Red Dead Redemption 2 and the rough ride to one of gaming’s greatest protagonists
I usually dislike the writing in Rockstar’s games. The combination of shrill, clownish caricatures and childish ‘everything sucks’ nihilism makes connecting with the story or characters impossible for me. And based on Red Dead Redemption 2’s first story trailer, which played up the idea of Arthur being a harsh and violent man, I was ready to dislike Arthur, too. I just accepted — as I do with many games — that the story and characters would be something I’d endure in order to enjoy the game’s beautiful open world.
To my surprise, by around halfway through the second chapter I found that I’d actually started to warm to many of the members of the Van der Linde gang (Hosea, Lenny, Sadie and Charles in particular). They were distinctive but, by Rockstar’s standards, uncharacteristically subtly drawn, and without the game needing to labour over their backstories I could understand why they had come to join Dutch’s gang of misfits and outcasts in a way that made the whole idea of the Van der Linde seem as credible as it is colourful. Arthur, however, remained something of a cypher. As a player character he occupies the same muddy space as a Geralt of Rivia (of the Witcher games) or an Alex Jensen (of the rebooted Deus Ex series). Which is to say that while the player will often have control over his dialogue options and moral choices, he is still very much a defined character, with a set history and personality. The Witcher games navigate this compromise with great skill, allowing the player to play Geralt as either decidedly cold-hearted and cynical, or as grudgingly compassionate, neither of which ever feels untrue to the character as he is broadly defined. Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, fails on this front, particularly towards the end of the game where the player is frequently offered a choice between two actions: one which is morally in keeping with Arthur’s redemptive arc; and one which seems to contradict it and therefore feels like the ‘wrong’ choice. Similarly, for all the effort that has gone towards the game’s ‘honor’ system, though which the overall morality of your choices (including your actions in the open world) are reflected via subtle alterations to Arthur’s dialogue in cutscenes, Rockstar again fail to fully square this element of player choice with their narrative — most egregiously in my play-through when my ‘100% honorable’ Arthur severely beat a terminally ill man over a minor debt. However, we later learn that it was through this encounter with the dying Mr. Downes that Arthur contracted tuberculosis, and I would ultimately argue that the way the game handles Arthur’s illness and character development in the chapters 5 and 6 makes Rockstar’s inconsistent approach to player choice somewhat forgivable.
When Arthur’s tuberculosis initially hits (many hours after a few tell-tale coughs crop up in cutscenes), it’s a grim and upsetting moment. Riding through Saint Denis, Arthur descends into a coughing fit, during which he just about manages to dismount his horse before collapsing in the street. A businesslike doctor goes through the motions of diagnosing Arthur, but you already know the news isn’t going to be good — if the illness wasn’t serious then why write it into the game? Arthur accepts the news with his customary dry humour and surly temperament, but Rockstar’s sublime facial animations betray the truth — he’s utterly crushed. Exiting the surgery, the game does a good job (for once!) of meshing its story with its open world elements, as Arthur’s appearance (until now, subject entirely to the whims of the player via some pretty in-depth hair and facial hair customisation) becomes haggard, and his stat cores more difficult to maintain.
However, the game naturally doesn’t allow its protagonist to simply descend into maudlin self-pity. In Arthur’s final conversation with Sister Calderon (or Reverend Swanson if you didn’t do the Sister Calderon side missions) there’s a great sadness in his reflections on his misspent life and his fear of what’s to come, but also a grasping towards a kind of understanding that he’s in a position to help leave a better world behind. A sense begins to develop that Arthur’s illness has, perversely, given him a new lease on life — an opportunity to re-examine his priorities and set his affairs in order before the gang fully implodes.
While Arthur is always more than just Dutch’s yes-man, it’s here that he begins to truly branch out beyond his designated role as the Van Der Linde gang’s muscle. He not only begins to work more openly against Dutch’s worst impulses (for example, by assisting Rains Fall in subverting Dutch’s manipulation of Eagle Flies), but becomes in many ways the anti-Dutch. While Dutch’s goals become ever more vague and nebulous (“one more job!”, “Cuba!”, “Tahiti!”), Arthur’s become clear for the first time in his life, as he finds himself striving to save not only his friends (with a particular focus on John, Abigail and Jack, in whom Arthur presumably sees a reflection of his murdered child and partner), but even relative strangers like the honourable Captain Monroe. While Dutch becomes more reclusive and paranoid, surrounding himself with yes-men at Beaver Hollow, Arthur’s defining social interactions in Chapters 5 and 6 take place away from the now-desolate camp, as he struggles to make amends with the Downes family and aids Charlotte, a widowed city woman living in the wilds. Arthur may be dying, but in these late-game missions and side-missions it feels as though he’s challenging himself and the world is opening up for him. Dutch, meanwhile, is stuck in a holding pattern, trapped by the rigidity of his ethos and the lies he’s told in order to maintain his position.
Perhaps most crucially, Arthur’s illness, epiphany and subsequent death allows him to subvert the central theme of both Red Dead Redemption games — the passing of the old west. Throughout chapters 1–4 the theme weighs heavily on the story, and we are given to assume that the conclusion of Arthur’s story will be intimately tied to it in a similar way to how John’s was in the first game. Indeed, of all the members of the Van der Linde gangs it is Arthur, with his deep drawl, broad chest and Marlborough man looks, who most poignantly embodies the cowboy myth. Yet unlike Dutch, who is effectively driven mad by the impending modern age, Arthur doesn’t die clinging on to a way of life that no longer exists. Given foreknowledge of his death and enough time to reflect he is able to see past that, and he dies instead as a man having fulfilled the greater purpose of saving John, Abigail and Jack. While Dutch sees people as a means to preserving the outlaw way of life, Arthur realises that it’s the people — not the way of life — that’s worth saving. When Dutch dies 12 years later it’s in similar circumstances to Arthur — at the edge of a cliff, beaten and betrayed by a former comrade. (Note: I’m assuming a high-honour play-through of Red Dead Redemption 2 here, as that seems to be the ‘canon’ choice and, well, that’s how I played.) Yet Dutch’s death is one of utter despair and hopelessness, whereas Arthur’s death is one of dignity and resolve, and one that branches beyond the game’s main historical themes to tell a more human, universal story.
Rockstar still have much work to do in marrying player choice to narrative in a satisfying and cohesive manner. (I could write a whole other article on how badly the game’s open world and story elements clash with one another — and I probably will.) But despite failing on this front they still managed to craft a story that stands head and shoulders above anything they’ve done previously and a protagonist who can be counted among the very best in gaming. I can’t wait to see what they do next.