The Beautiful Tragedy of Red Dead Redemption

(Note: the first portion of this post will be spoiler-free. If you have not yet completed Red Dead Redemption 2, I suggest you do not read past the clearly marked SPOILER WARNING below.)

Like millions of people, I played Red Dead Redemption after it hit store shelves for PS3 back in 2010. Roaming the vibrant pseudo-Texan backdrop of the decreasingly wild West was an absolute blast. Like all good stories, Red Dead Redemption thoroughly transported me from my real world worries and captured me with its intriguing story and stunning level of detail. Full of activities, exciting locations, and colorful NPC’s, this game wasn’t content with streamlining me through to the end, but instead wanted me distracted and immersed. Plenty of games make stabs at doing this, but RDR upped the ante compared to contemporary games. By the time I was nearing the end of its sprawling, character-driven narrative it was clear Red Dead Redemption would be one of the most compelling games I would ever play.

I was not alone in these sentiments; RDR cleaned house at award shows and shipped astounding numbers of units across the world. When the first hints of a sequel started to spread all eyes fell on Rockstar, and when the first trailer dropped in late 2016 fans already knew they were in for a treat. Everything about Red Dead Redemption 2 that they released over the two years that followed only added to the heap of anticipation. Rockstar promised to take their golden formula and somehow make it even grander and more ambitious than its predecessor.

As the October 2018 release date approached, the hype grew exponentially; fans learned of a new protagonist, Arthur Morgan, and that the game would, in fact, be a prequel. As it turns out, it was with that beautiful maneuver and the immense quality of work that went into RDR2 that brings me to the purpose of this blog entry.

Beecher’s Hope, Red Dead Redemption 2

Good sequels and prequels, whether in film, print, game design, or other mediums, are hard to come by. When we find one, we are lucky if we get a better understanding of the original’s context or learn more about the lives of its characters. But the few truly great sequels enhance the themes and elevate the quality of the original. The sequel/prequel thus works not only as a worthy follow-up, but also as a sort of reflection that shows us a better version of the originating material without actually making any changes to that material in and of itself.

So when 2019’s Red Dead Redemption 2 managed to do exactly that to its own multiple award-winning, 2010 ‘Game of the Year’ predecessor, it truly achieved something great. RDR2 is masterpiece in that regard. Movies like The Dark Knight, or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, are fantastic sequels and better than their own prior installments, but neither of those movies truly impacted the essence and nature of the original in such a way that the original could be considered better on its own.

Perhaps RDR2 finds this success in the underlying nature of being a prequel instead of a sequel, but I struggle to find an example of a prequel that has pulled this off in quite the same way. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me might come close, but what it added to the show’s first and second (and now third) seasons is more supplemental versus trans-formative in nature. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant tried to do what RDR did, but the floundering and critical reception of those movies only go to prove how difficult a challenge this is. The only thing that I can honestly say has come close to mimicking RDR2’s success as a prequel, in my eyes, is the Star Wars saga movie, Rogue One. The entirety of that movie achieved the equally successful goals of being both entertaining and also of adding weight and bearing to Star Wars: A New Hope, which it did very well despite the latter having been released decades earlier.

Do not read past this point if you have any interest in keeping the events of Red Dead Redemption 2’s ending a mystery.

It was until the end of RDR2 that I realized the stroke of genius painted by one of its overarching themes: the perpetuation and cyclical nature of violence. There are many parts of RDR2 that work well, but it is this theme that melds with the game’s predecessor to create a unifying experience.

Taken in chronological order, RDR2 tells the story of how its protagonist, Arthur Morgan, begins to recognize the crumbling world he’s living in. The latter third of his arc centers on his falling-out with his mentor, Dutch, as he takes a long, hard look at the life he’s led and gradually determines to selflessly do whatever possible to give John Marston a chance at leading a better, honest life with his family. When he is ultimately successful and loses his life, his arc is closed, but his story continues. Through Arthur’s sacrifice and encouragement, the player picks up playing as John Marston. Marston struggles to leave the life of banditry behind him, but with the game’s end we see a version of him that we hope to see. It’s a seemingly semi-sweet ending, with John making honest efforts to let his boy Jack grow up in a civilized world free constant running and fighting his father experienced.

For any of us that played the original Red Dead Redemption, however, this ending for RDR2 is hardly even semi-sweet, but instead is downright tragic. Set several years later, RDR sees John Marston’s past catch up to him as the government threatens to kill his wife, Abigail, and son, Jack, if John doesn’t hunt down what remains of Dutch’s gang. These same federal agents who seek to bring an end to the lawlessness of the wild west themselves turn to ruthless and violent tactics in order to meet their end goals, which has the immediate affect of taking a dangerous bandit-turned-rancher out of retirement. As the player, every murder, theft, con, and dirty deed that John enacts throughout RDR is on the shoulders of federal agents holding his family hostage. When John’s own arc comes to an end and he is then gunned down on his ranch (the very symbol of a hopeful new beginning that John built with his bare hands and with honest money, we now know from RDR2) we could at least grasp why John deserved to die. He was not always a good man; redemption is not guaranteed for anyone, and the wrongs we commit have a price.

But that wasn’t the end of Red Dead Redemption, as it had its own epilogue, this time placing us in the shoes of John’s son, Jack Marston. It’s at this point that the sprawling theme of recurrent violence takes its tragic turn. Throughout RDR2 and the majority of RDR, Arthur Morgan and John Marston seek redemption in the form of giving someone they care about a chance at a better life. Arthur does what he does in the final acts of his story so that John, Abigail, and Jack can be free, and John continues this effort as an extension of Arthur’s will.

This context didn’t exist, however, in 2010. We knew that John Marston had a checkered past, but we didn’t know how much blood and sacrifice went into giving Jack a good life. So when Jack puts on his father’s hat, tracks down the federal agent responsible for his father’s death, and murders him it felt felt good, it felt like justice. And when I, as a player, continued as Jack in the sandbox of the not-so-very wild west, killing and robbing strangers, I couldn’t have possibly known how hard John worked so his son would never lead that life. It’s there, with those memories of playing extended hours in that epilogue, that RDR2 brings me incredible sadness at knowing that for all that Arthur and John did, they couldn’t keep the great wheel of violence from turning and passing the torch to whom surely won’t be its final bearer.

Jack Marston, revenge killer, Red Dead Redemption, 2010