Somewhere in the middle of Gaptooth Ridge, tucked away in the vast southwestern landscape of the original Red Dead Redemption, lies the ghost town of Tumbleweed. Its deserted saloon, church, and jail tell a story of a settlement abandoned by westward expansion, although some strange paranormal activity suggests that some residents may never have left.
On any given day as you walk through the dusty remnants of old buildings, you can hear people shouting, dogs barking, and even see footprints forming in a mansion on the edge of town. It’s a location, among several other eerie spots spread across Rockstar’s fictitious stretch of the United States and Mexico, that has captured the attention of players who’ve dedicated serious time to finding “Red Dead Redemption’s” unearthly secrets.
“It was appropriately moody to wander alone at night in Tumbleweed, and people were reporting there was a ghost in the town. I like to think that we built a convincing enough area that people’s imaginations went the extra mile to see things that weren’t there,” Rockstar San Diego’s former senior art director Daren Bader, who worked on the original “Red Dead Redemption,” tells Variety. “I have seen some online videos of footprints in the basement of the mansion mysteriously appearing. It’s either a bug that was never fixed, or it’s a ghost in the machine.”
“Regardless, that wasn’t intentional,” Bader added. “Although it’s certainly the best place for that mistake to live.”
While the team at Rockstar designed Tumbleweed to be a ghost town, with several NPCs mentioning that the railroad’s path around the town forced residents to leave, some the elements that players noticed weren’t part of their design. “I think it was a result of creating such large, rich environments,” Bader said. “We took great pride in capturing the expansiveness of the wide open skies and hot brutal deserts of the Southwest, along with the weather-beaten towns and buildings.”
“Red Dead Redemption’s” open world inspired a lot of intrigue from players, pushing them to explore the corners the game’s story didn’t cover. Sometimes that meant digging for clues in campsites and other times it meant letting the game sit idle for a few hours, allowing the creepy sounds to take precedence over John Marston’s own footsteps.
“I had a notebook I kept with me as I’d wander into Tumbleweed. I’d spend a few hours there writing down notes of what I heard and witnessed,” said Kyle Loiacano, one of the many players addicted to the game’s mysteries. “The system repeated, I’d check every location on the map. The best ones were never involved in the story. Old cabins, ranches, deserted camps that you’d pass by while playing the campaign but would likely never visit.”
Some stories start with an overheard conversation at a campfire while others are fueled by player curiosity alone. The wreck of the Serendipity, while featured in a mission, was far more interesting once visited a second time. Hunters believed the half sunken, decaying steamboat located in Flat Iron Lake hid more secrets than the game let on.
NPCs mention several reasons as to why the boat sunk–some say the captain’s wife caught him cheating and killed him by sinking the ship (including herself and everyone else on board). Another source says the boat crashed into Mexican cliffs and was raided before eventually getting towed back to American waters. A third story says the boat ran aground in a shallow area of the lake while surrounded by fog and once another crew arrived to help, every passenger had mysteriously disappeared.
Even creepier, if you walk into the boat on a Thursday night, you’ll hear doors slamming, groaning and other eerie sounds. However, players haven’t been able to find anything else in their investigations, which is exactly what the developer’s intentions.
“We kept our mysteries smaller and more quirky, with a victorian-vibe, like ghosts, spirits, and seances. Stuff of the late 1800s,” Bader said. “Rockstar likes to put things out there that leave room for interpretation.”
Treasure hunters haven’t left many stones unturned in the eight years since the game’s release, but one remains unsolved after all these years. The aptly named mystery site, located near Repentance Rock, left players hunting for some semblance of a solution since it was discovered.
The location contains a deer pelt with cryptic markings surrounded by three rune stones with symbols carved into them placed on the northern, western, and eastern side of the pelt. There is also a plate at the southern end of the area with carvings of a sun, a large man, a devil-like creature, a tree-like figure, and what is believed to be a buffalo.
A handful of theories of what the symbols mean have developed over time, one is that the symbols could point to the Native American camp in Tall Trees. Another far-fetched theory states that the symbols could be used to summon Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of war, to help the natives fight off invading white settlers. A third points to a connection between the symbols and the abandoned Native American settlement of Mescalero where a similar formation of rocks can be found.
“The nature of the site is still a mystery that I still have fun thinking about from time to time,” Loiacano said. “There’s a chance one of the theories is correct, maybe even more than one of them. But, personally, I like that we don’t have a solution. I think having something where we got so close expands people’s creativity in the explanations they come up with.”
A lot of stories have roots in the game itself, similar to the varied tales of the sinking of the Serendipity, while others are pieced together by the players entirely. They don’t always care if they’re right, they just enjoy the open-ended challenge.
“To me, finding intricate layers in one big story is a hobby and a passion,” said Ryan Dillane, who set up a site and subreddit to help track mysteries in the upcoming “Red Dead Redemption 2.” “I’ve done it all, from the Chiliad Map and UFOs to where I am now, following the gold path to see where it leads me.”
All of Rockstar’s games are known for these types of easter eggs, with the most notable being Mount Chiliad in “Grand Theft Auto V.” Players spent hundreds of hours pouring over symbols they found at the peak of an in-game mountain. “I would say I spent anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week digging into this stuff,” Dillane added. “It just depends if I’m hot on the trail of something. It will be the same for ‘Red Dead Redemption 2,’ we’ll be digging around constantly through the first few weeks and beyond.”
As soon as “Red Dead Redemption 2” hits later this week, hunters will blow through the main story before digging into every lead they can find. It’s safe to say they’ll have their hands full finding secrets in every nook and cranny in an expanded version of “Red Dead Redemption’s” map — though it’s likely they’ll still be on the hunt eight years from now.
“One of the biggest things we discovered and understood back on the first Red Dead Redemption was that the physical pacing of the world was slower, and we needed to reward you for taking it all in,” Bader said. “Your fastest mode of transportation is a horse, and we truly enjoyed creating a world that matched that pace.”