Outlaws, Self-Reflection, and Illness. [SPOILERS]

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Posted by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

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!

You can also pet the horses, but I took over 400 screenshots, so I only grabbed a handful and didn't think ahead, so no horsey petting, sorry. Also I named my first horse
You can also pet the horses, but I took over 400 screenshots, so I only grabbed a handful and didn't think ahead, so no horsey petting, sorry. Also I named my first horse "Horsey." My second was Ed, and my third (the one I stuck with to the end) was Spot because she had lots of spots.

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.

He's dying.

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.

Screenshots don't do it justice, but between the vistas, the lighting, and the sky, this game is gorgeous at times.
Screenshots don't do it justice, but between the vistas, the lighting, and the sky, this game is gorgeous at times.

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.

He dies.

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.

True to form, despite not liking fishing at all in real life, or having any interest in playing games strictly about fishing, I fished a lot in this game, and enjoyed it.
True to form, despite not liking fishing at all in real life, or having any interest in playing games strictly about fishing, I fished a lot in this game, and enjoyed it.

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.

No Caption Provided

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#1 Posted by Humanity (18710 posts) -

Great write up, the one point I wanted to bring up was what you dubbed a more mature approach of John realizing that he doesn’t need revenge. The epilogue was as you said very drawn out with a few decent moments - but throughout it all I couldn’t help but feel it was a needless retread of the previous game. I didn’t need to teach Jack how to be a man again, or see John’s struggles with identity - I’ve explored all these themes in Red Dead 1. I was very disappointed to find out you play as John for the remaining bits. Until the very last moments I held out hope that you’d get to play as Sadie and track down that scumbag Micah while also seeing her evolve into the bounty hunter you meet as John. This would have allowed them to let John grow and stay with his family while simultaneously give players the catharsis or hunting down the man responsible for the breakup of the gang. It’s such a weird choice specially since generally Rockstar doesn’t revisit past storylines.

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#2 Posted by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

@humanity: Yeah, and honestly, of all the surviving characters after the end of Chapter 6, I would have rathered the game switch to Sadie or Charles than John.

Yeah, it is weird that the Epilogue is what it is, and in a lot of ways feels like an origin story for John's house. And while in the moment I found myself laughing at the fact that there's an entire mission that's just a montage of a house being built, the more I think about it (even after having written this blog), I really think there just shouldn't have been an Epilogue. (Again with the addendum that Arthur got that final blow on Micah). Or if they really felt the need to explain how you can keep playing after Arthur died, have it be Sadie and give her a couple (stress on a couple) missions about her getting into bounty hunting.

But don't worry, I'm sure Red Dead Redemption III won't be another prequel where you play as someone never mentioned before who dies and then you finish the game as a (slightly) younger Arthur. (If they do this a third time I will be livid.)

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#3 Posted by Humanity (18710 posts) -

@mooseymcman: For me it's also so strange that it goes on for so long. I'm not quite sure why they make you shovel shit and milk cows and put up fences. It is an insane amount of detail, animations and whatnot that people had to make literally for one mission since you never do any of this stuff ever again. And while in my mind a lot of the small details largely set up the amazing atmosphere Red Dead has, these chores and most of the epilogue is extremely superfluous and quite frankly.. an actual chore. After roughly 30-to-howevermany hours you spend with Arthur, grow to like him and in my case understand his plight, the epilogue is almost jarring. While in the first game you take over as Johns son, there is that direct lineage that at least gave you a connection. The super late title card was also a brilliant touch. In the case of Arthur there is none of that though - John is for the most part an idiot and a fuckup throughout the main game. He gets caught, he ditches the gang, he seems kind of slow, and while Arthur does help him get away he also helps a lot of people.

Sadie just made so much sense and her story was in my opinion the best of them all - from a grieving widow to a modern heroine. The bloodthirst was a bit much at times but I really like how strong of a secondary character she was. Just so shocked and weirded out by having you play house for that long just so we can tie the two games together - and even then that final mission builds real well and John still fucks it up somehow getting into a threeway. Shooting Micah in the face, literally 15 times, did feel good but I wish Dutch wasn't involved. I enjoyed seeing him become this broken man but not worth getting in the way of my personal vendetta.

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#4 Posted by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

@humanity: So, you can actually keep shoveling manure on John's ranch after all that stuff is set up. You can clean the barn, milk the cows, carry hay around, feed the chickens, refill water in the troughs, collect eggs, load the eggs and milk into a wagon, and bring them into town to sell (that last step is the only part that's automated). I did this once.

The game gave me $8.

They set it up like taking care of and running the ranch is something you might want to do after finishing the game, but why on Earth would I do so much tedious work for eight measly dollars when I got twenty grand from the final mission? I'd rather go riding in the desert doing nothing than that. Speaking of, you have any idea why they included all of New Austin from RDR I in here, but use basically none of it in the story? A friend of mine thinks that's where the online mode will be set, but it still seems like such a weird, and probably time intensive thing to include.

But also, just the fact that the game has a literal two part epilogue is strange on its own.

And I agree with you. Were it not for the first game, this epilogue switching to John over Sadie really wouldn't make any sense at all. I'd like to see the reaction from someone who played this game to completion without knowing anything about the previous game. I'm sure that person exists somewhere.

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#5 Posted by Humanity (18710 posts) -

@mooseymcman: Oh boy I had the EXACT same reaction upon seeing all of New Austin. After I finished the second epilogue and the story was over, I was somewhat done with the game. At the same time I did finally feel "free" in a sense because from the onset of Chapter 6 or even Chapter 5 there is, as you mentioned in the original post, a rising tension that brings about a sense of urgency which made me start making a bee-line for the main story. Now that everything was done I took some pleasure from simply roaming the map and I started to make my way south from Johns ranch but I was not prepared how much map there is down there - and all of it as you say, almost completely empty. Maybe we we have the same friend because someone from work told me the exact same thing about it being a dedicated multiplayer space. Which is odd since why would I want to play multiplayer on the same map that I played multiplayer in RDR1 when there is so much more varied and beautiful land to explore in RDR2. SO much space. I kept riding and riding and riding and was getting increasingly shocked by the fact that the map kept on going. The only worthwhile places were a Cholera stricken Armadillo, which was a good way to make it a ghost town, and several seemingly abandoned houses and ranches. I found some treasure in fireplaces, a fertility idle in a tiny hut, an ancient necklace in another, all dubbed "unique" items like they belong to a quest.

I dunno man, the whole endgame is a bit bizarre from a design and narrative perspective. I do sincerely hope they actually release some story driven DLC like the Ballad of Gay Tony. They originally started that such DLC would come to GTAV but then it never did and all their development efforts went into the online portion.

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#6 Posted by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

@humanity: OH, you mentioning story DLC made me remember how I'd come to think of the Epilogues if I was going to describe them to someone: They almost feel like a story expansion. Like, the main story ended with Arthur, and this was the "John's story Expansion" or something, but they just included it with the game.

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#7 Posted by Y2Ken (2941 posts) -

Really agree a lot with your thoughts on the illness. I kinda saw something coming during the tease, where Arthur is frequently coughing, but didn't necessarily expect them to actually pull the trigger on it the way that they did. It's really well done and honestly I think it made the whole game work for me.

As you mentioned, I love the way they implement it into the game's mechanics, the way it shifts Arthur's perspective on things, the way they force you to constantly be thinking about it and not just rely on chowing down to refill my meters the way I had been doing throughout the early chapters. I'm thankful that I've never suffered from any long-term disease, but I can at least relate to when I've been particularly ill - and hearing your perspective on it is very interesting as well.

I also appreciate how so much of chapter 6 becomes about you helping people out, and doing what little you can to make the world a bit brighter. There's a melancholy optimism to a lot of the chapter 6's sidequests that I really liked.

I also think I agree somewhat on the finale of the main game being somewhat unsatisfying - there's a strange restriction by characters to pull the trigger sometimes where it doesn't make sense. That Arthur didn't walk straight back into camp after the Milton encounter and put two bullets straight into Micah feels weird (and that was far from the first time I thought "why, on this specific occasion, are you so averse to shooting someone?" On some level I'll let that stuff slide, because it's just how their narrative panned out. And you do get that very satisfying actual finale.

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#8 Edited by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

@y2ken: I think the thinking behind Arthur not shooting in the camp is maybe a bit of a disconnect between the game play (where Arthur can shoot his way through dozens of enemies in story missions), and the story trying to adhere to some level of realism (ie, in a camp with a bunch of other people around (Micah's two goons, Dutch, Bill, Javier all being there as back up (I think, forgive me if I forget who exactly was there in the moment)), that would be a gunfight, realistically, he'd lose on his own).

Plus I think that, even though we who've already played the previous game know that there's no Redemption for Dutch, Arthur still wants to hope there can be some changing his mind, so he tries to do that instead of just killing Micah.

Something I didn't write about, but have wondered about, is how different the end hours of the game feel if you're not doing the optional missions, and have a fully negative Honor meter instead of fully honorable like me. Like, I assume when the game gives you an option, you could pick no, and then not do it. The same with the choice you have to either save John or go back for the money. Or, for that matter, if you don't see Arthur stop to mourn his horse if you haven't bonded.

It wouldn't surprise me if none of that stuff matters or changes anything, or if the game has a very different feel through there. Either way, I still think the path I got (and I reckon probably most people who stuck with the game) is the better and more intended way.

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#9 Edited by militantfreudian (681 posts) -

I think the game does a decent job handling Arthur's illness. It's used as a plot device to good effect, and watching Arthur struggle with swallowing food made me wince nearly every time. That said, I wish maybe the symptoms were a little more pronounced during regular play. The penalties you endure seemed negligible, or at the very least, easy to deal with in the short term. Then there was the mission in which Rains Fall recommends an herbal brew to alleviate Arthur's symptoms, but that turns out to be just a mission-specific thing with no bearing on the game's mechanics. Maintaining Arthur's weight was also hardly a requirement, so I didn't notice any difference in his physique after the diagnosis.

I guess I'm in the minority of people who thought the epilogue was important. It was by no means perfect, but I actually thought it was one of the few consistently good parts in the game. Somehow I felt Arthur's death (and legacy) carried more weight because the story went on. Maybe that's an odd comparison, but his death reminded me of Nier: Automata's final ending. I felt like I wasn't done playing as Arthur, and that he – and by extension, I – had unfinished business.

In any case, the epilogue worked for me. The menial tasks you do as John certainly harken back to the previous game's final missions, but they serve an entirely different purpose. This game isn't doing The Sopranos thing of showing you a character being a family man so you care for him when, moments later, he gets "whacked." I think one of the goals is to emphasize the difference between the homesteading life and the transient lifestyle of a Van der Linde gang member. The epilogue also made for a refreshing change of pace following the third story act, with its high tension and frequent shootouts.

More importantly though, over the course of the main chapters, both Arthur and John clearly see the error of their ways and make strides towards becoming better men. So, I thought John acted as a proxy for Arthur during the epilogue: portraying the struggles of an ex-outlaw trying to become a law-abiding citizen, and showing you the sort of life Arthur regretted not pursuing.

Regarding Dutch's appearance in the final showdown, doesn't he imply that he was there to kill Micah as well?

Anyway, thanks for sharing. It was very much an interesting read. Looking forward to your next write-up.

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#10 Edited by tunaburn (2074 posts) -

I miss arthur so much. I havent been able to go in and play as john yet. It just feels wrong. I am going to. I just need a little while to accept it. I am happy with being able to be john for the epilogue though. With how sad his ending is in the first game Im glad I get to have a game where he at least temporarily gets a happy ending. Im also glad arthur didnt get to kill Micah. I mean i really want to kill Micah but in a weird way its very dark and realistic that Arthur didnt get to pull the trigger.

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#11 Posted by MooseyMcMan (12629 posts) -

@militantfreudian: Thank you for the compliment! And yeah, I do agree that they certainly could've gone farther with the effects of the illness in the game itself. If Far Cry 2 let you pass out from malaria mid gunfight a decade ago, this could've gone farther too. Though, I've never actually played Far Cry 2, so I'm just going based on what I've heard.

@tunaburn: It's definitely worth playing the epilogue, and I hope I didn't spoil what happens too much for you! There's still some really good character moments in there, for as much as I griped about it.

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