The Last of the Buffalo
In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston can ride from the shimmering heat of Mexico's deserts to a snow-blanketed coniferous forest in less than ten minutes. A few minutes later and he's in the Great Plains, picking poppies and watching in horror as his trusty horse gets gored in the flank by an ornery boar. The familiar set pieces of the Wild West are shrunken down and juxtaposed tightly together, the game world a microcosm of everything you might expect to see while watching a day-long marathon of Gunsmoke and Lone Ranger reruns.
It is little surprise, then, to find that the approximately 60 million American bison that were nearly hunted to extinction in Real Life are represented here as a herd of just twenty buffalo. The uncanny thing is that there will never be any more.
See, John Marston is a hunter. He stabs angry cougars with knives and shoots vultures out of the clear blue sky with unerring accuracy. This man was made to harvest the bounty of the great outdoors; he is poked and prodded and challenged to murder beasts and collect their bits and pieces for fun and profit. John Marston turns beaver pelts into the tentative wings of human flight and armadillo shells into fancy hats for the fashionable townie bourgeoisie.
While John hunts, the wildlife respawns. He can go to the place where his map tells him there will be boar and, lo and behold, there will be boar. He may need to wait until sunset for them to appear, but he waits without question because the map says boar congregate here. There will be boar. There will always be boar, with their stupid piggy faces and gouging tusks and delicious potential to become bacon. There will always be birds. There will always be cougars. John can carve a bloody swath through entire ecosystems and go to bed guilt-free, because he'll be saddling up tomorrow morning to go ravage the world's stockpile again with absolutely no consequence.
Even Red Dead Redemption's humans are blessed with everlasting life, assuming they aren't already dead by design. John can duel a shopkeeper out on Main Street, USA, killing him with six bullets to the face, and the shopkeeper will be back within five days -- slightly longer than it took Jesus to respawn, but still quite impressive. The victim returns to sell horse titles to the man who murdered him last week because, well, somebody has to tend shop. Conversely, many of the ne'er-do-wells that John meets are earmarked for an early grave: Marston may refuse to shoot them himself, but there are always other actors in the scene who are willing and able (and scripted) to step in to deliver fate's bullet.
Death is preordained, or it is temporary.
Not so with the buffalo. When John first encounters the herd ambling across the Great Plains, they are the single largest group of animals he has ever seen. John shoots and skins one, because that's what he does when he comes across a new species. And now there are only nineteen buffalo left in the world.
The American bison were whittled down over many decades, their tongues and hides and bones shipped east. Every hunter did their part; a pitter-patter of drops in the bucket that swelled with demand until fewer than 300 free-roaming bison remained. Nobody could claim to have single-handedly enacted extinction, although the greedy tried their best.
In Red Dead Redemption, the continued existence of the Great Plains buffalo is placed exclusively in Marston's hands. The very first buffalo John shot, just to see how many bullets it could soak up? That might as well be three million bison gone forever. Accidentally shoot another while fending off lawless pursuers? Another three million bison slain. With the herd proportions so very askew in this microcosmic representation, the consequences of John's actions are magnified profoundly. He can, with a few rifle clips, finish the job so nearly completed more than a hundred years ago.
Which brings us to the question of why, by God, might any player want to finish what the 19th century could not and extinguish the buffalo for good?
Manifest Destiny, of course. An achievement for 5 Gamerscore and the belief that the world exists to be reshaped as one sees fit. A digital reward for a digital extinction of a species that lives on a game disc. It's just a video game. As soon as the PC version is released, people will find a way to mod the buffalo back in and probably give them jetpacks too.
So why does it feel so achingly terrible to ride the Great Plains in the meantime, treading the paths where the buffalo once roamed?
Credit: This article was inspired by a remorseful post by GWJ forum member bombsfall.