Standing Between Heaven and Hell with Arthur Morgan

Every April is Switcheroo Month here at the Gutter as each Editor writes about something outside their usual domain. This week Comics Editor Carol writes about playing games within games in Red Dead Redemption 2.

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“You mean Paradise on one side? Maybe the Inferno on the other side? Me right smack in the middle?” ~ sorta Fistful of Dollars.

I’m several months into Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018) and I’m nowhere near finishing the game. Not only because it is an enormous game with plenty to see and do. Definitely not because I’m a completist. It’s because I think Dutch van der Linde’s plan is stupid and I want no part of it. He’s going to make things worse. He’s going to get people killed. Not me, not yet, but more people I care about will die. I agree with Hosea, Dutch’s oldest friend, that this is a bad plan, not that Dutch will listen. Dutch will make us more enemies while pretending this madness is all about freedom and “our way of life” when it’s about rage, resentment and revenge. My choices are limited, so for now I have decided that I’m working for professional dandy and maker of elegant curiosities, Algernon Wasp. Wasp wants orchids and I travel the country finding them. I joke that I’m getting my associate’s degree in herbalism. I attend an opening for an artist who seems very Paul Gauguin.  I am pretending I have left the Van der Linde Gang, something I would have been wise to do a while ago. I should have left with Mary Linton when she asked me. Instead I debate whether to slip my arm over her shoulders at the theater. But leaving is not my choice because it’s not my story. It’s Arthur Morgan’s story, for now. And as fond as I am of Arthur, he’s exactly the kind of dope, no matter how honorably or dishonorably you play him, who will loyally return and do his best to support Dutch even as Dutch destroys everything he says he believes in. Arthur thinks he can fix it and he wants to see his friends set up right before he leaves. It’s a tragedy I am not ready for.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sprawling, open-world adventure game set in an alternate United States in 1899. In the beginning you play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang. Arthur was half-raised by gang leaders Dutch van der Linde and Hosea Matthews. Arthur and his chosen family robbed and conned the wealthy, the cruel and the arrogant and gave to the poor, including themselves. And, according to them, the gang only killed when they needed to and stole to help others and kept what they needed to make a new life for themselves. The gang followed Dutch as he preached a new way of life–a life of freedom in a wilderness untainted by human sin or the weight of European history. Their ideals are most simply a desire to be left alone by others to do whatever you want and a sense that peace, freedom and wholeness is found in the wilderness. They might not say it, but they believe not only that this land is special, but that it has been empty and has no history of its own, no shape of its own and can be remade. Except, the land hasn’t been empty. And from the gang’s perspective, it’s getting less empty and unshaped every day. That wilderness and that way of life are quickly being destroyed by greed. So now Dutch is looking for a new New World to remake as his paradise.

As the game progresses, Dutch’s ideals feel more violated at best and non-existent at worst. And yes, for a game, it seems like a pretty strong meditation on America as both a place and an ideal. It’s still a very Nineteenth Century American philosophy. There are books you can read in the game on the subject, like Dutch’s beloved American Inferno. There are characters who share their thoughts on America and what it should be. Arthur encounters Suffragettes and people who are trying to help the poor. Others personify the worst aspects of American history. In the game’s United States, there was a Civil War and there is an ongoing genocide of Native Americans, though no longer in the form of wars, but in the form of grasping railroad barons and legal disenfranchisement. I am deeply ambivalent about the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, Eugenicists and Confederate vigilantes in the game. I understand the argument for their inclusion and there is no option to agree with or support them. But they are also a potentially extremely unpleasant surprise for someone who is trying to escape our own world for a while.

The people Arthur talks to are cognizant of what they are talking about. Discussing alligators and more than alligators, wildlife photographer Albert Mason tells Arthur, “This is America, after all. We have a love for killers that borders on the macabre.” And there a religion, Chellonianism, that while fictional follows in the tradition of American new religious movements that look to an ideal world we can will into existence or will ourselves into while underscoring the dangers of seeking to feel absolutely safe.*

The gang feels they have been pushed to their crimes and their killings. I am not saying they are lying to us or themselves, though I do think they lie to themselves about how justified they have been and how things are different now. I believe there is a certain amount of rationalization going on. It’s just by the time that we meet the gang, they have been expelled from their own Eden. We never see their golden age. The game starts with everything already gone wrong. We join them as they are headed towards their own American Inferno. They are fleeing the law, Pinkerton detectives and a rival gang. They are on the run after a job went so bad they barely talk about it. And it has gone so wrong that in game terms an entire region of the game map is locked. If you try to visit New Austin before getting to a certain point in the story, you will be shot down by lawmen every time. And something to keep in mind:  while you can come back from the dead, your horse cannot. Any horse that dies stays dead.

Save often, my friends.

The Van der Linde Gang’s goal is to survive and make back the money they lost in the heist. It was money they intended to use to help them start a new life somewhere. Arthur’s goal is to help them make that money and survive.

I cannot recommend enough the sidequest where you go drinking with Lenny.

But there is space for you to play other games within the game. Red Dead Redemption 2 features both expansive and beautifully rendered open world and a strong story with clear characterizations. It gives you the chance to tell your own stories in its world. For a while I can pretend I am playing a different game–one where the goal is to pet all the horses. I can play Red Dead Redemption 2 as a horse “re-homing game” that incidentally involves dynamite and duels.** You can pet as many horses, dogs and mules as you can find. Sadly, you cannot pet cats, donkeys or pigs. You can play a game where Arthur works for a dandy finding rare orchids. Or you can play one where Arthur drifts across three states helping strangers he meets like paleontologist Deborah Mason or two starving escaped convicts. You can have Arthur sketch remarkable sights.*** You could spend your time taking photographs and using binoculars to birdwatch. You could go hunting and fishing. You could plan the perfect train robbery. There is no penalty towards stopping the story, beyond some quests never open up. And you know, and Arthur knows, that the story is not resolved.

Sketch from Arthur’s journal. Good job, whoever draws for Arthur!

Much of my current game involves animals as, disillusioned with Dutch, I retreat to the wilderness becoming another eccentric loner looking to reinvent myself or, really, to reinvent Arthur and pretend what I want to do is what his character wants to do. I avoid cougars and bears as best I can. Jerk snakes scare my horse, bite me and knock my hat off. A buck butts me off the edge of a cliff while I search for dinosaur bones. A boar rams me in the butt while I pick berries in the woods. On three occasions I have been charged by muskrats. I wonder about an animal conspiracy. Strangely enough, they don’t generally attack me when I am hunting or fishing. They get me when I am picking herbs, looking for rock carvings or enjoying the view. Then again, that is when I am most vulnerable. But I also encounter animals undisturbed by my presence. An elk and I look at each other for a long time before it returns to grazing and I continue exploring a mountain prairie. And I spend a lot of time with my horses and petting all the horses I can.

You can play like that for a long while. You can make it the whole game if you want. But there is a tug you have to ignore. There is history. And in a game, that history is the story the game wants to tell and the constraints that narrative provides. In this game, there is both Arthur’s history and the weight of American history, no matter how alternate. While I shake my head at Arthur’s choices, I recognize they are the choices he would make. I appreciate that Arthur is the same character whether you play him as a misguided man trying to do better or a murderous outlaw. Arthur’s just who he would be in either situation, making those choices and living with them. It makes sense Arthur would leave. It makes sense he’d come back. But not yet. I can tell my story for a while longer. I started playing Red Dead Redemption 2 when it was cold and dark outside. It was nice to ride across the desert or camp by a river in the game. Now, stuck at home, it’s a different kind of escape.

Arthur might or might not see what’s coming, but I sure can. So I’m enjoying an idyll now in the mountains, plains and forests of his United States of America. I’m enjoying my freedom and what I stand for before Arthur’s impending tragedy. You might try to run from history. Set yourself up in a New World. But you can’t escape the past, the things you’ve said and done. It’s right there around you, inside you. And your past is right there inside of other people, too. They might remember when you forget–or want to forget. You give a passing stranger a cheery “Hey, mister!” on the road after you’ve done something dreadful. And the stranger tells you that you better watch yourself because he remembers that time you accidentally shot up a mirror, jumped off a balcony, landed on another fella and got in in a fist fight. This man wasn’t even the fella you clocked, but he saw it. He saw you. There’s only so much you can start over, even in a game.

*This last criticism seems a very Libertarian one to me, but it is what it is.

**Taking horses from rival gangs and Confederate vigilantes and finding them new homes. 

*** Arthur is remarkably talented at life-drawing. It reminds me a bit of this journal or letter from a Union soldier including a drawing from his cat.

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Carol Borden lost her hat to those O’Driscoll boys. But she found it. And she re-homed their horses and took their pocket watches and crackers, too.

I have been periodically tweeting updates about my gameplay on Twitter. If you are curious, you can read the threads below:

Nov. 11, 2019.

Nov. 17, 2019.

Jan 8-27, 2020. Two threads here and here.

Feb. 4-18, 2020.

Feb. 22-Mar. 2, 2020.

And strange divergent thread, Feb. 27- Mar. 26, 2020.

This post was originally published by theCultural Gutter on Apr. 16, 2020.

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