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How Red Dead Online role-players turned an out-of-bounds prison into a working Wild West criminal justice system

Red Dead Online
(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Red Dead Online is the kind of multiplayer experience that was screaming for a role-playing community from day one. Rockstar's open world western is all about soaking up the minute details of the frontiersman lifestyle, right down to the nitty gritty of sharpening every bullet with your knife at a campfire. At launch, this alienated many who preferred their online games to favour convenience over authenticity, but it was only a matter of time before Red Dead Online found a network of players keen to embrace its leisurely pace of play.  

Sure enough, once Red Dead Redemption 2 launched on PC in October 2018, a player named William Hayes began talking to a few of his friends about the idea of starting up a role-playing community in Red Dead Online. "I thought the idea of recreating an Old West style role-play environment where people could be immersed in an era they would otherwise never experience was exciting," he tells me. "The Red Dead Redemption 2 map offers so much detail, and a sandbox for people to truly bring an 1899 role-play to life." 

Before long, Hayes had founded WildWestRP; a Red Dead Online server dedicated entirely to the pursuits of role-playing as gunslingers, lawmen, and everything in between across the multiplayer expanses of Rockstar's latest magnum opus. 

Life on the inside

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

There's much to admire about what Hayes has achieved so far in WildWestRP, from its persistent in-game property market, to a variety of era-appropriate roles such as doctors, lawyers, and even snake oil salesmen. But one of the server's most impressive features so far is a working prison system based out of Sisika Penitentiary, the island jailhouse from which your character breaks out of at the start of Red Dead Online.

It's also the setting for a late-game mission in Red Dead Redemption 2's campaign, but other than that, the area is off limits in both the single and multiplayer sandboxes of Rockstar's Wild West. Thankfully, a bit of behind-the-scenes tinkering allowed Hayes to unlock access to the penitentiary in the game's code, inspiring him to get it up and running for WildWestRP's role-playing community. 

"Sisika as it is today is the culmination of more than a year's worth of work building a fully fleshed out Justice system, including two Sheriff's Offices, a Department of Justice, and the Prison system itself," he says. "Ensuring that a system is fair and balanced – in terms of taking punishment for the crimes you've committed – is definitely one of the biggest hurdles. That being said, I think we've struck a good balance that people seem receptive of." 

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Players in WildWestRP who break the server's in-game laws or codes of conduct can be sent to Sisika as punishment, complete with a trial, uniform, and designated inmate number. The tenure of imprisonment can be as long as 180 months, but each month represents a minute of real-time gameplay, so that length isn't quite as scary as it sounds. Still, the threat of losing game time to life inside the walls of a maximum security jailhouse has introduced a tangible sense of law enforcement to WildWestRP's in-game society, and Hayes says that the community "has been incredibly supportive" of the prison's presence so far. 

"Of course there will always be some that disagree, saying that we should either be harsher or more lenient, but I think we've struck a good balance where most players are happy with the state of the system. There are even players that take it to the next level – those who look for what we call "enhanced sentencing", or sentencing based on real-life time, for example, spending multiple weeks in Sisika where they can develop their characters and take punishment for the more egregious crimes they've committed."

"For most players, the longest they'll spend in Sisika is three hours at a time, as we are considerate to the fact that people have real lives and shouldn't be expected to spend their entire day there."

Jailhouse rock

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

"You would be surprised how many laws we take for granted that didn't exist 120 years ago."

William Hayes

This isn't to say that WildWestRP isn't accommodating to those who do want to resist the long arm of the law. Moderators on the server have helped players stage prison break-outs for their friends, where guards, fellow inmates, and gang members are all controlled by real people. There's even opportunities to break in to Sisika and take revenge against those already imprisoned for having wronged you. 

Despite the logistical hurdles of organising these kinds of events, Hayes says that one of the most complicated challenges of establishing Sisika in WildWest RP, has been creating a "system of justice that fits well with the 1899 time period."

"You would be surprised how many things in law that we take for granted that didn't exist 120 years ago. Countless hours have been spent on researching how laws and rights were applied, and recreating those while maintaining some of the 2020 protections in regards to race, sexuality, gender, etc., as we believe this is more suitable for the role-play environment we want to foster."

While many have fallen away from Red Dead Online over the years, alienated by its austere economy and slow rate of progression, it's encouraging to see a community like WildWestRP not just embrace Rockstar's design ethos, but run with it to create something entirely their own. 

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

The studio itself hasn't offered any explicit support for WildWestRP as of yet, but Hayes says he's grateful to the developer for allowing the RedM platform (the client which allows players to join the role-playing server) to exist in the first place. More than anything, he's excited, confident that the exquisite craft of Red Dead Redemption 2's world offers the foundations for a long and healthy future of wild west role-playing. 

"The level of detail that has gone into Red Dead Redemption 2 has enabled people to enter this sandbox of a roleplay community we've made and truly immerse themselves in all facets of the 1899 way of life. What's more, the community is ever-evolving, and where we go is largely driven by the players and the larger story arcs they develop on the server. Our government is elected by the community – we're actually holding an election right now."

For more, check out the best RPG games to play right now, or watch our latest preview of Resident Evil 8 below. 

I'm GamesRadar's Features Writer, which makes me responsible for gracing the internet with as many of my words as possible, including reviews, previews, interviews, and more. Lucky internet!