If you’re still playing Red Dead Online amidst the general uncertainty of 2020, you’ve probably been itching to hear about the new Naturalist update. The last update, for the Moonshiner role, was a long while ago—seven months. But it’s clear that with this update, released July 28th, Red Dead Online is still tied to the same basic formula of its Frontier Pursuits expansions: encourage the grind, encourage escaping it.
The Naturalist update is large, though it might not be accurate to call it “massive” as Rockstar’s announcement does. This is because the main mechanics introduced are ones that have strong roots in the base game. To start the Naturalist Role you meet Harriet Davenport and Gus MacMillan in Strawberry, where they argue over the preservation of animals. Harriet wants to study animals by having you use special pellets with a sedative in order to take samples (of blood it seems—it’s not entirely clear, though you seem to use syringes). Gus, on the other hand, is a trapper and basically just wants to buy animal pelts from you to help his business. In the base game, you can study and log information about animals and / or kill them for their pelts to sell to the unnamed trapper for special clothing—and essentially you do this in the Naturalist role too, only now you have the conflict between Harriet and Gus to negotiate.
But beyond the fact that killing too many animals causes Harriet to not talk to you for a few minutes, there aren’t actual consequences to working with either of these characters. The grind for progress would be limited if you couldn’t speak to one of them for an extended period of time, since experience gained for the Naturalist role racks up slowly: you only get fifty XP points for taking each sample, and only ten for reviving a sedated animal (at the cost of five dollars per bottle of reviver).
To even work with Harriet requires twenty-five gold bars of in-game currency to get her sampling kit and a map with the locations of legendary animals. Of course, if you don’t want to do hours of the game’s daily tasks to get enough gold, you can spend twenty real-world dollars to buy the third Outlaw Pass, which gives you forty gold bars and other benefits to help with progression.
I opted to grind from nine bars to twenty-five to unlock working with Harriet, during which time I was kicked from the server once a day; received a gold reward for completing a batch of moonshine even though I’d only just caught a fish; and once for probably fifteen minutes was unable to take a photo of a cat for gold, no matter where my character stood, until the button prompt finally colored in. The days it took me actually included some luck, too, after I’d Googled the fact that many of the progress awards you get for completing tasks, like traveling a thousand miles by wagon or getting headshots, can be reset and you get awarded with gold (the game has curiously never made this obvious—and I’ve played off and on since its release).
Even for dedicated players, this update’s extended grindiness, it’s repurposing of elements in the base game, and the bugs are likely very frustrating (not to mention that the Naturalist role contradicts the Trader one at times). If you add all this to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has lessened gamers’ ability to pay for micro-transactions and DLC, the pay-to-progress feature of the game seems even harder to overlook.
If you’re not a Red Dead Online fan, you might not have heard that a number of players decided on social media and forums to start dressing up as clowns in protest of Rockstar’s lack of communication for the game despite still updating the much older Grand Theft Auto V Online twice (Gerald’s Last Play and Open Wheel Races) after the Moonshiners update was released. I didn’t see any clowns when I played the new update (unless you count griefers), but it’s not unlikely that similar protests will occur in the near future since the game continues to push escaping its grind mechanics through real monetary purchases while also releasing updates that are buggy and rehashes of existing content.
All this is not to say the online game’s basic simulation of a hard-living frontiersperson isn’t compatible with game mechanics that require repeated, though often monotonous efforts. In fact, the logic of Red Dead Online might be generously framed in this way: since life on the frontiers of the American West would’ve literally been a grind for most, this simulation must constantly remind you of that reality through its gameplay mechanics. But from another, larger perspective, the presence of pay-to-progress transactions undercuts much of the emotional weight of that toilsome grind—even if you earn your gold bars through the aches of your real hands and eyes, you know that many other players will just buy their way to the experiences you worked for.
If the game’s larger message is in fact that life on the frontier was a grind, then the updates for Red Dead Online are increasingly tied to asking players to ignore that message. Though it was only a marginally better balance of the grind mechanics, the original three Frontier Pursuits roles released in September 2019 (the Trader, Bounty Hunter and Collector) only asked for fifteen gold bars to unlock each role, whereas the Moonshiners and Naturalist updates were both twenty-five.
When meandering through the absolutely entrancing landscape that is Red Dead Redemption 2’s map, the gameplay of the Naturalist role admittedly does help remind you to slow down, to notice the idiosyncrasies and veracity of the simulated world. But in doing so, it also encourages you to escape the built-in grind of that world with real money so to more easily experience its multitude of beautiful fictions. If you want to quickly amble through another new set of possibilities for life on this virtual frontier, flaunting the legendary animal costumes and trinkets that signify your experiences to other players, you certainly can. You can rob from the one bank the game lets you, though you’ll have to procure your own account number first.
Images courtesy of Rockstar Games.