Warning: Heavy spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2. If you don't want to be spoiled do not read any further.
2010’s Red Dead Redemption was a game I played, beat, put away, and then never thought about again. While I enjoyed it and had fun with it, it did very little to pull me into the story. Of course, I was intrigued by the story of John Marston. He was an outlaw who was caught by the authorities and separated from his wife and son. There was an aura of mystery surrounding John, naturally. Who was he? What awful thing did he do? Why did Bill, his former cohort, shoot him outside of the fort’s walls? I didn’t get answers to any of these questions. What I got instead was a lot of talking in circles, and a lot of, “well, umm, gee, you know… that thing we did back then…” I wasn’t captivated by any of this. I cared more about the fate of Bonnie McFarlane than I did Abigail and young Jack Marston, to be honest.
Enter 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II, and a new protagonist, Arthur Morgan. Arthur is a self-admitted bad man. He runs with the Van Der Linde Gang in this prequel to the 2010 game. There are also a few familiar faces from the first game, Dutch, Bill Williamson, Uncle, and Javier Escuela. Later in the opening chapter we are reunited with a younger hardheaded John Marston, who has run out on his wife and young son twice at the start of the game. You are all part of this gang, which acts as more of a small community of liars, cheats, thieves, and killers.
In the beginning, Arthur Morgan is a blind follower of the seemingly wise and powerful Dutch Van Der Linde. As the game progresses, Arthur slowly sees Dutch for what he truly is, a charlatan who will use and manipulate just about anyone to get his way. It’s at this point that Arthur’s inner struggles reveal themselves. While both men are criminals and killers, Arthur has scruples about him, whereas Dutch is simply void of any kind of decency and is without doubt ethically and morally bankrupt. The biggest example of this happens later in the game, where Arthur watches in horror as Dutch strangles an old woman because he feels she is going to dime him out to the authorities.
Red Dead Redemption II earns its title as it is the redemption story of Arthur Morgan, and in a lot of ways, even John Marston. Arthur and John aren’t friends at first, but eventually they gain an understanding for each other, and Arthur begins to sympathize John’s plight, as he goes from still wanting to be a knucklehead to accepting his role as husband and father. Depending on how you play the game, Arthur’s ultimate sacrifice for John and Abigail is what makes him one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve ever seen in a video game.
At one point in the game, Arthur is working as a leg breaker for the gang’s loan shark. He roughs up a man, Mr. Downes, for non-payment. Downes and his family plead with Arthur exclaiming that he can’t work or pay any money because he’s come down with tuberculosis. Arthur leaves and then comes back later to collect money from Widow Downes after Mr. Downes has succumb to his illness. Sometime later, while Arthur is on his road to becoming a better man, he is diagnosed by a doctor, who says Arthur contracted the same disease as Mr. Downes. It’s at this moment that the game takes a turning point.
One thing this game is known for is its realism as a simulation. You must take baths, rest, eat to keep your weight up, etc. Once Arthur gets his diagnosis, he begins to lose weight. In fact, no matter how much you eat, Arthur still won’t gain much. He starts having random coughing fits. The whole thing hit me hard, since it was easy to see the changes this man was going through in his emotional and mental state. Arthur starts to believe that the TB diagnosis was karma finally catching up to him for all of his misdeeds. The quests he undertakes after this point is him trying to set his soul right before he dies. As we get closer and closer to the end of the game, his coughing has gotten worse, and his eyes become bloodshot. However, he keeps going, keeps trying to make a difference in the lives of others. He’s become closer with the Marston family, as they too share his sentiments regarding Dutch. After helping Sadie Adler get revenge on the O’Driscoll Gang, who murdered her husband and more than likely raped her, he makes her promise that no matter what happens to him she makes sure that John, Abigail, and Jack escape demented Dutch and the corrupted remnants of his gang.
I had a heavy heart playing the rest of these missions. Arthur Morgan and Red Dead Redemption II made me feel, something the previous game could not do. Each time Arthur helped someone, I felt as if I too was trying to redeem myself for my own sins. The part that pulled at my heartstrings the hardest is when Arthur tries to track down Widow Downes, who now prostitutes herself on the streets while her teenage son works the dangerous mines. While Arthur doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he does try to make amends for what he did to her and her family. She notices his coughing and asks if he’s doing this for karmic purposes. I truly believe he wasn’t; this was a thing that was weighing on him, and he felt real pain each time he’d stroll into a town and he’d see her working the streets. The whole scene begged the question of whether or not we do things because we feel we’d get a reward out of it, or if we’re truly being sincere in our kind acts.
There is a cut scene later where Arthur runs into a nun he helped out earlier, and she tells him that no matter what he did in the past, she has observed him being a good man by how he always tries to help people. It’s during this scene that Arthur comes to absolute terms with the reality that he is about to die. This cut scene brings up another interesting topic, is there redemption for someone who has lived a life full of bad deeds? This question has been asked time and time again through stories of death row inmates who devote the rest of their time on this earth to doing good.
The final stages of Red Dead Redemption II give us a good setting up point for the first game. In Arthur’s eyes, John Marston has redeemed himself and is ready to step up and be a husband to Abigail and a father to Jack. During a final shoot out with the U.S. Army (Arthur was helping out a Native American tribe that had gotten shafted by a crooked colonel and his regiment), Arthur’s horse gets gunned down. He says his tearful goodbyes to his faithful companion and thanks him. Arthur and John are running up a mountain being pursued by the regiment. When they reach the top Arthur hands John his satchel and hat and tells him to go be a family man and don’t look back. He fends off the army as John makes his escape. Arthur makes it through the night (after a brutal brawl with the game’s antagonist), but his illness gets the better of him on that mountaintop. He passes on just as the sun is rising over the horizon. We fade to white. I needed a moment. I needed time to process what just happened.
In other media, and video games, we’ll sometimes get a redemption story where the protagonist seems like they just do good deeds because of a significant other, or maybe simply to assuage their guilt. While on the surface that’s what it seems Arthur is doing, the further you look into him as a character, the more you’ll see that’s not the case. This is evident by his interactions with Mrs. Downes, as well as his treatment of his fiancé, Mary Linton, as early in the game she’d had enough of his behavior and tells him so. Arthur acts nonplussed about the ordeal, and it isn’t until the final act of the game where she returns his ring to him that he realizes what might have been if he had actually been flying right and had changed much earlier. Thankfully, the game gives us a second chance to find love with the same ring (I believe), when John proposes to Abigail properly on the boat ride in Blackwater.
I returned to the game a few days later. We’re greeted by John, Abigail and Jack having survived yet another ordeal in another town, where John had killed a man who was trying to rob him. The Marston family find themselves living on Pronghorn Ranch where John works as a hand for David Geddes. John sticks his neck out and shows his roughneck abilities when the ranch comes under attack by an opposing ranch looking to buy out the Geddes Family. John has it in his mind that this is part of his redemption story, while Abigail tries to get him to listen to reason, telling him that this is just him being hardheaded and putting his entire family in danger again. Also, that this wasn’t what she signed up for when she decided to go on the lam with John. John claims he owes it to Arthur to become this family man. In John’s mind, helping his family means doing away with evildoers when they appear.
After a series of unfortunate events, John starts to go down the path that Arthur laid out for him. He has second thoughts on whether he should let a man hang or spare his life. John, unlike Arthur, is doing this not only for the love of a woman, but also because he feels he owes Arthur. While it really hinges on the idea of doing good to be rewarded, I have to give John a pass because of what he had been through up until this point, and because he isn’t a manipulator like Dutch Van der Linde.
John Marston never came off to me as a man doing something good because of greed. His motivation seems to be just that, motivation. Perhaps he just needed the right push. Dutch, on the other hand, showed us countless times what his motivation for doing good deeds (like helping the Native Americans, the dueling families in the Grays and the Braithwaite, and to a degree Angelo Bronte) was. He does these things because he feels he can hoodwink these people and play them for suckers. This is also apparent when he uses the old gator wrangler because he can provide him with a boat for his siege on the mansion in Saint Denis. Even when these things blow up in his face, Dutch is right back at it misleading his own gang into working another angle, just one more, for him.
Granted, this all hinges upon how you want to play Arthur Morgan. You do good deeds, you get the good ending, dying on a mountaintop as the sun rises. If you’re completely evil, you get shot in the head and left for dead. However, I believe that a lot of morals in this game are going to be there no matter how you play it. This game helped me put John Marston into perspective. It made me feel for a character I didn’t even give a second thought to once upon a time. It gave me clarity when it came to the first game where John seemingly turns over a new leaf just so that the government agents can release his wife and son to him. I’m guessing this is why Rockstar decided to put in these epilogues into the Red Dead Redemption II. Because I honestly still had doubts about John until the meeting on the mountaintop. Now I want to play the first game with this newfound perspective.