When I started playing Red Dead Redemption 2, there were a lot of things I looked forward to: robbing trains, jumping stagecoaches, hunting grizzlies, collecting bounties, even growing facial hair—all set against a gorgeously detailed and skyscraper-free landscape of the American West. In the 30+ hours I’ve already logged, the game offers all of the above (and plenty more), but I wouldn’t really know. I’ve had precious little time for such things because of one part of the game I never anticipated: Jeffy.
Jeffy is a reverse dapple-coated thoroughbred I purchased after my first big score. She was not my first horse; that one fell off a mountain. (I’m not very good at video games.) And, among Red Dead’s selectable Arabians, Andalusians, and Missouri Fox Trotters, with their heavily muscled haunches streaked with veins, mine is just a middle-of-the-pack steed with a little extra acceleration to please riding enthusiasts. Basically, Jeffy is a Mazda. But she’s also the best friend I’ve ever had.
One of the great escapist appeals of the series is the ability to explore the Old West in the saddle of a trusted horse. But something happened between Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010, and this year’s prequel. Tiny but significant animations have been added to detail your every action in the game, thinning the line between avatar and personal experience. The way your character instinctively ducks as you ride too close to a low tree branch. The clap of dust that flies off your horse’s neck when you brush it. The satisfying way you can hand-feed a carrot, or reach forward to pat your horse’s neck when it gets spooked by a rattlesnake. And, of course, the deadpan plop of your horse bombing the plains with monstrous shits from Bluewater Marsh to Cumberland Forest. All of this minutiae serves to deepen your relationship with this dumb digital animal, and made me want to dedicate my time in Red Dead Redemption 2 to bonding with—and vigilantly protecting—my sweet Jeffy.
This means riding aimlessly from one end of the map to the other while basically avoiding any essential missions to advance the game’s story. But, truly, what is more fulfilling? Breaking some shithead member of your gang out of prison and collecting debts for a very problematic moneylender character (His name is Strauss, but it might as well be Shelly Bagelman)? Or losing yourself to an ASMR-triggering clip-clop as you gallop from a dirt path onto a wooden bridge?
Though I’ve put a lot of time into the game, I haven’t made much progress in the traditional sense. I’m still stuck in the early missions, but I’ve maxed out my bonding level with Jeffy, and she’s eaten better than the entire encampment of humans I’m supposed to be caring for. We’ve galloped beneath the arc of rainbows, lassoed deer, and ignored troubled citizens attempting to wave us down for assistance. The only time I dip my toe into the wilder aspects of the Wild West is so I can earn enough money to upgrade Jeffy’s saddle, stirrups, or stock up on horse reviving tonics in the event of the unthinkable.
One night in the town of Strawberry, I was performing a routine robbery that went pear-shaped and turned bloody (because I forgot which button on the game controller holsters your weapon—like I said, bad at video games), so I quickly mounted Jeffy and headed out of town as fast as her stamina would allow. Once the sheriff’s posse stopped giving chase and I had a moment to catch my breath, I realized THIS WAS NOT MY FUCKING HORSE. In my panicked rush to escape the law, I’d accidentally mounted a decent lookalike, and now I was miles away on this weird, nameless horse that probably belonged to the man I’d just killed. Even worse, the moment I dismounted, the horse ran off—zero loyalty. I was alone, miles from the nearest town, and well out of whistling distance from my sweet Jeffy. So I did the only thing I could do: I threw myself off a cliff and died so that I might be reunited with Jeffy in the after-life, or at least so that I might re-load my last save point and pretend this terrible nightmare had never occurred in the first place.
I’m grateful to Rockstar Games for filling this game’s world with so much excitement, but the only adventure I need is cresting mountains with Jeffy, my ride-or-die bitch.