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Red Dead Redemption 2 could be just the video game we need in 2018

Red Dead Redemption 2

After years of promotional material largely consisting of moody western landscape shots and artwork of men on horses, the new gameplay trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 has finally given us a better idea of what you can actually do in Rockstar Games’ death-of-the-old-west America when the game comes out in October. But while there’s plenty to get excited about – I mean, that’s definitely Steven Ogg two minutes and 55 seconds in, right? – it would be great if Red Dead Redemption 2 reflected the times.

The world is a vastly different place to the one that greeted the first Red Dead Redemption in 2010. Twitter was a fun little diversion in 2010, rather than an open sewer full of Nazis. Donald Trump was just a sideshow clown. The word Brexit didn’t even exist. We might be more in need of a truly great video game to distract us from the trash fire that is real-world current events than we ever have been before.

Red Dead Redemption has always been Grand Theft Auto’s older brother. GTA is full of cheap thrills that cater specifically to the part of your brain that just wants to blow things up. But Red Dead Redemption was slower, wiser and far more interested in the human compulsion to do better. It was a story about a man who wanted to grow and change and shake off the ghouls of his past. The tragedy of the game was that, despite everything, he couldn’t – which, you have to admit, is a very 2018 kind of tragedy. The world today is a cavalcade of humanity’s worst impulses made flesh.

As opposed to the last game’s lone-wolf, me-against-the-world sensibility, Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to reinforce the fact that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, underlining all the different responsibilities that come with that. You ride as part of a gang this time around, and you can set up campsites as little community centres between missions, somewhere to make friends and listen to stories. The trailer seems to reinforce that the game is as much about what was happening in late-1800s America – when “the age of outlaws was ending” – as about its central character, Arthur Morgan.

Morgan himself seems to be deliberately written as a bit of a blank, neither good nor bad, and this means that you get to impose your own morality on him; as per a line spoken right in the middle of the trailer: “Your actions have consequences, and it’s up to you to decide just how honourable Arthur is”. This is potentially huge.

Red Dead Redemption 2
 One of the gang … Red Dead Redemption 2. Photograph: Rockstar

Rockstar dabbled with character morality in Grand Theft Auto 5, giving the three playable characters a distinct set of ethics that encouraged you to treat them differently. Franklin was the game’s super-ego, responsible and determined, and you ultimately ended up helping him towards his goal. Trevor, though, was nothing but raging id. You could destroy everything in sight with Trevor, as gleefully as you liked, and it didn’t matter because your destructiveness fit right in with his amoral psychopathic worldview. Perhaps Red Dead Redemption 2 – where the world actively changes around you based on the ethical decisions you make – is the next step.

Even your relationship with your horse matters. Treat it kindly, we’re told, and it’ll be more stable during gunfights. In this respect at least the game seems to be going out of its way to discourage you from acting like a bell-end.

Red Dead Redemption thrives on the push-pull between trying to do the right thing and being dragged back into the muck. It’s what gave the last game such emotional heft – especially the ending, still one of the bleakest in game history – and this new morality engine should only elevate this. If you spend 35 hours trying to be the best person you can, it’s bound to sting all the harder when you slip up and let people down.

Red Dead Redemption 2
 ‘You are part of something bigger than yourself’ … Red Dead Redemption 2. Photograph: Rockstar

I still have reservations. Most importantly, I’m worried that travelling in a gang will dilute the overwhelming sense of abject loneliness that gave the last game such a haunting, haunted quality. It’s one thing to be able to diffuse an argument with conversation rather than bullets, as the trailer promises, but it won’t mean anything unless Red Dead Redemption 2 makes you feel as weary, soul sick and relentlessly stalked by fate as its predecessor.

But if the biggest game of 2018 is built around a message that you are both responsible for your own behaviour and capable of change, well, that’s probably a message we all need to hear.


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