Post Script

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

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