There are almost 200 animals to discover in Red Dead Redemption 2. They’re spread across the game’s expansive map, but not at random. You’ll find cougars prowling the mountains, while panthers prefer a swampier south. Iguanas laze on beaches; buffalo herd in the dusty basin.
“For Red Dead, it’s mostly the pleasure of things just being as they should,” Nicholas Lund, a birder and writer of Audubon’s Birding Like It’s 1899: Inside a Blockbuster American West Video Game, told Polygon. “You’re recognizing that someone has been paying attention and put thought into it.”
And, indeed, Red Dead Developer 2 developer Rockstar Games did. Rockstar touted the game’s immersion and authenticity in the lead-up to its release. (Of course, it’s important to mention the amount of detail can be attributed to “crunch” from Red Dead Redemption 2’s developers — something Rockstar has been criticized for in the lead-up to the game’s release. As impressive as it is, the game’s scale reportedly required excessive amounts of work.)
Red Dead Redemption 2’s authenticity and immersion is not only limited to its animals. There are 144 collectible cigarette cards, each with a different illustrated graphic, 30 dinosaur bones, 10 rock carvings, and 20 dreamcatchers hidden in the environment. Letting the player stumble upon secrets in the world is a byproduct of that quest for immersion or authenticity. For many players, the allure of a digital collection in Red Dead Redemption 2 — whether it’s tracking birds, completing a quest, or finding a cadre of dogs to pet — becomes an essential part of the gameplay experience, important to players beyond a platinum trophy or achievement list.
“As a birder, things are always being ruined for you,” Lund, who wrote a deep dive into birds in Red Dead Redemption 2 for the National Audubon Society, said. “You’re happily watching some movie, and then some bird from another continent flies by, or you hear a loon in the middle of a desert, and it’s like, ‘Goddammit.’ When someone does clearly put a lot of thought and effort into it, it makes it a more satisfying experience.”
Birders like Lund bird-watch for any number of reasons. For him, birding is a way to tap into his collector’s instinct — which started with baseball cards and stickers as a kid — in a non-consumptive way, much like the act of collecting in a video game.
Lund said that it’s satisfying because the discovery of animals is authentic. These discoveries are special, because they fill the in-between moments of the story, stuff that’s organically discovered when, say, you’re completing a bounty or seeking out a new weapon.
“The pursuit of birds is very much like exploration,” Lund said. “You can go anywhere you want, and you never know what’s going to be here. There’s a treasure[-hunting] aspect to it.”
Arthur Morgan sketches these animals — plus herbs, friends, and other oddities, too — that he finds in a journal that he carries throughout the entire game. But in many ways, it’s not Arthur’s journal at all; it’s yours, the player’s. Arthur certainly details the linear storyline that ultimately pushes the game forward, but the majority of the pages will be unique to your journey.
Arthur’s journal is a narrative marker that’s, in many ways, an achievement system. Red Dead Redemption 2 certainly has a traditional achievement system too, but the game uses the journal as an alternative incentive to explore. Whereas achievements work because they’re visible stamps of progress in a game, a satisfying ping that ticks a completion box, Arthur’s drawings are a natural progression of Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay. Collecting drawings, of animals or bones or flowers, unlocks another level of the game — more to see in the game world itself.
Nowhere else can you find a more bloated journal than that of a Red Dead Redemption 2 completionist. Elijah, a 23-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin, told Polygon that he spent 150 hours playing the game, first booting up with the intention of earning the elusive platinum trophy. For Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s called Best in the West. It requires players to fish, hunt, and skin — and to collect cigarette cards and dreamcatcher, to discover all the game’s gangs, to study horses and plants.
“The nice thing about the collectibles is that they offer you these little distractions that make the journeys seem a little more purposeful,” Elijah told Polygon. “Sometimes you’re riding on horseback for 15 minutes straight to get to the next story mission, and you’ll hear the call of animal you need to study. It becomes the whole process of tracking and hunting the animal, and then taking its skin to a trader to craft clothing or equipment.”
It’s easy to see the completionist community as folks who are only looking to brute force their way through a game in search of digital points. And, of course, there are people who seek out completion for this reason. Elijah said there is always “a unique kind of gratification” that comes from checking off a task that seems so impossible at the start, but the way Red Dead Redemption 2 is set up makes doing so more palatable than a game where collection is a chore.
The process is something unique to Red Dead Redemption 2 compared to other games Elijah plays, experiences in collecting that he calls “tedious nightmares.” Red Dead Redemption 2 makes collecting reasonable to do in tandem with the story and side quests, and that makes playing it a more memorable experience overall — more rewarding than just ticking a box.
“It’s very much just riding around in weird places,” Lund said about the collection-oriented appeal of the game. “Just seeing what’s there and exploring and figuring [it] out. Birds are a part of that, but the whole world is part of it. The collection aspect is a driver for it, with the exploration aspect at the forefront.”
Red Dead Redemption 2’s compendium, separate from Arthur’s journal, acts as motivation to explore. “You see the number — the total number — and you see where you’re at, and that really drives you,” Lund said. It’s a drive that’s focused not only completing an objective, but seeing everything the game has to offer.
What birds in Red Dead Redemption 2 are to Lund, dogs are for United Kingdom-based writer Kiley Wilde. Dogs, like birds and iguanas, are spotted all around the Heartlands. And unlike cats, you can pet them. There are 11 breeds, including Bloodhounds, Poodles, and Huskies — all the goodest of boys in their own ways. There are no actual achievements for meeting Red Dead Redemption 2’s dogs, but Arthur’s drawings feel like a more fitting representation of this particular collection as a non-physical representation of a player’s journey.
“When I found out that Rockstar put extra effort into the animal behavior, and that the dogs, specifically, were supposed to ‘remember’ you after you interacted with them, I knew I had to test that mechanic out,” Wilde said. “As I began my playthrough, I couldn’t pass a dog in-game without stopping to pet them. Kind of like in real life, to be honest.”
After petting a few dogs, Wilde decided to pet all the dogs in the game, except wolves — which, as you can imagine, aren’t too receptive to humans. “Never the wolves,” Wilde said. “I tried, but they only wanted my blood, not cuddles.”
She kept screenshots of all of the dogs she did pet as a representation of her collection. “My favorite dog was one of the Australian Shepherds at Emerald Ranch,” Wilde said. “He remembered me every time and would follow me to the edge of the property when I would love, wagging his tail. I called him Buddy.”
Wilde’s behavior mirrors that of the game’s hero. Arthur also keeps a log of the encounters in his journal, rendering the dogs in pencil after meeting them the first time.
The compulsion to “collect” pets from dogs impacted the way Wilde played Red Dead Redemption 2. She veered off paths and ignored waypoints if she spotted a dog strolling down a path with a hunter. “There were these two dogs that you absolutely couldn’t pet, because they attacked on sight,” she said. “I didn’t have the heart to shoot them, since they were just ‘doing their job.’ I missed out on a rare shotgun because of it.”
Red Dead Redemption 2’s story is as much about Arthur and the gang’s journey as it is discovery — active discovery, collecting, and pulling together a non-physical collection that’s guided more by your interest than that of the game. You’re rewarded for figuring out how to find things, through both traditional achievements and a new page in Arthur’s journal.
Read more: Polygon