Episode 2: John Marston’s Mountain Adventure

By Wes Annac, The Annac Blog

Welcome back! I hope you’ve been as excited as I have to continue playing this incredible game. To recap: for this series, I am playing through Red Dead Redemption 2, recording my gameplay for a Let’s Play that will accompany these posts; and summarizing the story missions + my open-world shenanigans as I share a few thoughts on it all.

When we last joined our anti-heroes, which incidentally was the first time we joined them; we were fleeing desperately from the law after failing miserably to rob a boat carrying tons of cash. We were lost in the mountains in a crazy blizzard until we found an abandoned mining town and a homestead – which we managed to burn down. We also took on a new mouth to feed: the woman who lived in the home, whose husband was un-alived by our rival gang, the O’Driscolls.

This is a low point for Dutch’s Boys, but we’ve found shelter and we’re aware that our enemies are in the mountains with us. Plus, we have a little food and some provisions. Things could be worse.

Now, the day after we looted and burned down our new widow friend’s home (whoopsie), Arthur will ride out to look for the protagonist and player character from the first Red Dead Redemption. That’s right – John Marston is lost in the mountains and his baby-momma is worried.

Enter, Pursued by a Memory

We are thrown into the next mission after our return, as we find one of the women upset and worried about John, who AIN’T BEEN SEEN IN TWO… two days. The woman is called Abigail; fans of the first RDR will recognize her as John Marston’s wife. She asks if Arthur will ride out to look for him, and it’s clear from Arthur’s response that there is animosity between him and John.

Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

This is notable given that, as I wrote in the intro article, Arthur is not mentioned or referenced in the first RDR. All we know is that John had fled from the gang and is forced to go after some of his old friends for the government or risk losing his family. We have no idea what role Arthur played in the gang, so it’s interesting that they would have issues with each other from the start of this game.

The older grey-haired fella, Hosea, asks Arthur and Javier to look for John, to which Javier says:

“I know if the situation were reversed… he’d look for me.”

This is a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that John does indeed go after Javier in the first RDR – not to save him but to bring him in for the government. Since there is tension between them by the time John goes after his old buddies in RDR1; it is so cool to go back to a time when the gang is united in their brotherhood. They live, ride and fight together. In a way, all they have is each other. To go from brothers to bitter enemies is a dramatic shift, and it says a lot about the pressure these characters are under as their gang slowly implodes.

Javier, with Abigail in the background. Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

With that said, now seems like a good time to give Javier a proper introduction. He will be the first character we meet like this, as I’m saving Arthur’s backstory for another time.

Javier Escuella: From Revolutionary to Petty Criminal

All credit for this information goes to the Red Dead Wiki and the YouTuber Fizhy, who made a fantastic video explaining Javier’s backstory in as much detail as Rockstar would provide. I’ll share Fizhy’s video below, along with the information he gives us. If you enjoy his video, go leave him a like and subscribe to his channel. In my opinion, his is one of the best gaming channels on YouTube; not to mention that it covers so many aspects of this massive game.

Javier’s birth year is unknown, but his place of birth is a village in Nuevo Paraiso, the territory that represents Mexico in the RDR universe. His father is an alcoholic laborer who works under the uncle of RDR1 villain Colonel Augustin Allende. When he’s a young boy, his mother tells him tales of a monster that eats livestock and, incidentally, unruly children.

Nuevo Paraiso, Mexico, seen from across the river in Red Dead Redemption 2. Credit: Rockstar Games/Red Dead Wiki (Click to enhance)

At around the same time, a very young Javier witnesses a gruesome crime against the poor working folk in his village. Men arrive at his village accusing five people of “spreading rebellion and heresy”. They do horrible things to the accused before ultimately feeding them to pigs. The village is forced to watch the horrifying spectacle, which is how a young Javier witnesses it. To make matters worse; one of the men is his uncle.

Says Javier:

“And do you know what those men had done? They had suggested that the men of the village demand a fair wage from the local landowner. …Not that he share all he had; just that he give enough that the people might live. Of course, Mexico could be a land of plenty, but the people with the power there? They’d rather kill than share the smallest little piece. All my life I think about this. Most people are thieves, because they steal the lives and the hopes of others.”

This act of brutality changes the way Javier views the system in his home country. With a newfound awareness of the corruption upon which that system is built, he’s set on a path to becoming an infamous bounty hunter and revolutionary. He now stands against the abuse of power that took his uncle’s life.

He takes his rebellion too far when he kills an influential military man, making him a much bigger target than he already was. More wanted than ever, Javier flees to the U.S. in hopes of keeping his family safe.

“I ran – not for my life, but for theirs.”

As he flees, he worries about all of the terrible things that could happen. He could be stranded in the desert as he attempts to reach the U.S., captured in the states and sent back to Mexico; or captured and killed in either country. Instead, he makes it to America and is isolated in an unfamiliar place where people couldn’t care less about hurting or helping him. Once a revolutionary, he finds himself broke and living on the street, incapable of speaking English and forced into petty crime for survival. He is truly alone.

“I was simply starving because no one cared.”

Fortunately for him, that will all change. In 1895, Javier is attempting to steal a few chickens when he comes across none other than Dutch van der Linde trying to do the same thing. After they laugh together, Dutch welcomes him into the gang, giving him food, clothing, shelter and community. In the gang, he finds a new family.

“You… You are all my home now.”

From the moment he joins, Javier believes wholeheartedly in Dutch’s ideals. Becoming friends with John Marston and Bill Williamson in particular, Javier becomes arguably the most loyal member of the group. He is fully devoted to Dutch throughout RDR2 despite the cracks that begin to show in his leader’s thinking. He sees Dutch as a revolutionary – an important figure who will change the world or at least lead the gang to their promised land. Even after witnessing Dutch shoot the unarmed young mother Heidi McCort during the Blackwater Massacre, he remains loyal to his leader and mentor.

A skilled gunman and high-ranking individual in the gang by 1899, Javier participates in many robberies, killings and other criminal activity. Fizhy mentions a bank robbery Mr. Escuella commits with Arthur and Karen Jones in Tucson, Arizona as one example of the crimes he willingly engages in with the group.

In another instance, Arthur and Javier are tipped off about a stagecoach carrying rich folk they can rob. Upon stopping the coach, the pair discover it is full of women and children. Feeling compassionate, they decide to let the innocent folk go. Later, they read in a newspaper that some O’Driscolls stopped and robbed that same coach – un-aliving everyone on board. This disgusts Javier, who sees the murders as dishonorable. They may be criminals who regularly resort to violence, but our protagonists do have some sense of moral decency. On the other hand, the O’Driscolls and every other gang in this fictional world seem to rob and kill without mercy.

This concludes Javier’s backstory, as the next chapter of his life begins when he participates in the boat robbery that forever changes the Van der Linde gang.

Now, back to the mission at hand…

The Blackwater Setup

After Hosea convinces Arthur to look for John, we ride out with Javier for another mountain adventure.

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

Arthur is doubtful John would stick around, wondering if he used the failed robbery as an opportunity to leave:

“For all we know, he kept riding north and never looked back.”

Since Javier was present during the robbery, Arthur asks him what he saw. Javier explains that they had the money and the job seemed to be going according to plan – until Pinkertons surrounded them and started “raining bullets”. Everything was set off suddenly. Sounds like a setup to me…

Javier explains that Mac, Sean, and John were all shot – all three of whom are missing and whose fates we’re unsure of. He is the one who tells us Dutch shot a young unarmed mother. In his words, “Dutch killed a girl in a… bad way… but it was a bad situation”. Though he immediately justifies an unjustifiable act, he and Arthur acknowledge that this isn’t typical for the mentor and moral figure they know Dutch to be.

This moment is a bit overshadowed by the introduction of the game’s brilliant cinematic mode.

Our introduction to cinematic mode is yet another visual treat, as we watch Arthur and Javier traverse a landscape that is just lovely. Honestly, “lovely” doesn’t describe it. Only the purest of adjectives can do justice to the way this game looks, and you won’t get them from this amateur writer. These snowy mountains are simply lovely.

When you’re riding, you can hold a button to trigger this widescreen mode that lets you ride on roads automatically as you sit back and enjoy the scenery. Though a version of this has been done in other games that let you ride on roads or paths automatically, Rockstar approaches it in a far more engaging way. It’s fun to hop into cinematic mode while you’re riding and take in the view from all the different angles. It’s especially fun when you run into a tree or an NPC.

Not a Good Sign…

As they travel slowly through the mountains looking for their friend, Javier and Arthur come across John’s deceased horse in the snow. Stopping to look at the horse will reveal that it’s not just deceased, but mutilated. This suggests John was attacked by a predator – or some really sadistic humans. Given what we witnessed in the first mission with the O’Driscolls, the latter is not so farfetched.

Javier fires his gun in the air, after which we hear someone yelling for help in the distance. Though it is faint, the voice is instantly recognizable as John Marston. Together with Javier, Arthur dismounts and starts walking a path on the side of a snowy cliff, shotgun in hand. The path looks like something you’d see on Ice Road Truckers; it’s narrow, slick and definitely not something you’d want to be walking along. One misstep and Arthur could be a goner.

The scene in which we walk along this path is a vibe in itself. Two outlaws are walking high up in the mountains on a treacherous path overlooking a vast foggy sky as we search for our friend. Unsure if we’ll even find John despite his yelling, Arthur continues with Javier along the side of this cliff, with his shotgun in case they meet anything ahead that is not very nice.

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

Slooooooow Ride

As we watch their slow, deliberate movements, this seems like a good time to point out that your movements in this game are slow and weighty as if by design (on PlayStation 4, at least). Arthur and Javier’s slow climb up a ledge is a good example of this weighty movement. Most of our actions in this game are indicative of how a real human would move, rather than some overpowered video game character.

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

In the first RDR, John can run quickly and jump high. Besides his swimming, which is nonexistent; his every move betrays that he lives in a fictional world with exaggerated physics. For this second game, Rockstar aimed for realism. Arthur moves slowly, runs at a modest jog-like pace and believe it or not, jumps like an actual person.

The game’s deliberately slow pacing becomes apparent the more you interact with the open world. In other playthroughs, I’ve spent hours slowly and purposefully engaging the world the way its creators intended. As we’ll see later, it’s easy to spend loads of time in camp doing chores, interacting with our friends; playing cards or dice; or just enjoying the random interactions you discover. That is, before you go into the open world to hunt (or study animals peacefully if you don’t like to hunt), spend time in a local saloon; or just gallop around and explore.

I appreciate the realism in our character’s movements, as it is one of many aspects of this game that make it feel like a real-life experience. It is not real life, of course, and many other aspects of the gameplay and the open world betray that it is a coded world far from the reality in front of our faces. The realism that is present – which admittedly, some players did not appreciate – is yet another testament to how far video games have come.

One more thing before we get back to the mission: it’s interesting how the player character’s demeanor changes as his cores drain. Low health and stamina make Arthur visibly exhausted; he walks tiredly and keeps his head down like real peoplez do when we need to eat or get some sleep. It’s one of many small details that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, provide so much extra realism and immersion.

Our Bloody Hero, Found

Arthur and Javier start calling for John as they get nearer, hearing his pained yells in response. As we approach a cliff, the camera slowly pans over the edge for John Marston’s big reveal.

Here he is, our hero from the first RDR, bleeding on the side of a mountain. Throughout this series, it seems like John is both lucky and unlucky. It was unlucky for him to to get shot during the Blackwater robbery and lose his horse to a predator in the mountains; but the chances he would be found in such a vast, endless landscape are slim to none. There are plenty of other examples of John’s fortune and lack thereof throughout the story.

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

As John is revealed, we see a fresh cut across his face – suggesting that whatever predator caught his horse had a go at him, too. For fans of the first RDR, John is well-known for his mysterious face scar. It is never explained in that game, which many preferred as they wanted to be kept in the dark, guessing what may have been the cause. It was a mystery, left for fans to fill in the gaps. As a result, some were not thrilled when it was revealed that a pack of angry wolves gave him his scar.

Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

John’s separation from the gang and subsequent wolf attack is a cool story and a satisfactory explanation, but some felt it would have been cooler to keep the whole thing a mystery. The dev team references the expected backlash to the Scar Story with this interaction between Arthur and John as they are riding him home:

Also, while we’re here…

Time to get to know John!

John Marston: The Wolf-Man Rises

Credit for this information will again go to Fizhy and the Red Dead Wiki, as once again, his video on John Marston was the best resource I could find aside from the Wiki. What I’m saying is you should go subscribe, right now, because it’s a dope channel.

Born in 1873, John Marston is the son of a Scottish immigrant and a woman who dies during childbirth. After his mother passes, he is left in the care of his father, who’s passionate about Scotland despite that he was never actually there (he was born on a boat heading to New York from Scotland and never visited the country).

John’s father gets in a fight in a bar somewhere south of Chicago in 1881, when John is eight years old. He is left blinded from the brawl and dies shortly after. John is then sent to an orphanage, where spends a few years until he decides to run away and live on the street. He takes up robbing, stealing and other petty crimes, culminating in his first shooting at age eleven in which he takes his first life. This is in 1884.

His first killing does not deter him from breaking the law; he keeps robbing and stealing until he’s caught taking something a year later, in 1885. The homesteaders who catch the then-12-year-old John plan to hang him, which seems a little harsh for a simple theft. That is, until the one and only Dutch van der Linde intervenes, saving his life and beginning what would be an eventful yet tumultuous father-son relationship.

We’ll find in many of these character bios that Dutch emerges as a hero figure for these disenfranchised young men and women. He saves them from the unfortunate circumstances they are in; most of the people Dutch takes in are poor kids living in the streets who, due to the conditions they are forced to live under, are basically outlaws already. Dutch recruits them, teaches them valuable life skills and fills their heads with his philosophical ideas.

Since his ideas mostly revolve around independence from the government, law enforcement and elite capitalists pulling the strings of the system; it’s no mystery why Dutch’s followers see him as a guru of sorts. He doesn’t come across as a mystic or a spiritual teacher, but a guru for liberty and personal freedom. Dutch seems to use his education, and his patience in teaching his protégés, to become a sort of cult leader; though nobody in the gang sees it that way.

Dutch and Hosea teach John many life skills:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Horse care
  • Shooting
  • Hunting
  • Presumably, other skills John may not have picked up on his own

John also adopts Dutch’s philosophy on society, and develops a brotherly bond with Arthur Morgan, the second-longest serving member of the gang under Hosea. Arthur is the first troubled youth for Dutch and Hosea to pick up, with John being the second. It’s not hard to see how they could consider each other brothers, with everything that that entails – including a rivalry for the attention and praise of their two father figures.

As the years roll on, John becomes skilled and capable in all the areas of life Dutch and Hosea instruct him. He matures into a skilled gunslinger and a decent reader and writer; though, again, he never learns how to swim.

Together with Dutch, Hosea and Arthur – as well as newer recruits Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella and a few others, John assists in a string of crimes over many years. As one of Dutch and Hosea’s first recruits, he rises through the ranks to the point he is considered Dutch’s “golden boy”. This makes some of his brothers jealous of the attention and praise he often receives.

In 1894 – 5 years before the events of RDR2 – a prostitute named Abigail Roberts joins the gang. Don’t worry, she’ll get her own biography later. Though she would have relations with many of the men, she falls for John Marston and in 1895, has a baby she believes to be his.

The baby is, of course, Jack Marston – the young boy we see in the Colter camp. I might not spend extra time describing his backstory because he’s like 4 years old when the game opens; meaning he was probably not a notorious bounty hunter in Mexico or anything cool like that. He was born, learned to walk and talk and stuff, and was definitely traumatized when the gang had to flee into the mountains. He’s probably seen some other crazy shit.

John can’t handle being a parent and regularly questions if Jack is even his son. In 1896, he decides to leave the gang altogether. (Sound familiar?) He spends a year away from the gang, camping by himself on the frontier. When he returns in 1897, he’s welcomed back by everyone except Arthur, who is hurt by his choice to leave. Their friendship is now in disarray, with Arthur treating him more maliciously than before. Tensions do not ease between them in the two years leading up to RDR2.

John’s relationship with Jack doesn’t improve either. At times he is “cold” toward Jack and at others, wholly uninterested in being the father figure his son needs. His focus is less on being a father and more on being the outlaw he was taught to be.

The rest is history. John participates in the Blackwater robbery, which doesn’t go as planned, and is shot in the arm during the Pinkerton’s assault. As we know, he is then attacked by wolves in the mountains after Dutch sends him and Micah to scout ahead. The wolves obliterate his horse, leaving him stranded and facing certain death.

Luckily, Arthur and Javier just found him.

Rescuing the Wolf-Man

John’s first line in the game, if you discount his yelling from earlier, is pretty dope:

“I never thought I’d say this, but it’s good to see you, Arthur Morgan”.

Though I didn’t play the first game before I played this one, I still think that line is awesome. For one, the way Rob Wiethoff (the actor portraying John) says the line is reminiscent of the John Marston from the first game. His voice is somewhat restrained as it is in RDR1, rather than the more expressive and shouty voice we get throughout the rest of the game. This must have been a seriously cool moment for fans of the first RDR, as they see the hero with whom they spent countless hours acknowledge this story’s protagonist.

Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

Arthur picks up an injured John as he and Javier walk across the other side of the mountain because they “can’t go back” the way they came. Right after we load John onto Javier’s horse, we see on the top of a hill the mean old wolves that mutilated John’s horse and gave him his scar. The player must distract the mad dogs as our friends get to safety. We do this by calling them and shooting as they attack us. Then, as we ride to safety, even more wolves show up. We have to take care of them as we ride, either with a low-powered cattleman revolver or a low-range shotgun.

Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

Thankfully, the rest of the ride is peaceful.

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

After we return with John, we are informed that Dutch and Hosea have decided on a strategy for evading the law: we head east. Arthur’s reaction is priceless:

“East?! Into all that… civilization?”

To which Hosea says,

“…The west is where our problems are worse.”

I know I’m repeating myself; but this is symbolic of the game’s theme that the Wild West way of life has pretty much died off. Our outlaw heroes don’t even get to reside in their lawless west because, as the opening explained, it had “mostly been tamed”. They are pushed further east into places more crowded with people – and the law – in which they can potentially be recognized and apprehended.

Credit: Rockstar Games (Click to enhance)

After this second mission concludes, we are given the freedom to move around and interact with the world for the first time. The world is not open yet – we can’t leave our Colter camp – but it is the first time we can walk around and talk to our gang family. This is exactly what we’re going to do in our next installment!

It is also our first opportunity to check out the satchel we store our items in, as well as the journal in which Arthur writes. If you read it from the beginning, Arthur’s journal is rich with exposition; he writes all about what the gang was up to in the months leading up to the Blackwater ferry job. He also explains what led to the gang running and hiding from Pinkertons high in the mountains.

Arthur’s journal. Credit: Rockstar Games/Red Dead Wiki (Click to enhance)

How Did We Get Here?

I’ll summarize each expository journal entry in the next installment, but here is a general summary to give you something to chew on as you eagerly await part 3:

  • The gang were holed up outside the town of Blackwater for a couple of months before they decided to rob a ferry rumored to hold a lot of cash (Micah made Dutch aware of the boat and the cash, for what it’s worth)
  • Their plan was to rob the boat and escape out west, into the open desert from the first game
  • Arthur and Hosea were to pull off a separate real estate scam during the robbery, which they had been working on during their time living outside of town. They were to join the gang out west after the heist
  • Together with the local law, Pinkerton agents suddenly showed up at the boat in droves. The agents quickly overwhelmed Dutch & Co.
  • The gang were forced to scramble and stumble their way through a quick escape, losing men and a woman along the way as some were shot and/or arrested.

To recap, the Pinkerton assault took from the gang:

  • Jenny, the young woman they picked up a few months prior (shot; passed away before they made it to the mountains)
  • Mac Callendar (shot; whereabouts as of yet unknown)
  • Davey Callendar (shot; passed away in the mountains)
  • John Marston (shot; attacked by wolves in the mountains but recovered by Arthur and Javier)
  • Sean MacGuire (shot; whereabouts as of yet unknown)

Before you feel too bad for them, remember that the gang presumably un-alived a loooooot of law enforcement – nevermind innocent bystanders. Also, in case you forgot – Dutch lost his cool and shot a young mother, Heidi McCort. A strange fella in the first RDR describes Heidi’s death in graphic detail, painting Dutch in a not-so-heroic light.

It would be hard to root for these guys and gals if we didn’t know they are the protagonists. To be fair, some of them become the villains of this story later on. Amidst all the violence, their saving grace is that they are a community who genuinely care for each other and believe they are doing the right thing. They stand by their leader, who’s prone to giving inspirational (if not a little melodramatic) speeches that rouse them into action. They’re good people at heart, even if they are a little rough around the edges. The devs do a good job of getting us to root for them despite their clear flaws and tendencies toward violence.

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for the next installment when we’ll walk around our depressing new camp and talk with our downtrodden brethren. Then, we’ll go hunting with one of my personal favorite characters: Charles Smith. We’ll learn Charles’ backstory before we set out to find our friends some much-needed venison since they are, you know, starving. You’d think Arthur would have brought back one of those wolves so the camp could enjoy some big game meat….

See you soon!