There’s a striking contrast at the heart of Red Dead Redemption 2’s story, a jarring mismatch between visual excellence and narrative incompetence.
Here is a Wild West world of intricate detail and nature’s beauty that is somehow populated by a ridiculous ensemble of tired caricatures. From gang members to villains to walk-on side characters, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a cavalcade of cowboy clichés, a zombified parade of baseline archetypes we’ve all seen many times before who never manage to break from the molds in which they were cast.
[Ed. note: The following contains minor spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2.]
Take Susan Grimshaw, as just one example. She’s the gang’s busty frontierswoman, who’ll always find a way to mother her charges, barely tolerating their wayward antics. But don’t cross her, because she’ll turn angry she-bear, cock her shotgun and protect her cubs no matter what.
This paragon of (older) womanly strength exists to offer support and wisdom to the male hero. You’ve seen her before as Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie, Mrs. Jorgensen in The Searchers and Mrs. Claggett in Destry Rides Again.
But Susan offers us no quirks, no wry, ironic self-deprecation, no surprises. She’s literally a walking cliché.
Same goes for Sadie Adler. She’s been hurt by men, but she’s a rootin’-tootin’ wildcat who’ll skin any fool who gets in her way. This vengeance character is familiar from Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West and Sweetwater, but is a familiar trope in just about every genre.
The list goes on. Leopold Strauss is a slightly sinister money lender complete with a German accent and a taste for cruelty. Reverend Swanson is the drunken, self-loathing padre. Josiah Trelawny is an affectatious dandy, a gentleman thief with swell togs and a crisp English accent.
Taken individually, the thinness of these central-casting characters is just about tolerable. But the entire story revolves around cardboard caricatures doing exactly what you’d expect them to do.
It’s difficult for me to think of a single character in this game who I haven’t seen before, and mostly seen done better. There are no surprises, no introspection, no sense of any inner life. Characters are not allowed to deviate from their archetypal roots.
Rockstar has drawn its characters like so many static assets. A lank-haired, long-faced racist villain with a drawling accent is about as imaginative as a cottonwood tree. Rockstar’s only concession to the cliché of Micah Bell is giving the man a white hat instead of a black one.
Here’s what I can’t figure out. Rockstar is a rich company run by commercially successful developers. Is it possible that its writers don’t understand the absurdly flimsy nature of these characters? Or have they purposefully created a world of clichés, perhaps believing that this is what the players want? Are these characters purposefully presented as cutouts, as some kind of aid to the player? Or as something the creators have included as targets for some ill-advised genre critique?
Because no matter how hard I look, I can’t find anything remotely real or interesting about any of these characters.
Perhaps the most ridiculous are Native American father and son Rain Falls and Eagle Flies. Pop is a sad-eyed elder, weary with the world and willing to compromise. Junior is a hothead, eager to deal a bloody nose to his people’s oppressors.
The first time we see these guys they are (you guessed it) sitting on horseback on a ridge, overlooking the traveling band of heroes.
If you saw these two in a movie or a TV show, you’d likely roll your eyes. Critics would express incredulity at their shallowness. We’ve seen them again and again for more than a century, from Nanook of the North to Dances With Wolves. They are grotesque cigar-store statues wheeled out as sorry stand-ins for characters with real heart, real histories and real depths.
The problem, I think, is that every character in this game exists in order to highlight some positive aspect of protagonist Arthur Morgan’s personality. With the Native Americans. he’s sympathetic, without being a do-gooder chump. With Susan, he’s teasing and affectionate. With Sadie, he’s generously impressed with her spunk.
This reveals the central flaw in Red Dead Redemption 2’s story, which is that Arthur barely registers as a coherent personality. He’s just a series of encounters in which he gets to look like a laconically growling tough guy with his heart in the right place.
This lack of tangible personality renders the central relationship, with gang boss Dutch van der Linde, as a ridiculous mess. The story makes no sense.
Dutch is a manipulative blowhard who is a mentor to Arthur. It’s clear from the beginning that Arthur will grow disillusioned with Dutch’s moral leadership. This raises the narrative problem of creating a series of conflicts through which Arthur can make the journey from loyal right-hand man to doubter and then to outright rebel.
In one moment of personal crisis, Arthur witnesses Dutch murder a gangster kingpin. We’re supposed to believe that Arthur — a man who’s killed hundreds of people — is shocked at this act of barbarism. But it doesn’t work, because killing the highly dangerous gangster, whatever the method, is definitely the right move for Dutch.
So not only is Arthur a sucker for believing in Dutch’s self-serving bullshit from the start, he’s wrong about his boss’s allegedly moral failings. Arthur gradually turns into a whiner who moans about the boss with anyone who’ll listen.
The writers want us to be invested in Arthur’s tussle between his loyalty to the gang, and his growing disillusion with Dutch. But the central relationship between the two only makes sense if you believe that Arthur is a moron. And yet, of course, in his individual encounters with the world, Arthur is smart, an almost flawless human paragon, a male fantasy of a canny tough guy, but with feelings.
Rockstar then commits an awful gaffe by enlisting one of the most hackneyed devices in Wild West writing: the noble stag. In dream sequences, Arthur sees this symbol of courage, independence and majesty. It’s laughable stuff, delivered with childish earnestness.
The Western has always stood as a great stage for exploring a wide range of moral dilemmas. It’s an arena for cowardice, hypocrisy, obsession, intolerance and cruelty. As such, it’s given us some wonderful, complex characters like Mattie Ross, Ethan Edwards and Woodrow Call.
But its success as a genre has also created a notorious cast of clichés that are now so familiar that they’re beyond parody, useful to writers only insofar they can be dismantled, corrupted and refreshed.
Red Dead Redemption 2 makes no effort to add anything to these characters, relying instead on their bullet-point personalities to carry a nonsensical tale of misplaced loyalty.
This game is an admirable showcase in the literal world building of sidewalks, mountains and bears. But as a basic story, it reveals an insultingly cavalier grasp of human nature. It is a world of two-dimensional, shooting range cutouts, falsely presented as a stage of human relationships.