I live in the United States – a massive, geographically diverse country – and I haven't seen most of it.
I've never witnessed a tornado rip through the flatlands of the Midwest, or held Pacific Northwest soil in my hands, or walked the Appalachian mountain range that spans states not too far from my Brooklyn apartment. I've never breathed in the crisp air of the Rockies or the scratchy air of the Missouri plains. But now, during a time when I can't go far from my own apartment, I've done all of the above – in Red Dead Redemption 2 (opens in new tab).
It was strangely serendipitous that the sequel went up on Xbox Game Pass (opens in new tab) during quarantine in NYC. Anxious and stuck in a very small space, I ached to wander aimlessly, to breathe fresh air instead of the stale recycled stuff inside my breezeless apartment, to point out animals I spot with glee. While I'm a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series and the chaos it allows me to conjure, I'd never gotten my hands on Rockstar's other series, mainly due to a frequent lack of funds and a lengthy stint abroad.
The reason I never played a Red Dead title is the same reason why I've never travelled America. Sure, I've seen a bit: I visited my grandparents in Florida every year until I was 18, and youth soccer tournaments often took me to Pennsylvania or Connecticut. I took a post-breakup flight to California in my early twenties and eloped in New Orleans at 25 (don't ask). But for 30 years, most of America has intrigued and eluded me. However, thanks to Arthur Morgan and his trusty horse, Stonks, I've seen more of America's flora, fauna, and topography than ever before.
Getting the lay of the land
I started playing Red Dead Redemption 2 with the intention of following the story, but every time I'd climb aboard Stonks and head out, I became instantly distracted by my surroundings and ended up wandering. The environment is striking, as if Arthur Morgan lives in the kind of painting you'd see hung over the whiskey shelf in a honky-tonk.
It's no accident that the game feels like you're riding across a hand-painted mural of America. As Arthur Gies wrote for Polygon (opens in new tab) back in 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2 lighting director Owen Shepherd drew influence from 19th century painters like Rembrandt and American landscape artists who were members of the Hudson River School. You can see the school's influence in the way the colors of the scenery blanch in the distance, the painterly strokes of snow atop mountains, and the soft, hazy lighting that hangs over the land at dawn.
It's certainly breathtaking to look at, but soon the visuals drove me to near madness – I couldn't stop agonizing over what part of America I was meant to be riding through. Were the towering ridges not far from Valentine meant to be a mountain range in Oklahoma or the PNW? Were these Louisianian or Alabamian swamps? Where exactly is Missouri? I'm a woman who's far more familiar with the 17-hour drive from New York to Florida than I'd like to admit, but I have a paltry and embarrassing understanding of the rest of my country's geography.
So, I began to reference fan-made maps (opens in new tab) during gameplay in order to sort out what parts of America the game was letting me explore, pausing frequently to open up the in-game map and drag my laptop over to compare the two. Red Dead Redemption 2 is like geographical creative non-fiction. Thousands of miles of American land are condensed into approximately 29 square miles, with swamps seamlessly transitioning into fields and plains swiftly becoming mountains. But the accurate depiction of so many American biomes makes it feel like you're exploring every corner of this vast country.
I galloped past the mountains of Appalachia in the fictional Roanoke Ridge (named after the city in Virginia), slogged through the swamps of rural Louisiana in Bayou Nwa ("Nwa" is the Creole word for "black"), and shivered as I navigated the snow-capped mountains of the Pacific Northwest in the Grizzlies (there are grizzly bears). As I traveled from mission-to-mission, I found myself marveling at the world around me more so than any other game I've played, studying it as if I were taking a geography test the next day.
"You've run over another turkey"
I'm no outdoorsperson, and I'm certainly no cowpoke – the closest I get to being a rural woman is when I wear my cowboy boots and listen to Lady Gaga's Joanne album. I don't like bugs (I ran into a tree once when trying to flee a hornet), and while I adore all animals and cry when I see roadkill, the closest I've gotten to wildlife rescue is scooping an injured opossum up off the 495. I rode a horse once as part of an AirBnB experience and swiftly found out I'm deathly allergic to them – midway through the ride I couldn't open my eyes, and had to be led by the Danish instructor who was a head taller than my mare.
But with Stonks, I get to be a cowboy, baby. Sure, I find the controls a bit tough to grasp (I've accidentally punched Stonks more times than I'd like to admit) and the horseriding mechanics are a bit heavy for my twitchy hands (we've run into several trees), but I'm still galloping with relative ease through lands I've never seen in real life. And the best part about exploring the Red Dead Redemption 2 environment is how much flora and fauna are injected into the game world, all of which are accurate representations of their real-world counterparts.
In the middle of a mission, I stop to marvel as Arthur is knee-high in swamp water. The water rests stagnant, except where Arthur's legs have disturbed the surface, sending concentric rings emanating out around them. Spanish moss hangs from the bald cypress trees, in some places just barely kissing the surface of water that's covered in duckweed. When I leave the swamp, passing dwarf palmettos and more cyprus trees to head north through the Heartlands, I swiftly arrive at flat plains punctuated by soaring ridges and scattered buttes – verdant, yet rocky.
I continue towards the Grizzlies, but stop to make camp under a fir tree, admiring a few rabbits who scamper past. They're the best part, the creatures that disperse as you gallop through the brush or the ones that soar overhead, scoping you out as you ride past a rocky outcrop. The animals make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel real, and I spend most of my time cooing at them.
There are mean old alligators in the swamps outside of St. Denis, scary rattlesnakes that slither at my feet in Owanjila and scare poor Stonks, wild pigs that snuffle and snort while running through open fields. These are all animals I've never seen in real life except when visiting a zoo. "Look, a cardinal!" I shout during a cutscene as a bright red bird streaks past Micah's head. I was as ecstatic as the time I saw one on a rooftop in Brooklyn.
So far, I've avoided killing most of the in-game wildlife, save for when I accidentally trample an animal while riding Stonks, which I often don't realize. "You've run over another turkey," my partner says matter-of-factly, after my screen briefly flashes white. "I'm sorry, turkey!" I shout as I urge Stonks onward, as if I'm actually riding the horse and tossing that apology over my shoulder at the retreating turkey carcass.
I am sorry, but the wild west awaits, and I've lived far too long without seeing it.