Morgan, Marston and Me
(Spoiler Alert: I’ll be candidly discussing the game in its entirety, assuming that my readers have completed both the main story and the epilogue.)
Here’s the situation.
I never considered myself a “real” gamer…or anything even remotely close to that title. Those guys were hardcore: they knew things about the gaming world I couldn’t even hope to learn. They were all “up up, down down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start” and I occasionally prodded the latest LEGO reimagining of a beloved movie franchise.
My first obsessive gaming experience was in a basement apartment with a little Bethesda beauty called Skyrim, but that’s a story for another show.
Anyone who knows me knows this — I want to talk about Red Dead Redemption 2.
All the time.
Because it was, and still is, weird to me. Wonderfully complex and exceedingly brilliant…but weird. Rockstar — with a few exceptions — is the world’s greatest purveyor of shooting gallery games. We point, we pull triggers, we stack bodies. Rival outlaws, gangs and cannon fodder “bad guys” pop up from behind barriers, from around trees, from police helicopters — they might as well be tin ducks on a chain that we paid a carny fifteen bucks to shoot with a BB gun.
And we love it.
We can’t get enough.
In barely twenty years and with 33 games, some more groundbreaking than others (looking at you, Rockstar Presents Table Tennis), Rockstar became a company worth billions, with a “B”.
I’ve played two. Not many and not nearly enough, I grant, but hey — life is long.
What I know about the Red Dead franchise so far:
Born in May of 2004 was Red Dead Revolver — a game following gunslinging bounty hunter Red Harlow through the rough-and-tumble fictionalized American frontier in the 1880s. It’s a story of betrayal and revenge, and worldwide reception was a bit of mixed bag. Red Dead Revolver is however listed in the video game reference book 1001 Games to Play Before You Die, and thankfully, I’m not dead yet.
Jump forward six years to spring of 2010 — Red Dead Redemption has just been released, and the public’s collective mind is rightly blown. This installment of the Red Dead franchise takes John Marston, ex-outlaw-turned-rancher, and puts him under the thumb of Pinkerton Detective Agent Edgar Ross in the year 1911. To secure the release of his wife and son, John is forced to scour the fictionalized American southwest — and parts of Mexico — to hunt down the last of his old gang in the ever-shrinking frontier. Long story short: almost murder, maybe murder, definitely murder, not quite murder, super-duper murder, revenge murder.
What’s not to like?
Eight more years. October of 2018. Rockstar hits us with Red Dead Redemption 2, and the following March, I snagged it.
My first interaction ever with the Red Dead franchise.
And while maybe that isn’t ideal to most die-hard Red Dead fans, having not played the first game granted me a rare gift. It allowed me to approach Red Dead Redemption 2 in a wholly unique way.
No context, no spoilers, no idea what was coming around every corner. I knew John Marston made it, but…that was it.
So the moment I took control of Arthur Morgan — the gruff, sarcastic, morally complicated protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2 — I was intrigued.
Perhaps “intrigued” isn’t strong enough…obsessed might be more apt.
600 hours later, there’s little else in the world that has captivated me so completely or made me feel so many things. At the same time, several stories I fell in love with came to an end: The Avengers, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Silicon Valley, among others…but I maintain, firmly, that not one of them moved me the way Red Dead Redemption 2 did.
And it’s a video game.
My mother is incredibly disappointed, believe me.
For someone who knew very little — and cared very little — about the world of video games, it was odd to suddenly be enraptured. How did Rockstar take the “tin-duck-BB-gun” carnival game format, drop some story in the middle, and take over my life?
I had to know. I had to understand. What was it about this game that caused me to happily sign over in the ballpark of a hundred gigabytes of storage, as well as literal weeks of my existence…and still want to give it so many more? How did they make characters that I cared about, and wanted to know intimately? How did they involve me in genuine internal conflict and subject me to real, gasping-out-loud shock and betrayal at the hands of Dutch Van der Linde?
Rockstar has a recipe, but what was it? Reverse-engineering that recipe was going to prove invaluable for any doofus who might be trying pen the next “great American novel ™”.
Being that doofus, I wanted to know how to move people.
Who could blame me? Red Dead Redemption 2 is beautiful. We’ve all seen it — the warm, inviting countryside on a sun-soaked evening…fresh, fragrant, dewy mornings; swamps and deep-south heat so realistic and haunting you can feel the humidity cling to your skin; frigid mountaintops with the crunch of snow and cold blasts of air that burn the throat and sting the cheeks. Everything about the immersive, glorious setting of Red Dead Redemption 2 is painstakingly, perfectly crafted. The player is transported instantly at the push of a button, so much so you can almost smell the grass or the oncoming rain.
A rugged, handsome, square-jawed cowboy protagonist doesn’t hurt, either.
But pretty don’t pay the bills.
No, the facets of the stunning gem that was Red Dead Redemption’s realism weren’t in the visual. While I found the imagery pleasing, what I found particularly compelling was infinitely deeper than that. Now, the more I play, the more intense detail I discover, and there I go right back down the rabbit hole again.
First up: choices, honor, the art of curating our own destiny.
The argument could be made that life — the crux of what it is and what it means — is the freedom of choice. Your existence is proven by the impact you have on the world around you. Even in small ways, your choices have changed reality.
The same is true in Red Dead Redemption 2, by design. For Arthur Morgan and John Marston to be able to interact with every NPC allows the player to leave lasting impressions within a realistically-built world. Between the two leading men, we see a span of eight years — 1899 to 1907 — and the results, both good and bad of the player’s interactions. From railroad camps and stranded widows to lonely losers in every corner of the map, the player’s interactions matter.
Even the incentives of living honorably are realistic. We can’t escape death by being a good person, and neither can Arthur Morgan — but we can try to go out on our terms, with the chips falling just ever so slightly in our favor. Rockstar created a story that allows the player to explore an entire tragic life cut short and redeemed by choices both good and bad, while being not-so-subtly reminded of our place in a big world that will eventually forget us without a trace if we let it.
Secondly, the web.
I’ve been writing for a long time, and one of the most important things I’ve discovered was “the web”. To create the most realistic relationships and world possible, supporting characters and main characters should not live on separate planes of existence. In life, our supporting characters — friends, family, coworkers, so on — are as complex as we are. They exist and interact without our permission and involvement. Do me a favor — the next time you play Red Dead Redemption 2, sit by the fire, take in the view, and just…listen.
The Van der Linde gang members intermingle with each other regularly, revealing tidbits about their personalities, relationships and complex pasts. Did you pick up on the heated arguments between Dutch and Molly regarding Mary Beth? Probably. Molly isn’t exactly shy about it. What about Hosea’s surprising and sudden aggression towards a drunken Bill? Charles knocking Micah on his ass? Karen and Sean’s romance? Lenny discussing literature? Many storymakers make the fatal mistake of creating secondary characters who are diverse as the day is long, but only exist when they interact with the main character — most of them could often be replaced with a potted plant with no change to the story.
Not so in Red Dead Redemption 2 — a finely crafted web of conflict and intrigue that exists independently of Arthur and John’s involvement. The hundreds, if not thousands of lines of dialogue, chance encounters and heartwarming moments make the Van der Linde gang a very real family we’re happy to be part of…and heartbroken to see fall apart.
Lastly, the painful realism of Arthur Morgan’s moral complexity.
The entire story arc of our protagonist is a journey of self-discovery and understanding — something we as humans experience to some degree as we grow, both in age and wisdom. Watching Arthur struggle with his reality, actions, morality, shame, and other complicated emotions resonates with most people because his struggle is quintessentially human. We can watch it play out in real-time throughout the game, as well as in Arthur’s journal: Arthur writes in a raw and honest way about his experiences. About loss, about the gradual mental failing of someone he holds dear, about loyalty, trust and priorities. Strauss’s loansharking repulses him; Dutch’s decline frightens him; Hosea’s violent death shatters him; John’s attitude toward his son bothers him.
No matter what the player chooses, the realities of Arthur’s constant turmoil are recorded in detail (and really should be read every few in-game days, it is fascinating). Creating a playable protagonist that experiences what we experience — fear and heartbreak and vulnerability — makes him accessible. Relatable.
I can resonate with the part of Arthur Morgan that loses a father figure; the part that is betrayed by feeble minds and huge egos; the parts of Arthur’s journey where he would push to the last breath for those he loved; the way Arthur’s entire being recoils when someone calls him a good man.
Arthur is created specifically for us to find something in the flawed, stressed, exhausted, wholly human creature to hold onto. We get him, love him, and feel his pain because in some way, we are him. No, we didn’t contract tuberculosis beating a mustachioed do-gooder to death — hopefully — but we’ve seen narcissists turn on us. We’ve felt like terrible people when the rest of the world tells us there’s good in there somewhere. We’ve had to say goodbye to the comfortable and familiar to embrace the terrifying unknown.
Rockstar took what makes us human and created a hero just flawed enough to be reflections of us: just endearing enough to root for, just complex enough to keep us intrigued to the very last second, and just lovable enough to keep us coming back for more.
And we happily will.
Until next time, cowpokes.