Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 4 – American Venom (Spoilers)

When I set out to blog about Red Dead Redemption 2 I had no idea I was writing a quartet. This game is so vast and layered that more and more features seem to emerge for me to write about every time I sit down at my desk. Each deceptively-simple sentence begets another. Each planned paragraph leads to an unplanned one. And each blog post seems to carry within it the seeds of the next. But for what it’s worth, this definitely is the last post in the series.

If you’re finding me for the first time, I covered the gameplay in part one, the themes and tone of the franchise as a whole in part two, and the plot in part three. Today I’d like to write about the epilogue, as well as take a closer look at our protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston. Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out.

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When I started my Red Dead Redemption 2 playthrough, I wasn’t sure what to make of Arthur Morgan as a character. At first glance he seemed bland and generic. During the game’s effective opening chapter, he didn’t stand out very much. By contrast, the likes of Micah, Sadie, and Dutch were a lot more colorful. I wondered if RDR2 was following the gaming trend of having all the peripheral characters more lively and interesting than the protagonist. Perhaps there is a reason so many playable characters get outshined by their supporting cast. Maybe a quiet, brooding hero appeals to the widest audience? Or maybe it’s all about letting the player project their own personality onto the protagonist, making it therefore desirable to developers to create an inoffensive blank slate for us to infuse with whatever qualities we so chose?

I will say that I wasn’t giving Rockstar enough credit.

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Arthur Morgan’s greatness is in his subtlety. He emerges as a nuanced character as the narrative progresses. He becomes more complex as a person and as a character because the events of the plot cause him to look inward and really think about his actions. His arc is so compelling because Arthur becomes more self-aware. Put simply, he is a totally different person at the end of the plot than he was at the beginning. And so often in video games, the only notable difference in the protagonist at the end of the game is the fact their fingernails now smell like coins.

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When the game begins, Arthur is a senior member of the gang, serving as Dutch’s right hand man. As the latter dominates the cutscenes with his stylish outfit and verbose speeches, Arthur at first glance is playing the role of a henchman. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense gunman. In a movie, he’d be a character whose primary role in the plot is to be pumped with lead at some point. I noted several moments at the beginning of the game where members of the gang would tease Arthur for being inarticulate or simple. This makes his transformation all the more affecting in my opinion; I love that Rockstar have given us this ostensibly dumb henchman as our leading man only to reveal that he is far more nuanced than the stereotype he seemingly inhabits.

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As the game went on, I actually found it a breath of fresh air that the protagonist wasn’t the chosen one or something. He’s not special, famous, or powerful. He’s just the trusty hired muscle to Dutch’s swaggering, infamous, larger-than-life celebrity. Too often games try to make players feel important by making the player-character a legend in the world of that game, or a leader of some kind. But it tends to feel hollow and token when you have to personally do everything. Perhaps the best example of this is in Fallout 4, where the factions in the game make you their leader after only knowing you 20 minutes, and then proceed to send you on the most mundane of fetch quests. Am I a king or a fucking errand boy? I’d ask myself. In Mafia 3, the game teases you with the exciting promise of being the boss of the city’s criminal underworld. But there’s no real gameplay based around the management of a criminal enterprise. Despite being the boss, you have to personally clear out entire warehouses full of thugs by yourself. In real life, mafia bosses don’t leave the goddamn house. These desperate attempts to make the player feel important often fall flat because they don’t gel with the actual gameplay. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, you can’t send Garrus and a few redshirt space marines down to the surface to take out alien strongholds on your behalf, because that wouldn’t make for a very fun game would it? Despite being the commander, you have to personally see to everything, leaving the majority of these highly-trained warriors you’ve been recruiting from all corners of the galaxy to remain on the ship playing Ticket to Ride in the mess hall.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t suffer from this disconnect however. Your role as a gunslinger compliments the gameplay. It makes sense that you’ll do the heavy lifting and ride into town looking for ways to “earn”.

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As the plot progresses, Arthur starts to think about the morality of how he “earns”. I got the feeling that, far from being blind to the sins of his work, Arthur had merely repressed these doubts for many years. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a good person, and more or less embraces his outlaw persona. But as the actions of the gang become more reckless and violent in the wake of Hosea’s death, Arthur finds that he has to confront these doubts. Dutch goes too far, and Arthur discovers that despite his low opinion of himself, he isn’t like his mentor after all. He’s a better person than that, and during Chapter 6 he works to become a better person. It’s a beautiful catharsis, because Arthur is taking his life into his own hands and working to do the right thing. Now he has a real sense of agency. He’s not just accepting his status as a petty outlaw- he’s striving to be better. He acquires a modicum of dignity and self-respect that flies in the face of Dutch’s authority. Now Arthur’s more than just a hired gun. His tuberculosis diagnosis fills him with a desire to determine exactly who he is and what his legacy will be.

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Before the diagnosis, he acts more or less indifferent to the wrongs of the gang and the suffering of innocents. He’s not evil like Micah, but he has no self-esteem and seems content just to submit to an outlaw’s existence. He doesn’t believe at this point that he can be better, or that there is any other path for him. He’s amoral. When Charles seeks to help the German family, Arthur dismisses the idea. It’s not their problem. Charles challenges him, telling Arthur that he’s better than that. And when the German guy they save gives Arthur a gold bar, he’s humbled and speechless. He’s starting to realize that it feels good to help others.

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Once he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis, he begins to reflect on his actions a lot more. For the first time in his life, he has the bravery to look inside at his doubts and resolve to do the right thing. I’ve written in my previous posts how Rockstar uses its characters as vehicles for the larger themes of the narrative. Arthur represents the biggest theme of the franchise- redemption. His sense of shame and regret compels him to do the right thing and make amends for his past. This was incredibly powerful for me. Arthur stands up to Dutch and goes out of his way to secure a future for John and his family. The advice Arthur gives John in many ways drives the entire plot of RDR1.

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Arthur sees that John has a chance at the life he himself could have had with Mary Linton and implores John to take it. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to see John achieve that dream. And John follows that advice so well throughout the epilogue…until he doesn’t. The biggest tragedy of the game is that, after finally setting himself and his family up for a life of peace, he makes the fateful decision to avenge Arthur, which Arthur wouldn’t have wanted. He rides to Mt. Hagen and kills Micah, which is very satisfying. But this decision then sets off a chain of events which lead to RDR1. Edgar Ross finds Micah’s corpse and tracks Marston back to his family farm, which utterly destroys the life Marston had worked so hard to build. It’s admittedly a tough decision; now that everything has come together, John feels an immense debt to Arthur, and a real duty to avenge the friend that made his new life possible. Ultimately however, Abigail is right: Micah isn’t worth sacrificing their newfound happiness. In avenging Arthur’s death, John is tarnishing the very thing Arthur died for, and disregarding his last wish.

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Much like Arthur, John Marston is a different person by the end of the narrative. At first he’s this lucky rascal with nine lives and a wayward spirit. He has trouble committing to something and he doesn’t know what he wants. By his own admission he is a lousy father. He and Abigail don’t sleep in the same bed, and there’s no relationship to speak of. But as the game goes on, he matures, finds a sense of focus, and realizes how important Abigail and Jack are to him. Arthur plays a big role in helping him realize this. By the end of the game, John, Abigail, and Jack are a working family.

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Overall, the epilogue was my favorite part of the game. The pace was much more steady, the events more realistic, and I liked how character-driven the missions were. The epilogue itself would make a great standalone film or novel in my opinion. A stranger shows up at a ranch, desperate for work, trying his best to hide his mysterious past, but is forced to relive it when the shit hits the fan. The relationship between John and Abigail is also really touching. They’re both people with rough, impoverished upbringings, who have lived on the fringes of society. They don’t feel entitled to a dream. But as the plot goes on, they start to dream a little, and you see them enjoying life for the first time. It’s bittersweet; you’re sad because you know it will all end in tragedy, but you’re also glad they got to experience true happiness before it all goes to shit during RDR1.

One of my favorite fan theories involves a little detail during the house-building scene. Throughout the montage, a blue jay appears multiple times in John’s vicinity. Given the various references to reincarnation throughout the game, many have speculated that the bird might be Arthur. If you got the good ending, Arthur dies peacefully while watching the sunrise. He loved nature and blue is sort of his color throughout the game- the color of loyalty. Whether Rockstar intended this in a literal sense I can’t say- but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s just nice to believe that Arthur’s watching over John as he follows his advice.

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