Note: This piece contains spoilers for the endings of both Red Dead Redemption 2 and the original. Major, you-don’t-want-to-read-these spoilers. This is your last warning – turn around if you haven’t watched the credits roll yet.
The notion of the old west as experienced in Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2 – a land ravaged by bandits, gangs, quick-draw shootouts, saloon showdowns and the general feeling that you could die at any moment – is one born of myth, the iconography we associate with this period largely exaggerated. The hats that most of the van der Linde gang wear were not typical of the period – the bowler hats sported by the Pinkerton agents were far more common. Between 1860 and 1890, existing evidence suggests that there were only 15 bank heists that occurred in total across fifteen states. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the most historically famous gun fight associated with this period, lasted 30 seconds and resulted in three casualties.
Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 never purports to be a realistic depiction of the real world – even the area it’s set in is explicitly fictionalised. It’s the cinematic wild west that Red Dead wants to recreate, the wild west directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, and it does a damn good job of it.
In cinema, the Western genre influenced, and then was later influenced by, the jidaigeki (samurai films) of Japan. Most famously, two of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest samurai films were later remade as Westerns – Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, and Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars (The Hidden Fortress greatly inspired Star Wars, too, although their connection is sometimes exaggerated). We recognise that the gunslingers and samurai on screen aren’t necessarily reflective of the real thing, but they still inform our understanding of the time and place they’re depicting.
I spent a lot of my time in the early chapters of Red Dead Redemption 2 thinking about Seven Samurai, my favourite Kurosawa film. It’s not that the movie and the game bear a strong resemblance to each other necessarily – Seven Samurai’s tale of seven swordsmen that are hired to protect a village from a bandit attack bears little resemblance to Red Dead’s story of outlaws constantly chasing that last big score. But both are ‘end of an era’ stories, about gangs of people who realise that their time is ending and they have no idea how to adapt.
The eponymous Seven Samurai are ronin, wanderers who serve no masters and find themselves ostracised from the villagers they are sworn to protect. There’s a sense throughout the film that these warriors are feared and reviled more than respected. Arthur spends a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2’s lengthy running time grousing about how the time of outlaws is coming to an end and pontificating that there’s no place for a hard man like him in polite society. He believes in Dutch as a great man, one who can save the gang from a life of hiding and running, but he also wonders if, perhaps, he’s simply outlived his usefulness.
I grew attached to Arthur, and the notion that he was slowly coming to terms with how unhinged Dutch had become. Early on I made Arthur mean, letting him kill strangers and rob folks when he needed the money. As the game went on and I came into a small fortune, I figured a version of Arthur that was well off would likely be a little embarrassed by his own life, by the decisions he had made to get where he was. Here was a guy, I decided, who could have been a good person if he wasn’t so blinkered by his devotion to Dutch and the gang.
And then, Chapter 6 happened. It starts with an ominous coughing fit at the end of the fourth chapter; a while later going into the finale, Arthur’s not looking so good. Soon after, the game informs me that Arthur’s weight has hit the lowest point it can, even though I’ve been trying to make him eat whenever possible. I am waiting for the tuberculosis prognosis well before the game delivers it.
“For all its old west gun-slinging, Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up being, somewhat surprisingly, a game about the value of trying to do good in a world that perhaps isn’t looking to actively reward you for doing so”
As the ending approached, and Arthur reckoned with his sickness, I found myself thinking of a very different Kurosawa film. The great director’s 1952 drama, Ikiru (which I’m about to spoil a bit), is about Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura, also the leader of the Seven Samurai), a bureaucrat who spends his days stamping forms in a department that seems to exist mostly to redirect the public to other departments when they come in with problems. The film’s narrator informs us that Watanabe has, in essence, been dead for a long time now, closed off to the pleasures of life, fixated on simply doing his job and protecting his own interests. But shortly into the film Watanabe learns that he has stomach cancer, and suddenly his life changes.
Watanabe mostly keeps his cancer to himself while trying to decide how to best live out his final months; he takes an extended period of absence from work, enjoys a wild night out with an author he meets in a bar, and begins spending time and money on a young woman whose zest for life he finds infectious. Eventually, though, Watanabe realises that the best way for him to spend his final months is to make meaningful change through the system he’s a part of. He returns to work and sets about resolving an issue we saw pass through his office earlier in the film – a group of young mothers has been desperately asking that a cesspit in their neighbourhood be replaced by a playground.
There’s not much direct overlap in the plot of Ikiru and the last few chapters of Red Dead Redemption, but there’s an important structural parallel. The film’s final forty minutes, its strongest section, takes place during Watanabe’s wake. The executives of various branches who worked with Watanabe, after a lot of hand-wringing, self-congratulating, and drinking, come to terms with the fact that in his last months, Watanabe dedicated himself to making the world a better place. The playground is a symbol of what he achieved, and we’re made to understand the difficulties he endured in overcoming the nightmare of competing departmental interests and egos to get it done. The men decry themselves as scum, and promise together to follow through on Watanabe’s example of enacting real change.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t have any post-war salarymen learning how to live again (Ikiru translates as ‘To Live’). What it has instead – if you played it like I did, and, I’d wager, that most people did – is Arthur, a man still trapped inside the only system he’s ever known, realising that he can put his energy into making things better for the people he’ll leave behind when he goes. He continues to help Dutch – he doesn’t know how to step away from his father figure – but he also makes sure that he does as much good as he can on the way out.
Throughout the game, Arthur has a hard time accepting praise or taking compliments. If you play the appropriate stranger missions, he strikes up a friendship with a nun, but has a hard time accepting her faith in him. If you choose to forgive the loans in the loan shark missions towards the end of the game, Arthur is confronted with the notion that he might be a good man who was never given the opportunity to really live a good life. In the missions with Rain’s Fall, right near the end of the game, Arthur dedicates himself to selflessly helping a marginalised people. There’s only so much he can do, of course, but there’s a definite shift in Arthur’s intent.
Most importantly for the player, Arthur dedicates himself to liberating the members of the gang that are in with a chance of making a life for themselves away from Micah and Dutch. He tells John repeatedly that it’s important that he gets his family out, that he takes whatever opportunity Arthur can make for him to escape. Arthur realises, at the end of his life, that he can improve the world through minor change. He accepts his own fate, but makes a meaningful effort to save John, Abigail and Jack from a darker path.
After Arthur is gone, the game is not over – before we can step away from Red Dead Redemption 2, we need to fully understand what Arthur’s actions did for John and the other surviving members of the van der Linde gang. It’s important that we see how John was able to rebuild a life, even if his past continued to hang over his head (including, of course, Micah himself). In Ikiru, Watanabe makes sure a playground is built, and in the process he makes things better for the community he left behind. In Red Dead Redemption 2, we get John’s farm – the farm he can buy, build and maintain with the time that Arthur gave him.
Ikiru doesn’t end on an entirely happy note. After the wake, where the drunken bureaucrats have chastised themselves for how they’ve lived and declared that the world “is a dark place if Watanabe’s dedication was pointless”, we see that things return to normal in the department, and the tyranny of bureaucracy continues unchecked. Similarly, John is still a rough man, less understanding with his son and wife than he should be, and Sadie and Charles are obviously struggling. As they set out to kill Micah at the end of the game – an action that might, you have to believe, bring them some peace – Sadie and Charles both ponder over the life John has managed to make for himself, and wonder what they can do to find their own happiness (if I had to guess, I’d say Charles has a better shot at it than Sadie). At the very least, the old systems they used to live by aren’t hanging over them as they once were.
We know that John doesn’t have long once Red Dead Redemption 2 ends. Neither do Uncle or Abigail. Bill, Javier and Dutch are not saved, and depending on how you play, at least two of them will die in Red Dead Redemption. But Arthur has bought John and his family a few years, and – perhaps more tangibly for the player – he’s bought us all an end game where we get to let John live his life, tending to his farm, mopping up remaining stranger missions, wealthy enough that he doesn’t need to turn to crime to get by. For the first time, we can see John experience something like contentment. We get to experience the life that Arthur’s actions have gifted us.
For all its old west gun-slinging, and the ways it leans into the wild west as a place where one could steal and swindle their way up the ladder, Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up being, somewhat surprisingly, a game about the value of trying to do good in a world that perhaps isn’t looking to actively reward you for doing so. Like Ikiru, it’s the story of a man who really finds a passion for life when his own is ending. Despite the carnage and death I caused on the way to that conclusion, I feel better for having played it.