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This article contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.
I didn’t go into Red Dead Redemption expecting John Marston to die in a hail of bullets. I didn’t expect his stern but doting wife Abigail to die of Tuberculosis a mere three years later. I didn’t expect his son Jack to walk the same path as his father, ending the game exactly as it had begun. Both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2 are built on hope and futility. As much as their characters hope and work towards better lives so do their current lives as outlaws and gunslingers erode their chances of ever reaching their dreams.
I’m someone that always sees the glass half full in terms of storytelling. Maybe it’s the fact that at first – like most of us – I was raised on movies and games where the heroes always win. How many times did Clint Eastwood ride off into the sunset? How many times did I cheer when the villain got his comeuppance? But eventually you watch a movie like Taxi Driver or play a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 and it ends in hopeless ambiguity or in futility.
The kinds of stories that end honestly are better than those that end dishonestly. If a main character dying makes for a better story than let ’em die. That doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful for their survival even down to the final few seconds.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place 12 years before the original. Arthur Morgan is the player character. A lieutenant in the Van der Linde gang he grows increasingly disillusioned with the leadership of Dutch Van der Linde and Arthur finds himself stuck between saving himself and those he cares about and his loyalty to the man that raised him.
I’ll try not to spoil too much but it’s safe to say that Red Dead Redemption 2’s story exists in parallel with the original game. The plot might be longer, the world more vital and lively and the characters feel like people but it follows a similar path right down to its falsely hopeful epilogue.
Red Dead Redemption 2 feels as real as a game set in the mythologised Wild West can feel. Your horse will trip when it runs into a rock sending Arthur flying. A second pull on the trigger is required to cock your revolver or eject a spent casing. Arthur realistically skins the animals he kills in a lurid, graphic display of butchery. It is a slow, methodical game full of rituals that improve Arthur’s skills and attributes that also add to the game’s immersion. And yet these actions such as shaving, washing or eating are futile.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a beautiful, deep and intricate game but it is still a game. It is not the epoch shattering achievement many built it up to be but it is a fine swansong for this generation nonetheless. But what makes it special is not its sweeping vistas or moonlit raids but its rituals. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game steeped in the rituals of every day life.
You must wash, shave and cut your hair in order to be considered acceptable in civilisation. Running for an extended period of time will leave Arthur or his horse exhausted and unable to continue. So Arthur must rest and eat. He must hunt and fish and gather in order to eat.
The things we do in real life as maintenance often feel like, at worst, chores or, at best, a necessity. Bu they become new and more enjoyable in Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s fun to take Arthur to a barber and have his beard and hair sculpted so that he looks like Chris Pine in Hell or High Water. It’s satisfying to sink an arrow into a leaping deer and bring it down before enjoying the fruits – or meat really – of your labour at a campfire. Other things like cleaning Arthur’s guns or his horse or Arthur himself feel satisfying in a workmanlike way. And yet still it is all futile.
Warning: Major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 begin below.
About halfway through the game Arthur gets sick and he only gets sicker as the game goes on. No amount of herb gathering, recipe crafting or sleeping will make Arthur well again. I watched as the man I had built into a caring, hardy gunslinger wasted away before my eyes. I hoped Arthur would survive. I did everything I could to make sure he was as well as he could be. I fed him constantly, I made him sleep eight hours a night, hell I even checked in with characters in my camp and further away to see if there was a cure I was missing. I wasn’t and Arthur continued to die.
Despite my hopes for a happy ending I initiated damage control. I shepherded him down a good path, as good a path as an outlaw can walk at least. I gave money to beggars, helped out a monk in Saint Denis, forgave the gang’s last few debts and rescued the wife and son of the man Arthur had contracted Tuberculosis off. I even helped a tribe of Native Americans fight the US Army. A futile gesture but a worthy one.
In the end all I chose was the manner of Arthur’s death. In hindsight I am at least satisfied with that. He passed away a good man, satisfied that his few friends would live peaceful happy lives. He died dreaming of that rural utopia he so often thought of; the one Dutch had promised him so many years ago.
Arthur, at least, died happy. I had to live with knowing the future and I believe that was always the writers’ intention. Red Dead Redemption 2 ends in the year 1907 about four years before the events of Red Dead Redemption. In the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption 2 you play as John Marston as he builds a new life with Abigail and Jack. A life he hopes will satisfy himself and his wife and give his son a future. The future is full of hope for this little ranching family but it is a futile one.
Still in the cruel, brutal world of Red Dead Redemption 2 hope is often all we have. It’s worth clinging to and it’s worth hoping for a better tomorrow. Jack Marston avenges his father’s death in the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption possibly setting him down the same path as his father. But isn’t it worth hoping for a better future for Jack especially considering the futility of this one winding, callous and warm story? Still hope and futility will always remain entwined in Red Dead Redemption’s stories. As a great man once said: “We can’t always fight nature. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothin’.”