The story of online cowboy posse the Grannies starts, as video games so often do, in a character creation menu. Having played through the single-player story of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, Kalonica Quigley and Marigold Bartlett, Melbourne-based friends and game developers, decided to try the online multiplayer portion of the game. On separate PlayStation 4s, and without one another’s knowledge, they each created elderly women as their avatars. It was an opportunity, laughs Bartlett over a Discord call, to cosplay as themselves in the future.
Not long after, friends and fellow game-makers Ian MacLarty and Andy Brophy, rendered as elderly men, joined them. The group hung out in Rockstar’s staggering, almost photorealistic depiction of the US on the brink of the 20th century, taking photos and making their own silly fun beyond the game’s murderous objectives. Then they started seeking out glitches, faults or weirdnesses in its code.
One involved a horse that duplicated the player’s body, a moment of surreal multi-limbed body horror in a game lauded for its picturesque pastoralism. Eventually, having exhausted the main map of things to do, the group set their sights on breaking out of the boundaries of the map. One evening, they approached a scrubby slope with their pistols drawn, intending to use a well-known hack to access the forbidden far reaches of the world. As if by magic, each of them slid up the verge and into a strange dimension that Rockstar never intended for any player to see.
This journey is memorialised in a new travelogue-esque documentary titled The Grannies. MacLarty emphasises the vast scale of the out-of-bounds area, which is “way bigger than the main map”, he says. Bartlett describes the first moments within it as “spine-tingling”. Cautiously, unsure of how the terrain actually functioned, the foursome uncovered a place of sheer virtual otherness. In the south-east, a gloomy, sparse landscape of jutting mountains, and beyond that, recalls Bartlett, an “endless, unlit valley”. The north-east was filled with snow, glaciers, wolves and elk, and venturing farther west revealed a pine forest. At various points, gigantic polygonal objects rose out of the virtual turf like the black monolith of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: eerie, bizarre, bewitching.
For the Grannies, all of whom are independent game-makers, this was a rare opportunity to “peek behind the curtain” of the secretive world of corporate game production. Quigley thinks this is why they found the space so engaging beyond its aesthetic peculiarities. “Part of the benefit of understanding how games are made is that we didn’t instantly reject it,” she says. “Often you see players commenting, ‘Oh, it’s a glitch, it’s broken, they [the game-makers] didn’t do a good job.’ But because of our experience, we were able to see that, no this isn’t broken, this is perhaps the foundation of how the full game was made.”
Maclarty speculates that the out-of-bounds space they were exploring was, in fact, a deliberate part of Rockstar’s creative process rather than any kind of mistake. “As the game was coming together, maybe they generated this big landscape,” he suggests. “Then it went through this iterative process of becoming more and more refined, but they never bothered to get rid of those extra bits. It was actually more work to delete them.”
The documentary, directed by Marie Foulston, who curated the V&A’s video game exhibition Design/Play/Disrupt, shows how this ethereal low-res landscape of half-finished objects could have become the exceptionally well-crafted video game Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately is. It is at odds with Rockstar’s desire to preserve the aura of mystique around its making. “Games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves,” Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told GQ. “I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made.”
The film was initially intended to be a multi-channel installation at Now Play This, a video game festival in London – two screens projected within a single space. While that version of the film was ultimately cancelled because of the pandemic, the documentary, now screening at film festivals across Europe, retains a dual-screen format. This leads to beautiful juxtapositions of images: on one side, a member of the Grannies posing as if for a holiday photo beneath an enormous floating boulder; on the other, an otherworldly desertscape and a piercing blue sky.
After a while, the members of the Grannies started being inadvertently disconnected. The first to be cut off was Brophy, then Bartlett, until it was just Quigley and MacLarty left, sitting high above a cloudy abyss at 3am Melbourne time. Tired, and keen to call it quits for the evening, the pair decide to jump into the celestial expanse. After roughly an hour of constant descent, they landed in water, transparent mountains stretching high above them. The duo swam until, finally, they drowned, triggering their teleportation out of the netherworld and back into the main game map.
Thinking back, Quigley describes the out-of-bounds region as “fragile”, as if it could disappear at any point. This turned out to be true. In September 2019, three months on from the first expedition, Rockstar released a patch that made it impossible for anyone to access the space using the hack up the dusty slope. Future PlayStation 4 players would never discover for themselves what the Grannies had explored.
For Quigley, the trip has lived on in her imagination, just like those she’s enjoyed without a controller in her hands. “My memory now feels like a memory of a real place,” she says wistfully. “I remember the time of day, the weather, who was there, what we were wearing, and the excitement I felt seeing a giant grey cube floating above the landscape.”