It is 1899, and the Old West is riding off into a hazy, metaphorical sunset as the new prospects of the American Dream – iron gantries, warehouses, ladies’ parasols, and other accoutrements of colonial hubris – blight the horizon, gaudy pretensions to polite society a flimsy facade built upon broken treaties and broken backs.
This is no place for a man like Arthur Morgan. Cue rattlesnake sound effects.
Our protagonist is a member of notorious rogue Dutch van der Linde’s gang. Or, perhaps more properly, a cult – because despite his claims of idealism and righteous anti-establishment liberties, Dutch is a narcissistic asshole who preaches sophistry and schemes to serve his own ends. “One more job,” he tells them, but there’s always one more after that. “Faith and loyalty,” he insists, until the same is required of him. He embodies the reckless greed, the hypocrisy and the treason, of frontier vanity, his vagabond disciples held ransom to his ego as he promises salvation.
“Your faith and loyalty,” he asks. “And one more job.”
But maybe Arthur has other plans.
In the meantime, though, kill some badgers. Hijack a stagecoach. Go fishing, play some poker, or courier secret love letters between the son and daughter of two feuding families. Tame a magical pony. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2, much like the one of the post-Reconstruction era on which it’s based, is one of opportunity, a spacious landscape extending from snow-swept crags to sun-scorched mesas, between prairies and woodlands, spanning murky swamps and breezy meadows, farms and towns and dusty wastelands, populated by an equally diverse cast of NPCs – farmers and traders, barbers and doctors, homicidal hillbillies and this one creepy fetish guy who keeps turning up and asking me to suck snake venom out of his leg. It’s a stage of unprecedented proportions and evocative grandeur, itself an unfolding narrative of expectations and elusive realisations next to those of its ensemble cast, and an extraordinary sandbox that defines entirely new limits in its genre.
So it’s that much more frustrating that some of Red Dead Redemption 2’s mechanics are… questionable. Awkward button assignments and clumsy, imprecise controls undermine its otherwise impressive attempts at immersion, (un)supported by bizarre dissonances – you’ve got to eat to maintain a constantly diminishing reserve of stay-alive and keep-moving points, for example, but you don’t have to drink water or sleep. You can cram your satchel with cans of beans and boxes of biscuits and a 20-kilo trout, but for whatever reason, you’ve got to strap chickens onto your horse. It takes a lot of obscene groping to divest a dead body of its cash or wedding ring, but bullets just kind of teleport instantly into your pockets. This stuff is more or less routine for most hardcore survival simulation games, I suppose, but this isn’t exactly one of those, and besides, it’s not fun, it’s chores. You can use a mask to disguise your identity when committing crimes, but somehow, the law always knows who you are. The fast travel system only works one way, I keep losing my hat, and with, like, twenty other people in camp, why am I the errand boy who has to find food and cash for everybody, or else they complain? I’ve got more important stuff to do.
And you can dress it up with personal drama and plot exposition and a nice new waistcoat, but almost every mission is the same – go to this place, kill that person, everything inevitably goes wrong and we’re back where we started, except with more debt to the local authorities and an increasing sense of existential ennui – and you don’t ever have the option to tell Dutch that no, I’m not gonna, because this plan, like every other plan, fucking sucks.
While the main story is mostly a compelling mix of Rockstar’s conventional plot tropes – political and cultural subversion, moral ambiguity, and some equivocal sort of absolution through a series of tragic but necessary failures – it’s also derivative, predictable, and, even worse, fundamentally inconsistent. About a third of the way into it, for example, Arthur is appalled by Dutch’s casual murder of a woman – an ostensibly significant moment, as he starts to doubt his boss’s motivations. This is the same Arthur who’s murdered women, and men, and raccoons in every state, for no reason. What? Emotional conflict matters, but thoughts don’t count if you think murdering people is bad, but you murder people anyway. This inherent paradox weakens much of the second half of the game, and erodes real investment into Arthur’s development, and – sorry, not sorry – his redemption.