The Complexity of Redemption in Red Dead Redemption II

Everyone loves a redemption story, but few do the complex idea justice. Red Dead Redemption II differs in this. Many stories tend to focus on the nobility in redemption, and ignore the misdeeds that led to one's journey to seek it. Rockstar's open world western accurately depicts redemption's messy, subjective nature the best way a video game can: By tasking you — the player — with judging Arthur Morgan.

Rockstar’s 2018 western epic — Red Dead Redemption II — touches on many themes throughout its long, dramatic story. But none are quite as prevalent as the one on the front of the box — Redemption.

Everyone loves a redemption story; someone accepting the sins of their past and using that as fuel to be better can be inspiring to watch. However, media tends to sell a highly idealized version of redemption. Characters are often revered by their peers for their redeeming acts; their redemption is validated. One’s redemption is frequently accompanied by forgiveness; some stories even make redemption contingent on forgiveness. These ideas make for a good story, but they don’t paint a very accurate portrait of redemption.

Red Dead Redemption II is a game notable for its realism; its world is visually dazzling; great attention to detail helps Rockstar sell their vision of the frontier as a believable one. Appropriately, it handles its central theme — Redemption — in a true-to-life way by neither absolving nor condemning Arthur of his sins. Rather, it’s up to you to make that choice.

The following will contain major spoilers for the stories of Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption II.

REDEMPTION’S CAUSE

It’s important to first observe what exactly Arthur is seeking redemption from.

Arthur Morgan’s odyssey across the American west sees him commit all sorts of crimes. He kills countless outlaws and lawmen. He also robs many innocent people; one scene sees him board a train, hold passengers at gunpoint, and even beat them if they won’t hand over their money. 

Arthur Morgan robs a store owner

Arthur Morgan robs a store owner

Arthur’s most callous sin is committed when he goes to collect a debt. He beats a terminally ill man within an inch of his life as the man’s family watches; Arthur leaves the man lying in the dirt, and demands the family pay up before heading back home.

The game indicates that Arthur has been doing this for years. Through these years, Arthur has maintained that his crimes are just; he’s committing them in the name of the Van der Linde gang, who started with the noble intention of helping those in need. Arthur still believes in the founding principles of the gang; he doesn’t know life without them. 

The Van der Linde gang is the closest thing Arthur has to a family

The Van der Linde gang is the closest thing Arthur has to a family

But as society transformed the American frontier in the late 19th century, the gang changed too. Leader Dutch Van der Linde grows increasingly corrupt as the story progresses; he murders a young woman during a botched robbery. He later feeds a man to an alligator in an act of vengeance. To get the government off of the gang’s back, he even manipulates a tribe of Native Americans into starting a war with the Army that ends with the tribe losing several lives, and the land they call home; meanwhile, Dutch would go on to live for another 12 years before meeting his demise in Red Dead Redemption.

Dutch’s depravity shakes Arthur’s faith. He recognizes that his crimes aren’t committed in the pursuit of a righteous ideology; rather, it’s one that is morally bankrupt. He feels betrayed. A physical pain — Tuberculosis — accompanies his emotional anguish.

Both Arthur and the player know that he’s going to die; and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.

 

With his actions re-contextualized and his demise on the horizon, Arthur resolves to spend what time he has left acting in opposition to the selfish ideals that were used to manipulate him.

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

It’s a sobering feeling when you realize Arthur is going to die. It’s even more frightening when considering how large Red Dead Redemption II is. You can reach the end of Arthur’s story and not even experience half of what this game has to offer.

The world of Red Dead Redemption II is vast

The world of Red Dead Redemption II is vast

Upon realizing Arthur was on borrowed time, I halted all story progress and tried to exhaust all of the side-content I could before proceeding. I wanted Arthur to “see the world” before he kicked the bucket. In my travels, I made Arthur help every stranger I could come across. I watched Arthur donate money to the homeless, help a pair of young lovers escape the clutches of their warring families, and befriend a wounded, lonely veteran.

By the time Arthur took his last breath, I felt as if Arthur — guided by my actions and choices — had done enough good to be redeemed. But the game never accepted or rejected my conclusion. The epilogue, set years after Arthur’s sacrifice, shows that the world has moved on without him; he’s pretty much lost to time, and if history isn’t going to judge him, you have to.

“Is Arthur a good person now?” 

“Is Arthur redeemed?” 

“How is one redeemed?”

The above questions have no concrete answers; players have to evaluate their time spent playing as Arthur to come up with their own. This underscores two key elements of redemption: it’s a personal undertaking, and what it means to be “redeemed” is subjective

To Help or to Hinder — this is the choice Arthur faces with each town he crosses

To Help or to Hinder — this is the choice Arthur faces with each town he crosses

My idea of redeeming Arthur was to have him be a force for good. I still believe my actions led Arthur to redemption. Others might think simply dying for a cause is enough for redemption. But some might posit that Arthur is in too deep — that he’s an irredeemable outlaw. In the end, the game doesn’t validate any of these conclusions; it lets you make that call based on your own view of redemption, and tasks you with finding the evidence.

REDEEMED, BUT NOT FORGIVEN

Media loves to romanticize redemption. A classic example is seen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi; the villainous Darth Vader turns good in the final moments of his life as he defeats the evil Emperor Palpatine. This same Darth Vader previously led a tyrannical takeover of the galaxy and was complicit in the destruction of an entire planet. But the conclusion of Return of the Jedi completely ignores Vader’s past transgressions after he commits his one heroic deed; the film acts as if this one good act was enough to both forgive and forget about the evil committed by Darth Vader, evident when Vader appears as a Force Ghost — an afterlife fate reserved for the heroic Jedi.

Red Dead Redemption II doesn’t use redemption as a means of voiding Arthur’s sins. Rather, the game reminds you of them constantly.

Arthur eventually encounters Edith Downes — the widow of the terminally ill man Arthur beat up earlier. It’s evident that Edith and her son’s life has gone downhill. They’re poor; they have to work dangerous, low-paying jobs in a shady town all because Arthur just couldn’t forgive the debt.

Arthur feels bad, so he tries to do right by the family. He saves the son from a hostile situation at his coal mining job, and also prevents harm from coming to Edith when a sketchy figure leads her out into the woods. 

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Mission #69 - Do Not Seek Absolution II [Gold Medal]

The family greets Arthur with resentment. Edith doesn’t want his apology; her husband is dead. It doesn’t matter how many people Arthur helps or how willing he is to lift the family out of poverty; he still broke this family. Edith makes it clear that she will never forgive Arthur.

She simply says “All you can do now is decide the man you want to be, for the time you have left.”

Edith’s presence in Arthur’s life serves as a reminder that redemption doesn’t equal forgiveness, nor should those seeking redemption expect forgiveness. Some transgressions can’t be rectified; sometimes all you can do recognize your wrongs, and resolve to be better. But still, the past remains.

In Red Dead Redemption II, Rockstar explores redemption in a straightforward, honest way. Arthur’s journey for redemption embraces the subjective nature of redemption; you’re asked to judge him based on your actions, but encouraged to not dismiss the trauma he’s inflicted. It paints a realistic portrait of redemption that depicts the complexities surrounding redemption with exquisite detail.

(YouTube video uploaded by GTA Series Video)

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