When Rockstar showed off the first non-teaser trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2, I got worried. Sure, the game was gorgeous. Nobody ever expected this game to not be gorgeous, and the developer appeared to be delivering there. We’ve got stunning vistas, exquisitely-detailed revolvers and grizzled faces, as well as that cinematic flair Rockstar has always managed in its open world crime games. But I was a little worried about Arthur Morgan, the new protagonist and member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang. This was a game about being an old west outlaw, and from that trailer, it looked like Arthur Morgan was going to fill out that role: a true scoundrel.
That wasn’t what I wanted out of this game. GTA V succeeded in a lot of ways, but its main characters were unlikable to the point where the campaign became a cringey slog where I could enjoy myself so long as none of the characters opened their mouths. There’s always an essential conflict at the heart of these games — you’ve got to play an ultraviolent, morally questionable character that you nonetheless want to spend 40+ hours with — but GTA V handled it worse than most.
I was afraid we were going down the same road with Arthur Morgan, which is a shame because the original Red Dead Redemption handled protagonist John Marston with such grace. The new trailer, released today, seems to address this concern to some degree. Yes, he’s still a brutal outlaw, but at least we’re getting some indication of a moral conflict in there, and that such an idea is even present helps things along. From the description:
The end of the wild west era has begun as lawmen hunt down the last remaining outlaw gangs. Those who will not surrender or succumb are killed.
After a robbery goes badly wrong in the western town of Blackwater, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are forced to flee. With federal agents and the best bounty hunters in the nation massing on their heels, the gang must rob, steal and fight their way across the rugged heartland of America in order to survive. As deepening internal divisions threaten to tear the gang apart, Arthur must make a choice between his own ideals and loyalty to the gang who raised him.
So Morgan is a character raised outside the law beginning to question the morality of sticking with the murderous Dutch Van Der Linde: not what you’d call original, but Westerns thrive on established myth more than originality. And this one I can definitely work with. Watch the whole trailer below:
The good/bad man is an essential Western archetype — in college I argued that it was an adaptation of Byron’s pirates driven by Buffalo Bill author Ned Buntline’s fixation on the British poet, but I’m sorry I mentioned that and I’ll stop now. The character is a good answer to a problem a lot of games struggle with, but it’s easy to mess up: if they’re too good, the violence doesn’t make sense and they’re not all that compelling, but if they’re too bad they just wind up unlikable. We’ll see if Morgan strikes the right balance, but it’s refreshing to see Rockstar is at least aware of what it has to do.