You grip tightly to your horse’s reigns and feel the weight of the beast shift with each uneven lurch forward. She’s sickly – of this you are sure - and you do not how much longer she’ll last. But, for now, you keep the leather taught because the trail is so thin it seems as if it’s not a trial at all, but just the path of rattlesnake lost in the desert. It has more wild curves than the lady of negotiable affection you left behind in Chuparosa. For a moment, you let her saunter into your head again. But it’s only for a moment. Your attention snaps forward as you find yourself suddenly barreling down the path towards three heavily armed gentlemen standing firm on their horses in the center of the trail.
Your mind races. You’re caught off-guard and out gunned. It’s too late to turn, too late to take another course, too late to call out to your comrades who lag miles behind you. But it’s not too late to draw your six-shooter and see about splitting those bullets three ways. You’re not sure if it’ll work, if you’ll live, or if it’s even wise. But it’s the first idea to make even a little sense, so you wrap your fingers around the crosshatched handle of your peacemaker and exhale.
But you loosen your grip as another idea drifts into frame. You only get a moment to think, as the group of mean-looking rustlers finally see your figure coming around the bend and rear up their horses to face you. They too didn’t see you coming. One begins to draw his pistol, but before he can even point the barrel at anything but the ground, you’re upon them. No weapon in sight, man and horse aimed like an arrow ready to split their assemblage in two.
Your gun firmly in its holster, you merely tip your hat at them.
“Evening gentlemen,” you say, clear as day.
As you ride through their ranks and on past, you hold your breath, but no bullets come your way. No horses whiney as they turn to make chase. The gentlemen stand stoic, awestruck, and silent. Finally, as you’re nearly out of earshot, one of them speaks up.
“Greg? Did they guy just not
shoot at us? And say good evening?”
“Uh… yeah. I think he did. Send him a posse invite. That’s the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.”
Welcome to Red Dead Redemption
’s Free Roam; a place even less friendly and more violent than the wild west setting it means to emulate. Comprised of 16 players at his fullest, it grants a slew of unrelated gamers open-world access to a sizable chunk of land encompassing a nameless western desert and Mexican border, spotted with the same little towns, vicious wild-life, and populated by plenty of salt-of-the-earth NPC folk. By yourself or with a posse, you can chase down some bandits, join up for a hunt, or have a sporty shooting match. That is, if you can escape the 15 other blood-thirsty players looking to lazily gun you down for no reason.
It’s hard to blame people for stumbling into the obvious violent tendencies. You’re in the old west, you’re given a slew of high-powered weapons, and you’re dropped into a cordoned-off zone full of other similarly-armed players. Why not gun down a few cowboys? Heck, the game even rewards you for it with a minimal amount of experience points and that slight little buzz in the back of your head you get from besting another player. But that joy quickly fades to tedium. Nonetheless players keep right on killing and killing because it’s the simplest and easiest choice to make. And the instinct to grief can be a hard impulse to shake.
So after a few sessions engaging in the senseless and rather boring slaughter that takes place as players seem to spawn in one giant cluster, my friends and I made a choice. We hated
getting wrapped in those futile I-kill-you-then-you-kill me shootouts. They were so rarely fun, just an exercise in petty revenge. Insead, we made the promise to specifically reject the path of least resistance and see what it would be like to not
shoot everything that moved. Was it possible to play this way? Could we still hunt animals and conquer bandit outposts? If we adopted a method of fire only when fired upon, would we even survive long enough to have any fun?
We weren't sure, but it definitely made things harder. initially, we were skittish. An approaching enemy could very likely mean our demise and we wouldn't know it until they already started opening fire. By then it would be too late. We started avoiding other players all together, taking alternate routes and sticking to gang hideouts that were vacant of strangers. Instead of tiny annoyances to be ignored and avoided - which defeated half the purpose of even playing online - other players became wild beasts to be tracked and observed from afar. We often found ourselves sitting on distant ridges, watching players move through our sniper scopes, trying to determine if they were threats. Could we approach safely? Go around? Were they shooting other players? Did we need to play the hero? Could we hear them talk? Did they sound at all like rational people?
Eventually, it became clear that we needed to become confrontational - brave, even - and approach other players despite being at a disadvantage. I tested out our new pacifist principles playing by myself in a randomly chosen room of 15 strangers. Taking a quick scan of the map, which had small posses scattered around but was mostly individual players forging their own paths, I singled out a player near Twin Rocks who was working by themselves. It wasn’t a long ride to the player’s location, hoping to see which I could reach first, the range of the proximity chat or the range of his Winchester. But as I approached, I realized the player wasn’t just poking around, but was already hot in the middle of a skirmish with Walton’s Gang. At the losing end, to be specific.
So, mounted on my bronco across the valley, I put my scoped rifle to my shoulder and stared down the glossy lens at my new friend, pinned behind a boulder. I could easily snipe his little cowboy hat right off, but I went in a different direction. It took no time at all to dispatch the closest enemy threatening him and the same with as many bullets as my rifle held. But it seems Walton’s gang outnumbered the chamber to my Rolling Block and soon I was riding straight into the fray with my LeMat in hand. It didn’t take long to dispatch the rest, especially after my new friend found his confidence again and came charging down the hill to join me.
After the dust settled, the player stood motionless for a moment and then a bevy of static and rustling came over my speakers as he quickly put his mic on. What followed was a startling enthusiastic Wow, thank you!
Not the kind of muttered appreciation you give when someone holds a door for you, but the emphatic thank you given to a friend who gave you a ride or loaned you some cash. A legitimate gesture of genuine appreciation. Sure, he wasn’t facing anything like real demise. If I hadn’t shown up and he’d taken a bullet to the cranium, he’d just respawn mere seconds later, with no penalty, only a few feet from where he had just stood. But there’s no denying that satisfaction of victory without death. And if his character could smile, it would.
We talk for a few moments before I leave and the impression of comradery is inescapable. This is reinforced when I run into the same player some weeks later, in a whole new session of Free Roam. He had spotted my name by chance and flagged me down on the bridge crossing south to Escalara. Again, it felt less like stumbling on a forgotten acquaintance and more of discovering a long lost friend.
This was, unfortunately, a rare occurrence. Players often lethargically ignored our new pacifist creed and we experienced our fair share of murder at the hands of spastic middle schoolers with a poor vocabulary, an amateurish concept of cursing, and an insistence of knowing our sexual orientation better than us. But when players weren’t in party chats or too otherwise distracted to notice our neutrality, banter, and occasional heroics they were often pleasantly surprised. And, in many cases, genuinely appreciative.
It seems that when used for something other than belittling the assumed size of another player’s penis, Red Dead Redemption
’s proximity chat was a unique tool. Sure, this same technolgoy existed in other games, Halo 3
jumping out as a huge example. But it was somewhat useless in that context. In my experience, it’s just been an avenue for players to accidentally broadcast their grievances with a recent death to the player that killed them. For us, the ability to talk to nearby players became an open forum for negotiation. It made us friends, some of which would find me in other sessions and others ended up now occupying a space on my Friends List. It let us distract other players with ridiculous Old West banter, long enough to get the advantage or escape. But it took us some time to discover that the proximity chat was a weapon in itself.
After a specifically rousing completion of the Tesoro Azul bandit hideout, my friends and I stood in the center of the walled town checking our ammunition and debating which town next needed our liberation. As we did, a friend cried out in alarm as he took a bullet from a stranger riding down the hill. Grouping back up, we all took cover behind a bevy of boxes and aimed our weapons at the main gates. The bumbling player came bursting through the gates awkwardly, stunned to see a whole line of soldiers waiting for him. So stunned that he didn’t even fire right away, but fussed with his horse trying to turn back around. But we didn’t fire either. Instead, all the player heard was my comrade shout “Hold your fire!”
Everyone stood still for a moment, having found ourselves in the middle of an accidental Mexican standoff. After a moment - each person half-expecting a trigger to have been pulled by now - I stood up, holstered my side-arm, and spoke clearly to the stranger.
“No one has to die.”
Sure, it was a line stolen from the campaign and probably half a dozen western films, but the player seemed stunned by it. Again, if the characters could emote, this portly cattle rustler would look at least a little bit shocked. Considering past experiences, I expected him to simply call me a fag, try vainly to hit me with his rifle, and then follow us around for the next hour trying to avenge his pathetic death. But, instead, the out-matched stranger silently reared his horse in place, pulled the reins to the right, and kicked his steed into a full gallop straight back out the gates. He made no further attempts to bother us.
Again, there was nothing to gain out of not
shooting the blundering outlaw, besides avoiding creating a temporary enemy who would nip at our heels for petty revenge for the remainder of the session. But, instead, we opted to avoid doing precisely what annoyed us: random killing. We had added our own layer of ethics, however shallow and marginal, to which we followed rather diligently. We didn’t like being killed at random, senselessly and idly, so we refused to take part. We’d chosen the good-natured path despite the opposite being at least marginally beneficial and certainly significantly easier. We had given Red Dead Redemption
’s multiplayer a morality system.