THE BLOG
07/08/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

My Daily Old West Vacation

Got home from work after a long day last week. Dropped my wallet and car keys by the front door, went down the hall and took off my shoes. Poured myself a cold drink, went into the TV room.

Five minutes later I was getting off my bed in the Armadillo Saloon, ambling downstairs past a piano player, prostitutes and assorted drinking varmints. Stepped out into a crystal clear sunny morning, climbed onto my trusty mare and galloped eastward on a dusty trail for about seven miles, in search of a game of Liar's Poker in Thieves Landing.

This is actually my second journey through Rockstar Games' superb Red Dead Redemption. I beat the thing last year, but then on the eve of this last March spring break, we had our entire PS3 system and all two dozen games stolen from our house. Some of my wife's jewelry, including an irreplaceable ring, was gone forever. Like all burglary victims, we felt violated.

The non-jewelry items that were taken could simply be acquired again, and getting a replacement (and used) PS3 recently has been the start of that, but something was still missing. My alternate digital persona--a rough man with a past named John Marston, who I spent hours and hours living as--had been brutally kidnapped, beaten, hung, burned, carved into pieces and scattered among midnight cougars. I needed to buy that game again and bring him back to life...

* * *

As someone well into his 50s, I've never had the time or inclination to be a voracious video gamer. That's for the young, impressionable, and unemployed. But now and then I creep into marvelously rendered PS3 worlds that take my breath away. The Bioshock games are one. L.A. Noire is another, just for the sheer enjoyment of cruising around 1940s Los Angeles in a navy blue Packard. Red Dead Redemption, though, fits my style like no other game I've ever played, and it isn't just because I happen to like good westerns. It's because Rockstar spared no expense or detail to create a living, breathing open world I actually wouldn't mind residing in.

Forget about the impeccable graphics, which capture the look, feel, and dust of the Old West down to the smallest cactus. The sun rises out of a glorious night canopy of stars, arcs through clouds and occasional rainstorms, sets on a blazing orange horizon in the time it might take you to ride across the vast map and complete a mission. Deer, rabbits, and coyotes prance across the trail in front of you, while hawks and vultures wheel overhead. Shoot any of them you like and sell their skins or feathers later.

Truthfully, you can do anything you want except sleep with a prostitute later, because Red Dead lets you move through its incredibly conceived world at your own pace. The story missions you complete open up each area of the map, but there's certainly no rush to finish any of them. As you proceed through the game, there are a half dozen towns in New Elizabeth or down over the Mexican border where you can purchase a room, buy a shot (or two or three) in the saloon or cantina and go out hunting. If you're up in Tall Trees, a gorgeous northern locale with waterfalls and snowy mountains, you can hunt for elk and bear. You can wrangle some cash at various card and knife games in any town, or earn extra money doing odd jobs, like following a dog around a ranch at night to deal with troublemakers.

Tired of riding your horse? Take a free stagecoach or train ride to get around. (Walking long distances is not recommended, because wild cougars and coyotes can jump you and kill your horse when you least expect it.) The other night I was standing around a remote depot after having talked to a character, when a train whistled and rumbled into the station. I climbed a ladder to stand on top and check out the view, waited a minute or so and then the train rolled away. We rode across desert, up a canyon, all the way around the map past gorgeous foothills while the sun dropped away and constellations appeared. Eventually the shaking of the train knocked me off, and I found myself alone, miles from the nearest town. One fun, and perhaps the only unrealistic feature of Red Dead is that no matter how remote the place is that you are stranded in, if you whistle for your horse he shows up in less than ten seconds.

Whenever I hear hysterical pundits blame video games for school shootings, I just have to laugh. Lumping every game ever invented together as some sort of civilization-killing conspiracy so misses the point, purpose and joy one can find in so many of these artfully-conceived creations. Sure, there's some murder and mayhem in Red Dead, but your missions are honorable, you make moral choices, and the amount of violence you experience is entirely in your sun-baked hands. Shoot up a town just for the hell of it and you become an instant pariah, hunted down by lawmen as long as you're in the game, forcing you to kill even more people just to survive. Believe me, it's no way to live.

The fourth installment of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto also featured an involved, expertly rendered open world, but Liberty City was a dangerous, gang-infested spinoff of modern New York. I vastly prefer living in the bygone western world of Red Dead--or at the very least retiring there. In a few months after I get through the game again, I plan to take out the trash, finish loading the dishwasher and charge my phone before I wake in my rustic cabin up in Manzanita Post. Step outside into the clear mountain air, stock up on supplies or sell some bear meat at the local general store, and then decide whether I want to ride into Blackwater for poker and whiskey, hunt some deer, or just hike to a nearby cliff and gaze out over the endless hills, grassy plains, and another glorious digital sunset.

Jeff Polman writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs. His last endeavor was Mystery Ball '58, and his current one set in 1938 and called Dear Hank. His first such blog, "1924 and You Are There!" has been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.