"I have a plan."
Dutch's refrain throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 is first amusing, then chilling, and later depressing. It's the sort of line that has been uttered by charismatic false prophets through the ages, all of whom invariably end up promising last-minute miracles even as their worlds collapse around them.
That line is the one I keep returning to when I think of Red Dead Redemption 2, USG's Game of the Year for 2018. It's the line that best encapsulates its familial atmosphere, and how loyalty to that family can slowly become toxic. It captures the hope, desperation, and finally the depressing inevitably of Dutch's machinations and the lives that they ruin.
Red Dead Redemption 2's tale of broken faith fits well with the current climate, which is rife with people like Dutch. It's one of several great video game stories to come out of 2018, a year in which strong solo experiences experienced great success. It's naturally viewed through the lens of Rockstar's other open-world games, where free-roaming havoc is the order of the game, but I tend to think of it as more of a serialized drama in the vein of something you might watch on Netflix. It's certainly a game I ended up binging on more than one occasion
After all, every mission in Red Dead Redemption 2 is like its own little episode. There's the chase that ends with Dutch, Hosea, and Arthur on a quiet fishing trip. There's Arthur's on-again, off-again relationship with Mary, which is used to flesh out the main protagonist's backstory and offer an element of "will they or won't they." It has its big arc stories, but also one-off episodes like the one where Arthur gets drunk with Lenny. Even the chapters feel like seasons.
The best dramas have loads of memorable supporting characters, and Red Dead Redemption 2 has that as well. Hosea is Arthur's Obi-Wan, and he also embodies the feeling of being trapped in the outlaw lifestyle, which becomes a large part of the second half of the story. Sadie is pulled from a burning house, her family murdered by a rival gang, and slowly builds a friendship with Arthur while becoming one of the group's most reliable fighters. Other characters soon become familiar sights around camp: Pearson, Abigail, Miss Grimshaw, Uncle.
It makes Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like much more of an ensemble drama than the original game, which kept its focus squarely on John Marston. Its best moments are around the fire when everyone is celebrating a successful heist and Javier is playing his guitar, when you're out riding with Charles, or you're fishing with John's young son, Jack. Even when you're not on a mission with a member of the gang, they're omnipresent in the camp, often stopping you for a quick chat. In a brilliant touch, these conversations happen naturally while you're walking around, making them feel active and dynamic rather than a hassle. It's the video game equivalent of the walk-and-talks that so famously infect Aaron Sorkin written shows like The West Wing.
Spoilers for Chapter 3 follow here. If you want spoilers for the entirety of the game, check our Red Dead Redemption 2 Spoiler FAQ here.
Early in Red Dead Redemption 2 when Jack is taken hostage by the Braithwaites, a family of Confederate holdovers pathetically enacting their own version of the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud, the entire gang saddles up in one of the year's most memorable gaming moments. It's here that everything great about Red Dead Redemption 2 comes together in one breathtaking sequence—the expert use of light, the beautiful locations, the often thrilling set piece design. But what makes it truly stand out is before it all goes down, when you're riding out to the manor with your friends. They're all there, and they all have your back.
The battle at the Braithwaite Manor, as it happens, is one of the last real wins for Dutch and his gang. It all starts to go bad from there, and when it does, it hurts. At this point Red Dead Redemption 2 goes from outlaw story to something akin to Jonestown, or a fading corporation with a desperate CEO. I've met a lot of people like Dutch, and I found myself wincing as he hoarsely insisted that he had a plan ("I HAVE A PLAN!"), as if he could make it come true just by repeating it enough.
Watching everything fall apart in slow motion is a brutal emotional crucible for Arthur Morgan, who is in turn forced to reflect on his own choices in a largely wasted life. It's easy enough to see that Dutch is out of control, but when you've given 20 years of your life to one person, it's not so easy to leave.
The final chapter is a depressing denouement that shows just how different Red Dead Redemption 2 is from Rockstar's wildly successful predecessor, Grand Theft Auto 5. Where GTA 5 glories in awful people doing awful things, Red Dead Redemption 2 dwells on the cost of being an outlaw. Where GTA 5 is about doing crazy things in a vast open-world, Red Dead Redemption 2 is more akin to an RPG with its sprawling side quests and lengthy character arcs.
Compared to GTA, Red Dead Redemption 2 is less interested in chaotic freedom and more obsessed with detail. At its best, it can be incredible. Just the simple act of bathing feels like a three act play, particularly if you opt for the, ahem, "extra help." It has a 17-minute variety show for no other reason than it's a nice backdrop for a date.
But some of this obsessive detail is also to Red Dead Redemption 2's detriment. Many of the complaints about Red Dead Redemption 2's unwieldy controls are down to Rockstar's determination to make you feel like you're interacting with real objects. The fiddly inventory system, which sometimes sticks you with a simple revolver for an entire mission, is a product of Rockstar's stubbornness in making you feel as if you're actually storing your weapons on your horse.
These details are also the result of some intense crunch, which is bound to be a part of Red Dead Redemption 2's legacy just as surely as it was with its predecessor. Crunch and worker unionization were big topics in 2018, and Red Dead Redemption 2 was one of the games at the center of the storm. It was a reminder that all of these marvelous details, in Red Dead Redemption and elsewhere, often come at a human cost.
And yet, when I think of Red Dead Redemption 2, I doubt it'll be the baths or the variety show that I'll remember. It'll be Sadie, Abigail, and yes, Dutch, who spring to mind. I'll remember Pearce's dumb naval stories and Uncle sleeping in the hallway. I'll remember the songs around the campfire. Heck, I might even spare a few positive thoughts for Bill (not Micah, though).
Red Dead Redemption 2's greatest success was building up the gang as a family, then slowly and painfully tearing it down. It made me feel trapped, which is an interesting feeling to have in an open-world game. I was free to ride away any time I wanted, to hunt or to stick up another shop or to help a dime store novelist track down legendary outlaws. But sooner or later I always came back. And when I did, I would find Dutch. And he would have a plan.