Red Dead Redemption 2 takes players back to 1899 and the beginning of the end for the Wild West. The anarchic lifestyle of outlaws and cowboys is nearing its end, with civilization on its heels. With the development of the frontier and establishment of cities comes a new focus on law and order, with outlaws hunted by bounty hunters and government agents.
You play Arthur Morgan, one of the key folks in the Van der Linde Gang. Arthur is a quintessential outlaw. He's loyal to the gang and his mentor, Dutch Van der Linde. He'll try to keep a low-profile, but he's not above committing crimes like cattle rustling or bank robberies. Morgan will kill folks who stand in his way or threaten his family. He'll beat up generally law-abiding people who owe the gang money. Arthur Morgan is a criminal in the 19th century of the United States, a man grown out in the frontier.
So why is Arthur Morgan so damned woke?
I'm not talking about the choices you get to make as the player. You can steer Arthur towards different tasks, making him a low-key criminal who only pulls bloodless heists, or a sociopath who only cares about himself. The Honor system in Red Dead Redemption 2 tracks whether you make morally good or bad decisions, though sometimes just defending yourself from an attack is seen as morally bad. If you want to skip Herr Strauss' loan sharking missions, you can; I made it a point to antagonize Strauss every time I saw him because the first mission put such a bad taste in my mouth.
The text of who Arthur Morgan is, the character outside of the choices you can make, is an amazingly open-minded individual. Part of that is likely informed by the Van der Linde Gang itself, a gang whose muscle is comprised of freed black man Lenny Summers, the half-Native, half-Black Charles Smith, Mexican bounty hunter Javier Escuella, Irish thief Sean MacGuire, and eventually angry widow Sadie Adler. The Van der Linde camp also has an extensive support staff of several women who handle scams at the various ports of call, like Karen Jones, Tilly Jackson, Abigail Roberts, and Mary-Beth Gaskill. All the gang requires is that you follow Dutch's ideals; where you came from is immaterial. It's not hard to see some of that rubbing off on Arthur.
Arthur not only treats Lenny as a member of the gang, he listens to his problems. One of the better moments of Red Dead Redemption 2 is just Arthur and Lenny partying in a saloon; I kept expecting for the other shoe to drop and Lenny to end up at the hands of a mob, but it doesn't happen. When Lenny brings a good robbery tip to Arthur later, he's immediately onboard. On the way to the location, Morgan asks Lenny if the South is really that different from what the gang has run into before.
"These boys got a manner about 'em, but I haven't necessarily noticed," begins Arthur. "All respect, Mr. Morgan, you wouldn't notice," replies Lenny. "Might call you a nigger lover, they see us riding like this, but most of it is a glance or a word. And after that a visit in the night. Out West is out West and you're all who you are... decent folks. But some places down here, they judge differently."
"Then I guess it can't be so easy for you, Lenny," says Arthur. "I'm sorry you're caught up in this."
It's a good moment, where Arthur acknowledges there might be something out there he doesn't understand, but he trusts Lenny. Later, he goes out of his way to let the young man know how valuable he is to the team.
One of the smaller moments you can stumble across is a night rally of the Ku Klux Klan, or at least Red Dead Redemption 2's version of it. Unlike many other criminal actions, killing the ralliers doesn't cost you Honor. In the biggest city in Red Dead Redemption 2, Saint Denis, there's a stranger you meet early on who preaches about eugenics and racial purity. I ended up knocking this guy out, but even without my prompting, Arthur lets him know all people are good and bad.
"I got friend who's Mexican. Friends who's Indian. I've known blacks, Irish, Italians... good and bad in all. I've known good white people and bad white people. And above all... dumb white people," Arthur tells the man.
In the town of Rhodes, Arthur Morgan helps two loves from rival families communicate with one another. Beau Gray is the Romeo, while Penelope Braithwaite is the Juliet. Beau asks Arthur to help protect Penelope as she participates in a Women's Suffrage rally in the town. Beau thinks the cause is just, but doesn't want her killed. Arthur's reply? "If she wants to rally, you got to let her rally." He even drives the rally wagon. Later on, widow Sadie Adler decides she's tired of cooking and cleaning in the camp; she wants to be an outlaw like the rest. Arthur cautions Sadie on her zeal for violence, but otherwise he allows her to forge her own path within the gang.
Arthur readily lets the folks around him do what they want. In Red Dead Redemption 2's first chapter Arthur takes young Jack Marston fishing. Halfway through the trip, Jack decides that he wants to go pick flowers instead. He eventually builds a flower necklace for his mother, something Arthur doesn't chide him for.
Time and time again, Arthur is shown to prize freedom and equality. In his mind, everyone is a bit of an asshole and a bit of a good person, and outside of those that threaten his livelihood, he's willing to live and let live. Rockstar Games tends to spoof and satire everyone over in the Grand Theft Auto series, but I enjoy this side of the studio, where everyone is given some degree of respect. Before everything goes horribly wrong, there's joy and openness to Dutch's gang. You almost believe in the dream—a place where people could live safe, independent lives—as much as Arthur does, because you see the kind of person it has made him.