I don’t really write about games, leaving that to The Subtext. With that in mind, I am not really all that sure when I should be saying SPOILERS. After all, the game has been out for many months now and surely the necessity for spoiler alerts is gone? If not – you have been warned!
My Relationship with Red Dead Redemption
Like most guys, I have been playing video games all my life. One of the games I played growing up was a Neversoft (makers of Tony Hawk Pro Skater series) title called Gun. At its time, Gun was a pioneer in video games, bringing a big open (sandbox) Wild West to life and being far superior to Red Dead Redemption’s own predecessor Red Dead Revolver.
In fact, so bad was Red Dead Revolver that I was a little reluctant to buy Red Dead Redemption when it came out. But, buy it I did, mainly because I yearned for a next gen version of the magic that Gun had captured on the PS2.
Red Dead Redemption was bought because I was a fan of cowboy games, not bought because I was a fan of Grand Theft Auto games. I suspect most of the Red Dead fanbase stems from the GTA fan group. I never really got into Grand Theft Auto, the repetition of the missions and the hackneyed story-lines just didn’t whet my appetite. On this last point, San Andreas did keep me playing longer than other instalments, I just didn’t feel the fizz everyone else seemed to be feeling.
In my opinion, Red Dead Redemption is where Rockstar found its home. The mechanics and gameplay of Grand Theft Auto were too clunky in a fast-paced urban environment but seamlessly blended into a more relaxed Wild West game. Throw in some gorgeous scenery and the ability to mount up and ride out and hunt some deer and I was sold very quickly.
Red Dead Redemption – The Ending
I spent weeks, if not months playing Red Dead Redemption. Completing side missions and thoroughly enjoying the game. Immersing myself in the world of John Marston and vicariously living out the life of a cowboy. I was in my element.
Nearing the end of the game I was keen to complete what seemed to be the last few missions. I had killed Bill, Javier and Dutch and I was now back reunited with my wife and boy, living a simple life on the Marston farm. What’s more, I was enjoying the farm life, herding cattle (something that isn’t featured as heavily in RD2 sadly) and completing tasks gave me a true sense of satisfaction.
John Marston had lived a hard life and he had made some bad choices, but, now he had cleared the slate and redeemed himself. Yes, this redemption was sweet!
Then came the fateful mission where Rockstar stole the joy from my life and in one swift and cruel swoop killed John Marston. Marston who I had grown to love. Marston who I had cultivated and personalised and who I had watched grow.
I remember how hard that hit me. I wasn’t used to having the main character die. Sure, I had sad moments where side characters had died in other games (Maria and Dom, Gears of War) but I hadn’t ever played an open world game where the character died. After all, how could a player continue playing if the avatar they were using no longer existed.
I felt grief and I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. All I had worked for, all I had built, was for nothing. It was a cynical ending, one played for easy reactions rather than because it fit the story. So silly was the arc of dying that when you play on as Jack you are tasked with killing those that killed John continuing the cycle of bloodshed. If it was a redemptive death then the cycle should have been broken with his death.
As you can tell, I am still angry, bitter and contemptuous of the ending that Red Dead Redemption gave me.
Enter Red Dead Redemption Two
RDR2 was many years in the making and upon release I wasn’t overly keen on playing it from a story perspective. The gameplay was supposed to be gorgeous though and it would feature John Marston (although not playable, or so I thought at the time).
Regardless, I bought it and I played it. My observations were;
Arthur Morgan is everything that John Marston isn’t.
Morgan is a philosopher, a thinker and a very typical heroic character. He contrasts with the ambiguity of Marston who was more akin to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Marston is an antihero, the good plays out in spite of him and though his actions are ultimately good, his character is driven by self-preservation.
Arthur Morgan on the other hand has all of the trappings of a Disney prince, dressed up to look like a cowboy but underneath it all is a man who cares. With the onset of his terminal (yawn, Red Dead killing another main character) illness it goes without saying that he can’t be about self-preservation in the way that Marston is.
Overcoming Red Dead Redemption
From a writing perspective, the creative team had a big task to try and work a narrative around a character (Marston) that everyone loved with a character that everyone is supposed to love (Morgan).
In the end it wasn’t a storytelling masterpiece. There were plenty of cues in the gameplay where I was acutely aware, I should be bonding with Morgan more. Little nods to the storyline or quiet moments where as a player I should be aligning myself with the fate of my new hero. Not wanting to do the game a disservice, I found myself forcing the matter, willing myself to feel the things the writers wanted me to.
There are little tell tale signs and even with the doctor’s diagnosis, many players might be inclined to think that Arthur could survive or wrap things up to retire somewhere warm. I knew that TB was a terminal prognosis though so from that point (and I suspect a good deal of people also knew) I knew Morgan was going to die.
At first that seemed cheap. Rockstar hadn’t even come up with a different ending?
Then I got to thinking, well if Arthur is going to die… then I will have to play as someone else… looking at the options of playable characters it became clear the obvious choice was Marston.
I Couldn’t Wait to Get Arthur’s Death Over With
Izzy (who contributes with plenty of her own blogs on Immortal Wordsmith) absolutely fell in love with Arthur Morgan. She doesn’t hold the same opinion about RDR2’s end as I do and she liked it. Happy to immerse herself in the world that was presented and not wonder at other things she is very much at ease with RDR2.
She was also at ease with the ending of RDR1 and knowing Izzy, Marston is probably not the embodiment of a character she would be drawn to, whereas Arthur’s kindness is.
The reason I mention Izzy is that I bet that even if you loved Arthur or if you’re not wholly concerned about Arthur, you will still be wanting to get his death done and dusted.
That’s a real big problem for the game, made infinitely worse that Arthur becomes almost corpse like as the game progresses and players must have yearned as I did for a healthy avatar to once more enjoy the scenery with.
Now the writers had created a game with hours of gameplay left that players would feel compelled to rush through to get to the death. RDR2 was no longer about immersing yourself in the amazing world that had been created (RDR2 strongest feature) and had become about rushing to finish a storyline that had evidently either not been wholly thought out or had been rushed itself.
How Arthur Dies
I am aware that there are four ways in which Arthur can die or four scenarios. I played through the most honourable version and in all honesty having done that, I can’t imagine a way in which playing it any other way would do service to the actual character of Arthur.
The story ends with Arthur doing countless missions trying to redeem himself and absolve himself of his evils by helping those he has wronged and helping everyone else besides. Marston’s redemption is/was as ambiguous as Marston himself; Arthur’s redemption is shoved down your throat harder than the medicine Rains Fall whips up.
There are countless ways I would have preferred to have killed Arthur. Even going as far as a bleak and realistic death out on the side of some dirt track in a pool of coughed up blood. All of them would have felt more authentic and less contrived than the real oddball final mission.
Silly Final Mission as Arthur Morgan
Arthur dies saving John (but doesn’t actually do much if anything to save John, apart from delay him by having a moment as his horse dies…) who he has just given his hat to (for me this was a really nice touch, alongside the aforementioned horse farewell as it was in keeping with Arthur’s character).
During this mission they climb a summit which presumably is not an easy place for John to escape from especially as it looks like the Pinkerton forces have surrounded them. That in itself is the first silly point. I haven’t yet played the epilogue missions (though I am looking forward to being John again) and I hope these go some way into explaining how John got off a mountain that was surrounded.
Not only are the Pinkertons after them, but they’re also looking to catch and kill the main man Dutch. Afterall that is the overall arc of the entire narrative? Arthur and John are Dutch’s best gunmen and this is referenced throughout both games – Arthur and John are struggling to hold off the Pinkertons. Logic would have it then that Dutch is either caught, dead or by some blind chance managed to escape early on and high tail it like the coward he is and has been shown to be at numerous points in both games…
…nope. Stretching credulity beyond breaking point, in the midst of all of this, Dutch is actually evading the Pinkertons while hunting Arthur and John himself.
This whole mission is just dumb – contrived to put Arthur, Micah and Dutch together one last time on their own before he died but after he had passed the mantle to John. No matter how plausible the whole thing is. After all of this manoeuvring, the death itself felt dull and empty. Sure, it looked nice and the graphics were awesome, but there was no substance behind it.
Red Dead Redemption Two Reaction
RDR2 is a visually fantastic game that has lost a bit of the charm and innocence that RDR1 had (remember the herding cattle etc) and it has lost the sting from its storytelling department.
Flashpoints in games should really pop profoundly with the player and should do so organically. I don’t know how many times I genuinely felt sad playing RDR2 but I do know I caught myself more than once feeling as though this is a moment I should feel sad.
There is talk among the community that RDR2 can’t use the same characters again and would have to create something new for a future instalment. I don’t think that is true necessarily, I think Red Dead Redemption 3 could easily have John Marston as a main character – hopefully it also has a team of talented writers crafting a story that would finally do John Marston justice and give the series the redemption it deserves.
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