In the story mode of Red Dead Redemption 2, I cared way too much about how I outfitted my man Arthur Morgan. I chugged hair tonics so that his hair and beard would grow disgustingly long. His fashion sense was awkward, as I'd imagine any man who lives mostly in the wilderness to be. He dressed mostly in mismatched plaid of flannels and duster coats. He always wore a big cowboy hat. His guns were all the same: pearly white with accents of shimmering gold. When he waltzed into camp, usually someone would compliment his guns. My Arthur looked good where it counted.
In Red Dead Online, thanks to its busted economy, it's far harder to enact my dirty cowboy with polished guns dream. Even with the harsh realities of money being hard to come by, that hasn't stopped my customized cowgirl Sandy Cheeks from doing her darndest. Red Dead Online is overall a much lighter experience than the main game: It's all about the clothes, because it doesn't have much else to offer.
That's part of the initial beauty of Red Dead Online, a multiplayer mode with a lot of promise that plops you into the familiar landscape of the story mode. It's different though. It's emptier. There are other players roaming across it, marked with red dots on the map, but not too many. In cities like Blackwater, they're more likely to take a shot at you than do a friendly emote. And then there's you: a customized character in a league of only ugly choices. (There is no such thing as having good dental in the Wild West, sorry.) I jumped at the chance to create a person very different from Arthur. So, of course, I created a cowgirl. Her hair is tied upward in the messiest bun ever, as if she lived a rich life and decided to up and leave on her own one day, abandoning the lavishness of life in Saint Denis. I named her Sandy Cheeks because... I like Spongebob Squarepants, and I wanted her to embody the same attitude as Sandy.
Unfortunately, I stopped playing Red Dead Online regularly almost as fast as I started. The moment that drained me was after I helped deliver mail on a Stranger mission, failed it because of my slow starter horse, and only made a couple dollars for ten real-world minutes of work. I was poorer than I ever was in the main game. I glanced at the expensive clothes in the catalogue and turned off the game after. Last week, I popped in to find that while the cost for clothes and guns has been rightfully reduced, the gear is still often behind a player level rank. I don't know how much more of the dullest of dull online quests I can play for pennies in saving up for those coveted overalls.
But the community around Red Dead Online isn't necessarily letting money get in the way. In the subreddit r/RedDeadFashion, players from all around are sharing their cowboys and cowgals. Usually, a post has a unique name attached, with maybe a short story to tell. One player noted that their character was really bad at the PvP mode Showdown, but at least they maintained their killer appearance in the midst of the bloodbath. Another even recreated a familiar gunslinger from a memorable quest line in the main game. In the replies, people often praise each other's fits. It's a warm atmosphere, with everyone just wanting to show off their cool clothes and original characters. And people are putting more thought and care into their characters than most games, almost like how hardcore players of The Sims do. They want their outlaws to live a storied life.
On the outside, it's reminiscent of many other fashion and gaming-oriented subcommunities you'll find on Reddit; Destiny Fashion being, perhaps, one of the most popular out there. Red Dead Fashion has nearly 14,000 subscribers, some carried over from the last iteration of Red Dead Online almost a decade ago, with regular posts almost on the hour. More so than other fashion subreddits, which usually seem to focus on either special events or gearing up for a raid, Red Dead Online's own vision has a different tone. People are using fashion like people do in real life: as an extension of themselves. Or in Red Dead Online's case, their characters.
Red Dead Online, like Red Dead Redemption 2, benefits a lot from approaching it like a role-playing game. It's not an RPG in how video games nowadays define it, but more than most games of that genre this year, I embodied its lead character as if I were playing tabletop RPG. I dressed Arthur Morgan how I felt he would dress. In the late-game chapters, I went out of my way to make him look as gnarly as possible; never bathing, letting his beard grow long and wiry like a terrier's fur. He was disheveled, because he had too much going on in his life to care about his appearance. In Red Dead Online, I'm seeing players treat their original characters in similar ways.
On the RedDeadFashion subreddit, every screenshot is coupled with a name. Sometimes players are modeling characters based on other characters; sometimes it's something wholly original. In most cases, there's some semblance of personality there; whether in the perfectly coordinated dusty clothes they wear or the sensible names. In some ways, you almost see these as the sorts of outlaws Arthur might befriend in a side mission.
In multiplayer games, cosmetics are almost always the big thing to work towards—even in military-inclined shooters like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, where warpaint and clothes work in tandem to create bizarre outfits that are paired with gun skins. (Shout out to my "reactive" glowing gun that looks like something you'd tote at a rave if it weren't a, y'know, gun.) But there's something more natural with how Red Dead Online takes it due to the slow nature of its world. Contrary to the guns-blazing, heist planning shenanigans of Grand Theft Auto Online, Red Dead Online in its stead is more about chilling out and pinching pennies to get by. Part of that is because of the theme in the story it resides next to on the start menu, while the other half is Red Dead Online's chief problem: there's hardly anything to do. The variety and liveliness that's kept me coming back to Red Dead Redemption 2 is barely present in the current state of Red Dead Online.
Even as I dream of a better online version of Red Dead Redemption 2 that I can take my trusty steed to gallop across, my biggest grievance with Red Dead Online in its current beta state is still how sparse it feels, even a handful of patches later. About half of the world's NPCs are nowhere to be found, making riding from place to place a largely lonely experience if you don't have a comrade at your side. While making money is slightly easier now, when tracked alongside Rockstar's other big online venture, it's still a huge grind just to make the slightest amount of cash. As Redditor MegatonBandit outlines, if you want to upgrade your horse to a Missouri Foxtrotter ($950), you'll need to play approximately 11.2 hours of Stranger missions. That's a lot of mail delivery, and other mundane quests.
For clothes, it's a less stressful endeavor. Guns and horses are the most expensive things of the game, whereas clothes are easier to come by. With Rockstar giving out Gold Bars recently like Oprah gave away cars, those killer overalls are finally in reach for my Sandy Cheeks. If only the rest of that grind felt worth trudging through with my friends, even if taking group photos on the wild frontier is a hootin' time itself.
And that's where the light charm of Red Dead Online tempts me. Where its role-playing, character-embedding is ripe thanks to customization and tons of slick clothes joined with the open-world's relaxed atmosphere. Still, whenever I turn on Red Dead Online, I find myself hitting a server error eventually, and hopping back into Red Dead Redemption 2 proper again. I finished the epilogue long ago, and yet, there's always that legendary hunt in the distance I haven't tackled; or that white question mark I've let linger for far too long. Red Dead Online, as fabulous as its clothes may be, hasn't hooked me in the way Destiny 2's fashion even has. That's because when I'm roaming in its valleys, my mind is thinking about the other cowboy just a menu over in another dimension with a much more exciting world than this one, rather than the one I made on my own.