The Tragedy of Red Dead Redemption

The age of the cowboy. A time where the elk ran wild in the plains of good old texas and civilization was being cultivated in these vast and virgin lands. It was a moment in time when lead did the talking and man was made or unmade by his own hand. This mythical and electrifying sentiment that shaped the credo of the new American frontier was captured perfectly by the entire team of Rock Star in their magnificent series of red dead redemption. Where the great majority of triple A studios focus on the impending doom of the world through their narratives, Rockstar takes a different approach by narrowing their scope and bringing us personal stories rooted in reality where we are free to explore the motivations, shortcomings and strengths of their characters. Both of their protagonist, john Marston and Arthur Morgan, are two of the best characters in video history. Arthur, the tough and solemn all American cowboy outlaw, who hides his artistic side and is a kinder man than he believes. And John Marston, a man with a troubled and painful past, trying to start anew yet consumed by the demons of his former self. Without further ado; sit back, relax grab some whiskey and keep your revolver at hand because We are going to look into the hidden meaning behind red dead redemption.

The Story

Red dead redemption 2 follows the story of the members of the infamous van der linde gang. Lead by the notorious desperado Dutch van der linde, who besides being the impersonation of charm, wit and mischief; is a father figure who has given a place in the world to a number of disgruntled and rejected children who would happily give their life for the man who raised them. The game starts with the gang running from the law after a heist gone wrong in the fictitious city of Black Water, where many civilians were caught in the crossfires. The gang, unable to settle in a permanent location, become nomads in a land filled with vicious gangs and corrupt detectives who won’t rest until Dutch and his gang are annihilated. While Arthur and his companions are looking for quick ways to make money, Dutch is devising a plan that never truly comes to fruition. Leading him to spiral out of control as the law is closing in on him, whilst the rest of the gang start to question his decisions, his motivations but most importantly his true intentions. Once it is clear who the real Dutch is, Arthur, who is suffering from a debilitating disease, decides to contradict Dutch and do all he can to make sure that John and his family make it out alive, eventually giving his life to this noble purpose. Which takes us to red dead redemption, when over a decade later John is a changed man, a farmer who is living by his own means and in complete accordance to the law. That is until the US government kidnaps his wife and Son, until john helps to capture two of his former colleagues, Javier scuela and Bill Williamson. After he fulfills this demand, the government agents learn that Dutch has been spotted nearby and once again they force John to put an end to him once and for all. Which leads to a confrontation between John and Dutch, who decides to go out of this world by his own means. John is reunited with his family once again and it seems that his past has been put to rest and he now can live a normal and peaceful life in his farm. That is until suddenly a battalion shows up at his home, and unable to fight them off, John sends his wife and son away. Accepting his fate, John dies on his feet, staring at the eyes of the men who betrayed him. And just like that the Van der linde gang was no more. Years later, Jack is able to track the man responsible for his father’s betrayal; and kills him in cold blood. Closing the circle of violence and ending the chapter of the Wild West.  

Themes/Motifs

Redemption

Arguably the most prominent theme in both games is Redemption. Despite common knowledge, redemption has a very specific definition, it is not simply a synonym for forgiveness. To redeem is to gain something you have lost, in Christianity this mainly refers to one’s soul. But the greeks had completely different idea. To them, redemption was a term used in the market. It simply meant “to purchase something”, however this term, Agorazo , was not normally used when buying trouts or tomatoes. It was used only when someone was purchasing a slave, with the implication that the buyer would free the slave afterwards. Why do any of these definitions matter? Well, in both of the red dead redemptions, the death of the main characters, despite being tragic, also are a necessary sacrifice to move the plot forward and to give the next generation, a chance at a normal life. 

This is perhaps a bit more obvious in red dead redemption 2. Arthur lived a life of crime, not caring one bit of whom he hurt, who starved to death and whose families were destroyed after he and his gang ransacked everyone they came across. Arthur was also a very honest man, he knew exactly who he was, and that gave him a unique charm that most characters lack. Unlike Dutch and some of the others who believed that the murders and robberies they committed were justified because they had an ultimate goal in mind. He was unapologetically himself, he knew he lived in a world where either you were the prey or the predator and he had absolutely no qualms about it. That is, at least, in the beginning of the game. It was only when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis that he had a bit of introspection and finally understood that perhaps there was more to life than the spoils of theft. Which is why Arthur had a complete change of heart and since he learned of his impending death, his every decision has his close friend and family in mind. When it was clear that it was only a matter of time when the law and the US army apprehended the gang, he gave his life in order to give John and his family an opportunity to escape all the chaos he had helped unleash. And it is no coincidence that in the original red dead redemption John’s fate is nearly identical. Only this time, John had become a better man for years, and his death was carried by the people who were supposed to uphold the moral high ground. With both of these protagonists, change of character was simply not enough to absolve them of their villainous past. A sin is a sin and your past is engraved on your skin. Redemption ultimately requires justice. And justice does not forgive and does not forget. 

Yet, the death of Arthur and John were not simply the consequence of a cosmic sense of justice. Just like the ancient Greeks believed, agorazo had a pretty hefty moral weight to it. You either bought a slave, kept him in chains, force him to work until exhaustion and ultimately watch him wither away. Or, you could break his chains, feed him and watch him grow and prosper as an equal member of society. What does this have anything to do with red dead redemption?  Well, there is one person in the entire series who is in a manner of speaking chained to a life of persecution and volatility. And that is Jack Marston. And he is the fundamental driving force of the redemption of both Arthur and John. Unlike them, Jack had absolutely no choice in the criminal doings of his father and the rest of the gang. Jack was born in chains, forced to depart from home to home, forced to live a life of hiding, living in fear amidst a Bulletstorm that could end his young life at any time. 

There is no denying that his father had a gruesome upbringing. Being the son of a prostitute and being sent to an orphanage at an early age, and learning to fend for himself is a task few could escape unscathed. And the fact that John was able to walk away from that life and break the cycle of violence, speaks truly of the utter fortitude and resilience of his character, which in any other epic or fantasy tale would have been enough to absolve him of his past. But not in the world of red dead redemption, where brutal choices are met by an even crueler fate. John tried to amend his past, he became a man who put his ego aside, and humbly through sweat and honest work tried to provide his son a life beyond petty crimes. But that was not enough, only by his death he was able to finally release Jack from the sins of his father.

Fatherhood

Which conveniently brings us to what perhaps may be an even greater theme in Red Dead Redemption 2, and that is fatherhood. Though the game presents itself as an action-packed drama, following a group of vandals on the run and their inevitable downfall. At its core, both of the Red Dead Redemptions tell the classic tale of the distant father and the forgotten child. First let’s take a look at the relationship between Arthur and his Father Lyle Morgan. Although we know very little about his real father. There is a small scene where Arthur has an intimate and sincere conversation with a nun, he relieves the pain of the death of his son and his mother, his lost love but when he talks about his dad, he hesitates for a moment and his voice breaks and for a second you can clearly read the sorrow on his face, and right before it seems he might drop a tear there is a burst of hatred plastered on his eyes, and this deep seeded loathing towards his dad, is what has driven Arthur to become the man he is. On the surface, it seems like Arthur found a new father figure in Dutch, which he did, Dutch is perhaps the only man who showed any kindness when he was orphaned at such a young age. But, Arthur’s choices aren’t the result of his veneration and loyalty to Dutch. Let me try to explain; during his youth Arthur met a remarkable girl, Mary Linton, and he fell in love with her. And although her family did not accept a low life like him marrying their daughter, she was more than willing to run away with him and have a normal life elsewhere. This was the first time Arthur ever considered leaving Dutch and the gang behind and start a family of his own. But ultimately he chose Dutch and his life as an outlaw over her. Even during the events of the game, where Mary and Arthur have matured into full grown adults, Mary once again proposes Arthur to leave that life behind him and be with her again. And once again Arthur chooses his life as an outlaw, closing his opportunity to be happy once and for all. But why would he chose to go back to Dutch? Well, I don’t think this has anything to with Dutch, and this all can be traced back to the broken relationship with his father. We don’t exactly know what his father did to Arthur, we can only ponder at the severity of the abuse he suffered growing up under the belt of such a horrendous man. But one thing is very clear, Arthur was completely powerless and unable to escape the rage of this petty tyrant. In Arthur’s world, revenge is an act of honor, even among liars and thieves, this is a commandment that reigns supreme above all else. And this is what Arthur craves more than anything, revenge. Revenge that will ultimately give him a sense of closure from the nightmare of his childhood. But how can you take revenge once someone has died? Well, it’s very simple… You destroy their legacy. And that is what Arthur did. He killed his legacy, and therefore, killing him metaphorically because he couldn’t do it when he was alive. His father however, didn’t have much. He didn’t have any wealth to speak of, or any property on his name; but just like the rest if us he had a lineage. A bloodline that could be shattered with ease. 

This explains the reluctancy Arthur demonstrates when it comes to having a romantic life, and the dread he faces at the prospect of being a father. Which could explain why he also refused to start anew and be a stable dad when he accidentally impregnated a waitress that gave birth to his son, Isaac. But instead he put himself in an ambivalent position, being a part time outlaw and the sporadic father who occasionally drops by to see his unplanned child. Near the end of the story we learn that his son and the Waitress were murdered all for 10 dollars and he was utterly unaware of this until he saw the graves outside  their home. It is evident that Arthur feels guilty about what happened to them, and that is what solidified his indifference towards the world. But there might be a minute part inside him that feels relief. Relief that his son has found peace, relief that his son won’t grow up to despise his absent father, and relief that the Morgan name has come to an end. And this horrible feeling of relief is what made him convince himself that he was a vile man, and no matter how many honorable acts he accomplished he cannot let himself believe he is a good man. And that is the tragedy of Arthur Morgan. A tortured man, unable to escape the shadow of his father.

Symbols

Stag/Wolf Dreams

Though there are plenty of literary symbols creeping all across the world of red dead redemption, perhaps it is Arthur’s dreams that are the most obvious . To keep it simple; if you act honorable through the game, you’ll most likely experience dreams of a young stag wandering through the lands at dawn. Otherwise, if you act in a more dubious manner, Arthur will dream of a lone wolf sneaking through the darkest of nights. Since these are dreams, perhaps they give us a mirror inside Arthur’s mind. These two creatures may not reflect who Arthur is, but who he thinks he is; but most importantly how he sees the world around him. A fierce and cruel land where either you are pray or predator, and nothing much in between. But perhaps there is more to this, the stag could represent a sacrifice. A necessary taming of your identity and as a result, you are awarded safety and freedom to live and eat the gifts of the earth. Or you could choose to remain yourself, and live a life where your ideals are not disputed or challenged. And as a result, you are relegated to live in a life of darkness, feeding on the corpses of the deceased and exiled to the deepest abyss in complete solitude. This idea could be further explore by contrasting the death of Dutch and Arthur. Dutch in the events of Red Dead Redemption 1 is literally living in a cave, unlike John, the years only made him more resentful and vicious, and he was unable to adapt or constrain his ideals in an ever-growing civilization. And he died as the wolf he had always been. At the bottom of a cliff, in the middle of winter storm, in complete reclusion. Arthur, on the other hand,  may have lived as a wolf but he died as a stag, atop a mountain, protecting the only family he had left and welcoming a new dawn.

Airplane

Though this may be a small one, the airplane is mentioned in the original red dead redemption twice, once during the opening scene of the game, and another time near the closure of John’s story arch. In both scenes, this exact same phrase was used _____. Turn men into angels… besides the obvious, (you know) making a man fly, what else could this mean? Well, I believe that airplane is symbol for the role of technology in the progression of human morality. The airplane, being the perfect conduit for mankind to lift themselves out of the mere pleasures of the earth and be amongst the clouds, literally and metaphorically. The invention of the airplane is a signal of a new era. An era where individuals will be  accountable for their actions, be it a huge criminal database, face recognition or data mining, humankind will no longer be able to hide in the underworld and eventually will be punished for their evil deeds. The airplane is a monumental symbol of the separation of men and beast, but at the same time it is a crude admission that human morality, in its own, is not enough. It’s a realization that few have an internal set of morals, and that manifests itself in the brutality of the old Western world. And only through our machines will the human spirit will be forced to be civil.

Conclusion

I know Red Dead Redemption may not be for everyone, the pacing might be a bit too slow, the controls too obtuse and the mission structure a bit archaic. But honestly, I can think only of a few video game franchises who have not sacrificed their creative integrity in exchange for a few extra dollars. I earnestly believe we are amidst a new renaissance in this media. Who would have thought a decade ago that sitting in front of your tv with a controller in your hands that you could be able to explore and experience a narrative as deep and complex as some of the great works of the past. Rockstar has crafted a beautifully brutal piece of art, through their characters, they delivered us a world that is truly grey. Where the outlaws are but a pack of broken people, unable and unwilling to assimilate to a civilization that spat on their face in their time of need. And by taming this new great continent, the spirit of man was subdued by the encroaching grip of the laws of men. And an edifice was built amidst a land once governed by nature, and the triumph of civilization meant death to anything that opposed it. 

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