On October 26 2018, Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2), the much-anticipated prequel to Rockstar Studios’ 2010 game Red Dead Redemption, hit shelves across the world. Though I did not play the game until about two months after its release, the initial reception to RDR2 was incredible.
“Maybe it’s a sign Arthur, try… try to do the good thing.”
~ Mary-Beth Gaskill, Red Dead Redemption II
An Extraordinary Beginning
Financially, the game reached unprecedented heights, enjoying the largest opening weekend in the history not just of video games, but of entertainment as a whole! Rockstar made $725 million in three days and sold over 17 million copies in just two weeks (more than the original game had sold in eight years). As of August 2023, RDR2 has sold a staggering 55 million copies worldwide and is the eighth highest-selling video game of all time.
The game is set in 1899, the tail end of the ‘Age of Outlaws’, and primarily follows the story of Arthur Morgan, a senior member of the Van Der Linde gang, a group of outlaws who find themselves relentlessly pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency as the US government begins to tame the Wild West. The gang is led by Dutch van der Linde, a man with a vision of freeing his loyal followers from the tyranny of Uncle Sam, and he hatches a variety of convoluted plans to help the gang escape.
So, as we approach the fifth anniversary of RDR2’s release, I thought it would be apt to review the game once more, accounting for its longevity and relevance to the present day and looking at what made and continues to make the game so special.
A truly Open World
One of the main attractions of RDR2 is of course the freedom the player gets with exploring the map. Set across the five vast states totalling roughly 29 square miles (double the size of Rockstar’s flagship game Grand Theft Auto V) of Ambarino, New Hanover, Lemoyne, West Elizabeth and New Austin, there is no shortage of mountains to climb, fields to race across on horseback, towns to visit, and cities to explore. The graphics hold up exceptionally well, and even five years later I am still discovering new secrets about the game and its lore.
It is possible to interact with every single non-playable character (NPC) you meet when travelling around the map, with the player being given the option to either Rob, Greet, or Antagonise townsfolk to their heart’s content. There are also an innumerable number of random encounters with NPCs to be had, including escorting lost travellers back to towns, intervening in a drunken brawl, and being challenged to a good old-fashioned Western duel in front of the saloon.
The wildlife in the game is just as astounding as the details of the NPCs. Spawning is randomised, making hunting and tracking a rewarding experience, especially when one considers that there are over 200 species of animals, birds and fish to encounter. An entire essay could be written about the attention to detail that Rockstar put into the horses (the player’s main method of transportation throughout the game), with there being 19 different breeds to discover, bond with, tame, and customise to truly make them your own.
Overall, the world of RDR2 is nothing short of perfection. Some may complain about the slowness of the horses compared to the flashy supercars of GTA V, but it is important to consider just how authentic this makes the game feel. The world is specifically crafted to make the player feel like they are embodying Arthur Morgan, making their way across the perilous and exciting world of the Wild West.
Arthur Morgan: The Perfect Character
Whilst the open world of RDR2 is one of the game’s main attractions, where the game truly shines is in its depiction of the main character Arthur Morgan’s story and life. Roger Clark provided the motion capture and voice acting for the character and won ‘Best Performance’ at the 2018 Game Awards as a result. Clark’s gruff voice and intimidating yet comforting demeanour were perfect for Arthur, providing the player with a fantastic accompaniment to the gameplay and storyline.
We follow Arthur as he participates in Dutch’s various schemes, including holding up banks, stealing bonds from an oil baron, robbing trains, pursuing a rivalry with Dutch’s nemesis and engaging in a Shakespearean-esque blood feud between two wealthy houses. Arthur eventually begins to realise that Dutch has lost his way, as his plans become increasingly violent, and his mental state is evidently fractured beyond repair. Following a tuberculosis diagnosis, Arthur dedicates the remainder of his life to helping those he has wronged in the past and assisting his fellow gang member and protagonist of the original game, John Marston, in escaping with his family.
On the surface, Arthur’s story is a highly simplistic character arc—he started off bad and ended up good. But I think that the true narrative goes far beyond that. As the player learns more and more about Arthur and his past, they come to realise that he is neither good nor bad, he is just conscious that his choices have defined him. There was always goodness within him, and as the game progresses, we see this goodness more and more. Arthur dedicates time to helping a Native American chieftain, assisting fellow gang member Sadie Adler in achieving justice for her dead husband, absolving the debt to the gang of a woman he had helped to widow, and of course, helping John escape at the end of the game.
Compare this to Dutch, who portrays himself as a symbol of righteousness and leadership for the gang. We see his descent into madness happen concurrently with Arthur’s epiphany about his own morality. Eventually, we acknowledge that Dutch was always an egomaniacal, manipulative despot, and as the gang is plunged into desperate situation after desperate situation, his true face is revealed. Dutch and Arthur are two sides of the same coin, but it is the choices they make in the face of adversity that truly defines who they are, and how the player sees them.
Arthur Morgan is, in my humble opinion, the greatest video game character of all time, narrowly beating Joel Miller from The Last of Us franchise. The player spends over 80 hours with him, gaining a true insight into his internal moral conflict. Arthur’s story could be described as a tragedy, but when one considers all the people he helped by the end of his life, the answer is not as clear cut as this. He is not good, and not bad, he is just a man who has made mistakes. Surely, we all can relate to his story in some way or another.
Why is the game so important to me personally?
It’s Christmas Day 2018. I pick up a small, rectangular present and begin unwrapping it. I’m greeted with the now-iconic front cover that depicts a cowboy pointing his revolver towards the ‘front’ of the poster, tinted in red, yellow and black. The words ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ stand out at the bottom, next to that familiar Rockstar Games logo. Little did I know then just how much of an impact this game would have on me over the course of the next five years.
I would wager that every gamer has a selection of two or three games that will always stick with them for as long as they live. I would likely choose Minecraft for being one of the first games I properly got into and played religiously almost every day for over ten years. I would then choose Overwatch for being one of my first experiences with online first-person shooters that I played with my group of friends from school. For my final game, I would choose Red Dead Redemption II.
Not only was it the first story game I ever played, but it has, in a sense, given me guidance on how I want to live my life. Like Arthur, and I’m sure many other people who have played RDR2, I have made mistakes in the past. But also like Arthur, I know that what truly matters now is not what may have happened in the past, but instead, how I spend the rest of my life. This game is not just a game, it’s an experience. From the authenticity of the open world to the beautiful story of Arthur Morgan, Red Dead Redemption II retains its status, even five years later, as certainly the best game Rockstar have ever released, and potentially, the best video game of all time.