Idle Animations is a recurring series in which I play games without playing them, exploring quiet, still moments, how games fill space and time, and what happens when you let a game play itself.
This article contains massive spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2.
I don’t want to finish Red Dead Redemption 2.
This is in part because I enjoy playing it. There’s a soothing routine to taking my horse out across the prairies or mountains, hunting deer or elk and bringing them back to town, taking a bath and sleeping before starting over. But this routine, too, is a means of avoiding the inevitable.
In act five of Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur Morgan, your deceptively gruff protagonist, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1899, the game’s setting, that’s as good as a death sentence. I found out early on through some accidental spoilers that Arthur doesn’t survive, but I thought it would be a shootout or a betrayal that did him in. I don’t know for sure whether it’ll be the illness or his lifestyle that will kill him, but as tensions rise in the game’s story, as he continues to pick fights with his morally dubious father figure, Dutch Van der Linde, I hesitate to progress. I know death is coming. Arthur knows death is coming. So I take advantage of one of the game’s more interesting features: its scenic, beautiful idle animations.
When you load up the game, it opens with Arthur looking at something beautiful. I mean this literally—it doesn’t matter what you’re doing when you quit, because Red Dead Redemption 2 will move you a ways away and point you toward a waterfall or a creek bed or people wandering Saint Denis. The game positions Arthur leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette on horseback, or in other leisurely positions, distinctly different from his usual survival-driven actions.
In my case, the game points me toward the babbling creek outside the gang’s final camp in the game: Beaver Hollow. For days, the gang has had little to say beyond anxieties about where they’re heading and how they’re going to get the Pinkertons, let alone the U.S. Army and rival gangs, off their tail. Molly O’Shea, Dutch’s… lover, perhaps, has been shot dead after drunkenly storming into camp and confessing that she ratted the gang out to the Pinkertons. Arthur doesn’t believe she deserved that—doesn’t even believe she did it. He and Dutch are at odds after a series of disagreements, culminating in Arthur freeing John Marston from prison and aiding Rains Fall, a Native chief at the nearby Wapiti reservation, in obtaining medicine and vaccines for his people. Dark, bruised circles surround Arthur’s eyes and his cheeks are sunken, his illness making him shed weight I didn’t even know I had to worry about.
But for a moment, things are peaceful.
The creek runs down below, bending off into the distance; early-morning fog (a common feature in this area, where the bayou steams to the south and the ocean churns to the east) blocks much of the valley from view. Sunlight streams through the fog as leaves gently drift down from the trees. You can’t see the breeze, but the leaves sway in it regardless.
Arthur stands a few yards away from camp, far enough that the primary sounds he hears are not the groans of the gang waking up or the crackle of the fire, but birdsong. It’s a reminder of how much of this world exists beyond the ways that the player—that the gang, that Arthur—interacts with it. Stop shooting and talking and saying “Partner” to people on the road and there’s something else to be found there. I don’t know bird calls well enough to identify them, but given the game’s level of detail, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re accurate to the region.
Off in the distance is a gray, heavy-looking cloud. It storms often in this region; more than once, I’ve been chased back to camp by an aggressive thunderstorm. When it rains, water turns the road to mud—mud Arthur inevitably falls in, because I am not good at steering horses and equally bad at staying on them. Even things as transient as a digital rainstorm leave an impact on this world. I wonder which way the storm is going, but I don’t stick around long enough to find out.
Instead, I shake Arthur loose of his brief downtime and return him to camp. I intend to head out to find some other picturesque thing to look at, but Charles, my favorite of the other gang members, invites Arthur to sit down by the fire. This is usually an opportunity to have a scripted conversation about the gang’s situation, but I’ve spent so much time in camp that it doesn’t trigger—I’ve probably already heard the conversation that was meant to take place here. Arthur sits in silence, watching the camp’s activities go on around him.
It’s become clear that the gang will not stay together much longer. Molly is dead and there’s a ripple effect of discontent. We’re starting to see the places where loyalty becomes cruelty, where being a gang is less “us” and more “not them.” It’s appropriate, then, that Arthur’s idleness is not actually all that idle; he shifts, he looks around, he stares wordlessly into the fire before opening his mouth as if to speak, only to close it again.
Karen wanders by, wasted at 9 a.m. There’s nothing that can be done to save her; Arthur voices his concern, asks the others to look after her, but nothing comes of it. Every day, she wakes up drunk and continues drinking. One day, close to the end of the game, she’ll be gone, and there’s never an answer about where she went.
Charles stokes the fire. Uncle, who is in fact nobody’s uncle and one of the gang’s more unproductive hanger-ons, wanders over and takes a seat by the fire as well. Charles asks if he’s okay. There’s a long pause—so long that I begin to wonder whether this is scripted or simply another remnant of me having spent so much time talking to and observing the gang at this campsite that the dialog options have been exhausted—and then raises his beer bottle to the air, as if making a toast. He swirls it, seemingly examining the way the light looks through the glass, and says nothing at all.
I know that eventually I’ll have to leave this campsite and go do whatever missions are left to me. There’s a man up north who wants to take Arthur hunting. Dutch wants to speak to him. Eagle Flies needs to be rescued after he’s done something foolish at Dutch’s insistence. There are ghosts out in the bayou, a vampire in San Denis, bounties uncollected, and death creeping ever closer, the reaper’s portrait yet unfinished in an eerie, abandoned cabin in the swamps.
So Arthur sits by the fire, shoulders sagging, face wan, as activity continues around him. Life goes on as he inches closer to his end, as the 19th century draws to a close, as civilization erodes the last vestiges of the wilderness. It’s inescapable, but I cling, for the moment, to the fragments of birdsong and the crackle of the fire, before Arthur gets to his feet and rides out to meet death head-on.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.