There’ve been accusations levelled at Red Dead Redemption 2, the Wild West open-world game which I’m sure has claimed the free time of some of your loved ones of late.
My condolences, by the way; they’re likely to be busy for quite a stretch.
What I’m talking about is criticism of the violence in the game, namely the violence directed towards women. Suffragettes, to be specific, violence gleefully shot; edited together and shared by particularly sadistic denizens of the gaming community.
There is, I regret to say, a specific type of gamer whose brain is wired for cruelty. Not just in games, but also in real life. They’re afforded a certain freedom in games which lets them pluck the figurative wings from beautiful, delicate things, and sate their worst impulses inside the confines of a manufactured world.
But if someone drowns in a pool, you can’t argue that drowning people was the pool’s purpose all along.
Nihilism writ large
Rockstar Games, who made the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise, have often veered into a sometimes sneering, nihilist streak with their writing. The world of the Grand Theft Auto games (particularly the world of GTA 5, the most recent instalment) is a world of hedonistic excesses. There’s a glib Steve Jobs parody, a swarm of feckless pornographers and two-dimensional gang-bangers. This is not a subtle or generous space to play in.
GTA 5 seems at times a playground for cruelty because its world is full of hateable caricatures of people that are painted as eminently despicable and are able to be shot, burned, stabbed or run over.
Red Dead Redemption 2, however, is the most nuanced, grown-up thing Rockstar have ever written. There isn’t a through line of nihilism. Actually, that isn’t fair. There is, but this nihilism is seen as the enemy.
How the game unfolds
You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of a gang of outlaws run by Dutch Van Der Linde. Imagine Robin Hood if Robin became increasingly disillusioned and warped, losing his way, losing all sense of reason and proportional responses to adversity. That’s Dutch.
Dutch, you see, is the wing-puller. And he raised Arthur. But Arthur begins to flinch at the cruelty, balk at the excesses, reject the premise that life is meaningless, that good should be sneered at.
In short, the game, at a certain point, allows you to put the wings back on.
You can play Red Dead Redemption 2 as a cold-blooded killer, sure. You can become a gore-caked horror who stalks the old west like a Lovecraftian elder god perched atop a terrible steed.
But the writers have loaded good deeds, kind deeds, compassionate deeds with the better writing, with an ocean of extra content and payoffs. Someone you save might, hours later, figure into a cutscene wherein they converse with you about how what you did changed the course of their life forever.
This world isn’t a bloody ball-pit, filled with endless iterations of eye-rolling torture that the GTA universe presented. It’s a story about how someone utterly steeped in hate, someone raised by it and radicalised by it, can, through sheer force of will and a blinding bloody mindedness, say no. Choose to help others.
You can’t have redemption without choice
These choices would be meaningless if the world didn’t allow you to choose evil, too. It’s that choice that makes the good you choose to do — and make no mistake, the game has redemption in the name so it wants you to choose that way — meaningful.
If Arthur couldn’t say no to the cycle, it wouldn’t be a game about a man who gets a chance to save himself. It would be a straight line from A to B. It would be drained of meaning.
While this game is certainly violent and there’s a wider discussion to be had about the effect of violent entertainment on people, the tale of Arthur Morgan is a subversive one. It works within the genre, but in many ways sits outside it.
I’m disgusted by the videos of people gleefully hitting a suffragette but, again, that’s not what the game is for. It simply isn’t.
The game might “let” you strike a suffragette, but it doesn’t encourage it or revel in it. In fact, several hours into the game, Arthur forms a bond with a young couple whose families are warring. The girl asks you to ride her and her suffragette sisters through town, which Arthur happily does.
They’re not shrieking parodies of feminists, and they aren’t treated cruelly — he simply rides them around, makes sure they’re safe, then leaves. The game doesn’t jeer or commentate, it simply shows Arthur helping these women out, then trusting that they have the strength to take care of themselves.
These animals are outing themselves with their grotesque videos. They’re losing their way. They’re Dutch Van Der Linde.
They’re the bad guys.
Paul Verhoeven is a writer and comedian, and his book Loose Units is out through Penguin Publishing. He hosts Steam Punks on the ABC, and co-hosts the gaming podcast 28 Plays Later.