We rode into Tumbleweed to find half the town on fire. I still don’t know how they did it. It wasn’t just the dusty earth and foliage that they were burning. The saloon, the general store, the gunsmith, the sheriff’s office—it was as if fire was raining from the sky, scorching up the once-ghostly desert enclave from the rooftops downward. I’d never seen anything like it.
“What is the point of all this?” I remember my brother asked, back in 2018, watching me beat a stranger to death with a hatchet. “What’s the game? To just ride around on a horse? To kill people?” This was when I first tried to make sense of Red Dead Online, when the multiplayer experience became available to players. Good question. While Red Dead Redemption II’s main story campaign is already regarded as a bulletproof all-timer, the conversation around the game’s online mode hasn’t been so sunny. It’s gotten a sour reputation for lacking depth, structure, and having, well, just not a whole lot to do. Nevertheless, Rockstar still continues to funnel resources into Red Dead Online. As recently as this week, it rolled out another expansion. (It’s called “Blood Money,” and it’s good!)
Despite the criticism, though, I was drawn back to the game in early March. Seeing it there in my PlayStation library day after day, I kept thinking, this is Red Dead Redemption II we’re talking about. This is the game that drew the biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment. The game that got D’Angelo on its soundtrack. The game that just played the Tribeca Film Festival. Waiting for Returnal to be released, I had some free time to kill, so I resolved to answer my brother’s question: to find meaning, perhaps even purpose, in the chaos of Red Dead Online. And over the past 17 weeks, I watched myself transform from a malnourished street rat to a soulless creature of unspeakable brutality. I may have become a monster, but I found what I was looking for.
Meet Melinda Beef. At six feet, roughly 130 pounds, and enough rouge to put Krusty the Clown to shame, she is the embodiment of madness I’ve created to represent myself in the lawless world of Red Dead Online. The game starts like all the most fun stories do: in jail. An angry widow is seeking to avenge her late husband. And it’s your lucky day. When an opportunistic fellow by the name of Horley breaks you and a few other striped-shirt convicts out of prison, your adventure in the Wild West begins.
Survival is an expensive hobby in Red Dead Online. One afternoon, I (Melinda) bumped into a stranger by accident in a town called Blackwater. He drew his weapon. I reached for my shotgun, and his head exploded like a blueberry. Someone witnessed the murder, and even though it was (clearly!) self-defense, he went running for the law. I hogtied the witness and tried to carry him off to the river, but someone saw me do that too. Soon I had the whole town after me. I thought if I killed them all, I could loot everyone—rob the entire town—and turn lemons into lemonade. But the lawmen wouldn’t stop coming. I found a spot on the roof of the bank and started unloading round after round. The bodies piled up. Things got quiet. I went down to collect, but the lawmen swarmed again, and this time I didn’t have any bullets left. I’d barely collected more than a dollar or two anyway.
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Unless you partake in the scripted story missions or multiplayer shootouts, Red Dead Online can be a lonesome place. The open range seems so wide and full of possibility. But when you actually saddle up, you find a desolate world. You can ride for twenty minutes without seeing a single soul. When you do encounter strangers, they’ll just blow right past you on their carriage, growling, or maybe even shoot at you if you get too close. Early on, I found myself stranded in the icy mountains of Ambarino, poor, close to death, without enough bullets to hunt the game I’d been tracking out there. Worse than the frigid cold, though, were the wolves. I don’t know how many times we lived and died there, Melinda and me, fighting them off with arrows, then knives, then fists, running her knuckles raw. The icy white ground turned red. There must be a better way, I thought.
It was around then that I was tracked and killed by a gang of rival bounty hunters. Not in-game characters. Players—real people. I’d been riding through the woods, trampling varmint to cook (a great and cheap way to maintain your health, I learned). Suddenly, they descended on me from all angles, twirling lassos, their shiny, studded leather ponchos blazing in the sun. I was gone before I even had a chance to return fire. They collected their bounty and left town while I was still coming back to life. But when I returned, I didn’t come back as an outlaw. No, I had found my purpose at last.
Melinda the Bounty Hunter. Over the course of the next ten or so weeks, I hit the local bounty boards almost every day in Red Dead Online. That’s how bounty hunting works in this world. You ride into a town, find the sheriff’s office or wherever they post their bounties, and consult the board for the latest and greatest fugitives. Legendary Bounties, too, are listed on the board. These missions have you charting treacherous cliffs, picking off snipers, plumbing cave hideouts, tying up cult leaders, and dragging scar-faced criminal kingpins to justice—dead or alive. The cash flows at a heavy clip for these Legendary Bounties, which provided me a nest egg, as well as some dignity in my righteous pursuit of murderers and serial killers.
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But there was still something missing. Sure, I was rising through the ranks as a Bounty Hunter quickly, rewarding myself with better rifles, faster horses, hats, scarves, shiny boots, you name it. But as the list of Legendary Bounties dried up, and the bounties became more and more predictable, I couldn’t get that rival posse out of my head—the gang that hunted me. How did they do it? How did they get a license to hunt actual people? That, I thought, must be the ultimate thrill, the “most dangerous game.”
Turns out you have to get to Rank 12 to collect bounties from players. And even after so many weeks of consistent lassoing, bludgeoning, and neck-slitting, after so much blood, I still had about eight ranks to climb. But god dammit, I was going to get there.
That’s how I spent the rest of my days in Red Dead Online. Killing. As my ranks went up, my morals washed away. Melinda wasn’t so crazy-looking anymore, even with her clown makeup. She became callous. Mechanical. Where she went, death followed. Since I’d done all the Legendary Bounties a few times already, I knew exactly where to go, who to kill, and how to kill them. We tore through entire legions of men with laser-precise arrows, bodies tumbling with blood gushing between the eyes. I murdered an entire cult with hatchets. Towards the end, I recall carrying a bounty out of his hideout on my back, him yelling that his friends would have me dead. But when we arrived at the camp where the massacre took place, seeing what I’d done, he cried, “You… you killed all of them?”
These descents into madness became a nightly ritual, and I began to wonder if I had really found order in the chaos, or if my search for meaning had led me into a darker place. Cathartic as it was to blow off steam in the safe, harmless Westworld of my flatscreen TV, the insatiable urge to rain dynamite on an unsuspecting posse just going about their day didn’t feel too healthy.
It took me 17 weeks, but I got my own bounty wagon, and I got to Rank 12. When I went out to finally hunt down some players, though, I couldn’t find anyone. Either there wasn’t anybody in the area with a high enough bounty to collect, or no one wanted to be anywhere near me. “Leave me and my friends alone!” I heard a group of kids shout at me over the voice chat later that night. What had I become?
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