Reflections on Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2

“It’s a big country…”- Dutch and the rest of his tight-knit gang of outlaws often say. It’s a thinly-veiled statement they use to justify their ceaseless running from the law; the law being a persistent cloud following their every misguided turn. It’s a tragic sentimentality they share, and even Dutch who seemingly is twelve steps ahead of everyone can also feel the inevitable sting of a new America nipping at his heels. It is a big country, but the law will catch up with them and it’s a narrative backdrop that continues to compel me each and every time I boot up the game long after i’ve already finished the main story.

Like it’s predecessor, Red Dead Redemption 2 revels in its stark realism. From unruly horses to the untamed plains of the midwest, the game delivers an almost time capsule of 1899 with confident measure. The everyday struggle of cattlemen, homeless veterans begging for just a dollar, harlots working the parlors; it is a remarkable snapshot of what life would have been like in those times. There’s a video on YouTube that greatly explores these facets of the game which you can watch down below.

Youtuber DefendTheHouse was able to follow a random assortment of NPCs and it shows us with painstaking detail how Rockstar Games designed their everyday lives. One farm hand works the feed for a few hours then takes a 10 minute break before hitting up a bar for his drunken nightcap. It almost feels like we’re watching an episode of Westworld as we see these NPCs go about their lives, not knowing that we’re watching them from the outside world.

Arthur Morgan is a great, flawed character. He has been raised and molded by Dutch. His views of the world, his life philosophies, his sense of right and wrong has all been influenced and altered by his fearless leader and it heavily shows in the early hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. Arthur at times appears to be nothing more than a Yes Man to Dutch, devoid of any self-reflection or enlightenment, he is but a rusty cog in a man’s machine ever rusting in an aimless direction. It is with Dutch’s desperation and creeping fear of losing control of his loyal crew that allows Arthur, John and Sadie to see through the cracks of this once, unshakable, man.

As the story progressed and the more Arthur became disillusioned with Dutch’s dreams, the more the gameplay changed for me. Near the end, I had more money than I ever had before and I felt compelled to give more and help more, especially as my health started to deteriorate. I wanted to do good for a change. I wanted to change. I wanted to leave this sorry, aimless, good-for-nothing crew and have a chance at doing something meaningful; not for myself, but for others.

It’s a big country but as Dutch moves his gang from camp to camp, he can feel the walls closing in and as the player you start to emphasize with not only Arthur but the rest of the camp that doesn’t fight; what about them? What will become of Tilly Jackson? As the narrative rolls along and we start to see that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, Arthur becomes less and less patient with Dutch and there’s a scene that fully exemplifies this. It is when Dutch tries to convince Arthur that they need one more big score, something Arthur has heard far too many times, Dutch confidently delcares “One more train” and Arthur explodes immediately and fires back with, “There’s always one goddamn train!”

It’s a brilliant moment, expertly crafted by the writers because after all this time, after all the bloodshed, the walls closing in on this “big country”,  and for what? what are we chasing after anymore? The world is changing and Dutch doesn’t see this. I pumped my fist when Arthur confronted him but even that wasn’t enough to convince Dutch, a man that has long been blinded by the the old ways. It is an incredible back-and-forth clash of mentor and mentee centerstage as the narrative engine purrs.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is not without its faults however. The combat is not the tightest and some awkward controls can lead to some disastrous, involuntary accidents but perhaps Red Dead 2’s biggest misstep happens in the halfway mark. Without spoiling much, it almost seems as if the writers wrote themselves into an impossible corner and couldn’t figure out a way to connect the 2nd act to the 3rd act. This patchwork plot fix results in a strange, detour where our protagonists find themselves quite far away from where the action is and it ultimately doesn’t mean much as they find themselves back home anyway. That section of the game also leaves you without your horse, saddle, and most importantly your tonics and weapons. It wasn’t fun to play and it left me scratching my head especially since the the scene that preceded it was so tense and taut. Even so, once you return to the homeland, there is a scene that thankfully pays it off and the game delivers a similar moment to this from the first game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the greatest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing through. Narratively, it’s only main competition is God of War and the more I played Red Dead the more both games mirror each other in big, compelling ways. Both do the quiet moments exceptionally well. Both games dole out big twists when you least expect it. Both games have a memorable cast of characters we care about and the plot moves at deliberate pace; allowing characters to breath and the script to propel the drama forward. Each time a character met a tragic end in Red Dead Redemption 2, I felt the gut punch and I was at the edge of my seat each time a threatening situation was facing Arthur and his gang. This is good writing and it services the game in ways many games can’t compare. It is a big country, Dutch, but it’s not that big. Maybe that’s what Arthur should’ve rebutted with.