Episode 1: One Snowy Night in May

By Wes Annac, The Annac Blog

Here we are! Welcome to part 1 of my (hopefully) epic series – with an accompanying let’s play – about a game that has endlessly entertained and dare I say, inspired me. There is so much to say about this game; I’ll probably say most of it as we move through the story.

The plan for this series is to capture the player character’s exploits on video while writing summaries of every story mission and open world adventure, commenting on what happens every step of the way. This will be part let’s play, part essay, all so I can share my thoughts on this piece of art.

It might seem frivolous to spend so much time on a video game – a fake digital experience that does nothing for you in your actual life. Why spend time in some fake wilderness when you could go outside, get real sunshine, and breathe real fresh air? (Though to be fair, fewer people live in places with truly fresh air these days.)

Well first, I spend plenty of time outside. I’m outside now as I write this. How dare you assume I stay inside just because I love to play games and write, two activities associated with introversion and the indoors. Not cool, man.

In all seriousness, my love for the outdoors is what made me love RDR. The game gives us a massive wilderness to explore and just exist within, enjoying the stunning views and hunting or interacting with wildlife. This experience is highly underrated for nature lovers; especially when you can boot it up in winter or a time when you can’t get out to enjoy the actual woods. Not to mention I can roam around a desert and swamplands in this game, two places I can’t go in real life and will not be able to any time soon.

RDR’s open world is not just beautiful, but entertaining and engaging for any lover of the outdoors. Even if you don’t care about outlaws or the Wild West, this open world can surprise and delight you. If nothing else, it can open your eyes to the sophisticated and graphically rich nature of most AAA open-world games today. If you’ll allow me to use this old cliché: it feels like you’re really there.

(Click to enhance the images below)

Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games

So, not only do I disagree that it’s frivolous to play a game like Red Dead; I disagree that it’s frivolous to write about. Art is here for us to commentate. That is and has always been its purpose. Regardless of your opinion on video games, they are a form of art and increasingly deserving of commentary – especially this game.

I’m not saying there will be anything special about my commentary, as I’m just one of millions of players who were drawn in by this game’s story as well as the massive love and effort put into it. As I said before; this game is something special. I am genuinely excited to tell you all about it, though my words will not do justice to something you must experience for yourself.

I wonder how many of you will stick with me through this series, as we’re going through the entire game and it’s a loooooooooooooooooooooong one. This long-running project will span at least a few months, and I’m curious if its viewership will gain traction or fizzle out by the time we get to the more interesting story elements. The way I see it, newcomers to the Red Dead Redemption series could read/watch this as an introduction before trying it for themselves, and those who’ve played through it might have fun reading someone else’s thoughts on it.

That’s enough ranting for now. Let’s sit and get comfortable as we fire up Red Dead Redemption 2.

SPOILERS. You’ve been warned!

Chapter 1: Colter

As I mentioned in the intro article, this game’s opening is grim. We start with a dark background and a few sentences setting up the story:

“By 1899, the age of outlaws and gunslingers was at an end. America was becoming a land of laws. Even the west had mostly been tamed. A few gangs still roamed, but they were being hunted down and DESTROYED.

We begin in the mountains in a fierce blizzard as a caravan of weary travelers slowly rolls through the deep snow. These guys and gals aren’t doing too well; they’re all exhausted, with an injured fella lying in a wagon as two women and another man sit with him.

Already, I have some thoughts.

No More Desert = No More Freedom

The desert in New Austin (aka Texas) in RDR2. Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

The first Red Dead Redemption takes place almost exclusively in the desert, as you roam through Rockstar’s recreations of Texas and Mexico, respectively. Fans of the first game should find it curious that its prequel opens in an opposite territory.

Instead of being down in the desert, we join the gang high up in the snowy mountains, seemingly in dire straights. Opening the game in a precarious situation is not exactly new for Red Dead Redemption, but it is interesting that the devs would start us up in the mountains. In my opinion, they are letting us know this will not be a typical western.

The dark, snowy mountains in which the game opens. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

The Red Dead Redemption series revolves around the theme of the Wild West dying out. The glory days have passed; outlaws no longer have the freedom to rob a bank or train then escape to their hideout in a spectacular display. It is now a time when outlaws who are dead or burned-out are deified in fiction books that greatly exaggerate the hootin’ tootin’ Wild West, while the government cracks down on the last of the real outlaws too stubborn to go quietly. What better way to introduce this theme than to open in the polar opposite of a desert? (Pun 100% intended.)

I like to think that by immediately throwing us into the snow instead of the freedom of the open desert, Rockstar is communicating that:

  • This game will not follow all the beats we expect from the first
  • It will not follow all the beats of a typical western

We cannot get to any desert territory until we complete the main story. The player character is barred from accessing that region because the law is scouring it looking for the gang after their failed robbery. We are Wanted Dead or AliveTM in the desert and the areas that lead to it, so we’ll be sniped into an early grave if we attempt to explore them.

One major theme in the story is that the Pinkertons are chasing the gang further and further into the east, toward more civilization in which they find they are irrelevant in the dawning 20th century.

Content was cut that would have let Arthur into the desert and Great Plains early on, presumably before the failed robbery takes place. Regardless, it feels significant and fitting to the story that we start in the snow, far from the desert with no way to get back there, and proceed to be driven from the west. It fits well with the theme that the lawless, wide-open west is a thing of the past.

Enough of that for now, though. Back to the gang in its current crisis…

Not Our Finest Hour

A man jumps from the back of the wagon to inform the two drivers that the wounded man is dying:

“Abigail says he’s dying, Dutch. We’ll have to stop someplace soon.”

One of the drivers responds that they could all die if they don’t find shelter. The other driver mentions he sent a scout to see what is up ahead.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

It’s here that we’re introduced to the player character, Arthur Morgan. His hat slowly tipping back to reveal his face, he tells the two drivers he found shelter for everyone.

“I found a place where we can get some shelter. Let Davey rest while he, you know…”

He is of course implying that the man, Davey, will soon die. Mere seconds in, we’re stuck in a blizzard, losing a man, and we as the player have no idea what the absolute fuck is happening. This is not the Van der Linde gang’s finest hour, but it’s how we’re introduced to them.

Sure enough, this displaced group finds respite in an abandoned mining town. As they pour into a rickety old home, you get an immediate sense that there are a lot of people in this gang. It’s interesting, as the first game gives you the impression the gang was made up of a few rough-and-tough criminals. Yet here, it is presented as more of a community. There are men, women, and a small child. Judging by how they treat the dying man, they all care for each other.

Pennies on Your Eyes

By the time they reach shelter, Davey has died. One of the women puts pennies on his eyes, and later, you can find a makeshift grave for Davey near a cemetery in the town. For the time being, though, the group has bigger problems and cannot worry about their fallen friend.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

After everyone is settled, they’re given an impassioned speech from their leader, Dutch van der Linde, about their troubles and the people they’ve lost. He names quite a few people, indicating that Davey was not the gang’s only loss in the robbery. They also lost a young woman, Jenny, who was killed by the law, as well as two men – Mac and Sean – who were either killed or taken into custody.

Dutch’s speech, and the gang’s reaction to it, give us a glimpse into how this group sees its leader and why they have all formed around him. Right away, he comes across as a compassionate leader of a group of goodhearted folks going through a tough time. You get a sense that he cares deeply for these people who are so devoted to his ideals, they’ll follow him through a snowstorm.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

Dutch’s speech is meant to rouse his crew to keep their morale from dipping any further before we go with him to look for two other men – John and Micah – whom he had sent scouting in a different direction. It’s after his speech that we get to play as Arthur for the first time, as we ride out with our leader to find John and Micah.

Into the Storm

Before we set out, a moment happens between Arthur and Dutch that feels significant. As they step outside, Arthur stops Dutch to ask him what really happened with the boat robbery. His leader offers no explanation, simply telling him they missed him (Arthur did not participate in the heist). It’s as if for some crazy reason, Dutch doesn’t want to talk about his grand plan that went horribly wrong. This theme that he won’t acknowledge the bad things happening to the gang – which are often consequences of his not-so-great plans – will pick up significantly later on.

After a brief interaction with a man named Charles, we ride off into the blizzard, lantern in hand.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

On our first horse ride, we’re introduced to a few basic riding mechanics. We learn how to speed up, slow down, and keep speed with other riders as Dutch tells Arthur that Davey is the last man they’ll lose.

“He’s the last one, Arthur. No more.”

After Dutch mentions that the Pinkertons couldn’t possibly follow them through the blizzard, we are given two dialogue choices: ask him about the money from the robbery or ask if he thinks the whole thing was a setup. We’re going with the latter.

Dutch seems certain the law knew they were coming. This is probable for three reasons:

  • The law is cracking down on outlaw gangs
  • The boat was carrying a lot of money
  • Someone could have noticed the gang lingering around Blackwater and alerted the Pinkertons

The robberies the Van der Linde gang pulled off back in the day are not so easy anymore, as a worthy adversary has arisen to wipe them out.

It’s after this conversation that we run into one of the men we’re looking for, Micah, who tells us he found a homestead occupied by people apparently having a party. As we ride off to investigate, Dutch tells Micah that Davey and Jenny have died, and that the gang lost Sean and Mac with no idea what happened to them.

Micah. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

An Enchanting Ride Through the Snow

The blizzard becomes darker and more gorgeous the further we ride into it. Nevermind this game’s graphics in the southern areas, where bright and colorful foliage abounds; these mountains and this snow are equally impressive. Before showing us what it can really do, this game enchants us with its simple snowy-mountain graphics. The smallest details, like the player’s and our horse’s prints in the snow, make it an immersive experience from the get-go.

(My screenshots do no justice to how gorgeous this game is)

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

After a long, slow ride with some more dialogue choices, we arrive at a homestead at the bottom of a hill. It’s here we are introduced to the game’s health mechanic and another horse care mechanic (hitching at a post). The health mechanic is straightforward:

  • You have a health bar and a health core
  • You take tonics to refill your bar, and eat food like meat or canned fruit/vegetables to refill your core
  • You don’t want your health bar and core to drain, or Arthur will go bye-bye
Health core & bar. Credit: Red Dead Wiki
Stamina core & bar. Credit: Red Dead Wiki

When I’m in a fight, I prefer to load up on tonics and run toward enemies for close-range combat rather than take cover; though the game prefers you hide and shoot. If you pay attention to your health bar and your reflexes are quick enough for you to keep taking tonics as your health dwindles, you can enjoy a more satisfying combat experience than the mundane duck-and-cover strategy. Close-range combat is easier and more fun in Red Dead Online because the frame rate is sped up to match the more chaotic nature of gun battles in that mode.

But we don’t talk about RDO…

Not Nice

As Dutch approaches the front door, he has Arthur hide in a shed and Micah hide behind a wagon in case these people are a threat. From the moment they step outside, the homesteaders don’t seem too friendly. Dutch appeals for help but they tell him to leave as Micah signals to Arthur that there is an un-alive person in the wagon.

The takeaway: these homesteaders are indeed dangerous.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

This is where the game introduces the shooting mechanic, which is a basic auto-aim. You hold a button and the game aims for you, creating a target that zeroes-in on your enemy. The longer you hold the aim button without being hit, the more accurate your shot will be. Shooting makes up a big portion of the game’s action, but it is by no means a central focus of the overall experience. Various mechanics and elements are mixed into this game; the shooting is only one of many, and one we should expect since this is, you know, a western.

Also, it’s a video game.

The murderous homesteaders begin to recognize Dutch as the leader of the Van der Linde gang, which means Arthur and Micah must get rid of them. After a fight that properly introduces us to the gunplay, Dutch finds out the homesteaders were part of a rival gang called the O’Driscolls.

Shootin’ and Lootin’

Since we need supplies, our first move after taking out the O’Driscolls is to raid the homestead. We’re taking anything we can find. When we step inside, we see blood on the floor – indicating a violent struggle.

“We need the essentials: food, medicine… whiskey.”

We’re introduced to the game’s looting mechanic in which you take items from homesteads and other locations. We find just what our leader suggests: canned food, booze and health items. We also learn how eating restores Arthur’s health core and lets his health regenerate faster.

Raiding the homestead. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
A violent struggle took place here. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

Arthur makes a comment about the price on the head of their rival gang’s leader, Colm O’Driscoll, to which Dutch says:

“Wanting Colm dead is about the only thing me and Uncle Sam agree on.”

This first mission sets up many of the game’s essential mechanics while introducing us to a rival gang that is perhaps our biggest group of enemies excluding the law. We learn more about Dutch and Colm’s feud as the story progresses, but it’s made clear from the start that there is animosity between them.

As we’re looting, we find a portrait of a husband and wife – indicating that the un-alive man in the wagon is or was married. On the back it says, “Jake and Sadie Wedding, September 4th, 1896”.  

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

After we find a few items, Dutch instructs us to look in a nearby barn for anything the gang could use. When we open the barn door and walk inside, Arthur is jumped by a remaining O’Driscoll before we’re thrown into a fistfight that introduces the brawling mechanic. This mechanic is also straightforward: you attack and block your opponent’s hits until you win.

After our victory, we are given a moral decision: terminate the O’Driscoll, let him run away or knock him out. We learn later that these decisions influence the way Arthur interacts with the world and the way it treats him in return. In moments like these, our choices – particularly our willingness to use violence even when unnecessary – are crucial to the way the story plays out.

It all centers on Arthur’s moral code and how he thinks violence fits in to his life as an outlaw.

“You’re Safe Now”

Immediately after our brawl with the angry O’Driscoll, we are led back to the home by the sounds of a woman screaming. We rush into the house to find Micah antagonizing a random woman in a nightgown – presumably the wife of the man in the wagon, if you recall the wedding photo from earlier. Apparently, she hid while the O’Driscolls un-alived her husband and started a party in her home.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

In Red Dead Online, which takes place one year before the events of the story mode, her husband is alive and will give the player missions to accomplish for cash: deliveries, hunting and rescues. When he talks to us, he often indicates he owes money to some nasty people and doesn’t want his wife to find out. It’s neat that the online mode gives us exposition hinting that the O’Driscolls will one day attack him for defaulting on his debt.

The widow’s husband, Jake Adler, very much alive in Red Dead Online. Credit: Red Dead Wiki/Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)
The future widow with her husband in the background in Red Dead Online. Credit: Red Dead Wiki/Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

Still… we don’t talk about RDO.

Though Micah accuses the woman of being an O’Driscoll, it’s obvious she is a victim of our gang’s rivals. Armed with nothing but a blade, this pajama-clad lady is clearly helpless and afraid for her life. Despite this, in one last act of provocation, Micah flips over a table with candles on it – setting fire to the cabin.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

As her home sets fire, Dutch disarms the woman while assuring her they mean her no harm. You’d think that would be kind of a hard sell after one of their own just set fire to her home. But she seems comfortable overlooking that and trusting these outlaws because they killed the guys who killed her husband.

The widow’s home ablaze. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

Arthur assures her:

“We’re bad men, but we ain’t them.”

Super comforting, Arthur. A+

She informs Dutch & Co. that the O’Driscoll men arrived three days prior and did indeed put her husband in an early grave. Dutch again assures her she is safe and even REMARKS THAT SHE CAN’T STAY IN HER HOME THAT THEY JUST SET FIRE TO; but she still feels safe going with them. Either that, or she figures she has no choice. She wouldn’t want to stay in her home anyway after the heavy trauma she experienced there.

Still, it’s both strange for her to trust this random group of men (especially when one of them was being a total meanie) and hilarious that Dutch would say she is “safe now” when their group is totally not safe right now. You remember how this game opened, right? They just found shelter in a crazy blizzard after running from lawmen hunting them down. It’s not even good shelter.

This is one of the first examples of Dutch’s bluster, a word I definitely knew before I heard it in this game – that is, his tendency to make dramatic self-assured statements that ignore reality. Telling this widow that she’s safe is quite an exaggeration when you look at the situation our friends are in. Throughout the game, we’ll find that Dutch has a habit of minimizing bad things and overhyping his optimism for the gang’s future. Sure, they burned down this poor widow’s home and they are currently staying in a rickety mining town on the run for serious crimes; but it will all be okay because she’s safe now.

This little rant will make sense in retrospect as we progress through the story.

Micah Sucks

After that fun scene in which Micah burns down a widow’s home, it seems appropriate to mention he is not a good dude. Micah is one of the game’s antagonists – perhaps the only antagonist who runs with the gang in this prequel (until later). The rest of our enemies are rival criminals and of course, the law.

Early on, it’s made clear what kind of person Micah is and how we should feel about him. Irredeemable to his core, Micah is a racist, self-serving asshole and strives to be nothing but a racist, self-serving asshole. Arthur can’t stand him, for good reason. We see as the game goes on that he fits the archetypal outlaw villain to a tee. It’ll leave it at that for now, but a separate essay could be written about how effective of a villain Micah is in this story.

Drawing this first mission to a close, we learn the woman’s name: Sadie Adler. This poor widow is in shock from the trauma she’s been through, and now that she’s riding with us, she will probably see a lot more violence.  

Dutch puts a blanket over the widow as they escort her out of her burning home. Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

We see Sadie’s house burning and crashing as some truly epic Wild West music plays, bringing us to the end of mission #1.

Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)
Credit: Rockstar Games (click to enhance)

Well, how did I do? I hope this summary is adequate and the accompanying videos are entertaining enough. In my opinion, this opening is a stellar introduction to a game that will take us on quite a journey. Making us start the game with almost no items or weapons because we had to leave them all behind is a great way to start us at the bottom with incentive to build our inventory back up. It’s also a great way to begin a story that will undoubtedly get bleak.  

There is a line in the first game in which John Marston mentions to his wife that their days as outlaws were not as romantic as the storybooks portray. They were rough and gritty. This game’s opening gives us the impression we’ll experience that grittiness soon enough. Already, things are going poorly. We have a feel for what’s at stake if we don’t succeed in evading the law, and it seems like things could get worse as we continue to flee.

Maybe I’m reading too much into an opening I’ve played through a lot. But this first chapter brings with it a dreariness that seems like a poor sign of what’s to come.

Still, we might as well be optimistic. Since we’re at rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up! I think the gang will turn things around and be back out west before the Pinkertons can even cross the stream bordering the Great Plains. I mean, this seems like a tough and cunning group of folks who know how to keep the law at bay. I’m sure they’ll be fine.

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for part 2, when we’ll go out looking for another one of our missing friends. Spoiler: it will be a familiar scarred face.