“Momma, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s getting dark, too dark to see.
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
Red Dead Redemption II was released on the 26th of October, 2018. My birthday was five days later, and I knew in my heart that this game was for me. I have had two major Western periods in my life. The first was prior to the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010. The second arrived before its sequel. You can read about my Western Odyssey here. Rockstar Games are the Kings of Detail. They have been, since they started making 3D Grand Theft Auto, humble today, but absolutely incredible in its day. While Grand Theft Auto has been mostly antagonistic towards any decency or humanity, Red Dead Redemption was a game that was about rejecting the evil in our hearts and trying to find love and peace in the world.
An outlaw steps out. To save his family, he hunts those who he once called friends and family. The mere suggestion that the character you embody—John Marston—had a soul and a heart and a love for his family, completely altered the tone and player made content. Sure, some assholes still caused mayhem and random, cruel violence, but for the most part, people respected John’s wishes and behaved as he would behave. He was a bad man, but he’s trying not to be anymore. Red Dead II is even more complex; emotionally, morally, and in the sense of the narrative. The lines are less clear, yet the desire to be a better person shines through. I went through a terrible period of paranoia, where I believed that people were out to ruin my name. I know what Arthur Morgan feels when he looks at himself in the mirror after shooting down half a dozen people in the street for no good reason. Not because I am guilty of some great crime, but because I know the fear and shame that comes from people believing that you have done something unforgivable.
Red Dead Redemption II is true to its title. This is an achingly beautiful, poetic, deep attempt to turn a bad man good; to achieve true redemption. If you ever believed in a loving, all-powerful God, this is the argument given to him, before the pearly gates, to say that instead of being damned for all eternity, that you deserve a second chance. I have maintained for several years that the key in moral choices in games, is not the consequence, but the question itself. The morality of the action, and not what you lose or gain afterward is what matters. This is, differing rewards aside, what Rockstar understand better than the majority of developers when it comes to moral choices in video games.
Some people argue that Rockstar do not take any chances anymore, that they simply do the same thing, again and again, and again. Well, for a developer to invest over a hundred million dollars in a WESTERN in 2018, when the genre hasn’t been the most popular thing since some time in the 1950s, well… I would call that a risk. A BIG FUCKING RISK. And I say this as a huge Western fan and, excuse my pride, as a person who has a wide and deep knowledge of the genre: Red Dead II is arguably the deepest, best, most enthralling Western of the last hundred years. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration; this is the plain facts; nothing compares with the immersion, the detail, the beautiful spinning of the tale. In any medium, this would be an example of incredible talent and craft. In video games, it is one of the greatest works of art to ever appear in the medium’s history. Those who doubt this fact are surely those who do not have any knowledge or appreciation for the Western and think it a frivolous thing. Red Dead II is just open to new audiences as Journey or The Walking Dead was all those years ago. It does not require the traditional skills—though it does reward skill, especially the skill of exploration, at every turn—in order to play and enjoy the game.
Arthur Morgan is the hero/villain of the thing. I’ve been in this town, so long that back in the city, I’ve been taken for lost and gone, and unknown for a long, long time… The game has a slow, slow burn. It builds up to such a devastating, elegiac high point that twists and turns, subverts and elevates the medium of video games to a level of art that has very rarely been touched before. (Some games that have approached the same area as Red Dead II: Journey, Bioshock Infinite, Metal Gear Solid V.) Arthur is who you make him, holding true to the belief that video games are the one truly interactive art form. This does not mean that Rockstar do not keep a steady hand on the rudder of course. The choices that are made by the player come with no small amount of context and motivation, one way or the other. Whether it is the knowledge that Arthur was and is in love with a woman named Mary Linton, or that he was raised by Dutch and Hosea, in the absence of a father, everything that you decide comes back to the remarkable details of Arthur’s life prior to the player arriving on the scene. This is an important point when I speak on the power of Red Dead II to transform my life and help steady my direction in all important matters. There is a symbiosis that comes in playing Red Dead II that makes the character as much you, as the character makes you them.
I regret a lot of things in my life, as we have talked about before. But my breakdown showed me that I never did anything so terrible that I cannot be forgiven. This held true in how people have acted towards me; if I am honest, it is my holding onto my guilt and not other people’s admonishment that defines how I feel about myself. I regret cutting off my ex-girlfriend in such a harsh and ridiculous fashion, failing to maintain a friendship that meant a hell of a lot to me at one point. I regret not sticking by the friends who meant so much to me, and generally being a coward. All of this is brought to bear when playing Red Dead II. I make decisions that I would in real life—if of course, I was courageous enough to make them. Red Dead II is a transformative experience because of how it lays out what you value and why, when no-one is looking. I have a code in Red Dead II. I only kill when I need to, and never for pleasure or sport. I help everyone who needs my help. I am well aware that to have a code in a game is far easier than it is to have one in day to day life, but there is still something truly moving and beautiful with the way that Rockstar empower a person, not just to be a nihilistic psychopath as they do in much of Grand Theft Auto, but to actually be a better person than they are in reality. Even though they state up front that they in no way encourage or condone behaving in ways depicted in the game, in Red Dead II, maybe they *should* take the credit, because I wager that this game has had more than a few big-time positive impacts on real world encounters.
Red Dead II has probably the best story I have ever experienced in a video game. The writing is as sharp and on point as any Western I’ve seen (and I’ve seen A LOT) and it easily stands up to other media. The story is one of a bad man coming to understand that his time on this Earth is coming to an end, and deciding what kind of legacy he wants to leave. When I had my breakdown, it was Bioshock Infinite, as much as my family and friends, that saved my life. But it was Red Dead II last year that let me continue my progress in recovering and getting on track to have a good and meaningful life. The veneration of the natural world—on par with Breath of the Wild—-and the unparalleled detail and immersion in the world, the heavyweight emotions and insight into us human meat sacks, and the belief that even the worst can be redeemed if they ask for forgiveness… all make Red Dead Redemption II, the most impressive work of art of its generation, by a fair margin. Art like Red Dead II makes me want to be creative in my own small and humble way, just as it makes me want to strive for peace and love in my life. Bad people can find salvation if they’re brave enough to ask. Good people should help us do just that.