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Ethan, Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption 2 was the much-anticipated sequel/prequel of the hit Rockstar Games, Red Dead Redemption released in 2010. The game takes place in a fictional America with the events of the game taking place roughly during the time period of 1899-1910 at the turn of the century. Setting the stage for a historical fiction letting the player live out the myth of the American cowboy. The narrative of the story centres around Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang or “Dutch’s Boys” named after the gang leader Dutch Van der Linde. This story sees the characters struggling with the shrinking west as law and industrialization creeps across America removing the wildness of the wild west. At the heart of this game its meant to be fun, its meant to allow the player to live as an outlaw murdering and robbing as they please but there are deeper elements at play you just need to look a little deeper. Direct historical references are far and few in between in Red Dead but where the game shines are its subtle nods to history. This can come in characters referring events such as the civil war or slavery as well as the overall feel to the world. The world of Red Dead redemption is cold and hard, people aren’t friendly when you first meet them and for the most part, they’ll dismiss you in downright cruel fashions. It leads you to feel like this is what the end of the old west might feel like, danger around every corner with robbers and dangerous animals lurking in between towns and if you give anyone a funny look for a little to long for their liking, they might punch you square in the jaw. On a more formal tone Red Dead shows how the wave of urbanization heading west really affected large majority of people out west. This includes indigenous peoples living on oil rich lands being dealt with cruelly by immerging big business to the settlers promised the agrarian riches of the west only to find dirt, only just scrapping by, either to die or move back to the cities of the east if they could. The group with the biggest lenses on them is you (Arthur) and your companions, old outlaws struggling with the changing new world around them. With the time frame taking place during the boom of industry at the turn of the century, the tech available to you also represents this as you also see the new introduction of technological marvels such as the hot air balloon. Red Dead Redemption presents it self as a cowboy shoot em up that allows all your wildest outlaw dreams to come true. But when you look deeper and immerse yourself in the game Rockstar games studio is able to create a world full of historical significance, in between gun fights on horse back of course.

I am a big proponent for video games as a story telling media form. A good video game such as Red Dead Redemption can get across so much in the way of information in a larger variety and a more engaging way then traditional media such as television or movies. Run times for the average show is about 45 minutes over a season of 10-20 episodes for a run time of about 15 hours of information where a movie is about 2 ½ hours. Red Dead Redemption 2 for just main story alone has an average run time of about 45 hours, when you get to adding side missions and just exploring the world unguided someone could put hundreds of hours into exploring this world[1]. Rockstar Games provides a very large level of immersion to their games with world building on the studios strong suites. As you play the game you are able to interact with people, books, animals and places all differently and all giving you a taste of the history around you. A medium that stands out most to me is the land marks that Arthur stumbles upon throughout the game that when interacted with allows you to make a sketch of them to keep in your journal. When you do this, it gives a small piece of history along with it and gives you the opportunity to revisit them. The intention of video games is to be fun and to keep you engaged, the two biggest factors that contribute to this in my opinion are tight game play mechanics as well as an immersive story and world to go along with it. Rock star is great at this Red Dead is incredibly immersive and I feel like this medium is the ultimate way to approach historical fiction. It allows the average person to experience events and places in the most “first-hand experience” way possible. The video game format provides a large amount of information in a very accessible and fun fashion while letting the player discover this information on their own time and how ever they please, a big selling factor for open sandbox games like Red Dead[2]. I think video games also target an audience usually not exposed to history in really any form. Video games like Red Dead’s target audience are usually the young adult male demographic but of course younger teen males usually make up a large portion of the player base as well. A large reason for the popularity of video games is the provided escape from modern reality. Red Dead can draw some success from this as it is very appealing to play as rugged cowboy in the old west[3]. Whether or not this player base is choosing to look into the history of the game and aren’t just focusing on how many heads they can blow off is a matter of debate but the fact that it is still being presented to them is a good thing. However, for the most part I do believe the players choosing to play story driven games like Red Dead Redemption 2 do care about the lore around them and take a deeper dive past the games surface level mechanics.

Like I mentioned before it is in the subtlety of the historical references included in Red Dead Redemption 2 where the game shines as a work of historical fiction. Rather then referencing specific people or places from history Rockstar games focuses on themes of the time to get across its points. When it comes to the dying of the old west in Red Dead, ideas of increasing urbanization and the growing dominance of the oil and rail industry are touched on throughout. One of the main villains of the game being a figure head for big business with the character Leviticus Cornwall an oil and rail tycoon with goals of taking over the industrialized new west. Going hand in hand with this is the integration of new inventions into American life[4]. Arthur Morgan runs into new inventions like the hot air balloon as well as the odd scientist or two one of which paying strong resemblance to real world Nikola Tesla. All these characters and inventions are met with extreme speculation from the characters writing them off as crazy, these representations really showing how people would have felt at the turn of the century.

One of Read dead’s strengths is presenting historical context in a living breathing world. An area of the games map that is full of fictional places with real world historical ties is the region of Laymone in the southern area of the game. Laymone represents a condensed version of the US south with points of interest being a large old battle field left to decay in the after math of the civil war taking place about 30 years prior to the games events. Another interesting historical Easter egg I found was the reference to the real-world plantation house of Oak Alley located in Louisiana. Braithwaite Manor a large place of interest in Red Dead 2 bears a striking resemblance to the Oak Alley Plantation with both manors having two parallel rows of old oak trees leading up to the manor entrance

Red Dead Redemption 2 at its surface level may just seem like a western Grand Theft Auto but at its core is a rich historical narrative. Red Dead Redemption represents a time frame not covered often in popular media, a time in between the old west and the industrialized world. The game places you in the boots of an average American outlaw concerned with getting that one last score to set himself and his gang up for life so they can get away from the closing advances of the urbanized world. Red Dead Redemption 2 places emphasis on how the average person viewed the closing of the west providing a unique and compelling historical narrative with real world ties to those who might not come across it otherwise.


Bibliography

Humphreys, Sara. Rejuvenating “Eternal Inequality on the Digital Frontiers of Red Dead Redemption”

Western American LiteratureVol. 47, No. 2, (Summer 2012) 200-215


[1]“How long to beat Red Dead Redemption 2”, howlongtobeat.com, Accessed April 82019,

https://howlongtobeat.com/game.php?id=27100

[2]Sara Humphreys, Rejuvenating “Eternal Inequality on the Digital Frontiers of Red Dead Redemption” Western American LiteratureVol. 47, No. 2, Special Issue: Current Western TV (Summer 2012): 201

[3]Humphreys 201

[4]Humphreys 204


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Contact me for more information:

Sheila McManus

Professor, Department of History

University of Lethbridge

(403) 329-2540