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Talking Red Dead Redemption II as a Spiritual Journey — with Bill Oakley

 

 

“A walkabout is a journey of spiritual renewal where one derives strength from the earth and becomes inseparable from it.” – John Locke, Lost.

It was at about the four-hour mark when I stumbled upon a lake, surrounded by snow and ice. I was wrapped up well in warm clothes, so I decided to stop and try my hand at fishing. I had previously met a man named Jeremy Gill, a newspaper columnist and celebrated fisher of fish. Through his advice and counsel, I had acquired three special lures in the hopes of catching some legendary fish. I hitched my horse to a post on the right and settled in, the setting so still and perfect and full of beauty. I felt a deep sense of peace fill me, and then my controller vibrated and Arthur Morgan let out an excited shout, “Fish on the line!” The strange mixture of peace and quiet and a sudden, thrilling feeling that so perfectly captured the real life excitement of actually catching something when you go fishing, let me know that Rockstar had created something verging on the spiritual with Red Dead II. Through a seemingly paradoxical mastery of technology, Rockstar has allowed millions of people to commune with the natural world, and find a kind of peace that is normally allowed only to those lucky enough to live near forests and green things.

Catching the big fish in Red Dead Redemption 2

There have been many great open-world games, and not all of them have come from Rockstar; Ubisoft’s Assassins’ Creed series is occasionally brilliant and oddly educational; Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are superb role-playing games with many secrets to be uncovered; and of course, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the only game in this writer’s opinion to rival Red Dead Redemption II. Rockstar’s slightly distorted, but always accurate, vision of the United States of America is a world in which seemingly every single decision to explore by the player is rewarded with secrets, stories, treasure and sometimes terrifying and disturbing things. It is common studio/publisher/marketing guff to say that hours can be spent exploring the game world, but it is rarely true. Perhaps you *can* do it, but in most games, you don’t care enough to bother. In Red Dead II, it is genuinely possible to get lost for hours at a time, without touching a story mission. This quiet, deep, rewarding storytelling through carefully crafted details is as important and brilliant an element of Rockstar’s game as the main story draw.

I spoke with the ridiculously lovely and talented writer, Bill Oakley, whom you will know from his work on The Simpsons—where he ran the show for years seven and eight with his partner Josh Weinstein—the cult show Mission Hill and most recently, Portlandia and Disenchantment. He is also the King of the Fast Food review on Instagram. We talked about why it is that this game resonates so deeply with us. “This game is one of those games…and it’s rare..and I love it as much as you do…I don’t want to finish it. I want it to last forever. And I also don’t want to rush it. So any time I find myself taking it for granted or just hurrying through the missions, I stop for a couple of weeks. So right now it’s about two months since I’ve played and I’m still in that Texas area. And I haven’t finished all those missions and stuff.”

Bill has played video games for a fair while. “I started playing video games…I never had a home system when I was a kid because only the Atari was out..so the video games that I was playing were the ones that started appearing in the arcades when I was 10 years old. I started playing Asteroids, Donkey Kong, Battlezone and all those games, and then we had an actual arcade in the 80s which opened up within walking distance of my house where they had everything.

After that, I played video games when the Nintendo came out and I had Super Mario Brothers and all that stuff. And pretty much constantly since then, I’ve had a video games system. Like the first one was Turbo Graphic and that was like my first big purchase out of College. And then I had a Genesis…I loved Turbo Graphics—they even had that little portable one I still think was pretty amazing. I had the PlayStation 1, I had the Xbox—the original one. I don’t have the PlayStation 4, but my kids saved up and got one, eventually. I also played PC games for a long time. I’m current with that. I had a Mac and my favourite game in the 80s was Sim City, I had the original Sim City which was in 1989 or 90 on the Mac which was amazing. There weren’t that many Mac games at all, so I finally ended up buying a PC. Like Interstate 76 is my favourite game of all time probably. Maybe tied with RDR. I finally bought a PC…first of all I had this PC Card that you could put into a Mac that would allow you to emulate a PC, but it didn’t work with the sound and crap. So I finally gave up and also bought a PC just for gaming. I had a PC for gaming for about 15 years straight and I was always playing the latest games and stuff. Now I don’t play that many. But I did get a new PC to play VR games. And I have HTC Vive (VR) Which I play fairly often when I get the time to set it up. So that’s it. Basically, over the past couple of years, my favourite games are Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and RDR 2, which are the only games I’ve played a ton of in the past year.

Coming across an Indian reserve in Red Dead Redemption 2

I heard tell of a Witch’s Cauldron near the top of the map. I set out from Strawberry, a “burgeoning resort town”, also the site of a dozen or so murders at the hands of a reluctant Arthur Morgan and a typically troublesome Micah Bell, and made my way through the surrounding wilderness. The Witch’s Cauldron was somewhere in the Grizzlies East. To get there would take some time, so I decided to camp in the Cumberland Forest. I set up my camp and cooked some turkey with thyme over a fire. In common with that great Nintendo game, Breath of the Wild, there is a ridiculous variety of things to cook and craft. There is something so meditative about it all. You don’t have to cook, but you want to. To cook you must hunt (or cheat and buy straight from the butcher’s) and to hunt means that you need to study, track and kill animals. The gameplay systems involved are ridiculously deep. There are many different criteria for getting clean kills and perfect skins and pelts—the weapon used, the health of the animal and getting the head or heart with one shot. The depth of the game world is astonishing, in every single respect. It is this depth that allows the player to be fully immersed in the story, and in exploring every inch of the map. There is a symbiosis at work here. You become Arthur Morgan and Arthur Morgan becomes you.

Arthur Morgan meets the widow Sadie Adler

I asked Bill if he was a fan of Westerns before playing Red Dead II. “No, that’s why I didn’t get it. For the first couple of months that it was out, I didn’t buy it. I don’t really like Western movies. Like, they’re OK, but I don’t seek them out. I certainly never played any other Western Video games. And for the first two months that it was out, I was like..nah, I’m not going to like it. But then I kept reading so much about it that I thought I would give it a try. And I gradually became sucked in over the first couple of hours that I played. Also because I realized that while the control system was complicated, it wasn’t so complicated that I wasn’t able to learn it. Complex enough to make it fun. Like some video games, the control system is just so difficult that if I don’t play it every day, then I keep forgetting it. This control system did not have that problem so I did not lose interest quickly. I became more interested. Yeah and also, I love the vast map of it. I love the continuous unlocking of various parts of it—that was always my favourite thing about this game. It was like..oh my God, suddenly a new train station appeared. I’m going to take a train out there and I’m going to explore. I’m going to ride my horse all the way out to the edge of the map till it won’t let me go any further. And that’s actually what I did, except for the first one, the first level..as soon as the new thing unlocked, I’d take the train to wherever it was and I’d ride my horse as far as I could go in every direction to see like where the border, the boundary was.”

Meeting a man on horseback at night

After packing up camp and making my way towards the top of the map, I stumbled upon a monk meditating at the top of a mountain. When I approached him and asked him how he was doing he did not respond. There is a hilarious option here to antagonize the monk, but I decided against it—I would, however, do it on succeeding playthroughs. This monk, at peace with the natural world, even when loud outlaws come a calling, is a good way to describe the way in which Red Dead II allows the player to find a deeply spiritual experience. So many video games are noisy, boisterous things, and while Red Dead II has its fair share of action, exploring the game’s world brings the player a sense of peace that is rare to find in any medium. I am an atheist when it comes down to it, so I was as surprised as anyone that I found that I might indeed have a soul, so profound was the experience of existing within Rockstar’s intricately and lovingly designed world. It is, of course, a paradoxical thing that something that is the product of cutting edge technology, is so in love with and in awe of, the natural world. Red Dead II is evidence that to live and breathe and eventually die and be laid in the ground, is an end in of itself. We do not need to manufacture “higher” callings from divine beings to comprehend the divine within us, as one living thing among countless others. To commune with the life all around us, and to understand the balance we must maintain, and the dignity that we should give other life, even when it involves us killing it, is the thing that makes Rockstar’s game unarguably one of the most ambitious and profound works of art of the 21st century.”

“Ok, I’ll just say that another thing about this that totally shocked me was fishing. Like I can’t thinks of anything more boring in theory than a fishing game. But half of the time I’ve spent I the last eight months has been fishing..like when I drive by a lake. I’m like, ‘hey there might be some fish in there’. And part of the fun with it is, not like real fishing, that you always catch something. In real fishing that doesn’t happen. But in this you almost always catch something. I never would have thought that I’d think that was fun, but it is.”

a steam train in Red Dead Redemption 2

“Alright…so let me look at the map here and I’ll tell you what some of my favourite stuff was. You know, it’s hard to pick out my favourite stuff…like the most time I spent was when I unlocked whatever territory that was called the Ambarino? I think it’s supposed to be like Montana, that whole giant northern part of the map. That was the place that I spent the most time because it seemed like it was so unsettled. Only that one train station that takes freight, where you couldn’t get on or off. You eventually blow up a bridge with that guy. That territory was gigantic. I must have spent two days or at least after work evenings riding around the edges of Ambarino and up into the Snowy Mountains, just to see what I could find. And I did find a fair number of things that I was not supposed to see yet as they were still locked. But that was the one where I said ‘WOW’. After a while, I decided I was going to play this game on a big screen too—I have one of those projectors with a screen where you can watch movies, so I thought, ‘this game is so good, I’m going to project it on the screen and make it life-size’. And I did and that makes it even more fun. Especially if you play it [with the camera] from your point of view; it’s pretty immersive. It’s not like you’re doing it VR…but it’s close.

Of course, who doesn’t like going to the New Orleans thing? That was amazing. When that became unlocked, I obviously took the train in there and I wandered around and went to every little thing in New Orleans. The same with Blackwater. That was a big moment obviously because they held it off for so long in the game, (when you can finally get to Blackwater..and actually I didn’t think Blackwater was all that impressive or exciting when I finally got there, compared to all the other stuff that I’d  seen…) I spent a ton of time riding around there often, but a lot of it was spent trying to break into Mexico. And that ravine! What other things did I like? I have to say that I was actually really moved by the story of him and Mary. The thing about this game is that the quality of the writing and the storytelling easily rivals any good movie. Ok, maybe it doesn’t rival the best of them like The Godfather but any A-Minus movie from the past twenty years. And there’s so much more of it and it’s so immersive. I felt a fair amount of the story was very moving, especially the stuff like the failed attempts to get back with Mary. And her father, her brother…I thought all that stuff was great.”

The quiet streets of Saint Denis at night

When I found the Witch’s Cauldron, it was a thrill. To find it under my own steam and with a belief that no matter where I wandered, there would be something to find, some story to be told, is to be made a partner in the creative act. When I approached the structure and cast an eye over the arrangement of things, the game asked me if I wanted to drink the liquid in the cauldron, so of course, I said YES. I am not sure what effect this has on proceedings, but knowing Rockstar there is probably some result down the line that we will discover in time. This is just one story in many, many more that the player can uncover for themselves—there is a man in a cave who claims to be The Devil, and the eternal mystery of Gavin—and even though I am currently engaged in the tenth playthrough of the game, I am still finding new secrets and details. I am simultaneously excited and annoyed at the upcoming release of the game on PC. Excited because it will no doubt be even more beautiful and full of wonder with the added technical oomph, and annoyed because I don’t have a PC nearly capable of playing it. I hope and pray that we will receive a remaster on the new consoles, as we did with Grand Theft Auto V.

“Some of these treasures…I never had the patience to sit and literally find these treasures. So I would use the ‘OK’ or some online source to climb up on the cliff and find this mysterious treasure. I have to say that I really did like all the robberies—all the stagecoach robberies and train robberies. I would spend a lot of time trying to complete train robberies on my own, but it often didn’t work out for me that well. Oh and also I loved the boat…you know like how you can row out and there are boats going around the border of New Orleans and they’re all empty and abandoned. I spent a long time doing that. I think the thing about this game, more than any other type of game, I spent time trying to push the borders—get outside of what was programmed—like to get to Mexico. Or get on these boats and see what was on them. I always felt like there might be more stuff beyond what was actually in the game. Sometimes there was and that was very exciting. The other thing is that I took a lot of joy in was cooking the ingredients I found. I would find one of those herbs to spice up my meal or what not..or just regular spices and stuff. That was something that would make my in-game cooking that much better.”

Cooking around the camp fire

Rockstar has specialized in melding the ordinary with the action-packed in order to bring a sense of reality to the most outrageous scenarios. Shenmue 1 and 2 on the Sega Dreamcast were probably among the first games to put an emphasis on the ordinary in order to increase immersion that this is a real, living world. Red Dead Redemption II is interesting because it manages to craft a version of the very end of the 1800s, that feels authentic and yet there is still a lot in it that we can recognize as normal activities today. One of my favourite things to do in the game is to buy a newspaper, get a bottle of whiskey and rent a hotel room and read and read. I might even get myself some fried catfish if I’m feeling peckish. Just as exploring the world brings on moments of peace and awe at the beauty and order of things, it is these times in between the important things that stick with me most. As Bill Oakley suggests, cooking and crafting is something that brings huge enjoyment. Stumbling upon a new herb to spice up your roast venison, or to make a repeater cartridge explosive, brings deep and powerful happiness.

” I also like to fish..it’s very satisfying to catch the fish and cook the fish especially with some spices some local spice but yeah..all the different types of meat and stew. Look at how many different types of cooked meats there are in this thing…there must be like a hundred different types of cooked meats. Minty Big Game, Oregano Big Game, Minty Pork, Oregano Pork. So yeah that was really fun too. It’s been a while since I’ve played the body of the game, which is why I don’t remember the names of the places that well. I certainly remember what they look like. There is such a vast trove of material, I think you summed it up perfectly—it seems like the world is as deep as it could possibly be and you’re always rewarded for going off the map, going off the quest to go out and search on your own. Which is what makes it so fun. I’ve spent more than half of my game time wandering around, poking around the edges of the world. Going into abandoned shacks, poking around behind rocks, fishing and hunting too. Which, as I said, is shocking that I would ever consider that entertaining. But it is so entertaining.”

Rowing a boat through gorgeous scenery in Red Dead Redemption 2

So why is Red Dead Redemption II something verging on a spiritual experience? It is a shared dream, a world of design and meaning in every corner. It is an expression of the desire to have a loving creator guide us through a life of meaning, even if we can’t really believe in one, in our day to day lives. It is a world filled with hate and danger and evil too. Of that, I have no doubt. Yet, as Dutch says to his crew, “This world has its consolations.” For as terrifying as this world can be, there is great love and beauty in it too. I was diagnosed some years back with having paranoid schizophrenia. The world seems like a dangerous place to me. I am alone and have had few romantic relationships. Yet, it is in Red Dead II that I feel I can be my true self; that I can confront my fears of people hurting me, and become a full human being. People who dismiss art like this are the lucky few. They are so privileged that they have never felt the desperation and loss that comes when every one of your friends turns their backs on you because you are too difficult to deal with. I buy the art I love for the people I love because I hope deep down that we can both share the experience and become closer friends as a result. It is such a beautiful thing that a person like Bill Oakley, whom I have looked up to for many, many years, can connect with me in some small part about this masterpiece. In my real life, I am a coward and someone who cannot stand up for people I care about like I should. In Red Dead II though, I can be the kind of person I feel I am, in my heart.

“I remember that guy who wanted you to send him the ten classic fish..he would write it in his fishing column in the newspaper. And yeah, I read all the newspapers…its this weird thing..there’s no need to do that. Another thing that I love about the game, that I wish they did more on, was the fake Presidents that appear on the cigarette cards. Obviously some of the history is the same—they had a Civil War. But the territories and the States are all different. These fake presidents, I wish I had more information on them, as that’s my favourite mystery; the political situation.

The town of Blackwater at night

This brings me to something that I haven’t read nearly enough about: the way in which Red Dead II encourages the player to behave in ways that are considered and moral. I love the Grand Theft Auto series, but there is little doubt that they are ultimately quite nihilistic about the notion that one may wish to behave in ways that positively impact the world around them. As with the original Red Dead Redemption, the sequel is a game where I cannot allow myself to behave badly. Of course, I have to kill people, but I avoid all of the GTA inspired mayhem. I don’t kill for pleasure, I only kill animals that I need to feed myself or the camp. This is partly a result of the brilliantly written script of course, but more than that, it is the result of the sheer gargantuan achievement in world-building. I needed Arthur to have a good ending, if at all possible. I needed him to find peace, just as I found it through my adventures and trials with him.

“I’m playing honourably. I found there wasn’t really any pay off in shooting and committing random crimes. You get a lot of law enforcement attention and you always end up just getting some crazy contents of their pockets—a couple of half-drunk tonics and a silver watch. I definitely was a marauder for a while and then I stopped doing that. I think my morality score is very high, up to the top. Sometimes I would just not save the game. If I’d say, rob this train and it went wrong, I would reload the game from before that point to keep a high morality score. And I always go back and pay off my bounties as soon as they come up. I just don’t want to have the hassle of having to be tracked when I’m entering a new territory.”

Riding a horse past the Saint Denis hotel

“Sweet song of salvation, a pregnant mother sings. She lives in starvation, her children need all that she brings. We all have our problems. Some big, some are small. Soon all of our problems, will be taken by The Cross.” — Prince.

Art is my religion, and Red Dead Redemption II is my holy book. Don’t worry, I won’t be fighting any holy wars with it tucked under my arm. I will, however, use it to explore my life, to express the love I have for this life, and to try and find a way to bring love to people who need it most. That a talent like Roger Ebert could ever have questioned whether games can be art is unfortunate, but in light of a game like Red Dead Redemption II, it is downright absurd. With Red Dead II, no serious person can question whether video games are as vital and engaging and meaningful a medium as anything else. This is art that makes you whole. This is art that gives a hopeless sort like me, hope.

BONUS: What fast food would Arthur Morgan eat? Bill Oakley has the answer:

“I think he’d probably like fried chicken. It seems like something that would be easy for him to make. It doesn’t require the complicated grinding of meat that hamburgers would require. I think fried chicken is something that is appropriate to the era…it doesn’t seem to appear in the game or does it? There’s fried catfish definitely, right? I don’t think there’s fried chicken and I think it would be the perfect thing—easy for the camp to cook in the field by yourself…and it would probably be delicious. So, there’s my answer!”


Find Bill Oakley on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/thatbilloakley/?hl=en


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Written by Paul Casey

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