In my spoiler-free gameplay review of Red Dead Redemption 2 I made the claim that it contained the best story I had ever experienced in a game, surpassing even the likes of The Witcher 3 and Bioshock Infinite. Naturally, dishing out superlatives like that is going to raise a few disbelieving eyebrows. You might think I’m still basking in the afterglow or being hyperbolic. I know I also run the risk of tainting the first playthroughs of people who haven’t played it yet by promising them the unequivocal greatest narrative in gaming history. I want to stress that I thought very carefully about making that claim. I wasn’t just caught up in the moment. I had to sit for a while and think about what made The Witcher 3 so good and recall the emotions it elicited from me at the time of playing. I thought about where that game left me upon completion- considering not just the journeys of its characters but the journey it took me on as a player. I then stacked this against RDR2. And that was when I knew- the way I felt about the characters and my investment in their struggles was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. The main story- with its colorful, flawed characters and nuanced themes of redemption and morality- is in my personal opinion, the finest I have ever experienced as a gamer. In today’s post, I’d like to write about why I think that. Needless to say, what follows contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.
I’ve never been a big fan of prequels. Whenever I hear that something is getting a prequel I usually groan. As a fan of a given franchise, I want to know what happens next. I want to know that events have consequences. The other problem I have with prequels is that they can suffer from a lack of tension when you already know the outcome. However, RDR2 meets both these concerns head-on. The first game ended perfectly- satisfying in that Jack Marston avenges his father, but also leaving us with the dark implication that he might repeat his father’s mistakes. All the other characters are dead, and it would have ruined the effect of that dark implication about Jack’s future to spell it out for us. Also, when the epilogue concludes, the year is 1914- which is already pushing it for a western. Even if the Marston storyline hadn’t been wrapped up perfectly, a direct sequel would have been contemporaneous with World War 1. As far as my other concern regarding prequels, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of tension because we are given control of a new protagonist- Arthur Morgan- as well as being introduced to a slew of new characters to care about.
Before I played RDR2, I figured it would probably only be loosely connected to the first game, and that the reappearance of established characters was just to show that we’re in the same universe. But this isn’t the case at all. RDR2 feels like it had always existed, as though Rockstar had left out the first half of a singular, cohesive story when they released the first game in 2010. It doesn’t tell a different story with the same characters. It’s the same story, which makes it a little confusing when you consider that Red Dead Redemption 2 comes before Red Dead Redemption 1 in the chronology. The character arcs of Dutch and especially John have their beginnings in RDR2 and now the first game seems incomplete when considered on its own. When given the context of its prequel, the original game seems so much more powerful as a story. That’s one of the things I love about RDR2– it actually enhances the depth and quality of its predecessor. I appreciate the original game so much more now that I see it as belonging to this epic story that spans many years. It also makes the original Red Dead seem a lot more bleak. What few characters survived the events of RDR2 are hardened, cynical, and ruthless. They reflect the changing times and the smallness of the individual in the face of rapid industrial expansion. I’d even go so far as to describe the bleakness of the franchise as Kafkaesque- in that these strong and resourceful outlaws are powerless in the face of the immensity of modern bureaucracy. This is exemplified by the gameplay too; it doesn’t matter how many Pinkertons you kill- the government will just send more. It all adds to this sense that individuals are dictated and controlled by larger forces far beyond their understanding, and to resist those forces is futile. This is especially evident in RDR2– and is why it is so effective as a prequel- because you know that all you can do is buy yourself more time. All roads lead to death. The changing times engulf all of the characters in the end. Whether you get a game-over or complete a given mission successfully, it doesn’t matter in the long run- you know what happens. John Marston gets gunned down in his own home by a posse of government agents. It’s such an effective climax to the series, because it’s the shocking culmination of everything that has been hinted at thus far- the forces of modernity extinguishing the Old West for good. It’s a brilliant conclusion to the John Marston storyline, and it’s one that’s made all the more effective by RDR2.
For instance, when RDR2 starts, the gang are in a tough spot but they’re hopeful. The characters expect to pull through the way they always have. And then, as the game progresses, there are more and more hints that the gang’s way of life is coming to an end. You can see the hope slowly fading- and it’s a very well-written, gradual collapse. The gang can only shoot their way out of a situation so many times. The sophisticated apparatus of modern law enforcement is too much. And in the face of this unstoppable and relentless pursuit, the gang ultimately crumbles from within as their worst instincts are revealed. Arthur Morgan wonders if recent events have corrupted his best friend, or if they have only illuminated what was always there. Dutch was a great leader and companion when things were going well, but as soon as the gang got desperate, he had to call upon the darkness that lived dormant within his soul in his attempt to save the gang. And once he indulged that orgy of violence, the lines blurred and it became more about saving himself than his friends. The little details illustrate Dutch’s unraveling best- at the beginning of the game he stresses that there is a clear distinction between his gang and the O’Driscolls. The latter, he says, stand for nothing; they hire only remorseless cutthroats and are excessively violent. And of course, when we reach Chapters 5 and 6 of RDR2, we see the abandonment of any pretense of honor. In his desperation to save the gang, Dutch’s morality is lost along the way. Each act of reckless savagery begets the next, as Dutch becomes less and less able to convince us that the ends justify the means.
Once you get to the events of the original Red Dead, the sense of hope is truly gone. RDR1 is- in every facet of its design- from the haunting music to the desolate landscape- a nihilistic and elegiac deconstruction of the western genre. All that’s left is a cynical and weary man- John Marston- trying simply to keep his family. He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s more or less ambivalent towards the few outlaws that remain- he just wants to reunite with his wife and son, and he doesn’t care how he reaches that end. John’s only agency is the six-shooter at his hip. Being a crack shot and ruthless killer doesn’t make him seem that powerful or impressive in the last, dying days of the West- and that to me is key to the franchise’s overarching themes. A gun only buys you another day- if you’re lucky. In this western, the gunslinger doesn’t have the most power or agency; his skills with a revolver don’t count for much. John is the best gunslinger in the series, and if you take all of the events into account, you’d think he ought to be the Legend of the West. But he doesn’t seem legendary or indeed that great. When he dies, he’ll be forgotten.
The point I’m making is, the theme of the franchise is that the true power lies in bureaucratic institutions. John doesn’t want to be running around the country hunting down his former gang members- he does it because he’s got no choice. He keeps pressing forward because playing the government’s game is the only option left to him. Again, the gameplay informs the narrative, as trying to veer off-path during a story mission will result in an instant game-over. The open world isn’t available to you during a mission- and this linear constraint placed on the player is reflective of the constraint placed on John, who has no path to take except the one laid out for him. And when we meet Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, they are nothing like the companions we knew in RDR2. In the prequel they are colorful and not without a little human warmth. Williamson is carefree and simple, he loves to drink, and his tough exterior is peeled back in endearing character-moments, such as when he asks Arthur to get him some pomade for his hair. He’s also extremely loyal to Dutch, and in one scene he reveals how Dutch helped him through a particularly low and difficult point in his life. Escuella is even more likable- he’s passionate and artistic, he’s not recklessly violent, and he often entertains the group with songs and guitar-playing. But by the time of RDR1, they’ve lost all semblance of human warmth. Williamson is terrorizing New Austin with his own gang, and seems less of a big oaf and more of a cold-blooded, remorseless killer. And without Dutch he’s lost that sense of purpose and principle, often throwing his own men at Marston instead of fighting alongside them. He cowardly avoids him throughout the game. Escuella is also without any redeeming qualities, coming across as a self-interested trickster. He tries to charm Marston by appealing to their old sense of brotherhood, but when Marston refuses, we see just how hateful Escuella really is.
Then, of course, we have Dutch Van der Linde- easily one of the most compelling characters in gaming history. I’m not sure I’d even describe him as a villain. The true villain of the franchise as a whole is Edgar Ross, in my opinion. As for RDR2 on its own, the villain is of course Micah Bell. Dutch simply plays the role of an antagonist at various points in the story. I don’t think he can really be called a villain (even though he does some awful things throughout the series) at least in a narrative sense. The biggest reason for this is that- in my personal opinion, that is- Dutch seems to genuinely believe everything he says, even when those around him can see his hypocrisy. At the end of Chapter 6, Dutch seems distraught at the sight of Micah and Arthur locked in this Cain-and-Abel style wrestling match, covered in mud, clawing at each other, gauging and throttling and head-bashing with pure, unadulterated, animalistic hatred. He won’t kill Arthur, even though he feels betrayed by him. He just seems saddened by what the gang has come to. And during the final showdown atop Mt. Hagen at the end of the Epilogue, Dutch saves Sadie and John by killing Micah. Despite everything, in his own warped mind, Dutch still thinks of John as his son.
The Dutch we see in RDR1– while still charismatic and verbose- is a shell of the cigar-smoking, bowler-hat wearing outlaw-gentleman we see in New Hanover waltzing with Molly in the moonlight, singing arm-in-arm beside the campfire, or espousing his idealistic, anti-capitalist philosophy of life. Hard times have reduced him to this petty murderer- something that Arthur speculated was in him all along. Struggle reveals our true nature. And when we encounter Dutch in RDR1, we see that he’s indulged violence for so long that he’s numb to it. He doesn’t even try to justify it. He has no regard for human life whatsoever. The most powerful scene for me is when Dutch finally meets his end in Tall Trees. It’s not some badass showdown you might expect from a western. You realize in that moment that Dutch isn’t the true villain. He’s just this desperate man fighting a war he cannot win. The design choices are particularly interesting- the Dutch of 1899 always appeared very slick and well-dressed, a man of fine tastes. But in 1911, he’s gray, worn-out, and raggedy-looking. He has no quarrel with John, and spares his former surrogate-son the tough decision of how to handle the situation. Dutch blows his own brains out and tumbles off the precipice into the forest below. It’s such a nuanced conclusion that is so fitting for the bleak tone of the series- that this legendary, elusive outlaw dies unceremoniously and pitifully in a deserted wilderness with no one around. Like with John, the game portrays the outlaws not as heroes, but simply as men- with all the fragility and weakness so often denied them in mainstream cinematic portrayals. Dutch, despite his long career as an unstoppable shootist, is afforded no respect. His corpse is shot several times by Edgar Ross for a laugh. He looks like a bum and he dies like a bum.
To me, Dutch Van der Linde is the embodiment of the dying west. That’s what I love about Rockstar’s approach to creating characters. Instead of going with the easy option of making Dutch a clichéd outlaw villain, they make him a microcosm of the changing times of the turn of the century. The conflict that beats within his heart is the wider conflict that sees the eroding of a way of life in the Old West. It’s masterful- and Dutch isn’t the only character that is a microcosm of the game’s themes and ideas. But we’ll explore more of that in part 3.
In this post I just wanted to discuss the bleakness of the franchise and how it ties the two games together. As I said earlier, a lot of the themes in the two games are illustrated with little details- in particular the design choices. It’s fitting that the setting for RDR1 is a scorched desert. John’s smallness- and the diminishing existence of outlaws- is reflected by the howling desert all around him. With the exception of the New Elizabeth area, the landscape of the original game is dusty and barren, with a lot of flat, open terrain that accentuates the smallness of the protagonist. The harsh landscape of desert basins, rocky mesas, and jagged canyons in which the last embers of the Old West slowly fade away are reminiscent of the unforgiving country in southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. The prequel, by contrast, is exceptionally green- and this isn’t a coincidence. The colorful, vibrant lands teeming with life evoke the fact that the Old West is still breathing- for now. The epic valleys and mountain ranges of Ambarino are reminiscent of Montana/Idaho, the northern half of West Elizabeth around Strawberry is a gorgeous reimagining of Wyoming, the prairie and bluffs of New Hanover are obviously Nebraska, the swamps of Lemonye owe their sticky atmosphere to Louisiana, and I’m pretty sure the forested hills dotted with coal mines that compose Roanoke Ridge are meant to be an homage to Kentucky and West Virginia. The transition from these green and fertile lands to the dry desert of New Austin is the ideal transition for the story of the Red Dead franchise.
I hope you’ve been able to keep up- it can be quite confusing to constantly refer to the events of the second game as preceding the first. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the bleakness of the Red Dead series and why it’s so effective. In my next piece, I’m going to focus more closely on the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its protagonist Arthur Morgan. Hopefully you are beginning to see why I like the franchise so much.
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