Red Dead Redemption II is, as you might have heard, a big game. I finished it, and while there is a part of me that would like to do a deep dive into every last thought I had about the game, I'm not going to subject you to that. Instead, here's something about the parts of the game that spoke to me the most, and I suspect will stick with me the longest.
That said, there will be SPOILERS. If you haven't finished the game, just stop reading. I'm not even bothering with the SPOILER hiding tech here, because that's all it's going to be.
You've been warned! Don't pass beyond this picture of Arthur petting a dog if you don't want spoilers!
A thing I don't talk about much online (especially here, given the months between my blogs) is my health. I've been living with a chronic illness, Crohn's Disease, for years, and while it's mostly manageable, it also kinda sucks most of the time. But, one thing it had led me to thinking about within the last month or so, which was a bit rougher for my health than usual, was different ways that games could incorporate things like chronic illness into their core design.
Mechanically, I mean, not just in the story. For example, I played Hyper Light Drifter earlier this year, and as this link details, that game was inspired by a real life disease. That's cool and all, and I think Hyper Light Drifter is a great game, but aside from a few scripted moments where the main character coughs up some blood, it really doesn't manifest itself in the actual game play.
So, flash forward to Red Dead Redemption II, a game that took me weeks of playing hours every day to finish. I was certainly enjoying it well enough, more for the story and moody long stretches of riding through the wilderness (which I love, sincerely) than the combat, which is fine in short bursts, but not amazing. I was making my way through the game, enjoying it, but starting to wonder what, if anything the game is actually working toward, or building to.
Then Arthur starts coughing. At first it's just a little, but it keeps getting worse, until eventually I'm about to get to a story mission, and he just collapses in the street. And, after someone helps him to a doctor, he gets the bad news. Arthur has tuberculosis.
Now, let me be one hundred percent clear before what I say what it's pretty clear I'm working toward: I know tuberculosis and Crohn's are completely different things, both in what part of the body they affect, and more importantly with how bad they can be (ie, Crohn's isn't killing me).
Not only was this a really interesting turn in the story, the illness actually affects the game. Sure, the biggest effects are in cutscenes, like his worst coughing fits, or when he passes out, but you feel the effects of the disease killing him for the rest of the game. That 20% extra drain on the Health and Stamina Cores won't go away, no matter what you do.
But the part that really, really hit me as something I feel like I deal with is the occasional effect where Arthur coughs up the food he tries to eat, and it has limited effect. If there is anything in this game that I can relate to entirely, it's troubles around eating stuff, and feeling like it's actually helping me as a human being. But also feeling tired all the time because my figurative Stamina drains at a faster rate than it did back when I was healthy is such a relatable thing.
And like with my health in real life, as distressing as it was initially, eventually I got used to it. Got used to eating more in game when Arthur was healthy, used to sleeping more to keep the cores up when the eating wasn't really working. Got used to Arthur being underweight, because there really seemed like I couldn't eat enough to get him back up again (I know I've lost a lot of weight in an unhealthy manner in real life too).
There's no cure, so it's just something Arthur needs to adapt to, and live around. Live with.
If you played this game and thought those (admittedly minor overall) debuffs were annoying, and are in generally good health, all I can say is that I hope you stay healthy for as long as possible.
It's a weird thing to write about. Post diagnosis RDR II becomes a game about a dying man, trying to make some sense of the time he has left, and that's a strange thing to relate to. Especially when, like I said, I'm not dying. Even if on my worst days, it starts to feel like I'm going down that path.
As a slightly comical aside, I was developing a bit of a cough on the day I got to the part where Arthur was diagnosed, which was certainly a THING. But I've yet to cough up any blood, so it's nothing to worry about.
The thing that makes Red Dead Redemption II as a whole work for me, and I mean really work, and not just be a mediocre action game with a pretty world to mosey through, is Arthur's journey, as he grows and changes in ways that I certainly don't remember from any other Rockstar game. As he tries to help his outlaw buddies, especially as more of them don't make it out alive. As he learns to live with this disease that, unlike every other problem in his life, he can't solve by either overpowering it, or running away from it. As he goes from thinking of Dutch as a father figure, to being disgusted with what Dutch has become (or what he always was, and Arthur never realized). And as Arthur comes to peace with the life he's lived, and tries to use the time he has left to help the people who do have futures, even he doesn't.
I know "guy who thinks he's bad but really has a heart of gold" is far from the most original thing on the planet, but I think it's exceptionally well done here. And don't get me wrong, Arthur certainly does some bad things in the game. But even then, the point generally seems to be that it's wrong, and he realizes that over time. That's the whole arc of the Strauss debt collection missions, which start with Arthur beating up a helpless man dying from tuberculosis, and end with Arthur not only absolving the debts of the last few people, but also giving some of them more (debt free) money to help them on there way.
Especially with the family of that dying man that Arthur caught tuberculosis from.
But, while I love Arthur's journey through the game, I feel like this leads to my biggest issue with the story. Chapter 6, more so than the rest of the game, feels like it is building to something. Rifts form in the camp, with Dutch, Micah, Bill, Javier and some others on one side, and Arthur, the Marstons, Sadie, and Charles on the other. The cracks are forming in Dutch's facade, and plans are getting made behind his back on both sides of the rift, even if the game only shows it from Arthur's side.
And, it builds to something. After Dutch starts leaving people like Arthur and John for dead, Arthur and them decide that enough is enough, and they plan to do something about it. But before they can, Micah, the dirtiest rat that ever was, turns out to have been working with the Pinkertons ever since they got back from the game's (rather odd, and probably should have been cut for brevity's sake) excursion to the fictional island of Guarma. Not only that, but he led the Pinkertons back to camp, all hell breaks loose, and Arthur, with even his horse dying (a legitimately sad scene, and Arthur stopping to be with the horse one last time as it passed was extremely touching), makes his final stand, holding the law off so John can escape.
The game jumps forward "some years," and now John Marston, star of Red Dead Redemption I, is the playable character. A "twist" I'd been wondering if this game would pull since before it came out, given the previous game ends with John dying, and the game finishing with his son, Jack.
Even if the previous game hadn't already done this, I would still think this is the game's biggest misstep in terms of the events of the story. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's bad, per se (though it definitely goes on too long, especially with the initial ranching bits), and I think the ending it eventually comes to is really good. But I also think this game would be better if Arthur had grabbed that gun, killed Micah on that mountain, and credits rolled after Arthur passed.
Instead, what we get are hours of ranching (again harking back to the end hours of RDR I), house building, and some admittedly good and fun moments with the best of the surviving characters from the old gang (Sadie, Charles, and John's family). And Uncle, but he's decent comic relief at moments, because I feel like we all have an uncle who is exactly like Uncle. I do.
But all that said, I would be lying through my teeth (typing fingers?) if I didn't say that the final mission up in the mountains, killing my way to Micah, wasn't one of the best things I've done in a game in a while. There is a part of me that thinks actually the more "mature, emotional growth" path of the story would've been for John to have moved on, to say, "No Sadie, I don't need revenge. I've given up that life. I've got a family now."
But on the other hand, Micah is the Worst Garbage Person in this game, and I wanted to kill him, so yeah, I like the ending as it is.
Rockstar, perhaps in retrospect and perhaps unintentionally, has long been great at writing characters that are total pieces of garbage and truly unlikeable. This wasn't really put to huge use in this game, where the majority of the cast are, to some extent, likable. Unlike some past games, where looking back on it, characters like Trevor and even Michael in GTA V were kinda miserable scumbags. But so far as the gang in RDR II goes, aside from Micah, they're all pretty likable. Bill's an ass, and Dutch turns out to be garbage in the end (which the game takes one final moment to reiterate at the very end, which I like), but even he, with his charisma, puts on the charm for most of the game. That's kind of the point about the gang.
But Micah? I haven't hated a character in a game this much since Huey in MGSV, and I would even go so far as to say Micah's worse. But worse in ways that are clearly intentional, and the point I'm trying to make is that so far as games making me want to dump every bullet I can into someone in slow motion, this game did that exceptionally.
And then let me do it.
So where does that leave me with RDR II? Overall I really enjoyed the game, and I think its best parts are exceptionally strong. I loved the characters that were supposed to be loved, and hated the ones that were supposed to be hated. I loved going out to the bar with Lenny and getting comically drunk. I loved making Arthur go from begrudgingly helping people like his ex-girlfriend, to being the sort of person who helps people not for money, but because it's the right thing to do.
I love exploring the world. I keep seeing people complain about how there's so little to do out in the world, but that's part of what I like about it. I will never stop saying this until the day I die, but I love games that are willing to put you in big, open spaces with nothing, or next to nothing to do in them. It reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus, in a way, and that's enough for me. Incredible, unthinkable amounts of time were put into crafting this world, into every last, tiny detail, and I get a real, true joy out of just moseying around, taking it all in. It's like hiking in nature, but without having to deal with bugs, or getting tired after an hour because I'm out of shape and chronically ill.
But, that detail, and I know we're all sick of reading things about this, but I'd feel bad if I didn't at least mention all the crunch that we know went into this game. I don't have anything new to add, so I'll just say that I think the parts of this game that I love the most would've been just as good a few years from now, so I certainly am in favor of games taking longer to make if less (or no) crunch means longer development time. I'm sure it isn't as simple as I'm making it sound, but you get what I mean.
Overall, I think RDR II is a really good game, but I think a version of this game with tighter controls, a bit peppier walk speed, and a lot of excess cut from the story would be a truly great game. As it is, I don't blame anyone who doesn't like how slow it is, or loses interest and stops playing because it takes so long to get to the really interesting stuff. But, for me, I loved a lot of it, and I think it'll stick with me for a while. Certainly in ways that no other Rockstar game has, I hope. All those have aged really poorly, for me, and I hope this doesn't follow suit.
But I'll miss, ya, Arthur. You were a good guy.
Thanks for reading.