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I never want to finish Red Dead Redemption 2

Avoiding the main quest line was my best decision yet

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur leading a brown horse down mountains Rockstar Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Red Dead Redemption 2, the latest open-world game from the team at Rockstar Games, is full to bursting with action. As the outlaw Arthur Morgan, players can live out their Western fantasies of robbing trains, taking down outlaw gangs and generally raising all kinds of hell. But it also offers another path, one where “finishing” the game seems like a downright bad idea. So I’ve decided not to.

I’ve been avoiding the main quest line for weeks now, and the game, for its part, doesn’t really seem to mind.

Late last night, after the rest of the family went to bed and while the first big snowstorm of the season hammered the upper Midwest, I booted up Red Dead Redemption 2. There was my Arthur, snoozing out behind the saloon where I’d left him. With a gentle nudge of the thumbstick he stood up, adjusted his hat and dusted himself off. Before long we were back on our horse, Boomer, trotting down the main street and out of town.

The last time we went to camp, a scripted fishing trip turned into a run-in with a pair of Pinkerton detectives. So we’ve simply decided not to go back. For how long, I can’t say.

Riding on, eventually we heard the sound of some new kind of wildlife along the edge of the Dakota River. Pulling out our binoculars, we stopped to study it and sketch it in our journal.

Instead of rushing through this game, I’ve found myself sipping at it like this, languidly. All too often, modern AAA titles enforce a sense of urgency that verges on the manic. Other times they simply layer on additional objectives, like side quests or collectibles, that can begin to feel like a burden. Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, seems content to simply leave us alone to wander its world however we see fit.

More importantly, its systems are elastic enough that with a little effort, I’ve been able to overcome them, carving out space to play the game in my own way. There’s no towers for Arthur to climb that unlock this world piece by piece. Instead, he can roam wherever we want.

The only impediment has been Arthur’s occasional bad behavior. The murders and whatnot. We stopped robbing folks a long time ago. Rather than spend all our cash on upgrades for equipment, we took the last week to pay off our fines at the local post office. Now, so long as we stay out of Blackwater, there are no lawmen or bounty hunters to harass Arthur and me.

Instead, Red Dead Redemption 2 has become an oasis where we peacefully ride alone.

As we traveled down the eastern shore of the Dakota River, I noticed a rock outcropping that looked familiar. Sure enough, buried inside my inventory was a map that I’d picked up hours before. It took no time at all to amble up a steep slope and uncover a treasure. A dialogue box popped up, alerting me that a side quest had moved forward to the next waypoint. Then the alert faded into the background. The game world was quiet again.

This is not to say that the experience is without its quirks. But there are rules of the road, so to speak.

We’ve learned to wave hello to NPCs whenever we can, to score easy points on the white-hat side of the game’s morality spectrum. We know never to loot the corpses of lawmen or strangers when we stumble upon them. All too often a rival gang will ambush us, forcing our hand. So long as they shoot first, when the smoke clears it’s like nothing happened. That’s our chance to score some quick loot. Then we ride on.

Just the other day, we whistled for our horse only to have it gallop off the cliff above us and fall to its death. No matter. We administered some Horse Reviver, fed Boomer a few carrots, and started off again. Quick fixes like that help to restore the illusion when it fades.

Meanwhile, Arthur and I are in absolutely no hurry to complete our main objectives. Those quests will be there when we need them.

Tonight I think we’ll go squirrel hunting in the valley. The local trapper has a hat that looks warm and dashing, just the thing for the colder weather up north. We’ll need warm clothes before we head back up there to hunt big game. I’ve heard there’s some beautiful elk and, possibly, wild horses to tame.

Arthur and I have so much left to do before we worry about accomplishing anything. It’s an experience that I hope never ends.