Red Dead Redemption 2 and the love song of J. Arthur Morgan

, | Game reviews

Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of homespun wisdom, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

–with apologies to T.S. Eliot

The camp is celebrating because one of the gang members has returned, rescued from certain death. A night of carousing has begun. Mary-Beth asks Arthur to dance. He’s not much of a fella for dancing, he tells her. Oh, it’s okay, Arthur, she says, just ’cause you dance don’t mean you’re not still angry and sad.

Is that what you think of me? he asks good naturedly.

Sad in a good way, like a romantic poet.

Well, that’s about all I can muster, he drawls. They dance in the firelight to a merry accordion.

Before Arthur, there was Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. It’s no accident that Marston sounds like Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood and Justified. He has that same fiery demeanor. He would have that same devilish gleam in his eye if facial technology had been more advanced back in 2010. Fiery and devilish, scarred, brazen, and unshaven, Marston was perfectly suited for Rockstar’s exuberant videogame Western, a groundbreakingly broad open-world Old West with a thousand people who need shooting followed by one hell of a finale.

But before John Marston, there was Arthur Morgan. Since Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel, the first game looms large. Like Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad, it’s one thing as a standalone story. But it’s something else entirely if you’re watching it as a sequel, knowing where characters will end up, and more importantly where characters won’t end up. Better Call Saul is only partly about what happens to Jimmy; it’s also about why Chuck, Kim, and Varga aren’t in Breaking Bad.

The same dynamic drives Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s one thing as a story about Arthur. And a very fine thing, at that. But it’s something else entirely if you’re playing it as a sequel, knowing where characters will end up and where characters won’t end up. Scenes with John, Jack, and Abigail take on a wistful subtext. Bill, Javier, and Dutch will have boss fights to fulfill. But getting to know Arthur and some of the other folks is accompanied by a sense of dread. Why don’t I remember him or her from Red Dead Redemption?

As characters at the front and center, Marston and Arthur couldn’t be more different. Marston has no qualms with being in a videogame. He’s from a time before Rockstar struggled with how to write a character whose main mode of interaction is shooting people. They would eventually put this dissonance in the driver’s seat for Grand Theft Auto V. But in Red Dead Redemption, they just shrugged and let it ride because, hey, it’s a lawless frontier. So Marston has no qualms with shooting a thousand people. He’s full of piss and vinegar and rarin’ to go, willing and eager to do whatever it takes to get back to his family. He wipes out the last of the Old West’s outlaw gangs. Hell, he even kicks off the Mexican Revolution!

The closest Arthur comes to touching history is sitting in a crowded vaudeville hall and watching one of the first performances of “Hello Ma Baby.” He hoots enthusiastically if you press L2. When an inventor asks him to drive a new invention that presages radio, he tries to beg off. We’re playing a videogame, so we know he’s going to drive. But Arthur would just as soon let someone else do it. It’s not about him.

It’s easy to write a memorable psycho. Of course everyone is going to remember Trevor, Niko, and Marston. Brash big talkers playing fast and loose with firepower are staples of videogaming, and Rockstar does them like no one else. But a laconic cowboy who listens more than he talks, who watches quietly, who rarely takes the initiative, and who’s happy to let someone else be in charge? Arthur Morgan is the sidekick, a few short years from being the old coot. Gruff, avuncular, even muted. He’s a no-nonsense day-in-the-life uncomplicated cowboy. He has no delusions of grandeur or even romance.

“More of a jester than a gunslinger,” Dutch teases Arthur at one point. Dutch is being sarcastic. Arthur is mostly humorless and would make a terrible jester. Besides, the role of the jester was to mock the king’s folly to his face. That’s the last thing Arthur would do. He is the very picture of deference to authority. If he shoots a thousand people — and he does — it’s because he was told to do it. His only morality is loyalty. He is buffeted this way and that, sent on absurd missions and even more absurd heists, none of which are his doing, none of which are for his benefit. He does what Dutch tells him to do even if he suspects Dutch is wrong.

Rockstar includes an honor system similar to something you might see in a Bioware game. This lets you do a bit of an end run around playing a gleefully willing mass murderer. But ultimately, regardless of where you get that little cowboy icon on the honor spectrum, Arthur’s alignment is his loyalty to Dutch. And the question Red Dead Redemption 2 asks is what happens when you decide to care about people more than loyalty? Barring any sort of moral code — hello, secular philosophy in the modern age — what is your higher cause? The leader who is supposed to bring about the greater good, or the greater good itself? The person or the people? The means or the end? It’s not a question Marston ever pondered. He did it all for hearth and home, that easiest and most convenient of all motivations.

I don’t mean to imply there’s a lot of moralizing going on — the writing is far better than that — and this doesn’t even need to be a point about Trump and today’s Republican Party. I suspect most of this was written before the election, and it’s nothing unique to the political crisis in the United States. The central theme of Arthur’s story — do I do what Dutch says, or do I defy him if I think he’s wrong? — has been a fundamental ethical dilemma since the Holocaust. Rockstar builds their game around a character struggling with this dilemma, and what he eventually realizes.

And since we know how it’s going to end, Arthur’s life raises and arguably answers larger questions. Could it have been prevented? Is this just how videogames work? A lesser videogame would have opted out by giving you a choice. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel, so it couldn’t give you a choice even if it wanted. It’s as inevitable as mortality. Any doubts about loyalty have already been answered. You get to watch the result. Knives will be twisted by the time it’s over. Oh, how they’ll be twisted.

When Denis Villeneuve directed the sequel to Blade Runner, he had no interest in exploring whether Deckard was a replicant (the answer is dependant entirely on which version of the movie you’re watching) and the implications for what it means to be human. He wanted to use what you knew about Blade Runner as misdirection in a story that reveals it’s not always about you. Altruism necessarily means taking yourself out of the center of the world. It means letting others sit there instead. It means asking difficult questions and making even more difficult sacrifices. That’s not easy to explore in a videogame that’s always about you. In game worlds, you literally exist in a bubble in which you’re the center of all activity. But the audacity of Rockstar’s approach is that Arthur’s story is about others. And it’s not encouraging. Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately trafficks in despair and failure. It evokes the helplessness of not being at the center, and possibly not even mattering. The sickness unto death.

“There ain’t no shame in looking for a better world,” Arthur reassures another character. But he says it as someone who’s not sure whether there’s any shame in no longer looking. We see glimpses of how Arthur got here, but the story doesn’t dwell on it. Arthur isn’t given to monologues and his own journal is rarely about him. At the end of a heartbreaking confessional scene late in the game, Arthur admits he’s scared. It’s a fundamental fact about being human that videogames have no business recognizing.

I want to resist the tendency to call Arthur a “videogame character”. He doesn’t need the videogame qualifier. He deserves a place alongside Ethan in The Searchers, or the Judge in Blood Meridian, or William Munny in Unforgiven, for how he stands out as a landmark in the genre, breaking its rules to push back at what it means to be a Western, at what it means to the origins and foundations of our country. You don’t need to specify that he’s a videogame character any more than you need to explain that Ethan in The Searchers is a movie character. The medium isn’t the measure.

Oh, right, speaking of the medium. I meant to mention that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a superlative game. That’s almost beside the point, because of course it’s great. The resources required for a technical achievement of this breadth and detail must have been staggering. I’m sure the reviews will be glowing, lavishing praise on the graphics, animation, combat, horseback riding, gunplay, and the vibrant living quality of the open world. It’s all true. The inevitable praise is deserved.

But as a game, what I find most remarkable is how Rockstar willfully ignores the conventional wisdom about modern game design. There is no convenient fast travel to zip you around at your whim, geography be damned. You’ll only use a couple of weapons, and the gear upgrades are so minimal as to be almost meaningless. There’s not really much of an economy, and the cash sink drinks up its money and then moseys away. Character progression is limited and almost beside the point. You’re not earning experience points or leveling up skills or even unlocking new interlocking systems. In fact, the systems don’t seem concerned with each other. They’re just there to let you plink away at them if you’re so inclined. This affords Red Dead Redemption 2 exactly what most open worlds are afraid to afford: freedom to ignore them.

Instead of prodding you with gameplay incentives, Rockstar’s obsession with detail expects you to care, too. They expect you to care about the text in the catalog at the store, the meanderings of the various wildlife, the relationship between a cowboy and his horse, the gun oil you need to maintain your favorite pistol, the care it takes to kill an animal without destroying its pelt, the biscuits you eat by the campfire, chopping wood in the morning, whether to use your last tin of chewing tobacco, shaving before you visit a woman, putting on a warm coat because it’s colder up here, looking for wild mint to season your venison, whether to get a new varnish on your shotgun’s stock, finding where your durn hat fell after a shootout. These are the gameplay beats of Red Dead Redemption 2, which couldn’t care less about eliciting the Pavlovian responses that drive modern game design. This is no feedback loop. It’s a languid way-of-life sim with a few action set pieces. Imagine an arthouse movie with summer blockbuster production values, as if Terrence Malick had been given a Star Wars movie. Imagine if Ubisoft had made Gone Home. Like Arthur Morgan himself, Red Dead Redemption 2 is meditative, laconic, a slow burn, drawn out and unhurried, sometimes even morose, more concerned with characters than spectacle. Let us go then, it suggests.

It’s an admirable approach at such a tough time for great open-world games. First Far Cry 5, then Spider-Man, then Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, each a shining example of how to put gameplay into technically stunning and artistically impressive open worlds. Far Cry 5’s glorious bursts of pastoral chaos, Spider-Man’s thrilling combat and even more thrilling web-slinging traversal, and then Odyssey’s astonishing beauty and carefully latticeworked gameplay systems. I loved each one more than the last. But in the end, those delightful and skillfully engineered distractions are just videogames. Red Dead Redemption 2 is uninterested in that caveat.

 
 
 
 

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  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • Rating:

  • Playstation 4
  • Like Arthur Morgan himself, Red Dead Redemption 2 is meditative, laconic, a slow burn, drawn out and unhurried, sometimes even morose, more concerned with characters than spectacle.
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