#584: Red Dead Redemption II

More than Grand Theft Horsie, more than a cowboy simulator, it might be Rockstar’s greatest game

june gloom
8 min readMay 14, 2024

Initial release: October 26, 2018
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, XBox One
Developer: Rockstar Games

Rockstar Games has long cultivated a reputation for expansive open-world games and a cultural pushing of the envelope. Their Grand Theft Auto series frequently courts controversy in the video game violence (and sex) debate arena. Manhunt and especially Manhunt 2 stirred up a shitstorm with their extreme (by mid-00s standards) violence. But Red Dead is different. With its roots in a Capcom-led cowboy action game, Rockstar struck out on a different trail with their western series, and nowhere is that more clear than with Red Dead Redemption II.

Released a few years after Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption II wears its iterative mechanical innovations over previous Rockstar games on its sleeve; the core gameplay loop is something like a cowboy simulator, where you’re generally expected to fall into a routine of sleeping, eating, and doing activities for the camp of outlaws that you’re a part of, such as hunting and fishing and running jobs. Eat food to gain strength; feed and brush your horse, and give her all the pats and encouragement to increase her bond with you. You’re limited to two long weapons and two handguns, rather than the weapon wheel of old, though you can store your whole arsenal on your horse and swap as needed if you really want to. Hunting is realistic, with you following animal tracks to find your prey; perhaps too realistic, if you do it wrong and don’t get a clean kill, the animal suffers quite realistically in a way that can be pretty darn upsetting. (I won’t lie, I’ve reloaded an old save just to undo my hunting fails.) Shoot someone in a not-immediately-fatal manner and they just might bleed out. Your horses are realistically modeled too — Rockstar made a big deal out of how horse balls shrink in the cold, but they didn’t mention how horses will just shit everywhere (and if you tie someone up and throw them behind a horse, they will react to being pooped on realistically as well.) A fully functioning morality system determines a lot of how the game progresses; do good things to raise your honor, and get discounts in shops and pleasant encounters on the street. Do evil things, and expect to miss out on some missions and have more negative interactions with people, even in cutscenes, as the protagonist’s attitude changes. You can greet people on the street, have friendly interactions with strangers, or you can abuse and berate everyone, even your fellow gang members (including a four year old boy!) Every decision you make might have some bearing on your honor level, and where your honor is at plays a big role in how the game ends.

But I’m not really here to talk about the game’s triumph as an “immersive sim” with “emergent gameplay.” Let’s put aside the buzzwords and talk about what Red Dead Redemption II really is: a tale of a complicated man at the precipice of a future that doesn’t want him.

We begin in early 1899; America is in the grip of a brutal winter, and trudging through the mountain snow in the night is a group of people: men, women, a child. They are on the run from the law, following a robbery gone wrong in the southern city of Blackwater. The group is collectively called the Van Der Linde Gang, named for its founder Dutch Van Der Linde, who as outlaws go is more of a spiritual leader than a violent gangster. He takes in the unfortunate and the downtrodden, the people who struggle to fit in, and as such his gang is more of a hippie commune, consisting of people from all walks of life: prostitutes, actors, immigrants, failed veterans, the list goes on. Ethnicity is no object, gender neither — so long as you can contribute to the gang in some way, you’re in. Even if you’re a defector from the hated O’Driscoll Gang, if you can show that you have value to the gang they will welcome you into the family with cautious, but open arms.

One of the leading members of the gang is Arthur Morgan, a tall, rugged hunk of a man with a complex personality and a growing sense that things are starting to slip from the gang’s grasp. As the player character of the game, you have the opportunity to shape what kind of man he is: a good-hearted man caught up in a violent world who only does what he must, or a hateful, bitter misanthrope prone to mayhem. To him, loyalty is everything; he is a true believer in Dutch’s stated ideals, even as he grows increasingly concerned that Dutch might no longer believe in those same ideals, if he ever did.

As the gang moves from place to place, constantly dogged by the Pinkertons and the O’Driscolls, the overall feeling is that they’ve been cursed — or, perhaps, that there’s a rat. Lingering questions about what happened at the Blackwater robbery — such as Dutch’s random, uncharacteristic murder of a young woman — continue to eat at Arthur. And when he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis — which he contracted beating up a man who owed the gang money, a job Arthur hated but the gang’s accountant only trusted him to do — he begins to seriously reconsider the path he’s taken in life.

Arthur is a conflicted, complex character. A low honor version is bitter and untrusting, a violent monster who feels trapped in a shrinking cage as progress slowly erodes what’s left of the Old West. A high honor one knows that the era that created people like him is coming to an end, and is just looking for a dignified exit. I played him with high honor and the Arthur I knew was kind and curious, a thoughtful man who despised racists, supported women’s suffrage, and appreciated music and art and writing (he kept a journal and would sketch things he’d seen into it,) who gladly helped everyone he met no matter how strange they were or how ridiculous their problem was, and yet continually refused to believe he was a good person, while everyone around him told him how good he is inside. He thinks so little of himself that he degrades himself in the mirror (despite being an absurdly handsome man, even when the tuberculosis takes away his looks) and when you buy him fancy new clothes in the big city of St. Denis (a thinly-veiled knockoff of New Orleans) he sometimes says “I feel… almost human.” He might be the most heartbreaking video game protagonist I’ve ever played, because how many of us have felt the same way about ourselves?

I spent three months playing Red Dead Redemption II and when Arthur reached the end of his tale I felt like I was grieving a friend. I have never cried over a video game as much as I have over this one. Even writing this is making the waterworks want to start flowing. Even with the lengthy epilogue where John Marston, hero of the previous game, takes over to bridge the gap between II, which is a prequel, and the original Red Dead Redemption, there’s still a sense of deep sadness; though eight years have passed since the Van Der Linde gang disbanded, John is still broken up over what happened to the man who was his brother, and who wouldn’t be? What happens to John Marston in the previous game is tragic; what happens to Arthur is just brutally sad.

And perhaps that’s the cold reality of this cruel, cruel world; it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live, if you’re a ride-or-die romantic outlaw or just a hapless townie trying to eke out a living in the hardscrabble wild country, death and misery are always just around the corner. What matters is what you do in the life you have left.

Red Dead Redemption II is a game that is beautiful on every level. Even beyond just how gorgeous it looks graphically, it feels alive in important ways, the way life just goes on at the camp and in the towns whether you’re there or not. The way the clouds roll in over the mountains and the wind blows the grass. The way the sun shines through the trees down at the old plantation. The way the music always seems to be on point, from the bittersweet strings of the open plains to the unsettling drone of the dark corners of the world, ghost towns and ruined farms and cult compounds full of mouldering skeletons. The way there is always a sense of something darker beneath the surface — serial killers, aliens, monsters lurking in the dark, forests teeming with men nearly feral with evil. The way you can just sit and watch animals go by, or go fishing by the river, or greet every traveler you pass on the trail. The way you can visit the graves of all your dead friends.

There aren’t very many western-themed games out there. Certainly there’s a few, but they’re all too often straightforward action games. Sometimes you can find a more traditional story in odder places like Fallout New Vegas and Wild Arms, but pure, “classic”-style westerns, set in the actual Old West, are harder to find. Red Dead Redemption II and its predecessor might be the only games of their kind, but we are a richer world for them.

-june❤

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]