Opinion – Red Dead Redemption II's Sophisticated Narrative Is Rockstar's Best
Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption II are in this article. If you haven't completed the campaign, tread carefully.
“You have no idea, Arthur,” Dutch says, his determined and defensive voice echoing off the cave walls in front of him. “I will do whatever it takes for us to survive.”
The threads holding the gang together are loosening, as the once-strong Van der Linde gang finds themselves stranded on a Caribbean island after being stowaways on a ship. Arthur and Dutch scale a cliff and then head into an ominous cave to continue their unpredictable journey. With only the flicker of torchlights to guide them, the darkness feels appropriate; how could Arthur possibly know what lies ahead?
Arthur shakes his head, but not in disbelief – he knows Dutch means every word. “I guess that’s what I’m afraid of,” he admits.
This scene from Red Dead Redemption II speaks volumes about Rockstar’s approach to storytelling in its wildly successful open-world Western. With well-placed dialogue and subtlety, it shows even Dutch’s right-hand man casting doubt on the leader, and how Dutch is losing sight of what’s right. It foreshadows chaos without the need for unrealistic, jaw-dropping shock value – a cheap tactic that developer Rockstar has employed frequently in franchises like Bully and Grand Theft Auto.
Red Dead Redemption II leaves Rockstar’s signature shock value behind, trading it for a fantastic slow-paced narrative and characters that appropriately reflect their grim world. It’s noticeable in Red Dead’s approach to humor, too. While Grand Theft Auto makes satire out of the outrageous, Red Dead Redemption II is sarcastic and cynical. It’s a welcome shift, showing that grounded humor and sophisticated storytelling in games doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can make the experience all that more immersive when characters align believably with the setting.
“As long as we get paid or you get shot, I’m happy,” Arthur retorts to fellow gang member Bill Williamson before they head out on another job. It’s a line that suggests resentment toward Bill, but more so, it’s reflective of how bleak the outlaw rut can be.
And boy, it can be bleak – and not always as action-packed as you might think. Red Dead Redemption II is the slowest-paced Rockstar game out there, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The intro is quiet, gradually establishing relationships in the gang and displaying how beholden Arthur and the rest of the crew are to Dutch’s promises. Missions aren’t finished in quick succession, either – they’re sandwiched between long, contemplative rides on your horse. It’s a different approach to the bombastic action most Rockstar games are filled with, but I believe it serves the story well to have moments of respite. These elements show Rockstar’s true potential as a sophisticated storyteller without relying on juvenile themes.
For example, “outrageous” and “chaotic” are synonymous with Grand Theft Auto V. While some plot points effectively make for interesting social commentary or entertaining gameplay, others feel egregious, such as the infamous scene of Trevor inflicting torture that does little to foster the story.
The same can be said for moments in the original Red Dead Redemption. While it continued Rockstar’s tonal shift that mostly began with Grand Theft Auto IV, many missions were still riddled with juvenile humor. John Marston’s fight to abandon his criminal past while his family is in the grasp of the law is a beautifully-woven tale, though many elements distract from it. Characters like Seth, a grave robber and suspected necrophiliac, and Irish, whose jarring traits reflect some of the worst stereotypes of his nationality, bring little insight to themselves, others, or to their world. Their ridiculous quirks may bring laughs, but they aren’t what makes Red Dead Redemption memorable.
Red Dead Redemption II proves that Rockstar doesn’t need crude humor to make a worthwhile story. The moments that are less mature make sense in context, such as the women in camp singing profanity-filled songs around the fire while drunk. Red Dead Redemption II’s violence is similar, with the bloodshed always serving a bigger purpose. Leaving Strawberry in ruin gives insight to Micah’s unpredictability and, later on, Dutch feeding crime boss Angelo Bronte to bayou gators is one of the striking signs of his increased instability, moving the story forward to his failure as a leader.
Certain violent scenes that you would expect to be glorified, like when Hosea and Lenny are shot dead, are portrayed as quick moments overshadowed by the surrounding turmoil instead of built into an emotional cutscene. Others that are glorified, like Kieran’s headless body riding into camp, are impactful and come at a precise moment: it signifies a dark turning point. Despite rescuing Jack and a recent successful ship heist, things unravel quickly after Kieran's death. Every narrative piece in Red Dead Redemption II feels carefully placed and thoughtful, instead of action or lewd jokes shoehorned in (like Seth commenting on a horse’s testicles in the first Red Dead).
The first Red Dead Redemption already showcased Rockstar’s ability to weave a sophisticated narrative, but this second entry is miles ahead, with very little of those previous distractions. It’s not that satire or obscenity is unwarranted or completely removed – it’s the Wild West after all – but those moments are best suited with believable characters. With Red Dead Redemption II, Rockstar’s approach to realism and sophistication make its characters and world come to life in spectacular ways.