I’m not much of a gamer.
If you knew how many hours I’ve put into Red Dead Redemption 2, you would think that statement is a total lie. If you were there for all the weekends I sat clicking away at my PlayStation controller, completely immersed in this stunning open-world game; you would think I’m just another video game nerd, too enticed by some flickering lights to go out and experience the real world.
To that I would say: you don’t understand. Though it is like a typical video game in many ways, RDR2 transcends the sometimes limited experience we get from gaming. Plenty of studios have made games with beautiful graphics and stories that provoke thought as well as emotion, but with this game, Rockstar really made something special.
For this series, which will have many installments, I’m hoping to introduce this game and its story to those of you who don’t like video games – and maybe entertain those of you who have played through the story. You might think games are just digital toys for kids. Maybe you think the violence portrayed in some games is harmful to society. You could think they are a waste of time that is better spent pursuing a career or improving yourself physically, mentally or creatively. Or, for no apparent reason, you could just think games are dumb.
I understand these perspectives because I was out of the gaming loop for many years. I played when I was young, just not as much as my friends. Part of the reason was that I lacked the skills to progress in the more difficult games (and the patience to keep trying until I improved at them). Mostly, I wanted to be outside, running around and riding bikes. Games just didn’t appeal to me the way they did other kids, who would spend all day inside, addicted to the dopamine they got from those colorful flashing lights. To be fair, it was easy to be hooked on games at a time when their graphics and overall quality were increasing exponentially with each new console generation.
For most of my adult life, it has been my wife, not me, who loves video games. She loves new games with rich stories and challenging gameplay. Not one to back down from a struggle, she will go at an overpowered boss, dying time and again as she slowly and patiently chips away at their health until she wins. She has far more patience than the average person, which explains why she still puts up with me.
I discovered the Red Dead Redemption series through her. Before RDR2 came out, I was vaguely aware of the first RDR and knew a little about its story (mostly about how it ends). She had watched her relatives play through RDR1 and was eager to play through a prequel that would revolve around John Marston’s gang before they split up. Just as I had watched her play through some Assassin’s Creed games and the only Grand Theft Auto to have been released in the past decade; I sat with her and wrote blogs or listened to music while she played. I would occasionally stop and check out the story, but not enough to know what was really going on.
When I started paying more attention, I discovered a game with real substance. The story, characters and beautiful open world have drawn me in to an experience that I had no idea would be as entertaining and emotional as it turned out to be. The themes of violence, heroism, civilization and the consequences of our choices have made me think deeply about the roads our decisions can lead us down.
As we dig into this loooooooong, in-depth playthrough and accompanying blog posts, I hope you can see why this game means something to its fans and maybe consider that video games can be more than toys for kids or immature adults. Clearly, RDR2 was as important to its developers as it is the fans; the love put into it truly shows. The open world aside, it is an example of gaming as a medium for telling a deep, compelling story with a relevant message. Frivolous as it may seem for those who don’t like video games, I hope this series impacts you even half as much as the game and its story have me.
Before we continue, I should stress that throughout this series there will be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption and RDR2. If you haven’t played the games and don’t want elements of their respective stories spoiled, this is a good place to stop reading and go check them out. Please, go do it!
The open world in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a virtual wilderness with different biomes you can explore to your heart’s content. Within these locations, which range from snowy mountains to open plains; lush green meadows to boiling sticky swamps; there is no shortage of things to do, find and explore. You can collect plants, hunt, fish; find “legendary” animals; infiltrate rival gang hideouts; and adventure endlessly. You can spend many hours roaming and finding interesting things, from treasure hunts to mysteries for the player to solve. It can be therapeutic to boot up the game and hear the sounds of the wilderness – birds singing, bugs chirping, foxes barking, and so much more. I can’t stress enough that this is a gorgeous game, and it takes place almost entirely in the outdoors.
Arthur Morgan: A True Badass of the Wild West Genre
The year is 1899 and the Wild West is dying, with only a few resilient gangs still holding on. You play as Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in the Dutch van der Linde gang whose identity is shaped by the player’s actions in the world. Arthur and his gang believe they live by a Robin Hood-esque moral code to rob the rich and corrupt, so they can protect and help innocent civilians. Additionally, they share a philosophy revolving around independence from a system of governance and law enforcement they see as rotten to the core. The player can honor the gang’s code not to hurt or rob innocent civilians – or completely abandon it, senselessly robbing and killing whomever they want.
Canonically, Arthur lives by his code and believes in what his gang is doing. He believes they are helping people and will one day be free from the tyranny of government and the encroachment of civilization with its rules and laws – until he is confronted with mounting evidence to the contrary.
Arthur is a fun character, as he is pessimistic and sarcastic in a way that is endearing to anyone who can relate to feeling tired of people’s bullshit. He is serious at times and he cares about the people in his little community, but he knows how to be funny and have a good time. He comes off as a little dull and uneducated at first, and seems to lean in to the idea that he is not very bright. But we discover that his insight into the people around him, and into his behavior as an outlaw and a murderer, can be deep and even poetic. This character and his story are not what you would expect from a studio known mainly as the Grand Theft Auto company.
John Marston: OG Redeemer
This game is a prequel to the first game’s story. In the first Red Dead Redemption, we play as John Marston – a former member of the Van der Linde gang who has abandoned his outlaw ways to live as a rancher with his wife and son. Set in 1911, RDR1 takes place a full 12 years after the events of the second game. Having fled from his gang in circumstances that are unknown, John is captured by the law and recruited to go after two of his former allies.
Holding his wife and kid in custody as collateral, the agents in charge of John make it clear that if he does their bidding, his crimes will be forgiven and he can live out his days on his ranch with his loved ones. As you might expect from a Rockstar game, chaos ensues. It’s a fun time for anyone who enjoys shooters or loves the Wild West, and like RDR2, its story is surprisingly compelling. Little is revealed about the gang in the first game, leaving it wide open for Rockstar to fill in the details in a prequel. Interestingly, Arthur (the player character in the second game) is not mentioned at all in RDR1.
The first game is fun, engaging and pretty interesting, and it proved Rockstar could make one hell of a western. Its story and open world endeared it to millions of players who couldn’t wait for a sequel. I wish I had played through the first game before the second – if for no other reason, than to feel the hype in the lead-up to its release and have that hype validated as I played through RDR2. I should stress, though, that playing through the first game is not a requirement to get the most out of this one. Not only does RDR2 take place first in the timeline, but its story and environments are far richer and more engaging – owing to the many years Rockstar spent developing it and the newer-gen consoles it released on.
Wild West GTA?
Though RDR2 has many elements typical of a Rockstar production, it seems like the GTA company had something they wanted to say with this game. The theme of the Wild West dying is ripe for mining stories and lessons about the real-world impact of both senseless and justified violence – and Rockstar did not hold back.
At the start of the game, RDR2 does seem like any other experience brought to you by Rockstar. Akin to a Wild West GTA, which is what people unfamiliar with the Red Dead series would assume this game is – some of the early missions involve robbing trains, assaulting rival gangs, and beating up people who owe your gang money. It’s in these early missions that you see the gang’s sinister side – Arthur’s in particular – and it sets up early on that although beautiful, this is a brutal world. The gang engages in their share of fighting and chaos as they try to survive in a society leaving behind the lawless ways of the old west. The general public no longer find these outlaws so heroic, and it shows.
For this and other reasons we’ll get into later in this series, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a nearly flawless meditation on the idea of living a violent life in pursuit of freedom from a government perceived as oppressive. The game is set at the dawn of the 20th century, a time when western society is modernizing. There is no room for Wild West outlaws in this new world, and politicians, along with elite capitalists, are enlisting law enforcement to stamp out the few who remain. The writers are not at all ambiguous with their thoughts on this kind of society: it is dull, boring, repressive, yet it is safe. As we see in many areas of the map, though, there are noticeable environmental consequences of the industries thriving in those places. The key takeaway is that the people at the top are going after outlaw gangs with a vengeance, and the gangs are fighting back.
You’re Not Helping
One major theme in RDR2 is that within the more civilized world Arthur and his pals are resisting, exist common folk just trying to live. The gang has thought for years that they were helping ordinary folk, yet in their attempts to resist this new civilized society, they end up disrupting and ruining many of these people’s lives. Arthur mentions that their “work” once revolved around helping ordinary people by openly resisting the government, law enforcement and banks. In fact, in Arthur’s tent you can find a newspaper cut-out about their first bank robbery explaining that they gave away all the money to poor people on the streets before they escaped.
Above is a screenshot of the newspaper cut-out, which reads:
April 15th 1887
BRAZEN BANK ROBBERY
THREE MEN SOUGHT
Major T.J. Bellard has been a cashier at the banking house of Lee and Hoyt for a number of years but nothing prepared him for what transpired last week. ‘It was about 2 o’clock. Three men, strangers to me, came through the door and walked up to the counter. One of them, the eldest of the three, was a fine talker and engaged me in conversation. Suddenly the largest, a big, sullen young man, brandished a firearm and held it up to my face.
‘Throw up your hands’, the third one said, who appeared to be the boss. The other two repeated the order with an oath and the leader said, ‘My fine patriotic friends and I are going to relieve you of that gold and introduce a few folks to the benefits of civilization.’ They came around the corner and the counter, and grabbed some sacks which contained $5000 in gold. They demanded to know where the rest of the money was, and I pointed out three sacks containing silver, but it was too bulky for them. They retreated and one warned against sounding an alarm. I was never so terrified in my life’, Mr. Belford told a reporter.
The robbers are reported to have lingered in town, and there are unproven claims that the men traveled to hovels and shanties and even a home for orphans and gave handfuls of the ill-gotten gains to the poor.CREDIT: ROCKSTAR GAMES/RED DEAD WIKI
The gang we join at the start of RDR2 is pretty far removed from that kind of heroic virtue, but they still believe they are the good guys. By the time we join them, they seem to be hurting common people – not only by engaging in dangerous gun fights in towns that could result in innocent casualties, but by loaning money to the poor and destitute only to send the player character to beat the snot out of them when they can’t pay back the loan. Those early debt collecting missions bring a GTA feel to this western game, which is interesting given the way those missions turn out later in the story.
As you’ll see when we begin Chapter 1, the player joins our anti-heroes directly after a boat robbery that went terribly wrong. It is a bad time for the gang. As the game opens, they are traveling up in the mountains in a rare May blizzard after fleeing the law from the town of Blackwater. We don’t know a lot about the failed robbery, as our player character was involved in a separate scam at the time and didn’t participate. That is, until the law turned up at the boat and he had to escape town with his comrades.
The game opens right after the gang’s escape, so the player does not witness the robbery and we know little about the details. All we know is that whatever happened was chaotic and clearly not great for them. It is later implied the robbery was a set-up for the law to catch them, indicated by the speed with which the police and Pinkerton detectives arrived at the scene. We also find out that the gang’s leader, Dutch van der Linde, shot a young, innocent mother at the onset of the Pinkerton’s assault. This is perhaps the first tangible sign that their wise and virtuous leader is not so great.
This is Gonna Be a Long One…
That’s all I have to say in this introduction to a series of posts that will be long-running and span as many different aspects of this game as possible. I’m excited to write about this particular game, not just because I love it and have spent many hours geeking out with my inner nature-lover as I trotted through its virtual wilderness; but because it is a unique experience with so many different mechanics all begging to be described by another amateur blogger.
I’m not kidding. There is so much to cover in this one game. Between its environment, story, its themes regarding freedom, loyalty and the American ideals that to this day keep us all fighting; this game is a treasure trove of inspiration to write some fun, silly, at times philosophical but mostly corny Wild West blog posts.
Anyone who follows me will know this is not the kind of thing I usually write about. For me, this series is a step away from the content I would normally make. I’ll still make that other stuff, but I’d like to use this space to cover some other cool things because life is short, and we should do what we love. If you follow my posts and could care less about video games but you still choose to come on this Wild West journey with me, then you too are a badass and I can’t thank you enough.
With that said, I’ll see you in part 1 of my recap/review of the Van der Linde gang’s journey from bank robbers with a moral code to happy mango farmers in the tropics. Because outlaws deserve a happy ending, too.