Spoiler Warning: Please do not read the article if you haven’t finished the main story for Red Dead Redemption II. Spoilers follow.
Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, it’s something new.’
– Don Draper, Mad Men (“Love Among The Ruins”)
As much as I’d love to, we are not going to talk about Mad Men today. Instead, we are going to examine a vastly different piece of entertainment. An open-world western adventure video game that some have jokingly dubbed ‘cowboy depression simulator.’ A game that tackles changing times and the way people deal with it.
The Dawn of a New Era
By 1899, the age of gunslingers and outlaws was at an end.
Those are the first words the player sees upon starting Red Dead Redemption II. It is no secret what this game is going to be about. Among its many themes, a prominent one is change. The very fabric of a nation is being ripped apart, re-woven with industrial looms transported to factories in steam locomotives. 76 million people looking forward to automobiles, steam engines and electricity over horse-drawn carriages and lamps. A country heralded into a century where outlaws are not simply a source of fear but bring with them an air of nuisance.
Change, quite literally, is in the air. If you choose to complete them, certain side-missions have you assisting a scientist who is working on an electric chair, a humane way to carry out executions and a viable alternative to the much more drawn-out manner of hanging. Or you can help an inventor demonstrate a remote-controlled submarine that fires torpedoes to impress potential investors. However, it’s not just technological innovations at the forefront of the game. Look closely enough, and just below the surface, there’s discontent bubbling within society. Women wish to partake in voting and Native Americans are lobbying against violations of peace treaties. Some of the main story missions have you assisting with protests for both causes. You can also find women raising awareness in the city of Saint Denis.
Slowly but surely, the world is shifting towards accepting the ideals and values we take for granted today. There’s a long way to go, but you see the first, shaky steps being taken here.
Hell, Heaven and Purgatory in Red Dead II
Personally, the game felt as if divided into three parts, loosely tying in the concept of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. A large portion of the game, right from the beginning to Chapter 5 feels like Hell. Hounded by the law, the gang is uprooted from place to place. As time passes, peace is momentary and fleeting. Their way of life is ultimately being eroded as is their family. The tutelage and leadership of Dutch Van Der Linde starts to wane as his own sense of direction seems to waiver. Leaving Arthur and the crew questioning his methods, and whether they should continue to follow him at all. More people fall, leaving behind nothing but pain, sorrow and a growing sense of dread and uncertainty.
In the closing moments of chapter four, everything reaches fever-pitch and Arthur tumbles into Guarma during a botched escape by boat: his personal Purgatory. This is where he begins to make right for his sins – as much as he can – by helping fight against a plantation owner who exploits and tortures the island natives. Though Dutch’s motives for encouraging their involvement in this rebellion are ultimately self-serving, joining the resistance is an act of redemption itself; redemption for being a part of activities that ultimately repulsed him to the core, such as collecting debt for Strauss. Towards the end of this fifth chapter, he is also diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Random stroke of bad luck, or karmic punishment perhaps? Either way, he must suffer before he sees peace.
The final act of redemption that finally pulls Arthur out of Purgatory comes at the end of Chapter 6: giving up his own life while holding off enemies and subsequently Micah, giving John enough time to escape with his family. Though it’s a sad end (there are few ends worse than dying after a fight with Micah), his suffering is finally over. On the cliffside, as the sun rises, so does Arthur Morgan: from the suffering of Purgatory, lifted into Paradise. While this doesn’t necessarily translate as Paradise being a physical space where he lives out an afterlife, the very fact that he’s free of all pain, fears, doubts and illnesses can be interpreted as Heaven. Mary even visits his burial site, proving that all is forgiven and that what remains is the treasured memory of Arthur.
Blind Man Cassidy
Arthur can also encounter a blind beggar at various locations in the game. Donating $1 prompts a comment often pertaining to future events. Shortly before being diagnosed with tuberculosis, one of the donations prompts him to tell Arthur: “Bad news awaits you, sir. Sadly, sooner than you think. But beyond the news, paradise awaits. Paradise…” While I don’t take this as literal confirmation of the game saying that Arthur is in Heaven once he’s dead, it still points to the fact that the game is broadly structured as a tale of sin, repentance and finally release from suffering.
Red Dead Redemption II is unique in that it gets so many aspects of an open world right. Though long horseback rides are annoying to those who are eager to get back to the story, they are mesmerizing and immersive if, like me, you love to take your time and just breathe in the world before moving on. The visuals are, of course, striking and the writing witty. I finished the main story a month ago, and I miss it almost every other day. In a genre that often puts graphics or map-size over story, there are very few games I can say that for.
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