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A cowboy sits on a hill out in the wilderness

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Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest success is loneliness

Why do games give us so much to do, and so little to be?

Rockstar Games via Jacob Geller

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I spent weeks playing Red Dead Redemption 2 before I discovered the second half of the world.

As Arthur Morgan, I covered dozens of miles of wilderness. I rode from the northern snowy mountains to the swampy shacks in the southeast. But in all my adventuring, I never visited the southwest corner of the game’s map.

From the moment the story started, the town of Blackwater — gateway to the game’s southwest — wanted me, dead or alive. And so I avoided it. I didn’t mind; the rest of the world was so big, I never lacked for places to go. But after 80 hours of shootouts, robberies, and dense story, the town finally wiped the bounty away. For the first time, I was allowed to ride through Blackwater and explore the hidden territory beyond.

This essay on Red Dead Redemption 2 was written as a companion piece to the video above, also created by Jacob Geller.

Blackwater itself was present in the first Red Dead Redemption, so maybe I should have expected what would come next. But despite that clue, I was no less flabbergasted to discover that beyond the town lay a huge portion of the previous game’s world, gorgeously rendered in current-gen graphics.

My mind reeled. How many new characters lay hiding in this massive landmass? How many more carefully orchestrated quests were just waiting to be accepted?

As it turns out, the answer was: almost none.

The value of being alone in a beautiful world

I never lacked things to do in the main world of Red Dead Redemption 2. Hundreds of characters with thousands of lines of dialogue were more than happy to take me on missions. Whether it was collecting money from debtors or getting drunk with a friend, the game provided a steady stream of content for me to occupy myself with.

I lived the life of the world’s busiest cowboy for dozens of hours. I’d rob a train in the morning, help a fella catch a fish at lunch, then get a haircut and a shave in town, before finally hunting a deer and bringing it back to camp for dinner. Along the way, I might run into a stranger out on the road who’d beg for help and likely pull me into a whole new suite of activities.

I experienced none of these events as I made my way through the southwest corner of the game’s map. My ride through the town of Armadillo, a major hub in the first Red Dead Redemption, was a quiet one. No bandits jumped out to ambush me, no rare species distracted me from the road. I gradually realized that this corner of the world lacked all the quests, characters, and checklists I had grown accustomed to.

For the first time in the game, I felt truly alone.

Too much to do, and not enough time to be

In the main world of the game, when I was constantly presented with things to accomplish, many of the gameplay systems felt needlessly laborious. For example, I was initially confused by the concept of crafting “split-point” bullets. Split-points do more damage than typical ammo and they’re free to craft. But they have to be crafted one at a time.

Arthur Morgan has to take a single bullet out, carve an X in the top, and place it back in his bag. If you want to have enough ammo to get through a typical story mission, you’d have to do this mind-numbingly simple action dozens of times. Carving split-points just felt like pointless busywork when there was always a nearby merchant I could buy a few boxes of equally powerful high-velocity rounds from.

Alone in the southwest though, I had no such luxury. Every bullet was precious; the closest vendor lived miles away. Alone as I was, even a single coyote or couple angry squatters presented a threat. A few hand-carved bullets suddenly became the line between life and death.

And it wasn’t just the bullets; almost every system in Red Dead Redemption 2 felt more natural when I was truly isolated in the wilderness. I hunted, not for superficial aesthetic rewards, but because I needed the meat to sustain myself over the long, lonely journeys. I happily, brushed, fed, and cared for my horse because he represented the only companionship I had in the desert expanse.

In this barren second world, I didn’t feel the pressure to mark off items from my endless to-do lists. For the first time in the game, I had time to reflect. The actions I found annoying for my first 80 hours — carving bullets, cleaning horses, keeping myself fed — now felt like little moments of zen. They kept me present.

Eventually, I returned to the main world of the game. I completed the final mission, I watched the credits roll. Like the rest of the game, it was excellently directed, acted, and scored. But when I think about Red Dead Redemption 2 now, I don’t think about the ending. Instead, my mind wanders back to those empty hours I spent in the southwest desert.

At first, I found it unsettling to have so little to accomplish in this part of the map. Don’t we play video games to beat them? Wasn’t I interested in getting the last achievements? But looking back, I’ve realized that these quiet moments and unstructured spaces facilitate some of the purest roleplaying I’ve been able to do in gaming — and as such, many of my favorite moments in the medium draw upon this same feeling of isolation. I adore when a game can take a step back and just let its characters live.

When I sat and watched a sunrise in the mountains of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it was because I was truly taken aback by the beauty of the moment, not because the game told me to. When I grappled with the staggering emptiness of Shadow of the Colossus’ world, I felt absolutely connected to Wander and his lonely quest. And in Red Dead Redemption 2, my cowboy daydreams were best fulfilled by nights spent alone, with only the stars for company.

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