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Red Dead Redemption 2: A Lament for Thick Arthur

Jessica Negin August 15, 2019 775

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If you don’t know already, I streamed  my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2 on Twitch (LINK!) and though much of it was spent doing full 360s as I launched myself from my horse by slamming it into various surfaces (usually trees), my experience with this game was, overall, heartbreaking. I loved it to bits, let’s establish that now, but I’m still apt to get a bit weepy if I talk about Arthur for too long. I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but the pretty major one, and one that no one will be surprised about if they’ve played the first Red Dead, pretty much has to be laid out.

Yes, let’s put the cart before the horse for once (and perhaps dash the horse against it so Arthur might fly through the air and land on his neck – an injury he will somehow survive). Arthur Morgan, our lovely protagonist, will die in this game. He dies from tuberculosis which he contracts, admittedly, while doing some shady business for the moneylender Leopold Strauss, whose missions I stopped doing entirely because of how dirty they made me feel. Oh, I don’t feel bad spoiling this one either: that asshole is also dead. Ha!

The fact of the matter is, knowing that Arthur would die from the start kind of made the whole experience better for me. Sure, it made certain actions taken by the man sort of frustrating and depressing, but that’s the RDR experience in a nutshell, I’d say: frustrating and depressing. But in a totally compelling, fun, and touching way. But we’re not just here to talk about Arthur’s death and how it crumpled my soul into a tiny wad and threw it straight into a fiery trash can. We’re here to talk about this whole dang video game! And since I don’t know how to grapple with talking about a game of this size and scope without chunking it, here are the things I’m going to talk about in order: Arthur, some of the things I disliked about the game, characters, and my horsey (named lovingly after my cat, Corbin). If that list seems haphazard, it is, and I have no excuse. But they all fall under the category of “stand out things” so that’s how I landed on these topics.

Ok, Arthur. I adore him. This is kind of blasphemous, I know, but I may like him more than John. Actually, I’m just going to say it: I like him more than John. Sorry. While we’re at it, I liked this game more than the first installment in the series. Though, to be fair, that is in large part due to the arduously long section spent in Mexico. Peak frustration. Anyways, that’s neither here nor there since Arthur never makes it down there.

Arthur is, and I said this a lot during my streams, so adorably naive. I’d describe him as a good-hearted, vulnerable man who was conned into doing bad things. People live with this kind of hypocrisy every day on a less dramatic scale, and that’s one of the many things that makes Arthur so relatable. It’s kind of the perfect example of nature vs. nurture. He was groomed by Dutch to be a lackey, an unthinking follower who believes he’s in control of his life, who believes he’s fighting for freedom and good. It plays into Arthur’s inner desire to ultimately be “good,” no matter the means.

Red Dead 2 is set directly at the juncture where Arthur starts to realize that maybe Dutch is not a good man. The charismatic leader has hit a wall that forced him into desperation, slowly growing more and more unstable to the point that he unravels his carefully constructed “freedom fighter” persona, and unveils what he really is: a man who cares only for himself. He wants glory, money, and control, but power most of all. And Arthur was so caught up in the magnetism of his surrogate father that he did not see these things about Dutch, much like the rest of the Van der Linde gang. This makes Arthur’s arc both incredibly frustrating to watch, and also deeply compelling. You keep hoping that he’ll wise up faster, and take a hard turn before it’s too late. But, if you’ve played the first installment in the series, you can be pretty certain that’s not going to happen. And, realistically, the way things played out makes a good deal of sense, heartbreaking though it may be. Arthur is so incredibly human. He makes mistakes – pretty much nonstop. He’s a well-intentioned fool, and he’s also trying so hard by the end to make up for his sins. He loses everything in the process. I’m still not over it.

I think about Arthur a lot. Redemption is in the titles of these games for good reason, but it can also be said that neither Arthur nor john ever fully redeem themselves. There are things they’ve both done that their deaths do not change or undo. And there are things they’ve both done that their attempts to reform do not fix. That’s one of my favorite things about Arthur’s story – you see this first-hand quite often. The way he’s hurt people is presented to you with a glaring harshness (e.g. Edith Downes), and you start to truly feel bad about what you’ve done.

Let’s talk about some stuff I wasn’t a fan of, now that I’m done singing Arthur’s praises. I’ll start it off with something I actually have mixed feelings about the honor system. I dubbed honor “good boy points” (or GBP) and often lamented when I lost GBP for actions I would not personally consider dishonorable. For example, coming off the heels of the Civil War, our country’s lawmen were almost entirely comprised of former slave catchers, so do I really deserve to lose honor for shooting them? I don’t think so. But since the game neglects to comment on that part of history, we can safely sweep it under the rug and call it fair when I’m punished for doing so. I found that frustrating, but not impossible to overcome, so perhaps it doesn’t bear mentioning in this section. At the same time, it bothered me enough (regardless of the overall outcome) that I wanted to write this paragraph, so I think it does.

Ultimately, I was able to regain all my lost GBP, as I’ve been hinting at. It’s not hard to game the honor system, really (which makes you question its legitimacy all over again). I think it fell flat in some scenarios and did its job in others, but should have been applied more judiciously to situations that would actually make it compelling. One good example is shooting horses. Holy shit did I feel bad shooting horses. I tried my best to avoid it, but when I was left running out of deadeye surrounded by enemies and down to my last few bullets, horses were often the unfortunate casualties of war. RIP, you beautiful beasts. I loved each and every one of
you. There are clearly more story-centric examples that illustrate my point better, but I really am trying to avoid spoilers. Anyways, I’ve already given my opposing example – losing GBP for shooting lawmen – so I won’t rehash that… but I am still shaking my fist about it internally.

On a related, but more general note, there’s the overall “realism” of the game. And I’m realizing as I write this that, as with most things I have gripes about, I have mixed feelings. This game is really good, y’all. It’s good enough that even the negative aspects have their upsides. Anyways, this is yet again a case of misapplication. There were plenty of times where the realism – the clunkiness of Arthur’s movements, the horse physics (which I could write a whole dang article on alone), the swiftness with which a cougar could take your ass down – added significantly to the immersion. There were lots of other times where it really super didn’t. In particular, weight gain and loss, something I’ve alluded to in the title. First of all, it’s actually broken. The system is somehow not working properly, and there is as yet no solution for that. If you want to chunk up your boy, you have to stand around slamming snacks in your gob and doing squats in between. That’s the only method that appears to work. That’s a different set of problems than the real issue with the system, however, which is that I don’t ever really feel compelled to go eat something. Like, I don’t care, honestly. Arthur can be underweight, it has its benefits after all. I was never, ever, ever actually worried about starving, and what is the realism for if not to make you concerned with real-life issues of survival? It just seemed unnecessary to me. Something I absolutely did not need – not even once – in the entire game. And, in fact, since it was broken, it was even MORE useless because I never succeeded in making Arthur a big boy. Not that that’s actually cosmetically possible. The amount of bulk you can add is insignificant, as I’ve seen in pictures and other playthroughs. Thumbs down, Rockstar games.

Here are a few other examples that frustrated me: skinning animals, looting bodies, and bounties. Ok, I want to pinpoint that last one first, because it’s really stuck in my craw. This system is so inconsistent and haphazard. I’ve had people bump me, fall down on their own, then run off screaming and ended up with a $10 bounty on my head (no small sum in this game). I’ve also bumped people with my horse, run into a building “too fast,” and worn my mask a little too long, and had the same thing happen. Usually, I die in these scenarios because everyone starts shooting. Great. Oh, don’t even get me started on the time I shot my gun at the ground by
accident and was suddenly the most wanted man in all of Saint-Denis. Piss off with that malarkey, this is the Wild West!

And then we come to the matter of Blackwater. You can’t get in there. That makes sense because the whole thing is “we messed up in Blackwater and had to flee.” Cool, I’m very okay with that. How about don’t even put it on my map until the epilogue then pal? Because if you even slightly stray into the red area in the Southwest portion of your map, a coterie of unkillable, teleporting bounty hunters will shoot you so many times your body will become more bullet than man meat. Rockstar Games did this to keep you out of Blackwater, which makes sense, sure, but frankly, I find it ridiculous. I wasn’t trying to go there, I dipped one hoof in those red waters
when I was fleeing a different set of bounty hunters, and I’m punished with inescapable death? If you’re going to give me bounty hunters, give me bounty hunters. I’m totally fine fending them off and then fleeing again. That would be the consistent way of handling this. Instead, I get wave after wave of extremely tough boys on my tail, which, considering that this is supposed to be realistic, is hot nonsense.

As far as the skinning and looting go, I won’t say much. Just know this, video game
developers, I never – not once – ever ever ever ever ever in my life asked to watch an animal get its skin ripped off every time I kill and loot one. Do you know what else I didn’t ask to watch? Arthur pooping, and you never made me see that, so I don’t know why this situation was so different for you. Why do we have to have this be part of the “gritty realism” and not the pooping? I don’t want to watch it. I don’t want to watch it the first time, but I will as long as you promise me it won’t be EVERY time. Heck, you can have it happen 50% of the time instead, and I’ll be happy. And this is not about me being squeamish, because I’m not. I like taxidermy, I love horror movies, I’m very hard to gross out. I just can’t believe I have to spend that time (EVERY TIME) watching Arthur painstakingly flaying a deer. It’s the same issue I have with looting in this game, as well as many others. Please stop making me crouch and pat a body down. Please stop making me pause my gaming experience for a full 30 seconds just to get a pocket watch and some cocaine gum I’ll never use. Please. I’m begging you, game developers.

All in all, however, all this realism junk didn’t bother me that much or detract from my enjoyment either… other than making me grumpy that I couldn’t have a beefy Arthur and that I could never loot as many bodies as I wanted without getting caught. Really, none of it pissed me off to the degree of wanting to quit. It was just annoying enough to put a frown on my face.

But on a much less sour note, it’s time to tell you about the things I loved. I’m saving horse-related things for last because they deserve their own section. Thing number one:  movement. I know this actually frustrates some people when playing this game, but I enjoyed it right from the beginning. In other games, I feel like a floaty, super-powered, unhinged being of pure energy, with no limits to what my body can do. Not so here in RDR2. Arthur is as clunky and slow as he should be. He’s still certainly more physically capable than the average man, but he feels so real when you’re moving him around. Another notable example of this is any of the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne, of course, but even there, I often feel unrealistically nimble.
I can do like five dodge rolls in a row very quickly once I’ve leveled enough in one of those games. And though this is not physically impossible, I’d suggest going outside and actually doing a few and telling me how you feel afterward. I did two swift rolls in one of my martial arts classes years ago and did not come up wanting to continue the fight. No matter how you’re trained, they take it out of you. Yet it always looks so easy for my Hunter when I’m diving away from all of Rom’s dumb spider babies. Not so with Arthur. I defy you to get Arthur to do even ONE dodge roll. He won’t. It’s not in his repertoire.

What is in his repertoire is supernatural shooting abilities, a body that can absorb like 20 bullets, and the ability to see scent trails, but we’re not going to focus on that at all. It detracts from my point, and my point is this: moving around in this game gives you a really good feeling of what it would be like to do the things Arthur is doing. You can really put yourself in his shoes. And it made the game just that much more immersive for me.

I’ve already talked a bit about how I loved Arthur and how I loved his arc, basically implying that I loved the entire story. So I’m not going to bore you with more gushing about that, but I neglected to talk about a heavily related topic. The other characters. I will never get to all of them, because it would be too many paragraphs, so honorable mention to Sean, Hosea, Karen, and Mary-Beth. You were all fantastic, but I’m focusing on my MVPs.

So, full confession, I couldn’t give two farts about a lot of them. I didn’t care about seeing that dipstick Bill Williamson again. I spent 90% of the game talking about how much I wanted to boil Dutch alive. And I did nothing but roll my eyes at about half of the other people at camp. But I became very invested in the ones I did care about. Heck, you could even say my deep hatred of both Micah and Dutch was a form of care. They certainly shaped my experience with the story, so I’d say they were as important as anyone else in their way.

However, the positive characters are the ones that really stood out for me. Lenny, of course, is a standout. He’s so funny, sincere, and lighthearted from the start. He’s also a major part of one of the best side-quests in the whole game. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please look up “Lenny Drinking Scene” (or play the game). It’s probably my favorite part of the game. We also have Tilly Jackson, who is sweet, charming and also completely badass. Her outward naivete is likely a front, and a good one, that hides multitudes. She’s dependable, strong, and whip-smart. And she’s also a lot of fun to be around. Bonus points because she gets the happy ending she deserves.

Then there’s the mixed bag: Javier Escuella. I keep saying this, but if you’ve played the first installment in the series, your relationship with Javier from the outset is very different. Bearing that in mind, I was determined to dislike him. But goshdarnit, they made a good prequel, because I found myself forgetting everything that made me angry at Javier. At the lighthearted start of the game, he’s fun and lively and friendly. He’s nice to Arthur, and that automatically earns him some points. I didn’t start thinking about the events of RDR again until much later on when he started to get a little testy and weird. His unquestioning loyalty to Dutch
becomes grating and disappointing, and that’s where I soured on him. But there was a time, Javier, where I did enjoy you. That’s more than I could say before.

There’s no way I was going to get through talking about characters without talking about the absolute marvel that is Sadie Adler. What a dang woman. I can’t decide which I want more: to be her or to marry her. She’s kind of like a female Arthur, but smarter, more capable, and with a ferocity that endears her to me instantly. If Rockstar is smart, they will make her the next game’s protagonist, because I think we all need more of this woman’s story. At the same time, considering what happened to both John and Arthur, maybe not.

And now, I want to discuss the lovely, quiet, and capable Charles. He is on par with both Lenny and Tilly as far as likeability goes, but that’s not all there is to it. He’s loyal, he’s principled, he’s good inside and out in a way that few other characters are. By the end of the game, he had ingrained himself so deeply in my heart I hardly noticed it had happened. They never make it clear what happened to him at the end of the game, but I like to assume he got his wish for peace, and for a family. He was honestly even with Sadie in my list of favorite characters, even more so than Arthur in a lot of ways. I didn’t gush about him nearly as much as I did Lenny or Tilly or even Javier while playing, weirdly, but I have a deep well of love for Charles Smith.

The only thing I loved more than all of the above-mentioned characters is a very special animal. An animal the game 100% intends for you to fall in love with. An animal whose service for the cause will never be forgotten. My gorgeous warhorse, Corbin (formerly Horsecake, and even more formerly Pony Danza). I changed his name to make myself even more attached to him because, as I mentioned at the beginning, my cat (that I’m obsessed with) is named Corbin. Pony Danza was a joke I stole from Bob’s Burgers, so it had no emotional heft. And Horsecake was great and cute and alluded to how often I fed him oatcakes, but I wanted something that
really made it hurt when I lost my boy. Hence, Corbin. 

Our relationship started out simple enough: he was my DLC horse, a much better beast than the Tennesse Walker I started out with. All horses are beautiful and perfect, of course (except Uncle’s), but objectively, Corbin is superior. First of all, he’s a dang beast. I often noted how much larger he was than other horses in cutscenes, which was very satisfying. He was also this really pretty grey and black pattern, and his big hooves made me so happy. All physical attributes aside though, he was just a great horse. He liked his brushes – something I LOVED doing in game because of the satisfying dirt cloud that rose from his mane when I did. He never died no matter how hard I smashed him into things. And he never got mad
at me. He saw me through every adventure, he took me through all kinds of wilderness, and he camped with me out on that lonely road. He was fast (not the fastest, but pretty good), he had stamina, he was hearty. He saved my life more than once by keeping calm enough to carry me past a cougar. Sometimes he bucked me off, sure, but who could blame him? What I’m saying is, Corbin was a steadfast friend. You may have realized from what I said earlier, however, that the game does in fact kill him. This death was almost harder to take than Arthur’s, and I’m still
just as upset about it. RIP Corbin Horsecake Pony Danza. You were my best friend.

So, what’s my score for this game, exactly? It has changed since I started writing this. The epilogue is what incited this change. It’s too goddamn long. It took me, I believe, 8 hours to complete. An epilogue. 8 hours. Of epilogue. 8 hours of farm chores, of chatting with Abigail and Uncle and Jack, of basically playing Red Dead again. I did not need that much epilogue, seriously. Though, to be fair, I may have been more patient if I hadn’t been streaming it while wanting to move on to streaming other games. That could very well have affected my disposition towards the experience. Still, there was so much I would have been happy to watch
in cutscenes. Building the house, for example. I didn’t need to tap X to feel like I was part of that experience, okay? It was completely unnecessary, went on way too long, and the music was hilariously bad. Shoveling shit also comes to mind, but that was at least quick. The thing is, the very final mission of the epilogue was one of the most fun and satisfying of the entire game. But by the time I got to it, I was so pissed off and tired that I couldn’t give it the emotional energy it deserved. Again, probably would have been better if I hadn’t just streamed for four hours straight. But I wanted to finish it with my pals on the stream who sat through the entire rest of
the game with me, and that shouldn’t have been such a long process.
Admittedly, it did feel nice to be in John’s boots again. I had missed his desperation – his scrabbling attempts at forming a new life. A good boy’s life. Alas, we all know how that tale ends (or well, at least those of us who have played RDR know). None of our boys can ever have a happy ending. But anyway, I really enjoyed my experience with this game quite a lot. I can’t say I’ll play it again because it hurt me too much the first time. Maybe with some distance, some time, I’ll feel safe to relive Arthur’s journey, but definitely not anytime soon. Anyways…

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