The first time I headed into Strawberry, early in Red Dead Redemption 2, I encountered a man outside town who needed help finding his way in. I suspect that most players encounter this man, but also that a lot of people won’t help him – he’s a slow walker. The man’s purpose, it seems, is to set player’s expectations about Strawberry – he’s been there for a little while now, he tells Arthur, and he hates it there. It’s tiny and unexceptional, and there’s nothing to do.
The stranger also drops a little hint about something being ‘off’ with the mayor of Strawberry. He advises Arthur to keep an eye on him when he’s in town. This line, thrown in towards the end of their conversation, would just about unravel me during my time with Red Dead Redemption 2.
Midway through my initial playthrough I found myself back in Strawberry, making a conscious effort to find the mayor and figure out what his deal is. I stalked around, unsure what I was looking for exactly, but certain that I’d know it when I saw it. Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of bread crumbs and planted seeds – there are literal treasure maps to be found, along with all the hidden shady businesses, the Easter eggs, and the damn vampire I hear haunts St Denis. I become fixated on the idea that the mayor of Strawberry carries a secret.
After spending a night in the combined hotel/visitor’s centre and a solid morning walking through the town greeting everyone, I finally encountered the mayor, standing on the porch of said visitor’s centre and pontificating to an assembled mass about what a wonderful place Strawberry is.
"The items characters are programmed to ‘give up’ and what you can loot from them are separate, which is an interesting new piece of insight into the game’s design"
I parked myself at a nearby stream and cast my fishing rod, hoping to watch the mayor while remaining inconspicuous. He eventually headed into the visitor’s centre and I followed. The clerk at reception told me that he’s a great admirer of the mayor, and that the town is lucky to have him. Curious.
I headed upstairs, where the mayor was standing, smoking a cigar. I was hit suddenly with a moment of clarity – now was not the time for this. Red Dead was going to seize my life until I finish it; I needed to keep moving forward. Out of interest, though, I paused the game, shot the mayor, and looted his body. He was carrying a letter, but the shot has rung out and I couldn’t read it with the law after me. Escaping and reading the letter seemed rather outside the spirit of properly investigating this man, I decided, so I reloaded my most recent save and left town.
Cut to this week. I’ve finished the game, but the mayor of Strawberry has haunted me. I have remained convinced that there’s something up with this guy, and that if I get him alone – alive – he’ll give something up. It feels like me and him have unfinished business, and I need to know what that letter was about. I load up an old save file, sending myself back to partway through Chapter 4. This grants me certain freedoms – nothing I do will ‘count’ as part of Arthur’s story, I figure. This is my obsession, not his. I turn off autosave and board a stagecoach for Strawberry.
It takes me two in-game days to encounter the mayor, with two short sleeps for Arthur in-between, enough time to gain a new appreciation of how much Strawberry sucks. It looks beautiful, but that stream running through town just barely distracts from the fact that there’s no saloon or hairdresser or poker there. I take a bath and I check out the general store, which is transparently a front for some shady goings-on. I listen to the reverend’s rant for a while, and I hover around the sheriff to see if he does anything interesting. But I fully see the truth in what that stranger told me on the way into town earlier in the game, and I deepen my resolve to find out if he was right about the mayor too.
On the second day, I find the mayor sitting on the porch of the Visitor’s Centre – not standing, as he was last time I saw him – explaining to a small crowd that Strawberry is a town for fair and honest people. For Americans. People who don’t match up to those values, he says in-between puffs of his cigar, should leave. I lock on and discover that his name is Nicholas Timmins. I plan to stalk him and see what he gets up to with the rest of his day, and what he might reveal.
Timmins leaves and heads down the main thoroughfare of the town, and I follow. No one stops to talk to him, and he offers no greetings, even though the streets are teeming with people. Eventually he stops outside the doctor’s office (the occupant of which I presume to be the man in a red shirt who is always trying to fish the stream, since the window carries a permanent ‘gone fishing’ sign).
He stands in the same spot for the entire morning, then into the afternoon, puffing his cigar, staring blankly into the distance. He does nothing else, he cannot be spoken to, and a strange invisible barrier around his character prevents me from walking directly into him. He does not react to Arthur being a weirdo, crouching and staring right into his eyes.
I begin to grow wary. This NPC seems unspectacular. I know he’s carrying a note, but the game doesn’t seem particularly keen for me to interact with him. Perhaps the developers did not account for this weird fixation, I think. Following this man around all day, I realise, isn’t going to yield interesting results. I need to act.
"I am no longer Arthur Morgan, vigilante with a heart of gold – I am Arthur Morgan, paranoid agent of chaos acting upon this one specific man"
I call my horse. When Arthur whistles, Timmins turns and stares at him for a long moment, before returning his attention to the empty air in front of him. I quickly lasso and hogtie the mayor, and as he cries out and witnesses run to grab the sheriff I quickly load him onto my horse and race out of town, outside the ‘wanted’ zone before a bounty is declared.
I stop outside town and put the mayor on the ground. He doesn’t seem inclined to say much to me beyond asking to be let go, and why should he: he’s not part of a quest I’m on, and Arthur has no real reason to be suspicious of him. This is on me, the guy playing the game. I suspect that the letter he’s carrying might trigger something, so I loot him and fish it out.
It’s a letter from his sister, Belinda. She talks about Nicholas’ estrangement from their parents, about how he and another professor were forced to leave Princeton in a hurry over some unspecified issue, about how she misses her brother, “that wonderful caring boy who rouged my cheeks and braided my hair”. She mentions her financial issues and says that, perhaps like him, she should never have married.
So Nicholas Timmins, as it turns out, is probably not a particularly nefarious man. There’s a few ways to read this letter – possible conclusions that I’ve only reached, I want to add, since reading it back while writing this article. In the moment, all I really registered was that there was nothing of note, no accusations or insinuations of an inherent darkness. Reading it now, I realise that Nicholas Timmins is a man who moved far away for reasons that are entirely his own, and that this is a character that I should, perhaps, feel empathy for. But you can only know this if you’ve looted him, and by the time you’re looting him you’re unlikely to be in the right mindset for that.
While I was reading the letter, Timmins struggled out of his bonds and started to run – something I didn’t realise was possible – so I chase him down and hogtied him again. Unsure of what to do next, I resolve to travel back to Strawberry and let him go. It starts to rain, washing the accumulated mud from his coat, and as I cut him loose on the edge of the town I threaten to come back if he dared squeal to the authorities about me.
But then, some other part of my brain kicks in. It’s the part that might compel me to throw a grenade into gridlocked traffic in Grand Theft Auto. This is the sort of instinct that I’d avoided for my entire run through Red Dead 2, but with an old save loaded and a willingness to just see where things went, I decide to give chase. Timmins was running scared right through the town, eventually exiting and running through the mountains.
I follow. I am no longer Arthur Morgan, vigilante with a heart of gold – I am Arthur Morgan, paranoid agent of chaos acting upon this one specific man. He runs, clearly scared and increasingly tired, for a long time. Sometimes I would point my gun at him just to see how he’d react. Eventually I hogtied him again, prompting him to spout one of the most incongruous and amusing lines I’ve heard from an NPC in this game: “just as it was all going so well!”
I realise that nothing more was going to happen. He wasn’t leading me anywhere. A new cutscene wasn’t going to kick in. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a phenomenally deep game, but I’ve exhausted the limits of this being a plotline. I threw the hogtied mayor into a stream, hoping it’ll carry him back to town, but he started to drown in the shallow waters and I cut him loose.
He runs and I chase him down, as he’s threatening to get the law involved. But when I tackle him again, I see something that takes all the fight out of me – I’ve brought him down next to an animal corpse. At first glance it looks like a baby bear, but it’s actually a rotten sheep that has turned black. Flies are swarming around it. At the same time, Timmins unexpectedly hands me a bottle of gin and the money from his pocket as he begs for clemency. This tells me that the items characters are programmed to ‘give up’ and what you can loot from them are separate, which is an interesting new piece of insight into the game’s design for me.
As I let him up again, freaked out by the sheep, he starts sprinting down the road. At the same time a horse speeds past in the opposite direction, a woman screaming for help hogtied on the back. My old instincts kick back in and I immediately activate Dead Eye, sending four revolver shots into the rider’s head. I chase down the horse and rescue the (very angry) woman on the back of it, leaving Timmins to escape.
"The way I treat NPCs says a lot about what Red Dead Redemption 2 does so right, both that this weird obsession formed in my brain, and that I had to very actively disassociate what I was doing from the headcanon narrative I’d established for Arthur"
My deep dive into Nicholas Timmins, the mysterious mayor of Strawberry, ultimately didn’t yield anything too exciting beyond the fact that his sister misses him, and that he misses her enough, at least, to carry the letter around. I didn’t save when I closed the game; this is a ‘what if?’ scenario in which Arthur chased and terrorised a man for a day based on flimsy evidence and hearsay.
I think this says a lot about what Red Dead Redemption 2 does so right, both that this weird obsession formed in my brain, and that I had to very actively disassociate what I was doing from the headcanon narrative I’d established for Arthur. One of the main criticisms thrown at Rockstar is the potential for ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, where your actions don’t match the characters or plot, but the way my sense of honour and duty warped and shifted as my understanding of Arthur changed feels like one of this game’s greatest strengths.
In any case, there’s not a lot going on with Nicholas Timmins, the mayor of Strawberry. Leave him be. Having said that, and there’s still a part of me that wonders if it’s possible to find his sister and reunite the two...