In the five months since its release, I’ve found myself returning to Red Dead Redemption 2 constantly. Even after completing the mammoth story, I loaded up an earlier save just to play through the whole game again at a more gradual pace — exploring, hunting, and really living our Arthur Morgan’s experience as fully as I can.
During that time I’ve been keeping a notepad filled with a lot of little thoughts about the game. Initially I thought I was going to maybe take one or two them and expand them into a big piece, but in the end I decided that just polishing these notes, which cover everything from how Red Dead Redemption 2 tackles to its breathtaking immersive touches, and putting them online would be keeping in spirit with Red Dead’s sprawling ethos as well as protagonist Arthur’s habit of journaling everything.
So here you go!
1. Loading back into my save, I find Arthur Morgan standing outside of Valentine, leaning against a post. He’s smoking a cigarette. He looks just like I left him, abandoned halfway through a second playthrough when work and other games popped over the horizon. It is good to see an old friend again even if he’s in need of a shave.
2. I’m still in awe of the joy of walking around a store in Red Dead. It’s such a simple thing, being able to pick up items you’re going to purchase from shelves. Why is it so magical in a video game? Most of us do it several times a week. Is it just the strangeness of not having the impersonal, yet convenient, menu? Like so much of Red Dead, this small thing is hard to explain but therein lines so much of the game’s charms.
Critics dismiss these features as realism porn, but I think that’s giving these moments the short shrift. Instead, they’re celebrations of the mundane, the discovery of magic in the ordinary. The same way close-ups in cinema can load a normal conversation with emotional baggage or a wide shot can convey the splendor of nature, making interactions out of such small moments can draw attention to how special they are even when we do them day-in, day-out.
3. I come upon a man on the beach with a fire. He yells at me to get lost. I stand my ground. Why the hell does he think this is his beach and not every man’s? After a few seconds he pulls a gun on me and shoots me in the shoulder. I blow his arm in two with a shotgun blast and send his body sprawling in the water. It floats eerily.
A pop-up notification informs me that I’ve taken a morality hit for defending myself, which seems unfair initially, but maybe I should have run away. What was to be gained from standing around except some small smidge of pride for refusing to back down. Is that really worth baiting an escalation in violence?
4. A column of smoke is still the most exciting thing to see in this game. It’s such a clear, well-designed signal that something worth checking out is nearby. It’s just the right amount of vague intrigue too. What lurks beneath the smoke? A house to rob? A gang camp to Invade and pillage? A stage coach robbery to prevent. Some men sitting around the campfire eager for company? A new questline?
There’s so much that could be there. It’s amazing how I still get excited seeing one of those even with two hundred hours put into exploring this world. Where other open-world games literally map everything out for the player (here’s where you go to do the driving side-activity, here’s an area with a lot of loot, here’s where you upgrade your weapons), discovery is left in the hands of the player here and always remains an exciting proposition. Well, for me and my Arthur anyway.
5. I feel like a real jerk whenever I stick my horse with a stimulant syringe.
6. Running head-long into a tree and both my horse and Arthur ragdolling never gets old.
7. Shooting an animal while hunting and missing a vital spot is the worst. Not only because I lose out on valuable goods, but also because when the prey escapes I know that soon, as it limps away, that it will probably die somewhere in a clearing nearby in great pain, crying out, and that it’s suffering is exclusively my fault. Of all of Red Dead 2’s realism mechanics, the suffering of animals and the in-depth skinning animations are the ones that l still come away feeling conflicted about.
I’ve never handled animal deaths in real life or media well, so seeing deer cry out in pain or a bear pathetically sniff the grass as it writhes around wounded is soul-crushing — to the point I don’t pursue any of the satchel or camp upgrades associated with hunting. Instead, I only hunt to support the camp and Arthur with food. In that, I think that Red Dead 2’s hunting system is a success because it’s interesting. Whereas Far Cry and other similar titles merely treat hunting as a path to loot, RDR 2 does something a little more horrifying with it. Yes, it’s still essentially a path to power upgrades if you want, but also one with a disturbing emotional cost. The act of closing your heart to such suffering also fits well with the game’s themes about survival and desperation.8. One of the things that work really well about modern Rockstar open-world games is how they make the player inhabit their protagonist. When I play GTA IV or either Red Dead Redemption, I’m not just playing my avatar. I’m playing Niko, John, or Arthur. And that’s kind of a powerful thing if you think about it. Most RPGS or games with RPG systems are never really able to divorce their characters from the concept of the avatar. Far Cry 4’s Ajay Ghale is never more than the hand that holds the gun, with a few biographical details that I keep in mind during the campaign.
Even in Mass Effect, commander Shepard isn’t so much a character but a moving, talking reflection of all our choices – arguably gaming’s most famous. However, when I play Arthur Morgan and I take him shopping for clothes, I’m not dressing him up because I want my character to look nice. Instead, it’s because I want good things for Arthur. I want to reward him for roughing it out on the frontier or comfort him after a lousy outing with an ex-girlfriend. I react to him as a character instead of an avatar. How does he deal with grief? Does he go in drink for hours in a bar? Does he get in fights in the streets of Saint Denis? Kidnap people and throw them off the cliffs of mountains in a murderous rage?
I approach Arthur in the same way that I do when I’m writing character for stories or games that I make, creating backstories and moments in which he responds to some event (traumatic or joyful) and I think the balance between established overarching narrative and smaller malleable player-driven stories is part of what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so special.
9. I don’t like how Mary Linton treats Arthur, but I like their relationship. She gives him crap in a way that nobody else can and he takes it. It drives home that the relationship is an old one and a painful one cast in the gloom of love lost. Sure, she might be giving him a raw deal by bribing him into being an errand boy for her affection but, at the same time, Arthur’s default is basically errand boy. And his personality definitely seems like the kind that would respond positively to her mix of affection and light disparagement.
10. Addendum to #6: Running head-long into trees and rocks doesn’t get old but having to pick up the animal carcass formerly stowed on the back of the horse every time I do sure does.
11. When you take a taxi in Grand Theft Auto, you have the option of enjoying the ride. Just nestling back and watching the people walk by on the streets as music blares and your cabbie scratches his chin. Curiously enough, you don’t get the choice to just sit in the back of a carriage when you use ones. It’s just an immediate fast travel sequence into a loading screen that shows the carriage riding across various landscapes before you get to your intended destination.
I 100 percent think that the vast majority of players don’t mind not having the option (and even saying that I’m missing it in any deep way is a stretch), but a part of me wishes that it was there just to have another option for letting Arthur (and the player) relax and take in the world.
12. I wonder why Arthur doesn’t sleep with anyone? Women will proposition him but the player’s options are always “reject” and “decline.” Outside of an optional, weirdly suggestive bath time sequence, Arthur is pretty sexless. In the original Red Dead Redemption, John never slept with anyone because he was married. Arthur’s hesitation is left up to debate, though. Is it about being in love with Mary? Is the idea of accidentally having another child terrifying to him after his son’s tragic death? His journal offers no answer and I like the ambiguity.
Again, Rockstar is very good about walking a tightrope between telling us who Arthur is and letting us decide who he is, so this particular choice interests me, especially in light of the developer’s history of making sex little more than a gag or a literal transaction in its games. Instead, Red Dead Redemption 2 treats sex as complicated and moored in emotion and consequence. Karen and Sean have a fling to escape the loneliness of the frontier life, Molly tries (and fails) to use her sex appeal to make Dutch see her as the only woman in his life. For John, sex (at least with anyone but his wife) becomes a shameful thing, a marker of the past he’s trying to escape. For Arthur, well, who knows what it means but the consequences of it have clearly left its mark on him.13. The fog effects in this game is amazing. It’s somewhat easy to dismiss visuals in this day and age where every game is more or less hitting the same range of photorealistic. However, seeing Arthur ride through Saint Denis in the morning fog, his body literally cutting through the blanket of it as his horse trots along is such an eerie effect.
14. The transitions in Red Dead Redemption 2, like other recent Rockstar games, are marvelous. I don’t mean in cutscenes. Instead, I mean storytelling that occurs when the game’s systems meets the player’s actions. For instance, a few minutes ago a man drunkenly insulted me. I pushed him. He pushed back. I ended up beating his face in only to have a cop pursue me through the streets as I whistle for my horse, calling his buddies on me. I run down streets, ripping through alleyways in a desperate attempt to escape. One cop tackles me and I push him off, running into a road to finally meet my horse.
As I pull myself onto the saddle and take off, an errant shot from one of the nearby policemen strikes a civilian that was ambling nearby, killing them instantly as I make my escape out of town and into the swamps. This entire story (the fist fight, the escape, the tragic death of a bystander) is a product of me poking the world in a certain way, and it’s impressive how natural it all feels, like it’s actually a scripted cinematic sequence and not just a bunch of escalating incidents.
15. A little bit more re: the last note. A lot of open-world games are reactive. That’s nothing new. However, I think Red Dead Redemption 2 is reactive in a smart way. A good point of comparison is Far Cry, yeah? So much of the ethos of that series is wrapped up in the idea that something unexpected and exciting can happen at any moment: a rhino charging out of the forests to slam into the truck of attackers you’re squaring off against is a fantastic moment.
However, in actuality, Far Cry makes its world react to the point that it doesn’t feel like a convincing setting or a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in. Instead, in the pursuit of becoming an emergent story-generator, the game’s reactive elements become annoying — refusing to give the player a moment’s peace. I can’t count how many times I found myself attacked in Far Cry 5 by a cougar that had just seemingly come from nowhere, ruining my attempts to fish or hunt.
Now look at how Red Dead Redemption 2 reacts to you. When you walk into the Valentine bar and unholster a pistol, everyone stops what they’re doing. The folks at the poker table all look at you. The bartender chastises you. The drunk at the table and the barber all watch you uneasily, waiting for the guns to pop. It’s that scene you’ve seen over and over in a Western — with the stranger setting everyone on edge with his promise of violence. These reactions to you, the player, work because they fall in line with your expectations of the Western genre.
16. There’s something really nice about going down to the shoreline and spending a minute or two cleaning all your weapons. Same for brushing your horse before you ride out on an adventure. I’m such a sucker for games that celebrate little preparation rituals before the big action happens.
17. I try to keep Arthur firmly planted in chaotic neutral territory, using violence only when people mess with me. However, I’m 99 percent sure the Blackjack dealer in Van Horn is cheating. Sure, it’s only a matter of five dollars, but I can’t help but shoot him in the knee for his treachery. This, of course, sends all of Van Horn after me. Whoops.
18. With nearly two hundred hours in this game, I’m still finding new events (maybe they’re adding them in?). I come across a tent with someone coughing from within. When I check it out, two men emerge from the tent with their guns trained on me. They try to rob me. I put holes in both their faces with my quickdraw and go on my merry way.
19. There’s this bad idea perpetuated by a lot of writers that interesting situations create interesting people. It’s a bad philosophy that leads to hackneyed tropes and one that shouldn’t be embraced by anyone looking to tell character-driven stories. Instead, I think the truth is the opposite: people are interesting to begin with and interesting situations draw out those aspects. I think Red Dead Redemption 2’s gang is testament to that. They’re fascinating people even when they’re not robbing banks or plotting to take down enemy gangs.
It speaks to the fascinating writing behind those characters that I spend so much time reading their letters or talking to them instead of running out and about in the world. I think my favorite interaction in the entire game is one where Arthur can sit down next to Tilly or Mary-Beth and open up about how feels about killing people. It’s a quiet conversation, one you can ignore entirely when you’re in a rush, but these moments are so quietly compelling and do so much work to make these characters feel like actual people — something video games are still extraordinarily awful about.
20. Games are often bad at understanding that showing is often just as important as doing. It goes hand-in-hand with games being an interactive medium. Think about how many games, at least those in the AAA region, actually ever slow down in terms of telling a story or letting you experience a world on your own terms. Sure there are your Uncharteds and Wolfensteins, but they’re easily dwarfed by the number of live-service titles or linear balls-to-the-wall games that are all about the frenzy of the moment.
Enter a place, do the action that the gang hangs on (shoot thing, beat thing, solve thing), move on to next place to do the next thing. Red Dead’s Sleep No More-like camp sequences are a testament to the power of just taking the player aside and saying “Hey, experience this moment, ok? We’re not going to shoot anything. We’re not going to kill anybody, race anybody, we’re just going to watch this thing unfold.” The ability to move around the camp while everyone is doing their own thing during these parties is enthralling, whether you’re spying on Karen and Sean have a fling or watching people goad Javier into singing a ballad.
21. Man. That “Ring Dang Doo” song sure is dirty (and catchy).
22. A thing that happens when you go sober in your late 20s: you start watching people drink. Initially, it’s out of jealousy and resentment but, if you make it long enough, that eventually transforms into curiosity. I’ve started watching how games handle drinking. Usually it’s tied to uproarious celebration or showcasing characters being goofy. No one ever corrodes their relationships or says awful things they can’t take back. In that regard, Red Dead Redemption 2 is not exceptional. Arthur, Karen, and everyone can drink and drink and drink without everlasting consequences besides a headache and a little vomiting. What a nice little fantasy.
23. I’m not sold on all the stranger missions in the game. Some of them are funny and amusing distractions, like the one where you have to round up the buffoon circus leader’s animals, but the vast majority just feel like a waste of time in comparison to hunting or even just people-watching in a saloon in Saint Denis. I don’t necessarily buy Arthur just doing errands for these particular weirdos either.
24. I love Sadie’s arc. It’s a standard revenge-driven setup, but the way the story plays out, with Sadie finding her place among the outlaws, is great. I also love that there’s no option for romance with Arthur, that the two never see each other that way. It’s very much a Don Draper and Peggy Olson Mad Men relationship founded in mutual platonic affection and mentorship. I just wish you had more missions to capitalize on that relationship. Feels like there’s only a handful.
25. So, if you don’t do a certain series of sidequests, you miss out on Arthur forming a friendship with a nun. A nun that gives him a great bit of advice in a scene that’s all too easy to miss in a pivotal, end-game spoilery moment (watch it here). The full exchange between Arthur and the nun is so good, such an eloquently and economical discussion about the difficulty of being decent and finding meaning in life:
Arthur: What am I going to do now?
The Sister: Be grateful for the first time you see your life clearly. Perhaps you could somebody? Helping someone makes you really happy.
Arthur: [sighs] But I still don’t believe in nothing.
The Sister: Often neither do I. But then I meet someone like you and everything makes sense!
Arthur: [laughs] You’re too smart for me, Sister. I guess I’m…I’m afraid.
Sister: You have nothing to be afraid of, Mister Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.
I think the heart of the game is right here in this exchange. So much of Red Dead Redemption is mired in the complexity of doing the right thing, even when it won’t get you a miracle solution to your problem. Both John and Arthur, at their most heroic, act out of genuine, selfless love for the people around them. No fortune, no desire to accumulate social standing. Just sacrifices big and small for loved ones. That in itself isn’t a particularly innovative character development, of course, but these scenes do a great job of making Arthur’s journey toward decency a heartbreaking and gripping spectacle.
For more on Red Dead Redemption II, check out this feature on 101 things you can do in the game or this feature on why Arthur Morgan is such a compelling character.