I’m about 15 hours into Red Dead Redemption 2, which Steven is thankfully tackling for us in full. Because wow, this is a massive game. Since its release, I’ve slowly dipped in and out of it. And I have to say I really like it. Although I’m not voraciously blowing through it like I did with God of War earlier this year.
More than anything, I think that’s a testament to how specific and finely tuned Red Dead 2 is at simulating the rough parts of living in 1899. This game is heavy, not joyous. Things are difficult and things take so, so long. Case in point: Saint Denis. I’ve wanted to go to Red Dead 2’s version of New Orleans since the moment I started the game.
The game would probably let me go there in the early hours, but it introduces its map to you in such small chunks. These tiny areas are really far apart! It’s a really big game! Have I mentioned that?
Anyway, a natural window to visit the major city opened up when I took a side quest to help a put-upon biographer hunt down four famous gunfighters. The first one I tracked decided to throw down with me on top of a moving train. Big mistake.
When it came time to track down Black Belle—the only woman among the gunslingers—I saw it would take me to the swampy region just outside Saint Denis. That felt like as good a time as any to take Pandemonium (my steed) to Lemoyne (Rockstar’s fictional version of Louisiana).
A Muddy Ambush
I made my way from the dusty Rhodes to the Kamassa River. The terrain slowly transitioned from dry to damp; from barren to lush. The bugs started singing and the mud started flinging. As I moved around a bend, I saw the sad, alarming sight of a hanged man. I immediately noticed he was well-dressed.
I approached to get a better view of the body. Then I contemplated getting off my horse, even though, or perhaps because, I had never seen this scenario before. Behind the tree and across the road, there was a series of houses and a marsh. The music swelled slightly and out from behind three trees came as many men, covered in caked mud and sprinting toward the scene.
I was done contemplating. I immediately took off down the road and crashed into one of the men with Pandemonium. He died instantly. I got some distance from the rest and saw there were no others emerging from the swamp. I got off my horse and pulled my pistol out.
In Red Dead 2, pointing guns at unarmed people gets a predictable response. They back off, run, or plead for their lives. Maybe they pull out their own weapon. But the remaining two swamp folks just kept running. I don’t enjoy playing violent with strangers in Red Dead 2. In fact, I like to defuse situations with the game’s conversation system every chance I get. I like to get to the bottom of things. No dice, here.
I put them down quickly.
They were all carrying… bait. How appropriate. I marked the houses on the horizon for later, because I was not at all prepared to discover what waits for me there. I’m still not. I made the mistake, I realize now, of not shooting the rope to release the hanged man. Having encountered other scenarios that played out in interesting ways, I probably missed a thread by not releasing the hanged man, taking him somewhere, searching him, etc.
Regardless, this was a very, very spooky introduction to Lemoyne’s swampland.
Black Belle’s Stand
After dusting myself off from my encounter with human hunters, I calmed down by wandering to my waypoint. I was ready for violence because my encounter with Billy Midnight (the first shootist on this quest line) ended in violence. I hoped for a more nuanced scenario with Black Belle. And I kind of got it.
Black Belle greeted me at the end of a rifle. She asked if I was a bounty hunter. I’m not—at least not yet. It’s too early to call my Arthur Morgan a bounty hunter. I really appreciate Red Dead 2’s small, character-to-character writing. Black Belle is sharp: sharp-tongued, a sharp shooter, and sharp-looking. I love her voice actress. Although the conversation with Black Belle is sadly quick. That’s partly because of her pithy nature and also because actual bounty hunters followed Arthur to her location.
To make it up to her, I helped fight off waves of her would-be captors. We used rigged dynamite around her temporary compound to send marshland flying through the air, mixed with screams and blood.
It’s a fairly unremarkable fight. Most of my fights in Red Dead 2 have been rote so far, to be honest. But Black Belle’s quips at least made it lively.
Afterward, she told me what I already know. The gunslinger I’m helping is a fraud. I believe her. I’d believe anything Black Belle said. She’s the only honest person I’ve met in the game so far.
I have to get a picture along with her story, which she gladly poses for, rifle in the air. When we part ways, she won’t let me carry her bag of unknowns to her horse. It seems she’s afraid I’ll steal them. Her little laugh tells me more than most lines of dialogue that could’ve been written for her.
It’s good stuff.
Le Bras et la Terre
Black Belle did let me know I could scavenge her hideout, since she’ll never return. By the time I finished grabbing some essentials, a fog had rolled into the area. It’s the kind of realistic fog I remember when visiting my grandmother in East Texas as a kid.
After my busy day, I just wanted to settle back into my hotel in Rhodes and regroup. As soon as I hit the road, however, a figure appeared from the fog. He was a man on horseback, slouched over. I had my guard up from the mud ambush, but before I could grab my pistol, the stranger toppled over onto the ground.
One lovely thing about Red Dead 2 is the ability to verbally check in with anyone at anytime. The left trigger plus another button issues a happy greeting. Although you can also antagonize and hold people up at gunpoint. So as I hopped off my horse, I asked if this figure was okay. He wasn’t. It’s unclear what happened to him, but his arm was covered in blood and he was convinced he was on death’s door.
I believed him, too.
I picked him up and took him, by request, to a doctor in Saint Denis. One way or another, I was going to get my wish to see that city. We rode into town and a facsimile of the French Quarter clicked under Pandemonium’s hooves. I’ll spend a lot of time in this city, I imagine. Its size and density are unlike anything else in the mostly barren west of Red Dead 2.
When I dropped the stranger off the at the doctor, I stuck around for the diagnosis and swift amputation of his arm. It’s not that I wanted to see the grotesque procedure, or follow how long the AI interaction would go. Rather, I distrusted this stranger taking care of another stranger in Red Dead 2. I don’t know who the man with the infected arm is, but I didn’t want the doctor to do anything bad to him, either.
Red Dead 2 gives its social interactions just enough nuance to make me feel a sense of responsibility. I trust some characters. I don’t trust others. But I get to decide which and act appropriately. The NPCs themselves can’t do that. And my wild ride to faux New Orleans taught me how cruel this digital world can be to entities that have no choice but to be props for my decisions.
So I waited until the amputation was done. The doctor mentioned a fee, but there was no opportunity to pay it on the stranger’s behalf. If I could have, I would have.
I enjoy my time spent getting to know the contemptible members of Arthur’s Van der Linde Gang, but if I’m honest, the half-scripted, half-emergent moments between those main story beats are more striking. My day traveling to Saint Denis was an amazing showcase how a little bit of choice can make a big difference. Who else am I going to find in the Wild West? What will I think of them when we meet?
In Snapshot, we introduce players to a game by isolating a major moment or sequence and dissecting it as a fitting introduction to the game, in case you’re on the fence.