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Red Dead Redemption 2 - camp at sunrise Rockstar Studios/Rockstar Games

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Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer breakdown: what we learned

A turn-of-the-century tale

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Rockstar Games dropped a new trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 this morning, and after watching it a few dozen times, we know much more about the game than we did yesterday.

Well, OK. Maybe not much more. But some more, at least!

The second trailer is about 50 percent longer than the first one, which Rockstar released more than 11 months ago — two days after officially announcing Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar also sent out a one-line story synopsis confirming that the game is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption, saying that it is “the story of outlaw Arthur Morgan and the Van Der Linde gang as they rob, fight and steal their way across the vast and rugged heart of America in order to survive.”

There’s more fodder for discussion in the trailer. Let’s dive in and see what we can glean from the footage!

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption.]

The second trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to Red Dead Redemption

Ever since Rockstar began teasing Red Dead Redemption 2, fans have been theorizing that the game will take place before the events of Red Dead Redemption. We analyzed the hints, some of which were much more in the realm of conjecture than evidence, and came away feeling confident in the idea. So it’s nice to see it confirmed with today’s trailer!

Red Dead Redemption 2 will focus on the outlaw gang led by Dutch van der Linde. If that name sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably played Red Dead Redemption. Van der Linde used to be the ringleader of the band of outlaws known as Dutch’s Gang, and John Marston — the game’s protagonist — was once a member of that gang. In Red Dead Redemption, which takes place after the group has disbanded, federal agents take Marston’s wife and son hostage. They agree to release Marston’s family only if he hunts down his former cohorts one by one: Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella and Dutch himself.

Until now, we didn’t know of any members of Dutch’s Gang besides those four men (except for Abigail Marston, a prostitute who hung around the gang; she and John later got married). Back in the group’s heyday, the gang terrorized banks across the West, with Dutch justifying murder and other crimes by subscribing to a Robin Hood-esque philosophy of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

The second trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 introduces us to Arthur Morgan, an outlaw who rides with Dutch’s Gang. Since the gang no longer exists by the time of Red Dead Redemption, which is set in 1911, it stands to reason that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel. Take a look back at Dutch’s appearance in the original game, where he’s a middle-aged man who feels like his time is past. Compare it to the way he looks in the new trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2. He’s the picture of health, with a stocky frame and a full head of dark hair that hasn’t yet been touched by gray streaks.

Red Dead Redemption - Dutch van der Linde
A middle-aged Dutch van der Linde speaks with John Marston in Red Dead Redemption.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Dutch van der Linde
A younger Van der Linde in Red Dead Redemption 2, asking his enforcer, Arthur Morgan, if he can count on his support.
Rockstar Games

Of course, there’s also the fact that Dutch commits suicide at the climax of Red Dead Redemption’s story. In other words, there’s no way that Red Dead Redemption 2 can focus on Dutch’s Gang unless it takes place before Red Dead Redemption.

It’s not clear exactly how many years elapse between the two games, but Dutch’s appearance provides some clues. In the original Red Dead Redemption, he looks to be around 50. We don’t know if the Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer represents Dutch at his age throughout the whole game, but in this particular cutscene, he doesn’t look like a fresh-faced young man. We’d guess that the prequel is set 10-15 years before Red Dead Redemption, right around the turn of the 20th century.

Arthur Morgan is the main character of Red Dead Redemption 2

Once people began to speculate that Red Dead Redemption 2 was a prequel, their minds quickly went to the next logical conclusion: that we’d all be playing as John Marston in Dutch’s Gang, back in the days before he renounced his murdering and robbing ways. But that’s not the case. Instead, players will be stepping into the cowboy boots of a new outlaw named Arthur Morgan.

Morgan appears to be an enforcer for the gang, but not necessarily — or at least, not primarily — in the “muscle” sense. In the trailer, he looks to be something of a debt collector, checking in on deadbeats who owe money to Dutch’s Gang. Morgan speaks in the kind of heavy Southern drawl you’d expect from a plantation owner, and now that we’ve seen him in action, it seems that he was the person whose voice-over graced the debut trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 last October.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur threatening a young man
Arthur Morgan (right) is not a man to be trifled with.
Rockstar Games

Arthur Morgan is kind of an asshole

The very first thing we see Arthur Morgan do in the new Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer is wake up a guy and ask him to pay back money he owes to Dutch’s Gang — while sipping the man’s soup, no less. Morgan shakes down a different man near the end of the trailer, grabbing him by the straps of his overalls and shouting “where’s our money?!” into his face.

During the sequence in the image above, Morgan threatens a young man’s life: “Maybe when your mother’s finished mourning your father, I’ll keep her in black — on your behalf.”

Damn, that’s cold.

This potentially complicates the narrative in Red Dead Redemption 2, and some of the themes from the previous game. In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston had left his life of crime behind — he settled down at a ranch with his wife, Abigail, where they became homesteaders and raised their son, John. He was a reformed criminal, until federal agents forced him out of retirement. And despite being thrown into dire circumstances that nobody should have to deal with, Marston remained a gentleman, tipping his Stetson as he walked around towns and resorting to violence only when provoked.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur shaking down a guy
Fall behind on your loan payments, and you’ll get a visit from Arthur the Money Man.
Rockstar Games

Sure, you could play Red Dead Redemption like a jerk, shooting up saloons and murdering anyone who came across your path. But Marston’s calm attitude and his sympathetic story encouraged players to act in accordance with his character. Hell, it was in the game’s very title: The man was seeking redemption for his past sins.

As in many action video games, players spent a lot of time killing people in Red Dead Redemption. But it went further than most games do in justifying that violence beyond a simple revenge tale, and in interrogating the outlaw life itself. From what little we’ve seen of Red Dead Redemption 2’s Morgan, it seems he may hew much closer to the archetypal video game protagonist: a murderous asshole. What will Morgan’s “redemption” be, if any? Does this game bear that name for branding purposes alone, or will it earn the title?

There’s gators in them bayous

The varied world of Red Dead Redemption 2 includes a swamp environment, and the presence of alligators suggests that it’s a bayou. Immediately after a gator snatches up a pig, we see three men wading through wetlands under the moon. That’s quite the scene in and of itself, but it hints at a couple of tantalizing possibilities for the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - wading through the bayou
Something tells us these men are up to no good.
Rockstar Studios/Rockstar Games

Although there were bodies of water in Red Dead Redemption, it was impossible to swim in them. That may change for the prequel, although we don’t know the extent of the game’s aquatic interactions. Is this scene a one-time deal, with the characters making their way through a swamp just for this cutscene? Can you only go as far as hip-deep wading, or is there full-on swimming? Is it possible to dive under the surface, or are you forced to keep your head above the water?

The presence of the bayou environment in today’s trailer is perhaps more notable for lending further credence to an old leak. In April 2016, an image purporting to be the world map for Red Dead Redemption 2 showed up on NeoGAF. The leak was corroborated by TechRadar, which cited “a source close to the development of the new Red Dead game” in reporting that the game would take place before Red Dead Redemption.

Part of that game’s world appeared on the purported Red Dead Redemption 2 map. The northeast portion of Red Dead Redemption’s setting — the West Elizabeth territory, which consists of the Tall Trees and Great Plains regions — sat in the southwest corner of the leaked map. In addition, there was a city called New Bordeaux by the bayou area of the map. A city of the same name appeared in 2016’s Mafia 3 — a title published by 2K Games, which is part of the same parent company as Rockstar.

Red Dead Redemption 2 map leak
The leaked world map for Red Dead Redemption 2.

In Mafia 3, which takes place in 1968, New Bordeaux is a stand-in for New Orleans. Much of Red Dead Redemption is set in Nuevo Paraíso (aka Mexico), which is located south of the San Luis River. In the real world, of course, the Rio Grande separates Mexico from the state of Texas. So if Red Dead Redemption 2 takes players northeast of Red Dead Redemption’s setting, then it makes sense that an approximation of Louisiana — which is located roughly northeast of the Rio Grande — would exist in the game.

Nothing that looks like Mexico appears in the new trailer, and the original Red Dead Redemption didn’t explicitly use the names of U.S. states because its environment was an amalgamation of settings from the American West. But Morgan does refer to states in general in the trailer, saying, “We got lawmen in three different states after us. They chased us from the west, they’ve chased us over the mountains ...”

Looking at the Gulf Coast region, the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 might have analogs for three real-life states: Louisiana, which is where the bayou is; Texas, which lies to the west; and Arkansas, which has the Ozark Mountains. Of course, things start to get muddy when you try to make direct comparisons like that, since we’re not expecting anything like a GPS-accurate geography. But it’s a reference point, at least.

Gators are dicks, and horses have big balls

When it launched in May 2010, the original Red Dead Redemption offered some of the most lifelike animals ever seen in gaming to that point. That appears to be just as true in Red Dead Redemption 2, which looks to have an even greater variety of wildlife: horses, birds, deer, buffaloes, pigs, bears, alligators and more. And Rockstar is going to great lengths to animate these creatures in full:

It’s amazing what the power of current-generation consoles can do, isn’t it?

What about John Marston?

Sure, that’s technically a question, not something we “learned” per se. But it’s a question worth debating, now that we know a bit about the characters and setting of Red Dead Redemption 2.

Rockstar’s previous game, 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5, broke the mold by offering three playable characters that you could switch between at will. All indications point to Arthur Morgan being the sole protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2, but we can’t say for sure at this point. What if we can play as Morgan and other members of Dutch’s Gang?

That raises a bigger question: Where will John Marston fit into this game?

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston aiming revolver
John Marston in Red Dead Redemption.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

Marston doesn’t appear in today’s trailer, as far as we can tell. And we don’t know enough about the history of Dutch’s Gang — or the Red Dead chronology — to say whether Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place when Marston is a member of the group. There’s always the chance that he didn’t join Dutch’s Gang until after Morgan was gone, or perhaps they were part of the squad concurrently but Rockstar is just keeping Marston’s tale under wraps.

Our old pal’s role in Red Dead Redemption 2 could be as minor as an oblique reference or a tiny cameo, or as big as a major character, or anywhere in between. We’ll have to wait until spring 2018, when the game is scheduled to launch on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, to find out.

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