When I formally hung up my Red Dead Redemption II hat back in February, I had no idea how close I actually was to finishing its main story. Well…at the risk of SPOILERS, which will ABOUND in this post…Arthur Morgan’s main story, that is. I also really had no idea what laid in wait for Mr. Morgan or our merry crew of Van Der Linde outlaws. Oh, with Arthur contracting tuberculosis and gang leader Dutch becoming increasingly unhinged, I thought I might have fooled myself into thinking how it was all going to end up. To some degree, it did. But to another, I was absolutely floored at how the game’s events played out. I mean, like, floored to the point that I was staring at the TV screen, mouth agape, in shock at what I had just witnessed. I must say that I didn’t think it possible for my cynical old self to be swayed in such a drastic manner by what some would call a trivial pursuit (i.e. playing video games), but folks, I was swayed.
If you don’t feel like reading my posts of the game from earlier in the year, here’s a one sentence recap: Up to the point I stopped playing, Red Dead Redemption II was a game fraught with magnificent storytelling and frustrating controls. In other words, I really, really, really liked the game’s story and Arthur Morgan, even though I questioned the reason for making him the game’s protagonist, and I really, really, really hated RDRII’s gameplay. And it was the latter fact that necessitated a break from the game. I went off on my way and productively did other gaming things, like finishing Fallout 4, discovering the highs and lows of Fallout 76 and ESO, and reacquainting myself with the world of Dragon Age. But eventually, all the diversions came to a close. And before I could rationally allow myself to start something brand new, I had to finish RDRII. There was no question in my mind about it. Well, maybe I questioned it a little while I was installing its many updates, but when it was all said and done, it was time to see Arthur Morgan’s story all the way through to the end.
I pick things up at the gang’s new “camp” outside of Annesburg. The group that remains, consisting of the folks who haven’t deserted or been killed, is splintered, angry, and tired. After finally making mincemeat out of rival Leviticus Cornwall, they have nothing to show for it except for more of Dutch’s empty cash promises. Arthur is now clearly suffering with TB, but there is still work to be done. Unfortunately, it’s Dutch’s work, and none of it turns out to Arthur’s liking. With Cornwall out of the way, Dutch makes plans for the gang’s final big score, which will supposedly provide for them all the money they need to escape for good. That score turns out to be the U. S. Army’s payroll, and the plans, of course, go awry. Dutch uses a local Indian tribe, members of whom Arthur has befriended, as an unwitting distraction for the army’s forces, pitting the two against each other while the gang makes a run for the money. However, even though they get the money in the end, the heist is a mess with Dutch apparently forgetting about the Pinkertons, who intervened during the action (how did they know?), nearly killing John Marston and capturing his wife, Abigail. When Dutch forces the gang to leave the Marstons for dead, it’s Arthur’s last straw. He breaks off to rescue both John and Abigail, during which it’s revealed just how the Pinkterons knew of the heist. The gang’s own Micah Bell had been working as an informant for the Pinkertons.
This was my first jaw-dropping moment – I knew Micah was up to no good! And in that moment, all my frustrations with the game began to melt away. Well, the reveal of Micah as the rat didn’t necessitate that. In fact, returning to the game generally felt quite a bit better than it did those many months ago. I’m not saying that its gameplay was suddenly awesome – it was as quirky as ever – but my attitude had changed. Instead of being annoyed by Arthur’s “slowness,” I chalked it up to him being sick. Instead of trying to hastily mash my way through gunfights, I eased up on the trigger and let Arthur’s cohorts do some work. (This actually led me to improve my aim, which led to taking down enemies quicker, which led to less lengthy battles – all good things.) Instead of fighting with my overloaded inventory, I focused on the few things that Arthur really needed to progress. The process wasn’t perfect (I kept thinking about how dynamic Dragon Age: Inquisition combat mechanics were in comparison), but slowing down and not worrying so much about what felt wrong in the game definitely made it easier to finish.
Enraged, Arthur and John head back to the camp to confront Dutch and Micah, but they don’t get too far into arguing before the Pinkterons arrive. Arthur and John pair up, while another group with Dutch and Micah head off in another direction. At this point, Arthur has a choice to make. The money – the entire crux of the story up to this point – is still at the camp. Does Arthur go back and get the money or does he help John escape? In that moment, Arthur chooses to hightail it out of there with John. They get a little ways on before Arthur, who’s only been getting sicker this whole time, can’t seem to move much farther. With the Pinkertons in view, Arthur gives John everything he has and tells him to get away while he can to make a new life for him and his family. John reluctantly agrees. Arthur tries to continue on as best he can, but he eventually meets up with Micah. A dreadful fistful between the two of them proves to be Arthur’s undoing. Like a bad penny, Dutch turns up and does absolutely nothing despite Arthur’s protestations against Micah. Micah and Dutch flee while Arthur spends his final moments bathed in sunlight.
Jaw-drop number two occurred at the moment of Dutch’s ambivalence towards Arthur. After all they had been through, it felt like such a slap in the face to see Dutch side with Micah. With the way Arthur clung onto the shreds of hope that somewhere inside Dutch was a decent person, I thought the story might just turn out in Arthur’s favor. I suppose I was no more the fool than Arthur, especially knowing Dutch’s fate at the hands of John Marston. Can’t say I was excited that Arthur’s last battle was a fist fight (I really stink at melee in Rockstar games), but it proved a fitting finale, even if the two biggest jerks in all of New Austin had gotten away. At least Arthur had finally found some peace. Since I had made him out to be a good guy in the game, I witnessed Arthur’s touching end. We both watching the sunset as Arthur drew his last breath. And then…
…the third jaw drop occurred.
The epilogue starts, and there, right as rain and a few years later, is the Marston family traveling to find work in the town of Strawberry. Seems it was rough going for a while, but John is determined to make things right for his family. Both he and Abigail find work and strive to become “decent” folks living a life far and away from the Van Der Linde gang. (Abigail is especially vocal about this.) They eventually save up enough money to do all sort of 20th century things, like get a bank loan, buy a ranch (Beecher’s Hope), have their photograph taken, and see one of those “moving picture shows.” But John’s past is a present as ever. He meets up with Sadie Adler, with whom he takes bounties (thereby providing some of the Marstons’ savings). He rescues former gang member Charles from a life of street fighting in Saint Denis. It’s Charles and another former Van Der Linder, Uncle, who help John turn Beecher’s Hope into a working ranch and home. And, it’s Sadie and Charles who see the past through with John when they catch wind of Micah’s mountaintop hideout. John’s final face-off with Micah provides my final jaw drop. A heated moment twists almost too gracefully when Dutch emerges from Micah’s cabin and actually does something. Speaking nary a word to John, Dutch shoots Micah and runs off. John finishes the job, takes Micah’s stash, and, presumably, finally leaves the past in the past. After reunited with his family, John and Abigail marry, and life continues at Beecher’s Hope.
That is, until the Pinkertons arrive…again…
As I write my closing thoughts several days after completing the game, it’s not lost on me that Rockstar knows storytelling. For all my smug, smarty-pants concerns about “knowing too much” about some of the game’s characters, in the end, I was put in my place. The game, its story, never was about Arthur at all. It was always about the Marstons, John and Abigail. About them redeeming themselves from having nowhere lives as petty gang members to becoming something more. About John and Abigail making a better life together, for their son Jack, and as a family. Arthur was our eyes and ears into John Marston’s world, as well as the reason he survived. To some degree, witht he event of the first game so firmly engrained, I felt kind of silly for not expecting that part of the story play out as it did, but I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m glad that I got a little too caught up in wondering how in the world any of Dutch’s followers believed in him as much as they did, for it made the truth that much more impactful and, well…jaw dropping. In all, as much as there are aspects of the game that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst gamer enemy, Red Dead Redemption II stands tremendously tall as a vision of art and articulation. Play it and be patient, because the payoff is profound.
All images, including lede, © Rockstar Games (2018). They were captured by the author on the PS4 during gameplay.