Plot spoilers? Can you actually do that for a prequel?
RDR1 is the closing chapter of the American frontier, the end of the West. RDR2 is the same theme, but a larger scope since it’s set earlier. It certainly is about the impacts to the main character, but it’s also a heck of a commentary on society.
I am just entering Chapter 4 (I guess 50%?), where you can start to see the wheels really come off the dream-wagon that Dutch is pushing. Backtrack a bit, and you start off in a blizzard, in a run down town. You move to a small frontier-like town that has only one street. You then move to Rhodes which has a couple streets and electricity. Then off to Saint Denis which is a large industrial town. Each one feels like I’m travelling 10-20 years into the future.
The parallel to today’s urbanization is evident. Small towns are drying up everywhere as people chase jobs/money in the “big city”. Something like 90% of Canada lives within a 2 hour drive of the US border. The people I know who live in small towns mostly work in nearby large cities, and have regular runs into the to do complex errands. Driving an hour is easy for them. People in the city freak out about a 5 minute walk.
RDR2 is predicated on the charm of Dutch’s american dream of freedom and choice. He sells it well, and his flock certainly believe him. As the world around them closes in, he makes more and more rash decisions that lead to even further disaster. Just the fundamental principle of “get enough money to buy some land” makes no sense if Dutch really believed in freedom.
As much as the game has you playing as Arthur Morgan, the story has little to do with him. It’s about watching the dreams and the people around you die a slow death. Even the mail carriers are aware that they are no longer relevant in a world with carriages. It’s incredibly depressing.
The true testament to the success of this game is in the use of spectacle to provide depression. One mission has you find mementos of an old vet who has turned to drink – you empathize with his descent, as you slowly discover he was a slave trader. Another has you destroy the livelyhood of an old blood family, burn down their house, and make their matriarch go off the deep end. There’s a giant firefight in the middle, and the final view of the event is straight out of any period film.
I am convinced that West World changed the direction of this game. Sure the themes are not identical, but the concept of a very grey western, dealing with oppression, lack of power, the chase… all of it feels refined. RDR1 (and GTA V) had a lot more black/white decision points. The characters filled archtetypes. RDR2 just has people. People that are driven by their own motivations rather than the plot.
Crafting your own story throughout is extremely personal but you are only making tiny changes on the larger path. Do you want to rescue the lady being kidnapped for who knows what? Do you feel the need to help the farmhands defend themselves, and then rob them? Help or hinder the drunk who crashed his cart? Arthur has a set path – he’s an outlaw through and through. But maybe he’s more like Robin Hood than El Chapo. Maybe you prefer quiet to guns blazing.
Seeing it Through
I know how the next game starts, so I have a pretty darn good idea how this one will end. The destination is still a bit cloudy, but that’s really in the details. Dutch, Javier, John, and Bill all live. The rest… who knows. But that journey is ridiculously captivating. Watching the world close in around, slowly picking away at the dream until there’s nothing left. Seeing the world trying to accommodate them, but the old style not wanting to give in. People fight so much harder when they think they are losing something, rather than trying to gain. It’s quite a mirror to today’s society… making it all the more enjoyable to experience.