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The Best Video Game Story of 2018 - Red Dead Redemption 2

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Jarett Burke
2018 was a great year for single-player video games, and that means we had a lot of great stories. From huge titles like God of War to smaller games like Celeste, there was some tough competition. But in the end we decided that the Red Dead Redemption 2 story was the best in 2018.

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We all love a good story, and some of the best being told right now are in games. 2018 saw some dandies in Kratos’ maturation in “God of War” and an all-new Spider Man adventure; and, who would forget Madeline’s beautiful journey to the top of Celeste Mountain, which became a metaphoric parallel for dealing with her anxiety? We especially fell in love with “Celeste” seeing as it touched us on a personal level, and had it not been for our top pick, it probably would have won best story.

But, in the end, there can only be one winner – one Best Story of 2018. And, without a doubt, this award goes to the doomed exploits of Arthur Morgan, Dutch van der Linde and the gang in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a story that in our MojoPlays review we called one of the best video game stories ever written, and for good reason. Just a warning: there are spoilers ahead!

It’s pretty obvious that we’re high on the main storyline in the game. But, we really want to highlight the fact that it certainly isn’t ONLY the main story that thrilled us, as there are some great side quests too.

Take the failed romance between Arthur and Mary Linton for instance. These one-time lovers have quite the history together and it plays out in-game via conversations with camp-mates, through letters and writing, and also by side quests where Mary seeks Arthur’s help. It’s a tale of “what ifs” and “if onlys” and it really serves to make Arthur’s character all the more tragic… Rejected by Mary’s family for being an outlaw, but still clearly in love with her, Arthur’s feelings do battle with his reason in whether to risk heartache by getting involved again, and ultimately it’s his loyalty to Dutch that makes any sort of relationship with Mary impossible. We can’t help but feel for the guy!

On the other hand, there are seemingly minor encounters with NPCs that proved gripping as well, such as bumping into an old drunk in the town of Rhodes named Jeremiah Compson who asked us to retrieve a few things for him from his abandoned home. His sob story about losing everything he ever owned, including his dignity, touched us at first until we later found out that he was a slave trader who lost his career to the abolishment of slavery. This new information made for one heavy encounter when Arthur tracked him down again. And this instance is not the only memorable encounter with NPCs we had that helped add to the game’s overall narrative: it’s merely one of many.

As for Arthur himself, well, he’s a complex man (to say the least). Sure, his moral compass is in our hands, but he’s written to be a sympathetic character; and, mindlessly killing folks just doesn’t fit well into his arc. He’s clearly dangerous, yet he also loves. He cares for everyone in his gang like family, yet they know not to cross him. Arthur has his own code of honor – one that ruled the Wild West for many generations – and it’s this very code that makes him a target of the law as civilization expands across the US.

There’s simply no place for outlaws in 20th Century society. So, it’s from this vantage point that we see the collapse of everything Arthur knows, loves and holds dear, while his finest quality – loyalty – keeps him from adapting to rapid social change. It’s a heartrending tale that feels incredibly human.

And, the folks that make up the van der Linde gang feel human as well. A lot of time in the game is spent with these characters, with Arthur helping them on their own quests and learning about their pasts, but these missions don’t feel secondary because of the bonding (or animosity in some cases) that takes place between characters, which further builds toward the crushing downfall of the gang itself – and the tragic loss of life that comes with it.

These characters all have their own drives and desires, which makes us care for them, and it stings when they start dying off due Dutch’s reckless choices. It’s not only Arthur that they interact with either, as they have conversations, spats and drunken heart-to-hearts with each other as well. They even have their own story arcs – some of which are deeper and more rewarding than others (take John Marston or Lenny Summers for example) while others feel more 2D and static (see Micah Bell and Bill Williamson), but – as a whole – they all come together to make the Dutch van der Linde gang feel alive. The end result is a dynamic, realistic group of individuals with stories that serve to highlight and deepen the main story.

And what a story it is… It’s another take on the classic western theme of the Wild West versus Civilization like that found in “The Wild Bunch” and “Once Upon a Time in the West;” and, although it’s not a movie, this story is equally as cinematic.

Like in these classic films, we know that Civilization isn’t going to lose (hindsight from 100-odd years later): huge private detective agencies like the Pinkertons only give way to an even bigger, nationalized police movement that is the FBI; cities and towns replace camp life and consumerism wins the day; and, of course, small, tribe-like groups are replaced by the UNITED States of America. So, from the get go, we know that this group’s time is limited and that each poor decision made by Dutch and Arthur only speeds up their demise.

Within the group itself, there’s an interesting, family-like power dynamic between the older patriarchs in Dutch and Hosea Matthews. They are essentially the two fathers of the group. Hosea is a life-long con man, but he stands for reason and prefers to act non-violently; Dutch, on the other hand, is much more cunning and driven by ideals that quickly begin to out themselves as delusions.

As the third most senior figure in the gang, it’s up to Arthur who to side with, and his continuing loyalty to Dutch all but seals the gang’s fate. The more Arthur sides with Dutch, the less Hosea’s influence on the gang matters and the more unsavory characters like Micah begin to catch Dutch’s ear – which of course leads to disaster.

Which brings us to Dutch himself and his many points of no return. In the early chapters, we’re constantly reminded that he’s the reason why the group has survived and that he’s all about family and community; but, at the same time, we’re also told the reason the entire gang is on the run in the first place is because he snapped at Blackwater and it lead to a heist gone wrong.

There’s a duality at play here between Dutch as the loving father and the unapologetic butcher that remains a mystery for much of the game, but slowly gives way to the latter. The reasons, however, are not clear. Perhaps he has always been a merciless killer and it’s just his golden tongue that makes him appear decent and good? Or, perhaps all the bad plans, all the botched jobs, the law closing in, and friends dying left and right have driven him to madness? But they always say that actions speak louder than words, and isn’t until the very end that we start to see Dutch’s true colors.

And, amongst all this, Arthur is isolated more and more as good-natured members of the gang die off. He’s tasked with keeping it all together but it’s a losing battle what with the likes of Micah slowly taking his place at Dutch’s side with Hosea gone. His late diagnosis of tuberculosis, which was one of the leading cause of death during the 19th century … can actually be seen as a blessing in that he knows his time is limited and so he rapidly begins a path toward redemption. No longer content to follow blindly, Arthur’s illness makes him see the world in a much different light, which naturally causes problems in his relationship with Dutch.

Whether this twist of fate comes too late, however, is largely open for debate, and only adds to the tragic nature of Arthur’s character – one who’s life is slowly closing in on him from all sides: his once-loving father now turned fiend, the harsh environment abusing his body, encroaching law enforcement at each turn, and tuberculosis slowly eating away his health. When his time finally comes, it’s every bit as impactful (or more) as John Marston’s self-sacrifice to save his family a decade later.

There are many factors that make “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” story the best of the year – the side quests aiding the overall narrative, the fleshed out characters of the van der Linde gang, tragic themes like the Wild West versus Civilization, and the dynamic between Arthur and Dutch – but as incredible as it is, it’s not perfect.

The narrative has a few beats we wished were shorter or none existent (take Guarma for example, or Arthur’s trip in a hot air balloon) but it’s nothing that can’t be overlooked for the complexity, maturity and emotional impact of the story told here. It’s 2018’s finest and one we’ll certainly experience again in months to come.

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