Red Dead Redemption 2 is by far one of the best games to come out this year. Let’s just get that right out of the way. Its world is alive and vibrant. The landscapes are beautiful. It contains a seemingly endless amount of content. The combat is deliberately paced but satisfying. The writing is top notch and contains what is probably the single greatest character arc that Rockstar has ever attempted in protagonist Arthur Morgan. It’s just an all-around fantastic game. Yet, when all is said and done, it can’t help but buckle under the weight of something that is infused within its very DNA. That something is the simple fact that the game is a bloody prequel.
You see the problem that occurs within Red Dead Redemption 2 is a problem that occurs with just about every prequel that has ever been made. Regardless of how good the prequel is or how well made it is, there is always going to be a certain lack of tension to everything that goes on. Red Dead Redemption 2 may feature a well-rounded cast of characters but many of their story arcs lack real dramatic weight due to the audience already being well aware of their fates. Before the game even starts, we know that at least seven of the game’s major characters survive because they have to make it to the original Red Dead Redemption. As a result, any missions and/or scenes that involve John, Dutch, Jack, Javier, Bill, Abigail or Uncle lack any genuine suspense or tension. What makes it all the more distracting is that at least half of these character drive major plot points in the story.
For a bit of context, the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place roughly twelve years before the events of the first game. The story primarily followed outlaw Arthur Morgan and his adventures with the Van der Linde Gang after the Blackwater Massacre that was referenced in the first game. Throughout the course of the story we get to know Dutch and other prominent members of the gang before it all went completely wrong and discover just why John left and what changed Dutch from this Robin Hood-like figure to the psychotic hill bandit that we encountered in the first game. And this arc, in particular, is one of the best examples of how being a prequel can weigh heavily on a game’s story.
This arc, as I’m sure we all know, revolves around Dutch Van der Lin and how he essentially lost his way. In the first game John talks about Dutch with a certain degree of reverence and admiration. It’s made clear that, as time went on, John became disillusioned with Dutch who had clearly changed, prompting his exit from the gang. By the time we meet him in the first game he is still a charismatic, elegant speaker but clearly lacks whatever magic attracted people like John to him in the first place. He looks and dresses more like a vagrant then the folk hero figure that John originally made him out to be. He guns down innocent people, executes hostages in cold blood and is every bit the monster that Ross and other government agents made him out to be.
Because of all of this, his arc in Red Dead Redemption 2 feels redundant and predictable. We already know that this is the kind of man who would shoot an innocent woman in the skull to distract a would-be jailer. As a result, certain major character turning points for Dutch in the new game lack any serious impact. Seeing him drown Angelo Bronte before feeding him to an alligator comes off as a Dutch thing to do as opposed to the dramatic turning point that the game tries to sell it as. Seeing him abandon members of his gang for no real reason lacks any meaningful weight because it was already well established that this was one of the reasons John left the gang in first game. While these cutscenes are well made they lack the same impact of say Lance turning on Tommy in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City because of this. And prequel issues like these are by no means exclusive to Red Dead Redemption 2.
The AMC television series, Better Call Saul, has a very similar problem. Like Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s a very well-made prequel series full of interesting, well written characters. The issue is that many of the show’s stories lack real dramatic heft because we already know that Jimmy, Mike, Gus, and Hector all survive and become major characters in Breaking Bad. See also X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Hobbit Trilogy, the numerous Star Wars prequels, the Fantastic Beasts Harry Potter films and Narcos: Mexico. Regardless of how you feel about these prequels there is a noticeable lack of dramatic tension to the characters’ actions because we already know where most of these guys end up. Yet, on the whole, video games seem to get away with this a lot more gracefully.
A lot of this had to do with the medium. Video games’ priorities are not always tied to the story in ways that other mediums are. Often a game can get away with having an okay plot as long as the gameplay knocks everyone’s socks off. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a great example of this. The plot is, at best, forgettable in the Assassin’s Creed canon but is remembered as one of the best in the series thanks to its pirate theme and making the naval combat from Assassin’s Creed III a key part of its gameplay. Similarly, Assassins Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey were both well received thanks to an enormous open world full of content and a shift to more RPG like gameplay elements. But the reason that many other games get away with being prequels has to do with the characters, setting and time period.
Two of Rockstar’s biggest hits, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are technically prequels to Grand Theft Auto III. The big difference between these two and Red Dead Redemption 2, however, is that they took place so far away from Grand Theft Auto III in terms of distance and time that it really didn’t matter. The games focused almost entirely on new characters in new settings so any connections they had to Grand Theft Auto III were minimal for the most part.
Another great example of this comes in the form of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Yes, its main character turns out to be the bag guy in the original Metal Gear games. Yes, Solid Snake incinerated him in Metal Gear 2. Yes, his fate is talked about and alluded to in Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. But this is a character whose identity is not confirmed until the game’s final cut scene. Until then, Metal Gear Sold 3: Snake Eater is a dramatic Cold War spy thriller that focused on an interesting cast of original characters, (save for Ocelot), whom we had never heard of before and revolved around their complicated and tragic relationships with one another.
The best example of all video game prequels, however, easily comes in the form of BioWare’s 2003 masterpiece, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Here we have a game that focuses entirely on an original cast of characters and took place so far back in the series’ past that there is no conceivable way that the plot could directly affect the franchise’s main installments. As a result, the developers were able to fully develop their universe and characters in ways that they wanted while telling a story that had actual stakes because it was so far removed from every other Star Wars installment. And these are all things that Rockstar and Red Dead Redemption 2 seem to be aware of.
The vast majority of the game’s campaign centers around Arthur Morgan and other newcomers like Hosea, Sadie, Charles, Lenny and Micha. These are all characters who were never mentioned in Red Dead Redemption and the game goes a long way to develop them. Because of this, when some of these characters are inevitably killed it feels like a legitimate sledgehammer to the nuts. The problem is that it seems to forget about this towards the end and becomes all about laying the ground work for the first game.
As mentioned earlier, Arthur Morgan is probably the single most three-dimensional character that Rockstar has ever created and has, by far, the most satisfying story arc of any of their protagonists. At the start of the game he is a ruthless outlaw who would beat a man to death for looking at him the wrong way. By the time the game has come to its end, depending on the player’s honor meter, we find Arthur a changed man who is mainly interested in saving who he can from falling over whatever cliff Dutch is leading them to. The problem is that this arc eventually leads directly into Red Dead Redemption, turning most of the game’s more important plot points to explaining how John and company obtained certain items that were somewhat prominent in the first game’s story.
By the time the game reaches its final stretch the main people Arthur seems interested in saving are John, Jack and Abigail. In his mind, those are the three with a future and are most likely to make it outside of the gang. The final conflict with said gang is all about Arthur trying to clear the way for John to escape, quite literally paving the way for Red Dead Redemption. But within the context of Arthur’s story arc, it somehow works. We see his storyline wrap up and, depending on his honor meter, he gets a degree of redemption that he was clearly longing for at the end or the bullet to the head that he obviously deserved. But then the epilogue happens and throws a big wrench into all of that.
This is, arguably, the one area where the story utterly fails. First it comes off the heels of Arthur’s death and one hell of a final cut scene. It then goes into full blown Solo: A Star Wars Story territory, giving us an excruciatingly long explanation as to why John decided to become a rancher, how he reunited with Uncle, how he bought and built his ranch and it’s all so tedious and boring. Sure, we get an idea as to what became of the surviving gang members but we still discover that, arguably better so, during the game’s mid-credits scenes. Throughout the rest of the game we play as John knowing full well that none of his actions really matter because he has to survive in order to make it to the first game. Adding insult to tedium, it tries to sell us on a happy ending for John where he makes it, gets the gang’s old money, pays off the bank and marries Abigail. It even gives us a sappy, happy credits song to give the impression that they got a happy ending. Even though any casual Red Dead fan can tell you how that all works out. It just ends what is an otherwise great story on an awkward note that doesn’t even have the guts to be bitter sweet.
In the end, Red Dead Redemption 2 is still one of the best games of the year and likely to be its biggest seller. But it’s still a game with a narrative that lacks a degree of tension due to our knowledge of many of the characters’ fates. Hopefully later installments of the series will avoid this route and follow in the footsteps of games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. But for now, it goes to show that even a great game with an otherwise great story can still buckle under the weight of being a prequel.