Most action-adventure video games assume that you want to be the hero. Red Dead Redemption 2, however, questions what kind of hero you’re willing to be.
Technically a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, the new title from megastar publisher Rockstar Games puts you in the shoes of an outlaw living in the American West in 1899. You’re Arthur Morgan, the right-hand man and “senior gun” of silver-tongued gang leader Dutch Van Der Linde, and you’re dropped into an open-world environment, meaning you can explore the giant map, seek out activities and make relationships with people in a non-linear way.
Other games like The Witcher 3, Assasin’s Creed and Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto franchise have offered environments in which the player has freedom to discover events and characters by choosing their own path, but RDR2 is being hailed as a milestone in gaming for the sheer breadth and depth it presents. Not only can you spend dozens of hours hunting, fishing, caring for your horse and doing missions for the gang, you’re literally able to interact with any non-player character at any time.
The room for improvisation means that players, in theory, can behave as badly as they want. You can rob innocent travelers, hogtie them and throw them into a lake, despite their pleas. You can run through a town on horseback, trampling family dogs and shotgunning limbs off the lawmen pursuing you. You can even walk up to a suffragette campaigning for women’s rights and knock her unconscious, then feed her to an alligator — indeed, a streamer’s decision to do just this, and the millions of views he got for the videos, incited a controversy about how Red Dead Redemption 2 empowers you to behave.
But for each instance of a player behaving badly as Arthur, there appear to be five other stories of men who have discovered the joys of playing in a more ethical way, leaning into gentleness rather than the chaos of violence. There are limits to this, of course: Many of the missions required to progress the storyline also mandate you kill dozens of people at a time, often in epic shootouts. Yet in my two decades of gaming, I’ve never seen a reaction quite like that in countless Reddit threads and YouTube comment sections that show such sincere appreciation for the moral quandaries of a video game character, and such tenderness about his tragic story arc.
“I haven’t felt this connected to a game character before. I play in a way to do well for him,” says game-design expert Marcelo Viana Neto, who lectures on art and structure at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “And it’s his reluctance to do the things he has to on the screen. It’s like he’s telling me, ‘Yeah, you’re murdering people, and you probably don’t want me to have to do it. The video game is making you do it, and I get how painful it is.’ That’s what it feels like he’s saying. It’s quite beautiful.”
I’m not sure exactly when I lost my appetite for random violence. I used to be a hardliner about it — if I needed money, I was going to rob you, and if you refused, it meant three bullets to the face. If I greeted you and you spoke back rudely, it was grounds for a knockout fistfight. Strangers fearing my presence felt good. This is how an outlaw would command respect, I told myself.
But Rockstar has done a brilliant job in writing a story (with industry-best voiceover work featuring more than 700 actors) that narrates Arthur’s growing disillusionment with how Dutch and the gang are hurting and killing so many people. Every “last heist” is justified by Dutch as necessary for the gang to outrun the law once and for all and settle down. But with more and more blown plans, you see Arthur begin to doubt both the moral code the gang claims to abide by and his own part in weakening their integrity.
This happens when Arthur uncovers the ways he’s torn families and people apart — as with a debt-collection mission where you discover a widow whose husband died from the stress of paying back a loan to the gang. It also happens when Arthur meets other men who see uneasy, compromised peace as a better solution than ego-driven fights, as with Native American Chief Rain Falls, who struggles with his battle-ready son over the tribe’s place in America. “He’s a man who not so long ago I would have found weak and pathetic, and now I see as wise and thoughtful and sensible,” Arthur writes in his journal late in the game.
As the player, you’re privy to these internal doubts, and about halfway into the game, I realized I was playing the game differently because of them. More motivation comes from RDR2’s “honor” scale that shifts from low to high depending on the choices you make — doing chores around camp, complimenting strangers and sparing lives raises your honor, while killing innocent people and being antagonistic lowers it. I now sought out actions that would trigger a little bell chime and the icon of a white cowboy hat (showing a bump in honor), like it did after I gave money to a homeless veteran and saved a man by sucking the snake venom out of a bite.
There’s been a wealth of research done on how games that center on violence as a means to progress the plot can trigger more aggressive and antagonistic behavior, especially in men who see their character as a fantasized analogue for themselves. But the fact that RDR2 incentivizes high-honor behavior with in-game perks and more peaceful outcomes for Arthur is a rare feature for a major action game, says Andrew Smiler, a therapist and expert in masculine behavior.
“Being seen as a man of honor is one of the most highly rated components of masculinity among men in the Western world. It makes a lot of sense that having a high ‘honor’ score would be important to many male players and would influence their behavior,” he says. “But by assigning points to prosocial behavior, this game makes behaviors important that haven’t typically been valued in a video-game setting.”
Even without the literal perks, though, many players have chosen to infuse more humanity into Arthur as a statement and way to embrace the emotions he experiences. No wonder so many players say, in one way or another, that they “cried like a bitch” at the end of the game. For me, taking a gentler path affirmed a theme within the story: Arthur keeps falling into violence because of the needs of the gang, even as he dreams of escaping it himself. To eagerly go into battle time and again felt wrong, even if it was to shoot rival gang members. After all, as Arthur muses: Aren’t they outlaws justifying horrors because of their own needs, just like him?
RDR2 can test your commitment to peacemaking, as plenty of benign-seeming interactions with strangers end up with you being robbed, getting shot or worse. “RDR2 takes place in a cynical time, and it forces you to become a cynic when deciding if you want to help people,” The Verge’s Andrew Webster wrote in his glowing review of the game. So it’s remarkable to see how uncynical so many players are, and why some are even restarting the game in order to play more honorably from the beginning.
“Once I got into RDR2 and Arthur’s development, I felt like I had LESS freedom to do bad things and I started to feel terrible about it all to the point where I was almost crying every time I killed an innocent person,” writes one Redditor.
“I shot the blind old man who claims to tells you your future or something. I have never, ever felt so fucking bad for something I did in a game,” another chimed in. “I physically felt bad about it so I loaded an earlier save.”
Another player went even further: He came across an oddly friendly deer and decided to kill it, but later wondered whether it related to the buck that Arthur sees in several dreams, and then felt devastated about the thematic implications. “I never forgot that deer and it made me feel like a monster that betrayed its curiosity and trust. I wanted to take back what I did,” he wrote. “Starting then, I tried to get my honor up as high as possible and started playing like a good guy.”
RDR2 eventually makes it clear that the hyper-masculine drive to win at all costs is unsustainable and morally bankrupt, notably as Arthur observes Dutch’s willingness to convince young, angry Native American men to attack the Army, all secretly for a plan to get the gang money. This is a crisis point for our protagonist: What is Arthur, and therefore we, supposed to make of the fact that “the best man” he “ever knew” is evolving into something questionable? And how do we reconcile that with Arthur’s desire to believe that gentler instincts are the ones he should trust — despite the world, and literally the mechanics of the game, pushing us toward killing?
These kinds of questions are frequently investigated in other mediums like television or film, where the shades of moral gray and pointed questions of ethical behavior can be laid out with real complexity. But so often in video games, these themes are left by the wayside — you’re a soldier in a war, so of course you need to kill your evil nameless foes, for example.
This is still the case with Red Dead Redemption 2, but the breadth and depth of the open world that it offers, which gives the player an unlimited time to spend on peaceful activities between the mandated violence of its narrative missions, has impressed Elizabeth Swensen, a gaming professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, who is an expert on narrative and dialogue design. “Many games are interested in good and evil, and they represent that on a single scale. But the verbs of these games, if you will, are shooting, stabbing and killing. Collecting and exploring, too, but I find it curious that the biggest morality battles are still violent ones,” Swensen says. “We can show more and tell more about the value of our games by the verbs of play we choose to highlight. When designers are brave and experimental, they can get more nuanced about human nature.”
Not only is the average gamer older today than ever before, but the people who design games have matured too, adds Viana Neto. This means more people are looking for more diverse stories and a game world that allows a player to create meaning through their choices. “They want more than just excitement, freedom and power fantasies. They want to explore more what it means to be a human being,” he says. “Rockstar specifically has always tried to do social commentary, but it was a nihilistic, privileged take that mocked rather than had something sincere to say. Now, with RDR2, you see more nuance and more study of the context of conflict.”
Perhaps future open-world titles with the ambition and Hollywood budget of RDR2 will choose peacemaking over violence as a way to build plot. Regardless, it’s inspired me to seriously reconsider what it means to be a badass leading man, even in the context of the wild American West. Especially since I stumbled across one of Arthur’s last leather-bound entries. “There’s a whole lot I should have done and even more I shouldn’t have done,” he writes in his neat, pretty cursive script. “Just hope I did some good once I learnt to see the world for what it was.”