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American Venom: 'Red Dead Redemption II' in Retrospect

Image Credit: Epic Games

Video games are a medium tarred in the cultural zeitgeist by an unfortunate brand of toxicity. Games, especially shooters, are often seen as thoughtless gore fests designed to satisfy the violent urges of Mountain Dew-drinking, sunshine-hating “gamer bros.” A few decades ago the idea that a game might be “art” or tear-inducing was foreign—especially in this traditionally macho genre. Indeed, Roger Ebert is famous for his flat-out denial of all video games as a potential art form as late as 2010, let alone a clichéed Western game à la Call of Juarez (a franchise known for archetypal violence). However, alongside the wider societal reckoning of traditional masculinity in the last three decades, contemporary game design has become much more complex than its hyper-male-oriented past. Nowadays, whoever you are, a good game from the right developer might have you reaching for the tissue box regardless of its genre. Rockstar Games’ 2018 magnum opus Red Dead Redemption II is a prime example of this evolution; this shooter’s plot depth, aesthetics, and story arc will make anyone well up with tears, and it is a welcome refresh of an overdone genre.

RDR II is a third-person Western open-world shooter, the follow-up to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, its expansive, though decidedly shallower predecessor. The Western genre itself, heavily clichéed since the early days of Hollywood, seems inextricably tied to aggressive masculinity. In contrast, RDR II carves out its own space as a meandering, slow-burning game within the typically fast-paced genre, more akin to Quentin Tarantino than Sergio Leone. Meandering is an understatement; the main story alone will take over 60 hours to complete, and finishing all the single-player content takes hundreds.


RDR II follows the story of the Van der Linde gang, a diverse group of outlaws on the run from the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the wake of a catastrophic 1899 robbery that left several members dead or captured. The game opens in media res as the gang gets caught in a blizzard during their desperate escape through the mountains. We meet the gang’s principal leaders: Dutch van der Linde, Hosea Matthews, and protagonist Arthur Morgan. Dutch is eccentric, charismatic, and anarchistic; a bonafide Robin Hood who wishes to steal from the rich and give to the poor, and the man who raised and educated Arthur and the other gang members from their teenage years. Hosea is his counterbalance: a conscious and wise seventy-something conman, loyal to Dutch but somewhat disillusioned with his idealism. At first glance, our protagonist Arthur is a stoic, strong-jawed gunslinger who is “more concerned with killing than thinking” and seems more archetypal than revolutionary within the Western genre. As players come to see, his evolution from this stereotypical, emotionless cowboy forms the backbone of RDR II’s depth and uniquity. The genius of Arthur’s charm is how he subverts the player’s expectations, not in one fell swoop but in a gradual character shift that reveals a deep, unexpected complexity in his personality. Initially, he doesn’t seem all that spectacular, but that’s precisely the developers’ goal.

As the gang escapes the mountains, the game mechanics of a traditional Western come into play. The map is a wide-ranging open-world vista of beautifully rendered Americana, ranging from great plains to bayous to forested hills. As Arthur, you can rob stagecoaches, trains, and banks; hunt big game; fish; and otherwise explore a faithfully built homage to the historical West. RDR II recreates and updates the traditional genre for modern audiences in its core game structure. However, the game’s soul and complexity lie in its story.

As the chapters progress, the gang is forced from place to place; they build roots in one town before they become too ambitious with their criminal deeds, get discovered, and are forced to flee the law to another part of the diverse map. However, with each successive uprooting, the claustrophobic sense of being “cornered” becomes all the more apparent. Once enamored with anarchist idealism and the idea of his gang as a moral utopia, Dutch makes increasingly desperate and irrational bids to keep the group ahead of the law and abandons the veneer of Robin Hood moralism. Throughout it all, he assures everyone that he still has a plan and has yet to play his final “move” to maintain the appearance of control amidst mounting failures. After an ambitious and ultimately disastrous bank robbery, his counterweight Hosea is killed and Dutch stands alone, without an influential voice of rationality to dissuade his ego. In the wake of these events, Arthur—his “son” and loyal deputy—finds it harder and harder to ignore Dutch’s megalomania. After he is diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis, Arthur finally feels the weight of his past immorality, sees through Dutch’s idealism, and senses the disastrous course the gang is on. His attempts to save the gang from inevitable doom, allow the women and children to flee, and prevent Dutch from acting on the irrationality of his ego in the pursuit of freedom all fall on deaf ears. As his sickness weakens his authority, malicious, selfish elements within the gang drown out Arthur’s clear-minded influence on Dutch. They commit an ambitious final train robbery against Arthur’s wishes, and the law finally catches up to what remains of the group in a desperate gunfight. In the end, Arthur sacrifices himself in a last act of redemption to save fellow gang member John Marston (the protagonist of the first game) and his family and give them a chance at a moral life.

The game’s epilogue takes a decidedly upbeat turn from the last gut-wrenching hours of the main story. We follow John Marston—who has become the new playable character—and his family, given a second chance to live honorably by Arthur, as they attempt to find their footing outside a life of crime. Throughout the epilogue, the context of John’s story in the first game is set up and given new emotional significance through Arthur’s sacrifice. The story arcs of several fellow gang members are completed, the Marston family finds peace, and the game ends with a satisfying revenge mission by John and his allies against those who brought down the gang and essentially killed Arthur.

If one weren’t crying at the beginning, they surely would be now. Arthur’s fait accompli sacrifice marks the pinnacle of the slow turn of this game from a faithful Western to a groundbreaking, genre-bending experience. The evolution of Arthur from an emotionless criminal to a morally conscious, self-sacrificing man, set against the backdrop of a faithfully recreated American West, is the game’s true genius. The clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys” of the traditional Western genre are absent here, and all that remains are questions. Does Arthur’s final redemption make up for a life of crime? Is the “law” a force for moral order, or do they merely maintain the hierarchy of those with and without power? Was Dutch’s anarchistic idealism ever valuable, or was it an expression of his egotism? What does it mean to be truly good? The game exists entirely in moral gray areas, asking questions but never giving an answer. It is up to the player, in between tissue boxes, to find their truth.

Between its aesthetic homage and contemporary emotional complexity, RDR II is a genre-defining title and a decisive break from the tired clichées of past Westerns. Arthur’s heart, profoundly empathetic nature, and moral reckoning are unique to the hypermasculine Clint Eastwood style. In addition, the use of a terminal illness as a plot device is uncommon in any video game genre. Its centrality in Arthur’s moral conversion is a novel and uniquely effective catalyst. One becomes attached to Arthur through the 60 hours of gameplay. As his health slowly deteriorates through the last third of the game, every cough reminds the player of the impending climax between the two conflicting forces of rationality and loyalty to the gang. However, it is not Arthur alone that makes this game worth its weight. The character evolution of Dutch also defies the expected standard. It is almost impossible to define him as a protagonist or an antagonist, and he exists somewhere in the vast gray expanse between those two labels. You see his magnanimous, charming, and intelligent side at times, and at other times his megalomania, cruelty, and irrationality. At different moments, his actions work both to help and harm the protagonist characters. Although he makes it seem like he is pulling the strings, the influence of others on his actions becomes increasingly apparent throughout the story. Ultimately, he is left as a broken –although not irredeemable– man. Dutch’s last line in the game, occurring during the dramatic climax of the epilogue, is a fitting summation of his arc from a charming Robin Hood mastermind to a broken, regretful man: “I ain’t got too much to say no more…”

RDR II is part of a broader shift in narrative game design towards complex, morally indiscernible topics. Naughty Dog’s acclaimed The Last of Us similarly engages the morality of masculinity, survivalism, and human connection in the neo-Western through its infamous narrative, and the popular HBO adaptation is expanding its audience today. Overused tropes often define the Western; it is seen as a predictable and comforting genre where certain events and aesthetics are expected, and there is little room for novelty. RDR II pours water on predictability through the uniquity of its plotline, deep emotional weight, and three-dimensional characters. There are guns, yes, and there is violence, but this game is not a mindless, hyper-masculinized gore-fest like the Westerns of yore. It is not a story of John Wayne saving a pretty-yet-helpless girl but rather a story of downfall, ego, redemption, and a man finding himself. This game asks many questions and gives no answers, but one thing is clear: if Roger Ebert had put down his remote and picked up a PS4 controller to play RDR II, he might’ve cried too. Regardless of if you’ve never played a video game before, there is something profoundly cinematic in this story’s living, breathing humanity that will make it moving for anyone. Even in the most stereotypically masculine genres, the shift in narrative design from violent male fantasy to complex, emotional morality –wrought by games like RDR II and The Last of Us– has considerably broadened the appeal of the oft-maligned video game.


James Weld is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics with a minor in French.


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