Red Dead Redemption II and the Death of the Wild West
"By 1899, the West had nearly been tamed. The age of gunslingers and outlaws had nearly passed into myth."
Seven years after the original 'Red Dead Redemption' captivated players, the western is held up alongside 'Halo' and 'The Last of Us' as the pinnacle of the last console generation. Rockstar's retelling of the death of the Wild West through the eyes of the tragic hero John Marsten holds up superbly as a masterclass of both storytelling, world-design and gameplay.
This week, we were treated to an introduction to Rockstar's prequel: Red Dead Redemption II. We follow a brand new protagonist, Arthur Morgan, a stoic gunman in a familiar gang. Not only are we thrust back into the affairs of the Dutch van der Linde gang, but we get to see them in their prime. Rather than the scattered band of bearded, paranoid vagrants from the first game, we're shown a family aware of the knife-edge upon which they rest: extinction comes on the horses of the lawmen of a civilization that is destined to be born.
Here, Red Dead Redemption II makes it clear that it aims to tell a new story in a familiar struggle. In the first game, John Marsten is presented as a relic of the outlaw age; he's repeatedly reminded that he's incompatible with the new, civilized world. He desperately labors under the orders of the US government in a tragic task. He must aid in the destruction of the uncivilized world that birthed him, in exchange for a place in the new one to come. By the end, the punchline of this juxtaposition is clear to all: John Marsten must die. The US government, content with his work eradicating his old gang, has him executed.
He's a traitor, killing the gang that raised him to bring order to the world that tamed him. But he's a hero, fighting for his family's place in the new world. Marsten gets the truly short end of the stick: born too late to be an outlaw of legend, and born too early to fit into civilization.
In Red Dead Redemption II, we catch a glimpse of our deceased, former protagonist. He's a young man among a gang of grown, grizzled men. Years before he would betray them, he trained to be one of them.
The protagonist is now Arthur Morgan, a true outlaw. A relic of a time that had yet to die, and everything Marston had once aspired to be. He has none of Marston's nuance either. Morgan has no need to straddle the moral complexities Marston faced, so he doesn't.
We see Morgan demand money from a young man, his eyes on his grieving mother, threatening, "I've seen you in our ledger. Maybe when you're mother's finished mourning your father, I'll keep her in black. On your behalf."
That's a line you'd never expect to hear from John Marston. Marston's cautious gentleness was an acknowledgement of his fragile place in the world. He was a helpful, kind soul, in no small part because he knew he straddled so many moral boundaries elsewhere. Marston wanted to be part of a world that in every other way, rejected him, so his winsome attitude was a disciplined plea for a place in it.
Morgan has no such qualms. He's an outlaw, a legend, a man with fire in his heart and the belief that he truly sits above other men. His place in this world was cemented by his stoic demands on it. His kind settled this world, and he's here to reap the reward. Those coming in settlers tents, and constructing towns are the ones who've sinned. In his eyes, they're the robbers, and he's the lawful defender of liberty.
It's this juxtaposition between Morgan and the prior Marsten that informs the viewer that the story about to unfold is very different. Both are set in the death of the Wild West, but the two otherwise similar men have wildly different goals. Where Marsten sees civilization as his own just destruction, Morgan sees civilization as something wicked to be overcome.
Overlooking a town's mining machinery, and cutting to wonders such as magicians, fine artistry and ornate storefronts, we see the Vanderlind gang stare in both envy and fear. An unknown voice explains:
"Sure, we can have fire…and the knowledge of fire. But with that comes the knowledge of everything."
The above line is a clear reference to the knowledge of good and evil. A manifest destiny, yes, but one that represents sin to those who've lived on the western plains.
It's clear why Marsten's tortuous labors of the first game were necessary. Such an ethically absolute opposition to civilization could never resolve to coexistence. For Marsten and his family to live, Arthur Morgan and the Vanderlinde gang would have to die.
Lawman vs outlaw is a simple premise that Rockstar Games brought terrific, vivid depth to over eight years ago; with Red Dead Redemption II, we get to move away from the grey area that John Marsten inhabited. Arthur Morgan gives us a look into the moral absolute that made Marsten's choices so tragic.
When the game releases this October, we're sure to see all kinds of villainy and heroism, and the story of the outlaw Arthur Morgan seems the perfect vector for exploring it.