This article discusses the end of Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.
Maybe it’s true that only 10 percent of the people who played Red Dead Redemption completed it, but everyone knows how it ends. John Marston, your gravel-voiced rake of a cowpoke, returns to a bucolic life on the farm after extracting revenge upon the Dutch Van Der Linde diaspora. He does chores, rounds up horses, and bonds with his son, before an army of law-men arrive and shoot the ever-living shit out of him. Marston staggers, shit shot out of him, then falls to his death. Years pass. His son, looking at his father’s grave, becomes a man, looking at his mother’s grave right alongside it. He heads out over the countryside to sniff out the location of the aging man who killed his father. By a quiet riverside he shoots the old coot dead—vengeance achieved, and a new life of violence begun in earnest.
Big-budget games don’t do stuff like this much: structurally ambitious left-turns, with passages of downtime and even outright boredom in order to more powerfully hammer home a point. Red Dead Redemption 2 was always going to live in the shadow of its acclaimed predecessor, particularly so by jumping back in time and resurrecting Marston. His scarred face peeks out of most of the game’s marketing, and arises early in the game itself, an old friend easing you into a forbidding new landscape. New protagonist Arthur Morgan’s nowhere near as appealing a character as Marston was, but the game seems keenly aware of this. He’s a meathead with a gun that other people use for their own ends. He rues his violent life, his lost love, the purposelessness of all this bloodshed. When you choose the more selfish of two options, as the game occasionally allows you to, there’s none of the delicious nastiness previous Rockstar protagonists enjoyed, just varying flavors of regret. Morgan groans wearily as he declines to help, a dark ambient fog creeping out of the speakers.
And so: Of course Arthur Morgan dies at the end. You see his death coming from a mile away, and not just because you knew the first game’s star died, but because he straight up contracts tuberculosis half-way through and is told that he will die soon. It happens on-screen. This is not thematic, but biological, and slow, like everything in this game. You’re not going down guns blazing, but lungs screaming, body tearing itself apart internally. When missions end in Rockstar games, you typically regain control of your character gazing out over some scenic vista, or rising and stretching before a new day. By the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, Morgan can be found collapsed onto rocks, wheezing wetly for minutes at a time. Your partners don’t even trust you to carry out some of the game’s final missions. During the last of the nested, regional conflicts that serve to pad out the game’s runtime, Morgan grouses to Dutch about the futility of the mission. “Why are we even doing this?” he pleads, loading his guns and riding once more into the fray.
There’s something darkly self-aware about all of this, a video-game gunman who grows to loathe the endless cycle of violence in which he’s caught. Of course, this is nothing new in games, a medium that discovered winking postmodernity early in its development and hasn’t been able to stop coyly implicating the player in its wanton bloodshed since. BioShock’s quest-giver famously revealed the player as an automaton, blithely following orders; Spec Ops: The Line lifted liberally from Conrad, its loading-screen text gradually becoming caustic and sentient (“Do you feel like a hero yet?”). There are dozens of these examples. Red Dead’s brand of postmodernity works better than most, in part because it isn’t so self-satisfied; again, you are dying of tuberculosis for most of this game. It is a resolute downer, and when Morgan dies, face-down in the mud or gazing at the sunset, depending on how shitty of a person you played him as, you feel a sense of relief. He was in excruciating emotional pain, and you felt it—and now, at least, it’s over.
Red Dead Redemption 2, like a lot of self-critical video games, wants to have it both ways; the guns are fun to shoot and Arthur increasingly hates doing it, up until he can’t anymore. Like the original Red Dead, it ends with an epilogue of Marston on his ranch, milking cows and hammering in fenceposts in a lyrical, boldly experimental sequence of video-game editing. It’s unambiguous about the fact that Marston’s happy life is the redemption Morgan died for. The beauty of the land, and the freedom Marston enjoys within it, is the sort of eternity he was denied in the first game. Tough luck for Morgan, though. His loss is absolute; he whispers goodbye to his horse shortly before dying, the tenderest moment in a game full of them. One could imagine a third game going back in time further, introducing a new, doomed protagonist, and ending with Morgan alive again in a brighter and larger open world, the cycle of redemption and retribution continuing unabated.
It sounds nice for everyone but the protagonists, who would, presumably, be trapped in increasingly larger, more beautiful places and subjected to increasingly longer, more brutal deaths. If only 10 percent of players slugged through the 18 hours of Red Dead Redemption, how many will endure the 50 hours of Red Dead Redemption 2? It’s an easier game, and it dangles a hell of a carrot to keep you moving: the promise of a vast new stretch of land to explore, overlapping much of the countryside from the first game. But it’s also slower than molasses in north Ambarino, demanding a meditative approach to play, a willingness to sink in an evening and only come away with a decent-quality pelt to show for it. The plot ranges from operatic, Witcher-esque highs, particularly the early saga of the Gray-Brathwaite feud, to lows that make you keenly feel Morgan’s disdain for his trade.
It’s too long, in other words, but it’s hard to say where to trim. The game’s just big, in every sense of the word. Red Dead Online still doesn’t have a release date, but the immediacy of online play threatens to to derail a lot of players’ momentum on the single-player experience. This would be a shame: Red Dead 2’s story, lumpy patches and all, is the most compelling Rockstar has told in an open-world game. Like pretty much all of the others, its twin obsessions are America and masculinity, but it explores them with a scale and intensity that feels uniquely contemporary. Arthur is a man whose time has come, whose era is ending, and he erodes over the course of dozens of hours, weathering as steadily as the mountains in which we meet him and atop which he dies. He’s a worse man than John Marston, but his redemption is sweeter. Afterward, you ride victorious through the sandstorms of New Austin, money falling out of your pockets, family safe at the farm. One man may be doomed and the other is dead, but in that moment, they’re the happiest we’ll ever see them.