Over the decades, Rockstar Games has become synonymous with iconic video game moments. From something as authored as a character turning on you in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or crossing into Mexico in the original Red Dead Redemption, to something as personal and dynamic as the countless hijinks you create in GTA Online, the studio’s games seem built on delivering a constant stream of experiences that stick with you long after you set the controller down. But for me, the one moment that stands out amongst their storied library is in Red Dead Redemption 2, when a successful rescue mission leads to an unforgettable celebration.
The moment comes in the back half of Chapter 2, just following the mission “The First Shall Be Last.” You find yourself meeting up with Charles and Javier on a journey to rescue your mouthy Irish compatriot, Sean. This involves following his captor’s boat as it sails downriver, stealthily taking out a handful of guards, and eventually storming a small commune where Sean is strung upside down by his ankles. Upon clearing the area of enemies and freeing your pal, the group splits up, promising to meet back up at your camp on Horseshoe Overlook, one of the many places your roaming family ends up calling home throughout the game. All in all, an entertaining, if not pretty standard Rockstar mission. But it’s what comes next once you return to camp that’s stuck with me nearly every day since I played it in 2018. Let’s travel back in time for a moment:
I approach our camp and notice something different, a sort of lively energy in the air. For once, everyone can rally around the good news that Sean is back safe and sound. Things are starting to look up for our ragtag gang of outlaws. Dutch van der Linde, surrogate father and leader of the gang, approaches me with a congratulatory cigar. “Let’s have some fun tonight. Let’s enjoy ourselves,” he greets me the way a party host would as you enter the front door. I see pockets of people strewn all about, talking amongst themselves and just generally enjoying the celebratory moment. We know it won’t last forever, so why not enjoy it? Before wading in, I grab a bottle of whiskey from a crate on the edge of the camp. I can take a sip whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. You know, like one does at a party.
Sean uses an apple box as a pulpit and begins to deliver a drunken sermon to the crowd. A few people are listening intently, while the rest seem to be tuning him out as they go about their drinking. As I approach, he slurs a thank you for rescuing him before stumbling off the box.
There’s a group sitting around a table nearby. One’s strumming a song, and I can sit down and join them for a singalong. If I tire of that, I can make my way over to campfire and catch the back half of John and Hosea sharing stories about their time in the army. Off to the side, Strauss is sitting under a lantern reading a book. He’s not much one for a party anyway.
My bottle’s empty, so I go and grab another. I find Dutch and Molly dancing near their tent to the sounds of a scratchy tune playing off of his phonograph. I walk by, and Mary-Beth asks me to dance, so the two of us join in. “See, Arthur, it’s alright to dance. Doesn’t mean we’ll stop thinking you’re angry and sad,” she teases me. After the song concludes, I thank her, walk back over to the campfire, and run into Reverend Swanson, who’s clearly trashed. He calls my name, and I ask him what he wants. He shouts my name again, and I repeat my question. Through a boozy haze, he gets agitated and mutters, “Oh, I’m not quite sure. Shit, this keeps happening,” as he stumbles off into the night.
Abigail and Sadie stand off to the side, sipping their drinks, but not in the partying mood. They look on as Bill antagonizes John. “Everyone knows you’re Dutch’s favorite. Like a pet,” Bill drunkenly jokes to John. They share a laugh, but Abigail doesn’t find it funny. She storms off, and John chases after his future wife. I intend to follow them and see how their argument escalates, but Javier pulls me into another group gathered around the fire singing a folk song. I join in for a few bars before emptying my drink.
I get up to grab another, still singing the song to myself as I approach Dutch and Hosea clearly having a heart-to-heart talk. Hosea holds back tears as Dutch cradles his hand. And there I am, still singing my stupid song and interrupting their tender moment. I feel like an ass, but Dutch doesn’t seem to mind. “Looks like this could be a late one,” he tells me. I never did find out what they were talking about.
Things are beginning to get a bit sloppy, which tends to happen once a party reaches this hour of the morning. I pass by the good reverend vomiting behind a wagon. “I might’ve overdone it again,” he tells me as if I didn’t already know that. I see a drunk Sean, the guest of honor, go over and try to sneak a kiss from Karen. He gets a well-deserved slap across the face, and they both laugh. I leave them be and make my way back towards the campfire. It’s dark, and I accidentally stumble over a group of folks who’ve already turned in for the night, startling them awake. I halfheartedly apologize and sit down on a log near the fire to catch the end of Uncle telling a tall tale about some adventure where he came upon a tribe in South America and they temporarily made him their god. It’s the kind of story that blurs the line between truth and fiction, a 4 a.m. story.
The thing about this fully interactive vignette in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that all facets of it play out whether you’re a part of them or not. All of those conversations and interactions that occur throughout the camp would’ve been going on even if I weren’t there to witness them. If I had gotten there earlier, I could’ve heard the beginning of Dutch and Hosea’s heart-to-heart. If I followed John and Abigail, I could’ve seen the rest of their argument. Or if I had just stayed by the fire all night, I could’ve sang until the sun rose, which makes this feel like the closest thing video games have ever come to portraying a real-life social gathering. It doesn’t feel like a traditional video game branching path where a series of binary choices lead to your outcome. Rather, the experience I had flowered naturally from the way I decided to spend the night.
The most direct comparison I can come up with is New York City’s Sleep No More, a live production of a noir-inspired take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth that has all of its actors delivering scenes simultaneously throughout a multi-floor building. The catch is that as an audience member, you’re free to wander about as you see fit, entering and exiting the scenes that play out across the rooms whenever you want. It’s your prerogative whether you want to try to chase the core narrative, follow a single character’s journey, or just wander about and see what you find. It’s theater with a sense of exploration and authorship, which is exactly how I would describe this interlude at the Horseshoe Overlook in Red Dead Redemption 2.
It’s now 5 a.m. back at camp. As the sun yawns awake, peeking over the hills, the final party stragglers start to call it a night. Sean’s the last one at the campfire at 5:30 a.m., and to the surprise of nobody, he’s drinking and singing an Irish folk song to himself. He’s just happy to be alive, and honestly, who could blame him? I listen on for a bit as I contemplate my next move. The reasonable thing for me to do would be to turn in, head over to my small slice of the camp, and get some much-deserved shuteye. But where’s the fun in that? I finish the last of my whiskey and hop on my horse. We head east through the trees, carving our own path through the morning dew, in search of the next adventure. Some say there’s no rest for the wicked, but I think this moment in Red Dead Redemption 2 says otherwise.