader, sometimes bandits try to raid my camp and my cowboy has to intervene with his navy dragoon revolver that loudly bellows and blows huge puffs of smoke into the air. The violence, not in the story missions but in these random bandit encounters, is often shocking. Not because I abhor it necessarily, but because it is not a common occurrence in my Red Dead Online experience. I just hunt and fish. So when violence does erupt, it fractures the bucolic stillness of the world with explosive sounds and screaming, and it is with these moments of violence that players learn to yearn for a world without it. Violence never seems necessary and often it seems improbable. But it is there, it occurs, and players can only do so much to distance themselves from it. Rockstar’s crafted western landscape is fully realized and lived in—this in turn makes the violence all the more shocking. It is often over in a matter of moments, but the violence sticks around long after the last shot was fired. Dead, leaking bodies are littered around my camp and it is hard not to notice them. Time passes, the online world changes, the bodies disappear, and I’m back to picking berries and fishing. There is always violence just out of sight, but what really compels me is the beautiful nothing of Red Dead Online, and the violence acts to make the mundanity all the more appealing. I just engage in small tasks and go about my work.
But what of other players? Honestly, I rarely see them out in the open world. Sometimes I’ll ride by another player’s camp, I’ll wave, and then keep riding. Or I’ll see some players out on the range or in-town. These encounters are often fleeting and usually kind—we have or tip our hats and part ways. But sometimes there are players who will shoot you for no reason or lasso you and drag you behind their horse. And in these moments I’ll remember that Red Dead Online is a product of Rockstar Games; whose titles are synonymous with chaos and violence. Not every player sees Red Dead Online as a mundanity simulator, and it is these types of players that I do my best to avoid. I just want to sell my wares in peace, cut a little profit, and do it all over again.
Cole Henry is a freelancer writer and an avid taco enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter @colehenry19