Red Dead Redemption II is an Allegory for America
I often feel bad that so many people are cut off from video game art. Whether its because of negative stereotypes about gaming and gamers (often well deserved) or because of lack of interest and capability to play video games themselves. People are missing out on beautiful stories, characters, and cinematography.
There’s a lot about RDR2 I can talk about. The beautiful American landscape it encapsulates (if I am using that word right). From snowcapped mountains to the wooded forests teaming with life. Or perhaps I can talk about the rich and developed characters (granted the game affords you almost 60hrs to get to know them). Complicated complex humans. Some falling into the darkest depths of humanity. Others climbing to get out, hence the word “redemption.”
And its themes. To me, it’s a story of America.
Perhaps because of the fact that video games are ignored as art forms, this and other games are allowed the freedom to be blunt in their expressions. RDR2 is blunt in its criticisms of America. The ugly truth of the genocide of Native Americans by American soldiers is not hidden, scrubbed, nor ignored like it would be in a film.
RDR2, like its predecessor RDR, follows the story of a bad man seeking to redeem himself. Arthur Morgan, is not a good man. He robs, he steals, he kills, and he will run through anyone who gets in his way. He beats a man sick with tuberculosis bloody in front of his child and wife. After the poor man dies, Arthur comes back to collect the money his loan shark friend had conned the family into. And when the child talks back to him, Arthur threatens to kill the kid by telling him his mother oughta keep the black dress she bought for his father’s funeral and wear it at the kid’s funeral.
But, as the game progresses, and you control him, you learn he’s capable of good. He’s a loyal friend. He rescues innocent people from harm while risking his own life. He helps lift others out of poverty. He aids a church in helping others. He also ends up struggling to go out of his way to help that child and his mother escape the poverty he sent them into. And eventually, he ends up sacrificing his life to get a man, a woman, and their child out of their outlaw life to safety.
His redemption isn’t secured because the story excuses his actions. In fact, the story enacts an almost biblical punishment on Arthur. You know that man he beat half to death that had tuberculosis? Arthur ends up contracting it. The price for his crimes: a death sentence. What the story does for the character is show he’s capable of doing good. It showcases that wrongs can never be justified but that people are and always will be just as capable of doing good acts.
Here’s where I believe Arthur’s (and John’s for you RDR fans) story parallels America.
America enslaved Black Americans. Legalized it. Justified it. And extracted the fruits of their labor from the blood and sweat by lash. Manifest destiny excused genocide of Native Americans and stealing their land. America inflicted great evils.
But America is also still capable of great good. And you need great people to do so. When Arthur begins to commit good acts, he sacrifices himself for others and is pushed and motivated by others as well. Those two components are necessary: good people to push those with power, and those with power willing to sacrifice themselves for others.
There are evils in America. But there are also those that push America to commit good. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King. All imperfect men who labored to do a good. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and enacted anti-racist policies, but only after he was pushed and motivated by Americans like Douglass to do so. Same with JFK. MLK had to pressure and push JFK to do the right thing, to raise the issue of Civil Rights to a moral level. And Lincoln and Kennedy did so for other people. They were not men who faced the pain of slavery and segregation. But they had empathy. And they were pushed.
And that’s what can arguably redeem America for its sins. Like Arthur, we need those with power to listen and sacrifice for others. And like the other characters in RDR2 who push Arthur to do what is right, we need people to push each other to do good. To pressure, prod, and motivate.
However, the additional question the game adds is, can we ever really redeem ourselves? Can we escape our past sins? In the games, both Arthur and John die. Arguably because of their past sins. Their past caught up to them, and they could never escape it. Yet, their memories of doing what is right and good live on. By the end of both games, you remember more of the good they did towards the end of their lives than the bad they did. So did they redeem their selves by the time they died? Is their redemption the effects of the good they did? Is their redemption the memory and lessons to do good?
What is fundamentally presented is: As long as we are capable of evil, we are also capable of great good.
America is capable of a great good. It’s on us to push it to do so. To recognize that Black Lives Matter. That LGBTQ rights are Human Rights. That Voting Rights are Universal. And that we have the power to help those in need. And we have to put those in power that are empathetic and sympathetic not just for those they know but for complete strangers as well.
America must be guided on its path towards redemption. Much how John and Arthur were guided on their paths.