With a new Rockstar game coming out last month, the hype centers around what most usually expect; a massive open world, intense gunfights and the possibility of answers to what life was like for the Dutch van der Linde gang. What is surprising is that the most revolutionary facet of Red Dead Redemption 2 is its main character, Arthur Morgan. Arthur is not only one of Rockstar’s deepest and most nuanced characters, but has set the bar for character work by far in any triple A video game.
When RDR2 was first announced, most people (including me) were bummed that you would be playing as another boring white dude cowboy. Especially with how whitewashed life during the West was in most media, it would have been exciting to see the premiere Western game take a stab at something new. Rockstar thankfully addresses these issues by making Arthur more developed and giving space for the female and minority characters to shine.
A main feature of RDR2 is your camp, a free space where the player can interact with other gang members, complete chores or just chill from the general chaos of western life. Some previous characters include Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston, an apathetic young man who does not care for his wife and child. The camp allows for the most personal moments with the gang, with Arthur helping the other members look for lost items or even just go out fishing. You can also spend time reading Arthurs journal, where you can get Arthurs more personal views on the action and characters he interacts with.
What makes RDR2 stand out might seem like a simple one; the ability to allow the player to fully interact with the world through conversation. By holding down the left trigger to any person in the game, Arthur can greet someone with a friendly gesture or antagonize them with a series of verbal jabs. The outcomes are also up to chance, with some people stopping to hold a conversation with Arthur for a bit or toughen up as if they are anticipating a fight.
This conversation system allows the player to truly role-play the character of Arthur as they see fit besides just picking out the clothes he wears and horses he rides. Even with all this freedom however Arthur never forgets his roots; he is a killer and thief. Many times characters will thank Arthur for aiding them and call him a good man, which he always renounces. No matter what he does, he cannot escape the man he truly is.
Arthur is a man who has made mistakes, and takes his anger at himself out on others. At the start of the game Arthur and John Marston seem to butt heads, given they both seem to be vying for gang leader Dutch’s fatherly affection. Later in the game we learn that Arthur had a child with a woman, but instead of staying with them he decides to stay with his gang and occasionally visit. He arrives one day to see the woman and his child have been killed in a robbery, by the same sort of men as he is.
Instead of thinking his anger is at wanting to be the best for Dutch, it is seeing John with his family that Arthur no longer has. Arthur knows he cannot have that kind of life, but seeing John throw his family away fuels his jealousy. Arthur also has various interactions with a past lover, and you can see the contempt he has with himself at not being able to forgo his criminal life and be with her. In addition all these moments are small side and one off moments, very easy to miss if you are not paying attention compared to most games which will make sure the player always knows what is going on.
A lot of the emotional resonance from Arthur is thanks in part to Roger Clark’s portrayal, who easily stands out amongst the cast. He really pushes Arthurs character from just gruff cowboy to a deeply flawed man with a gripping emotional core. Clark helps fully connect the gameplay moments to the story, instead of having a character with two opposing sides depending on if the player has control or not it feels like one fully fleshed person.
Gang members Charles Smith and Sadie Adler are two characters that get the most spotlight compared to Arthur that strike a hope for a future Rockstar to include more female and minority protagonists in their games. I am slightly worried because Rockstar had the opportunity to allow the player to play as either towards the end of the game, but choose a more obvious option. If Rockstar really cares about promoting minority characters they would make the same effort they had for Arthur with them, which does not mean making pretty stereotypic characters again like CJ from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that knocks it out of the park for reasons probably not too popular for the average player. It still indulges in its classic movie references and bombastic action set pieces, but what really makes it work are the quiet moments of self-reflection. For a man whose world is slowly slipping through his fingers, Arthur Morgan both understands embraces the inevitable conclusion in a way unseen in most games.