At last, a Rockstar game in which family doesn’t mean dysfunction
We’ve come a long way since Niko Bellic uttered the immortal line, “Roman, I cannot go look at titties with you. I have to do something else.” Red Dead Redemption 2 is not the first Rockstar game to toy with the concept of family, but it is the first to treat it as anything other than a bind. Roman, cousin of GTAIV protagonist Bellic, was a questgiver, a troublemaker, and a companion for off-mission minigames and seedy distractions. The latter felt, at first, like a revelation: an NPC, calling you up, just as a cousin might, and inviting you to do something fun with them, adding depth and flavour to the protagonist and the world around him. Forty hours of seemingly incessant phone calls later, though? If you want to see a boob, Roman, go look in the mirror. Leave us alone.
Across the Rockstar canon, family is misery. Max Payne is eternally tortured by the murder of his wife and daughter. The cold, unloving parents of Bully’s Jimmy Hopkins ship their miscreant tearaway off to a strict boarding school. Grand Theft Auto V’s three protagonists have their own complicated relationships with their kin. Franklin’s mother is a dead drug addict, and he lives with his hectoring stoner aunt. Michael’s west-Hollywood offspring are brattish, superficial and entitled, and his wife despises him. Trevor’s father abandoned him at a shopping mall the kid would later burn down in retribution, and died when Trevor was ten. Family, as Rockstar would tell it, will cause you nothing but pain.
Until now, that is. Arthur Morgan may not have any blood relatives that we know of, but he certainly has kin, and the Van der Linde gang is the closest thing Rockstar has ever made to what could even vaguely be described as a happy family. Led, through thick and thin, by eponymous leader Dutch, this ragtag band of ne’er-dowells treat each other as Dutch treats them: with respect, love and care (and where appropriate, a firm hand).
They provide the game with much of its emotional impact. Big missions are celebrated with camp parties, where crates of beer and whiskey are dotted about and the crew sing songs and dance by firelight. It will take a cold heart indeed for any player not to be stung by some of the cruelties that are visited on certain members of the family as the story progresses. They’re a tremendous asset to storytelling, particularly of the Rockstar kind. The first Red Dead Redemption, like many other Rockstar games, spent a little too much of its runtime making you do jobs for objectionable, even evil people. Here, while you’ll still work for questionable people out in the world, many of the game’s mainline missions have you working directly with a fellow gang member. And those that don’t are ultimately intended to be for the gang’s collective benefit, as they seek the big payday that will let them leave their troubles behind for good.
They are also a very convenient device, allowing Rockstar to avoid any accusations of lazy typecasting or outdated thinking. The America of the late 19th century is, after all, a dangerous place to go given modern-day attitudes to diversity and equality. But, as Van der Linde himself puts it in the game’s prologue after rescuing a vulnerable abused woman, Sadie Adler, from the clutches of the O’Driscoll gang, “We’re bad men. But we ain’t them.” He runs a tight ship and a respectful one, and this means his gang can take on people who would be treated very differently out in the world. People of colour, women, foreigners and even members of rival gangs are welcomed into the fold. Each plays a vital role around camp – Adler, who is arguably the group’s second-biggest badass after Morgan, in particular – and is treated as a peer. It might stretch the bounds of believability at times, but means Rockstar can explore some of the setting’s more awkward themes with a modern, progressive eye.
The gang’s greatest contribution to the game, however, is a mechanical one. The enduring problem at the core of all open-world games is that, however many kinds of activity and distractions they contain, they all fall into two camps: things that count, and things that don’t. Here, however, the gang is the focus of everything you do. Every animal you hunt is food for the camp to eat; if it’s a clean kill you might want to use the pelt for crafting, but if you don’t, the posse can sell it on. Every corpse, bank and wardrobe looted is money for the collective’s coffers, which improves not only the mood about the place but Arthur’s quality of life in the field. Every penny earned, through whatever means, has the potential of making your surrogate family’s difficult life a little bit better. Above all, though, they feel like a gang, and a family, of people you care about, rather than fully voiced XP bars. This is helped greatly by the way their attitude towards you is affected not only by your actions, but their own circumstances. We’ve always been cordial with Karen, the buxom blonde who played a fine sap at an early-game bank job. Yet she’s frequently brutally mean towards us, simply because we make the mistake of talking to her after she’s argued with someone else. Conversations with the crew may not run as deep as you’d like – you get one line of dialogue out of them each time before Arthur bids them adieu – but once you grow accustomed to it, you realise they tend to say precisely what they need to, and nothing more. It’s a smart repurposing of the concept of family, something with which Rockstar has for so long struggled to implement in a positive way. And even better, there isn’t a smartphone in sight.
People of colour, women, foreigners and even members of rival gangs are welcomed into the fold