It’s October 25th, 2018. 603 years after the Battle of Agincourt where the deadly Longbow bested the mounted French knight. I am preparing for a battle of my own.
There’s a chill in the New England air as I beat heavy footsteps to the local GameStop to pick up my copy of Red Dead Redemption 2, the sequel to the much beloved RDR. I’ve pre-ordered games before, but somehow I’ve never run into such a glut of meat at the store at pickup time. I live in a small, blue-collar New England town, and a surprising percentage of the workforce has turned out to be among the first responders to this launch. As I approach the door at 8:54pm, it looks like a Japanese subway train. It’s your general Masshole fare, work boots and Carhartt jackets. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart beards. Attitude. From the outside, as I approach, I worry that it’s going to have the feeling of a Trump rally.
I have to say excuse me just to get inside. That’s how tight the sardines are. The dude has his back against the door.
The store told me that there were 68 pre-orders and then a bunch more people just showed up to see if they could get a copy. The three GameStop workers are competent, but this is clearly the worst part of the job. I’ve exchanged pleasantries with all of them over the years, but now they’re in head-down mode. No eye contact. They can sense the potential for violence.
People are here to slap down way way way too much green for Rockstar games’ follow up to the most successful franchise of anything in human history: ‘Grand Theft Auto V’. It’s more successful than ‘Harry Potter’. It’s more successful than ‘Star Wars’. And one thing that Rockstar does as well or better than anyone else is foment skullduggery. People are paying for a cowboy story, but not your grandpappy’s cowboy story. These aren’t the spurs that jingle jangle jingle. These spurs’ll kill ya.
Upon entering the store, yeah, it’s a bunch of knuckleheads, but it’s not just that. There are 83 people in toto. There’s a couple of 60 year old guys. There’s six women. One is just hanging with her dude. Two of them are sort of punk rock looking. The other three look like everyone else: cold as hell and antsy AF. They want their fix. But as I stand there, I notice that the women are totally comfortable in this quagmire of addicts and imbeciles. They’re totally fine. No one is making anyone feel awkward that I can see. Everyone is focused on the task at hand.
Namely, being a cowboy.
The American cowboy mythos is still as strong as ever. It’s what drove people like me to lunge headlong into ‘Westworld’. The pilot of that show was seeded with so many video game eggs it was like Easter. I made it six episodes before I realized it was narcotic TV. But even when people felt adrift on that show, they came back. They went to Netflix to watch ‘Godless’. They rewatched ‘Deadwood’ on HBO:GO.
More eloquent writers than me have captured the beauty and wildness of the American West. That cocktail of lawlessness and soul-searching, of seeking your fortune or getting your comeuppance somewhere out on the open prairie.
But never before have we been able to experience it in the way that RDR2 promises, with stunning graphics on next gen consoles. It’s what has brought all this muscle out to the GameStop in my little town, on a Thursday night when there’s an NFL game playing unwatched on 83 televisions.
The staff handles a spotty contingent of the late adopters, people who are paying for their game early. It’s creeping dangerously close to 9pm. The natives are getting restless.
If you paid early, and I did, they’ve affixed a sticker with a “group number” onto your receipt.
I’m in Group 4. The groups are comprised of six pre-orders each. Six men enter. Six men leave, with their pre-ordered video games. Or something like that. I anticipate that some GameStop employee will begin to make an announcement, to say:
“folks, here’s how it’s going to go down, we’re going to call up the groups by number. You can find the number on your receipt. If you haven’t paid I suggest you do so before…”
They said nothing. Zip. Diddly. Niente.
So as the tension builds toward the stroke of 9, the gamers in attendance start to call out their respective numbers.
“Where’s group 6?”
“Who’s got 3? We got any motherfuckin’ 3’s in this bitch?”
“Group One over here!”
I hear a big palooka next to me mumble about group 4 and I wordlessly show him my number and we exchange a nod. A few seconds later we migrate upstream to a place where the most alpha of the fours is calling the roll.
He’s everything sports fans outside of Massachusetts loathe. He’s about 22, a non-college white in a Celtics hat, Red Sox hoodie and dirty jeans. His hands already show a lifetime of hard work. He’s quick-witted and loud and doesn’t give a rats ass what you think about him. As the fours assemble around him, he takes stock of his group.
“Look at this shit.” Alpha 4 says. “We can kick all the ass in this place. Fuckin’ Fours’ll take any of you other groups.”
This is met with a bunch of laughs. It’s not serious. It’s banter. It’s playful. Guys are jawing a little, having fun. Despite the testosterone, it’s not confrontational at all. Usually, you get this many grunts into a room this small and someone’s getting jostled. But here, none of that. Not even the whiff of it. It’s happy. Full grown men and women are smiling. It’s Christmas in October and we’re all in on that shared secret.
The chatter dies down.
The GameStop employees have a thin film of sweat on their foreheads. One of them looks like he wants to make a run for it.
Alpha 4 holds up his droid phone. 9:01.
I anticipate a catcall or a grumble, but none comes. They’re checking out the last buyer. Everyone waits patiently.
After a pregnant beat, the store manager, a circular man with a wafer-thin chinstrap beard looks out at the sea of expectant faces.
“Okay, group one over here, group two over there, I guess.”
I chuckle. It’s like Kvothe under the whip. Here comes the pain. Whatever, I guess.
In the middle-back where group four is huddled around a wire basket of pre-owned games, we crane to see victory. Who has their game? Who has their game? Is it my turn yet?
The first dude from group one sails past us with a look of jubilance on his face. He’s got a huge box tucked under his arm and we see that he bought the Playstation 4 Red Dead Console. Damn! He went for it.
Alpha 4 sees him walk by. “Guy got the custom console.” Then a beat. “I’ll be right back.”
Alpha pretends to turn to follow the Group 1 console guy, to presumably beat him and take his loot, a skill he most assuredly honed in GTAV, but then turns back with a smile. Two of the guys laugh.
It takes about three minutes to send the first 12 buyers running toward their houses with discs. Guys are noticing the spread. So far 11 Playstation games, one Xbox. An interesting data point. I had always anecdotally heard that PS won the console wars, but 11 to one is alarming. Group three goes a ways toward evening the stakes. Only two of the six are Playstation.
“You hear the xbox version is like 114 gigs?” Says one guy.
“No shit!” Says his buddy.
No shit is right. That’s a massive file size. Gamers clutched their pearls at the 50 G size of ‘Witcher 3’ and ‘Rainbow Six: Siege’. 114? That’s like more data than NASA had until like 1983. Thank god for the multi-terabyte hard drives of today’s consoles.
Finally, we’re up.
I’m the second to go in my group, the guy studies my receipt for a second to check payment, console and version.
“Xbox, Ultimate.” He says aloud to himself. He pivots, pulls my baby off of a pile of other people’s babies, and passes it over. He stamps my receipt old-school, with a rubber stamp that says RECEIVED, and I turn to the door.
People look at the game in my hand as I go by. What a bunch of crackheads. Jesus. I mean, forget the fact that I was doing the same thing a second ago, but now I am one of the chosen. I am one of the children of God. I HAVE my game in hand.
Yes, I could have bought the digital edition. Everyone else in my die-hard four-person core gaming group did. But digital has no resale value, and I wanted the ‘line up for the deathly hallows at midnight’ vibe. Of my core group, I’m the most lawful good. The other guys want to be Jesse James. I want to be Gene Autry. They’re going the outlaw path. I tell them I wish I could be a marshall to hunt them down. They are itching to waylay me when the online game launches in about a month. I don’t know how close to John Law the game will let me play, but I don’t rightly cotton to varmints and men of low character. How it’ll shake out? TBD.
Outside, the brisk air hits me. It’s already in the thirties in Massachusetts, a temperature I don’t feel we’ve earned yet. The blistering hot summer kept people indoors. There wasn’t enough time to be outside, and now, it’s freezing again. It’s another half a year of running from car to building and blowing into your hands. Shit.
I see my breath in the air as I walk to my car. People are literally peeling out of the parking lot. They can’t wait to get home. To the warmth of their couch. They can’t wait to shut it all out and load this puppy up. They can’t wait to see the sepia tone splash screens and bond with their horse, a new feature of RDR2 where your relationship with your steed directly affects performance.
But mostly, they can’t wait for a little relief from the grind, from the pressures of a terrible, terrible time in America and a taste of a life that feels free, even if it’s just a collection of pixels in a digital plane.
I put my key into the ignition, snap a picture for my west coast friends to gloat (their digital download doesn’t unlock until midnight Eastern) and head on my merry way.
Soon I’ll be back in 1899, where the west is largely civilized, where roving gangs are being systematically hunted down and killed, and the wildness of the storied American West is a thing of the past.
Soon I’ll strap my six-shooter to my side and begin an adventure that hundreds of thousands of manhours and womanhours have toiled for in an effort to curate a unique wild west experience.
I don’t know what adventures wait for me out beyond the prairie, but I have my game in hand, a smile on my face, and the wind at my back. Will I be the longbow or the mounted knight? Only time will tell.
As for now, it’s only me and my demons. I hope I’m intact on the other side of them.
Yippie-ki-yay, friends. Yippie-ki-yay.
Header Image Source: Rockstar Games