In the first Red Dead Redemption, the protagonist John Marston is coerced by the feds into hunting down and killing his former gang leader and surrogate father, Dutch van der Linde. After a long and bloody search, John finally catches up to Dutch in the mountains. “Our time is passed, John,” he says, before stepping off a cliff to his death.
He’s right of course; the only problem is he realizes it about a decade too late.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel set 12 years before the first game. It shows the final days of the Van der Linde Gang through the eyes of Arthur Morgan. It is the finest expression of the video game medium I have played to date.
The game opens in media res, as the gang deals with the fallout of a botched robbery job. They’ve fled into the mountains, where they’re beset by a brutal blizzard. Their caravan trudges through the already deep snow as it continues to pile up. Members are missing, dying, already dead. Folks are cold, tired, exhausted. They finally reach an abandoned mining village where they can set up camp. Dutch gives the group a pep talk before setting off with Arthur to meet up with the scouts that had been sent ahead.
It’s at this point that the game switches from cutscene to gameplay, and upon assuming control of Arthur it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be your typical video game experience. Ludonarrative dissonance is a concept that refers to the conflict between a game’s story elements and gameplay mechanics. A common example is the Uncharted series of games, whose protagonist Nathan Drake is portrayed narratively as a lovable rogue with a heart of gold, while over the course of the game the player controls him as he kills hundreds of enemies without thinking twice. There is no such disconnect in RDR2. The caravan’s slow movement through the snow wasn’t simply an atmospheric affect; Arthur moves just as slowly under your control, and if you have controller vibration turned on, you can practically feel the horse struggling through the snowdrifts.
Before too long, Arthur and Dutch meet up with one of the scouts, Micah, who says he spotted a house with people in it. Micah leads the way, with Arthur bringing up the rear. Here again we see – or rather, hear – the game’s dedication to realism. The wind is howling, so Arthur and Micah can’t hear each other, relying instead on Dutch in the middle to mediate their conversation. When the trio reaches the house, Arthur and Micah hide while Dutch knocks on the door to ask the occupants for any supplies they could spare. As it turns out, a rival gang has gotten to the house first, and a firefight soon breaks out, giving you the first taste of the game’s cover-based shooting system. Like Nathan Drake, Arthur will drop hundreds of bodies before his journey is done; however, the game’s story makes it clear that Arthur is a hardened criminal. While he is likable at times, even charming, the game never lets you forget he is a thief and a stone-cold killer. Even Arthur himself is well aware of this fact. After all, he wouldn’t need to seek the titular redemption if he was already a good man. As for if he actually does redeem himself, well – that’s up to you. The story has four possible endings based on the choices you make throughout the game.