When Red Dead Online launched, I made my first cowboy — Aggie Havelock — with a great amount of precision and care. Absolutely none of that mattered.
When I took Aggie out into the light of day and completed my first missions, she ambled into a cutscene. Her skin was waxy and oily, shining aggressively. Her dead, glassy eyes were only half-focused, and I’m not 100% sure she had eyelids.
The first big story NPC I met, Jessica LeClerk, looked like a very convincing facsimile of a human being, and I looked like a creature from the lagoon who had somehow managed to wrestle my viscous, boneless body into a pair of overalls and a cowboy hat.
It was extremely Frankenstein-esque, but instead of being a top scientist working with sophisticated tools, I was trying to carve a human being out of a flank of ham using a sharpened piece of shale. My creation never had the chance to walk free. Instead, I quietly turned off my PS4 and reflected on what I had done.
No footage has survived of this iteration of Aggie. I feel this is reasonable; I do not have any images of the banana I stashed away as a little kid, which was rediscovered years later by my mother as the basis for a complex ecosystem in my closet. Why would I preserve any memory of that? No thank you. None of that, please.
Part of the problem was my own lack of practice, and part of it was the tools Rockstar had provided for me to craft Aggie. I had to create a second character, and she was much better. For a while, I was content.
But soon, like a rootin’, tootin’ version of Dorian Gray, I felt my vanity overcome me. My new character’s skin was still drenched in sweat; her mouth was oddly shaped, and I had completely messed up her cheekbones. But it was fine, I told myself. I bought lots of pretty blouses and long hats. I just had to avoid certain angles, in which the strange shortcuts I had made to form her skull and flesh became apparent.
Then, Rockstar introduced the ability to re-make your character without having to restart the game, and I completely abandoned my poise and equilibrium. I gave my cowboy a glow-up.
Up to this point of the story, I had done nothing wrong. The problem is with my post-glow-up behavior.
I am infuriating my posse with my own vanity. I am fascinated by my new face. My cheekbones. My jaw. I can wear no makeup or I can rock heavy makeup. I can equip a side-shave haircut or a long braid. I look wonderful in all scenarios — in fact, some fear I look too good. I have created a cowboy who veers dangerously into Handsome Squidward territory.
The problem is that a good 40% of my game time is now dedicated to dressing up my character and admiring her.
If you ask me, logging on and doing a couple of missions that give good rewards is broke. Logging on and doing missions that relate to the internal vision for how you see your character is woke. Do you know what’s bespoke? Dressing your character up and rotating the camera so you can admire the way her hat no longer clips into the side of her head.
My foolish friends are fighting Pinkertons and committing cowboy crimes. I’m over here trying to get the lighting right on a new portrait. We are not the same.
I’ll admit there is something hypocritical about the way I portray myself in Red Dead Online. I work from home, and there are days I don’t get around to putting pants on. I currently have kind of a depression mop going on, hair-wise. I’m usually wearing a comfy t-shirt, covered in cat hair.
Meanwhile, my character is in Blackwater doing an impromptu fashion shoot with a corset, knee-high heeled boots, and four layers of skirts. My posse members are dying somewhere out on the plains. I can hear them howl in despair as a teenager named JacktheBongRipper (or something of the sort) spoils their fun.
Meanwhile I have been rewarded in every way that matters: new corsets and better in-game photographs alongside endless compliments and reverent sighs from the cowpokes around me.
When my character rests her head upon her pillow, I assume the previous two iterations of Aggie Havelock I murdered stand outside her home, their pale and rotting skin bathed in moonlight, lidless eyes staring ahead. I know I am a villain, swayed by sharp cheekbones and freckles, and I will pay an unknowable price for it some day.
But for now, fuck it, I just got new boots!