Animal rights is a permanently topical matter, and seems to gain prominence with each passing year. Documentaries and exposes reveal the horrors of factory farming and the beauty of the animal kingdom. More and more of my friends go vegan every day. A professor of mine at college was convinced that, a hundred years from now, the world at large would view eating animals as an abhorrent act.
Certainly all interesting thoughts and philosophies that deserve their due consideration, but you know how you don't build love for our fellow creatures? Give a person a camera and no real sense of direction, push them into a dense forest and throw grizzly bears at them until they give up. Then for good measure, spray poison into their eyes if they try and defend themselves.
This is all part of Red Dead Online's new "Naturalist" update, which is either a very misguided attempt to teach us the beauty of the natural world, or one of the most slyly-handled recruitment drives for ivory poachers I've ever seen. Because after a few hours of all this, I wanted to run to the nearest zoo and set fire to every animal I saw.
Still, the premise behind the update is theoretically solid. There's two NPCs, Harriet Davenport and Gus Macmillan, each of whom want you to go and find animals for very different reasons. Harriet is a hippyish, rather intense person who looks like Helena Bonham Carter fell out of a tree. From the start, she's a fervent animal lover who pays you to passively study all the lovable critters of the West. The only time you'll ever lift a gun under her mentorship is to fire harmless sedatives that allow you to take tiny blood samples from snoozing animals. There's even an option to wake them with gentle smelling salts afterwards.
Meanwhile, Gus is a red-faced, mustachioed big game hunter who promises he can turn every pelt and carcass brought to him into money and fancy clothes. Thus are the twin philosophies of the new update laid before us: are animals adorable friends, or are they useful resources?
Let's start off with this: if you were expecting a kind of dual-path thing where you can ally yourself with either Harriet or Gus, you were making far too much sense. All the missions, experience and vital equipment you get for the Naturalist role come via Harriet. It's just the final stage of the process—handing in the animals—that can be given to either of them. Either give a tiny sample to Harriet, or a whole corpse to Gus. Gus's workshops are more a deviation than a proper path, but I guess that's not necessarily bad, just a little poorly-explained. Fine then, I accept that we're mainly working with Harriet.
Problem is, I can't stand Harriet. I thought Rockstar had got that god-awful urge to do satire out of its system, but apparently not. Consequently, Harriet's a hybridization of a bunch of stereotypes: the flighty spiritualist, the rambling scientist, the humorless activist, all rolled into one and then through a bramble patch. Her dialogue is an unfaltering stream of quasi-scientific nonsense, babbling mysticism and patronising reprimands. Even when she compliments you, it feels like you're a child who managed to get their hand unstuck from a jam jar.
Gus, on the other hand, is clearly in the wrong, but he's also respectful, frank, and has a notable wit to him. When you first meet the two characters, they're arguing in a hotel lobby over animal rights, and at one point Harriet exclaims hotly, "Unbelievable. How do you sleep at night?!"
"On a tiger bedspread, my dear," he responds, heading for the door. Gus might be an ass, but I can understand his perspective, especially in the context of the era. His hunting is something he enjoys but it's also a profession that earns him a living, and he's willing to work fairly with those who will treat him the same way. Besides, I've left all manner of bodies up and down the continent in Red Dead Online, so I can't really get judgy now.
But while Gus likes humans as friends and animals as sandwich filling, Harriet is the other way around, to the point where her disinterest in human life feels like a weird hypocrisy. Talk to her at any point and she'll have work for you, usually slaughtering poachers by the dozens to save a fox in handcuffs or something like that. She's also very rich, but unlike Gus, it's all inherited. At one point he even calls her out for using her "rich daddy's wealth" and earning nothing on her own, about which she looks rather embarrassed and quickly skips past the issue. A lot of her behavior feels like a bizarre double-standard, and it's made all the worse by what happens when you actually get out into the field.
Here's the thing: Until recently, Red Dead Online had a real problem with animals—which is to say, there weren't any. As servers filled up with people, some glitch started rapidly reducing the number of animal spawns proportionately. You'd be fine if you were on your own, but the moment you entered a full server you could spend hours in the woods and find nothing more than a couple of rats and the back half of a pantomime horse.
Rockstar certainly fixed that problem. Since the Naturalist update, animals are everywhere. Hell, you can barely move without nature getting underfoot. Problem is, you're not allowed to kill any of them.
Well, that's not entirely true. Technically there's nothing actually stopping you from mounting heads on every wall you find, but Harriet's animal-sense will start tingling even if you throw one brick at a bison two hundred miles from civilization. Kill too many animals and she'll decide something has to be done. The next time you go to her tent to do business, she'll suddenly drug you, drop you off at a random point on the map, and refuse any kind of interaction for a while afterward.
This idea is not the worst in the universe, but it might be in the top five. Whatever your thoughts on animal killing in real life, hunting is an integral part of the Red Dead experience. Punishing players for shooting animals would be like punishing players for wearing stetsons. And if you signed up for the Trader role as well, which focuses on selling pelts and furs for money, the two jobs are almost completely incompatible.
All this might be forgivable if it weren't for two problems. The first one is that Harriet views every animal you kill as a monstrous act of cruelty, regardless of context. And when I said earlier you couldn't move for nature getting underfoot, I meant it. Remember all those bunnies that you accidentally popped underhoof riding around in the single player? If that happens Online it counts as a party foul with Harriet, so better be careful about all those suicidal critters who love to charge across your path without warning.
The second problem is that when the animal spawn rates skyrocketed again, that included all the dangerous animals. Lions and tigers and bears... oh, shit.
So let me describe a small section of gameplay to illustrate the issue. The other day I went out with a sedative gun and binoculars to try and rack up a bit of peaceful Naturalist experience, studying gamboling foxes at play and gently taking hair and blood samples from those I'd harmlessly tranquilized. And then, as I was crouched in the bracken watching a family of ducks with scholarly interest, a large panther suddenly crashed into my back and attempted to eat me from the top down. Panicking, I drew both pistols and opened fire. I would've used the sedative gun, but it takes at least eight shots to slow down a big cat and the damn weapon only fires once per news cycle. By the time it fell asleep, I'd already be halfway down its digestive tract.
I returned to Harriet some time later, holding her samples in one hand and my organs with the other, only for her to get all fussy because I shot at a poor, defenseless killing machine when it tried to tear me in half. "They're only taking their part in the cycle," she whined. Half an hour later, when a squirrel ran under my horse and she sprayed me with hallucinogens as punishment, I decided that was the last straw. To hell with Harriet, to hell with the beauty of nature, and to hell with the slow drip feed of experience that felt like trying to lick a cinder block in half. I've been driven into Gus's gory arms, and there I'll stay for good.