Image owned by Rockstar and from The Hollywood Reporter
There are surprisingly few games based on the wild west, perhaps due to a limited scope of gameplay genres that would allow an antiquated period to be mechanically explored. Aside from Red Dead, there is the currently dormant Call of Juarez, a first person series that attempts to depict the gunslinging lifestyle of the mid to late 19th century from the eyes of old west outlaw(s). It’s much more likely that 2010’s Red Dead Redemption was so wildly successful in capturing the American frontier in a virtual open world space that everyone else was scared away from trying it themselves, instead of copying like with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto. In the gaming industry, this town is indeed only big enough for one of them.
Instead of a sequel to their old west epic, Rockstar studios, based out of Scotland though now headquartered in New York City, has decided on a prequel fleshing out the history of the Van Der Linde Gang, which was the criminal outfit the first game’s protagonist, John Marston, once called family. It makes some sense, as RDR I took place in 1911, at the very end of the wild west, a eulogy for the romanticized era of American history, as well as for the grey nature that was the Western outlaw. RDR II takes place 13 years earlier in 1899, the beginning of the end for that violent era. It reminds me somewhat of Godfather Part II, in being both narrative continuation and background extrapolator.
You play as Arthur Morgan, a major member of the Van Der Linde gang, led by the philosophical Dutch. Considering that Arthur wasn’t mentioned once in the original game, I assume some ill fate awaits him. John Marston’s horrible bullet-riddled death near the end of the prior game is one of the most heartbreaking gaming moments I can think of, and to be replaced with his grown up and vengeance-seeking son, Jack, was the icing on the thematic cake that was the first game’s powerful conclusion. I don’t know if Rockstar plans to off Arthur in a similar fashion as that would be too predictable. All I know is that Arthur, John, Dutch and the rest of the gang aren’t in a good spot in this story.
After a bank heist goes terribly wrong, Dutch’s gang begins a country wide odyssey for a safe place to outrun the authorities, who are now trying to seriously police the Southwest United States. The new, stricter policy on crime is not kind to people like Arthur Morgan or John Marston. Dutch desperately tries to keep the gang together despite the encroaching authorities making the new order of things increasingly bleak. It’s not just a bunch of male rapscallions. There’s women and children included too, namely one child, a very young Jack Marston. Some of the ladies are outlaws too, others are just pariahs from a society that can’t or won’t accept them. It’s almost, maybe is a counterculture movement that isn’t just about the acquisition of ill-gotten gains. A philosophy of real, anarchic freedom from a milquetoast civilization that is at best in their eyes, hypocritical. It’s makes the group that Arthur and John follow much more multi-faceted than just some “bad hombres”. It could help make their plight legitimately sympathetic, their achilles heel being the amoral aspects that you can actually back away from, controlling Arthur in game.
Arthur through the player can explore a wide open world full of diversity in wildlife, terrain, climate and people, as Rockstar tries to once again top themselves in immersing you in a world as close as is currently possible to being alive. Everyone, animals included, have their own schedules and interactions with Arthur. Arthur in turn, can interact with anyone he wants in either a pleasant or antagonistic manner, creating entirely different outcomes in every encounter. Many I assume will have a wide butterfly effect of consequences which Rockstar promises will be remembered. Like the “honor” system of RDR I, how you behave can have an impact in how both the world treats you and I imagine the story itself could be tweaked by your reputation. Maybe even Arthur’s fate can and will be decided through this system. It could help paint your perception of what Arthur is: (1) A noble outlaw trying to reform and have an out before it’s too late, especially with his growing skepticism in Dutch’s direction. Or (2), a monstrous criminal that is every bit as bad as the law thinks he is and could die without regret except that he couldn’t keep doing bad longer.
No matter how you direct Arthur’s journey, there will never be a lull in things to do from what I’ve seen. There will be plenty of shooting and not just against your fellow men and women. There will animals to hunt, food to eat, games of chance to play, fish to fish, secrets to be found, places to rob, etc. Red Dead Redemption II promises a lot in being an evolution of the safer and more ethical “Westworld” playground to indulge ourselves in. I expect a lot of content, a good even great story, a customizable protagonist in almost every way including moral code, and as Rockstar is promising, the most reactive and alive open world yet crafted for a video game. Considering their last game, Grand Theft Auto V (2013), was praised for raising the water mark for immersive gaming, their reputation precedes them. There is an impressive amount to look forward to in improving upon one of the greatest games of all time, which is one of the many accepted accolades of Red Dead Redemption I. I go back and forth over whether the first game is truly as great in my memory as is commonly considered.
Perhaps what Arthur offers in his journey can be the next step for an artform. Perhaps, it’s not time yet for Rockstar to fold em’, despite their legacy of groundbreaking titles making the possible fall all the higher. Either way, a whole bunch of people will be saddling up this October 26th.