I’m conflicted. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a phenomenal game. Its world is utterly immersive, there are tons of satisfying missions and activities to perform, and the story is one of the best I’ve witnessed in a video game. It’s filled with likable, well-written, and complex characters, and the narrative takes unexpected and frequent emotional turns that keep the game’s momentum going even when the gameplay can start to feel repetitive. For this reason, however, the story is also the only part of the game that actually let me down, because while the journey is incredible, the way the game resolves its myriad conflicts just doesn’t sit right with me.
I will be spoiling EVERYTHING about the endings in both Red Dead Redemption AND Red Dead Redemption 2. If you ever plan to play these games, or even think it’s a possibility that you’ll get around to them, STOP READING. There are many surprises you will not want to be ruined. Only read on if you have fully completed the main story of both games. You have been warned.
Throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 you play as Arthur Morgan, pseudo-adoptive son to Van der Linde Gang leader Dutch. You are Dutch’s right-hand man, his most trusted and loyal compatriot and, at the start of the game, your relationship to him is one of warmth. That changes about halfway through the story. Dutch starts to lose his edge and act for the sake of revenge and greed, turning into the kind of man he always told you not to be. As Dutch’s integrity starts to erode, however, Arthur’s solidifies. He grows throughout the journey, taking matters into his own hands and trying to become more than a desperate gunslinger.
Partway through the game, Arthur is diagnosed with a terminal case of tuberculosis. This leads him to reflect on his past actions and determine that he wants to become the honorable man so many people believe he can be. Arthur earns his redemption, using the last desperate moments of his life to ensure John Marston’s safety while simultaneously watching Dutch, his mentor and friend, betray everything he once stood for. Arthur’s sacrifice left me an emotional wreck and is a fitting conclusion to his story.
The problem is that this isn’t where the game’s story concludes. There’s an extended epilogue in which players take control of John Marston as he attempts to provide for his family in the wake of the Van der Linde gang’s dissolution. It’s an intriguing narrative twist and serves to lead players right to the point where Red Dead Redemption starts, tying the two games neatly together. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t decide whether this narrative curveball is genius or the game’s most egregious sin.
For one, the epilogue is long, clocking in at about 6-8 hours. Most of the activities you’ll be performing are a variety of menial ranch work alongside the occasional bounty hunt for money. The game ditches its immersive open world for a more linear focus on developing its characters as Marston reconnects with old friends and endeavors to become the kind of man who can be happy without a gun eternally in his hand.
I’d be tempted to call this a great work of interactive storytelling if the epilogue’s length didn’t continually distance me from the emotional peak of Arthur Morgan’s death. There’s nothing in the epilogue that moved me to even a fraction of that chilling moment. Watching John put together the ranch that he’ll spend the entirety of Red Dead Redemption trying to return home to does give players an opportunity to see him grow, but I just couldn’t get invested in such a large undertaking when I had already poured so much of my heart into Arthur’s journey.
This ending is also where the game succumbs to “prequelitis,” when a prequel story feels the need to show how the status quo of the original got into place. I loved how John Marston was a fringe character throughout the first three-quarters of Red Dead Redemption 2. Arthur had a specific bone to pick with him at the start and the duo performed a number of missions together, but despite his status as the first game’s protagonist, Marston didn’t receive any more attention than the other gang members until the very end. That was the right way to do it, to have the story play out organically as if we didn’t know how important he would become. Playing as him in this epilogue felt like a betrayal of this restraint, like I was being pandered to rather than being shown something absolutely essential. It’s as if the game was announcing, “See! Look how neatly this all ties together! Isn’t it awesome how you get to see this thing being built that you know will be utterly destroyed in less than a year?”
Having an epilogue to tie up loose ends makes sense. Red Dead Redemption utilized this to provide closure on its heartrending ending, but that was a single, very brief mission that delivered a much needed emotional payoff. The epilogue in Red Dead Redemption 2, however, feels a little too close to fanservice. The emotional weight of its events depends heavily on the player already caring deeply about John Marston, something players wouldn’t feel if they only played Red Dead Redemption 2 due to the character’s relatively minor role. This section of the game is clearly made for people who have completed the first game and is the only part of the story where it feels like the writers used their knowledge of the future to influence the narrative’s events. In the process, the story starts to feel convenient and somewhat emotionally manipulative rather than true and heartfelt.
I don’t think the epilogue was crafted just as fanservice, although I’m sure that had something to do with it even if the writers did it unconsciously. There are certainly some story threads left hanging that require resolution after Arthur’s death. What happened to the rest of your fellow gang members? Did anyone go back for the money at Blackwater? What happened to the traitorous Micah Bell?
This last question really strikes me as the reason for the epilogue. It is certainly the sequence’s biggest looming detail. Not being able to strangle the rat Micah before Arthur died was frustrating. Given his absence from the first game, the story was going to have to resolve this thread if nothing else. Sure enough, after establishing a new life for his family and friends, John gets a concrete tip on Micah’s location and, despite his wife’s pleas, rides off for revenge.
This was the closest the game got to matching Arthur’s sacrifice. There’s a wonderful element of dramatic irony at play here. Knowing how John’s story will play out in the next game had me virtually shouting at my screen for him not to go because I assumed this was the act that would lead to the first game’s events and eventual tragedy. If he just listened to his wife, stayed home, did what Arthur would want him to do, maybe he wouldn’t have to die. But I knew he couldn’t do that. He had to go.
Climbing the snowy mountain slopes to Micah’s hideout makes for a visually stunning backdrop as you work your way through his new gang of outlaws. Once you finally get to him, Dutch appears, evidently having partnered with Micah again. Dutch pulls a gun on John, though he ultimately shoots Micah for reasons that aren’t explained. John then gets to finish Micah off while Dutch walks away silently. John takes Micah’s enormous stash of money and returns home, telling Abigail that, “It’s all over.”
This final mission is entertaining, but it just doesn’t reach the quiet grandeur of Arthur’s last moments. Having Dutch shoot Micah at this point was far less satisfying than if he had done it when he had the opportunity during Arthur’s death. I couldn’t tell if Dutch did this for John or for Arthur’s memory; if he finally believed that Micah was a traitor or if he was just fed up with him. Dutch’s relationship with John was not the focus of the game like it was with Arthur so it’s difficult to guess at his motivations. The emotions of the scene just feel muddled, and maybe that’s intentional to give Dutch an aura of mystique, but it makes the moment feel much less satisfying than it should be.
Not only that, but it is not clear that this is the act that sets the Pinkertons back onto John’s trail. In the cutscenes that play during the credits, we see Pinkertons investigating the scene of Micah’s death and eventually discovering John home, but it doesn’t feel like those two events are inextricably linked. John had settled down, wasn’t running, and as shown towards the end of the epilogue, even started using his real name on official records. The Pinkertons would have caught up with him eventually, so the dramatic irony of wanting John to avoid seeking revenge so that he would remain safe didn’t even payoff because it doesn’t seem like that choice would really have mattered. As a result, the primary plot reason for this epilogue existing doesn’t deliver narratively or emotionally and fails to capitalize on the dramatic irony that was set up so impeccably.
I keep thinking that it would have been much more impactful to watch Dutch kill Micah for Arthur instead of John. It would have at least given Dutch a bit more humanity and delivered on the primary relationship of the entire story. This is especially true because Dutch ends up doing it anyway seemingly with even less motivation. But then Micah wouldn’t have been the carrot on the end of the stick that motivates players to wade through the epilogue.
If you strip away Micah’s presence, the epilogue would only be about tying John Marston’s story into the beginning of Red Dead Redemption, which isn’t necessary. Arthur dies to give John and his family the chance for a new life. For people who only played Red Dead Redemption 2, this sacrifice along with a brief epilogue resolving the conflict with Micah would be a sufficient way to close the story. For fans of the previous game, we already know where John will eventually end up and it’s relatively easy to fill in the gaps with your imagination. The specificity that this epilogue goes to to explain every little detail in John’s life just makes it tedious and detracts from the emotional impact of Arthur’s ending.
All that being said, I’m still tempted to call the epilogue genius. John Marston is universally recognized as one of the greatest video game characters ever written. As someone who played the first game, there is an undeniable charm in witnessing John become the family man we only briefly got to see in Red Dead Redemption. I also don’t want to discredit this kind of storytelling in games. I think it can be great for a game to ditch previous gameplay elements in order to tell a story and focus on characters. In fact, throughout the epilogue, I rather enjoyed watching John do house chores and had high hopes that it would resolve in something that would make it all worthwhile. While I do admire what the epilogue strives to achieve, however, I chose to focus on the negatives in this article because the ending is one of very few aspects of this game that doesn’t feel polished to perfection.
In a vacuum, the storytelling on display in the epilogue is excellent. At a certain point, however, the game stopped feeling like “Red Dead Redemption 2: The Tragic Story of Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde Gang” and started feeling like “Red Dead Redemption 2: The Prequel to Red Dead Redemption.” For me, that just doesn’t feel consistent with the previous sixty hours I spent in the world and I wish the narrative had a more satisfying way of resolving all the loose ends. Regardless, Red Dead Redemption 2 will always be about Arthur Morgan for me and I will fondly remember his tale of redemption for a long time to come.