When Rockstar revealed Red Dead Redemption 2 was a prequel to the original game, one of the first questions for many was, “Don’t we already know how this story ends?” And the answer was, “Yes — but the ending isn’t the whole story.” RDR2 wraps up roughly in the middle of the story. Even though we know it’s not the end of the story chronologically, it was necessary for the game — and, retroactively, the first Red Dead Redemption — to have a satisfying conclusion.
Red Dead Redemption 2 shows the slow (so very slow) descent of the Van der Linde gang into ruin through the eyes of Arthur Morgan. RDR protagonist John Marston is present in the game as a side character, as are his wife Abigail and son Jack. Depending on your in-game (or real-life) morality, Arthur Morgan either dies an ignominious death, undone by his own greed, or heroically rescues John so at least one member of the Van der Linde gang will get away from their criminal life.
Then we cut to sometime later, to find John, Abigail, and Jack doing their best to hack it as law-abiding citizens. John eventually sets up his little homestead with the help of Uncle, Charles, and Sadie, the other survivors of the Van der Linde gang. They take their revenge on the rat Micah and settle their accounts — at least until the government comes calling for John.
There’s an obvious gameplay reason to shift to John at the end of the story. It offers an in-game explanation for how the player can go around the world taking care of business they didn’t get to finish as the now-deceased Arthur. It’s the same reason Jack became the player character at the end of RDR. But what about the story reasons? The story feels like it ends when Arthur does — why do we spend an extra four or five hours of story missions playing as John?
Put simply, we need the epilogue because even half of a happy ending is better than no happy ending at all.
How to End a Sad Story
Both Red Dead Redemption games draw heavy inspiration from the most tragic Western films. The Searchers, High Noon, The Wild Bunch, Man of the West — all of them end about as far from “happy” as you can get.
Arthur’s own inability to extricate himself from the gang is a combination of his faith in paterfamilias Dutch and also the result of all his attempts ending in tragedy — the woman he loves rejecting him, his other lover and son dying senselessly. You begin Red Dead Redemption 2 knowing something has to happen to remove him from the equation in order to fit with the story of RDR, and the game milks that for all its worth. Arthur himself seems to be aware that it’s one long, slow walk to the figurative gallows, even before he’s struck with a fatal disease.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is sad and grim is what I’m trying to say. We need the epilogue to provide us with that glimpse of Arthur’s life meaning something, even if only for a brief time.
Eventually, John Marston will be dead and Jack will become the murderous outlaw neither John nor Arthur wanted him to be. But given most gamers who play RDR2 played RDR first, having our last vision of John be his happy home life provides something of a happy ending for him. Seeing his farm, short-lived though it might be, also shows us exactly why John was fighting so hard for it in the first game.
Ending the current series narrative with the same protagonist we started it with provides some nice symmetry and completes the story. It feels like a cliche to say a story “comes full circle,” but there’s really no other way to describe the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption 2.
John gets a good life, no matter how briefly it lasts. Abigail and Jack get the same. It’s not a perfect ending, but it’s a happier ending than we would have gotten if Arthur had died and then the next chronological part of the story was John being blackmailed to kill his old friends. Not only does it end the second game on a positive note, but it provides a retroactive respite for poor John.
There’s also a glimmer of hope in the survival of Sadie and Charles — meaning, despite the U.S. government’s attempts to scapegoat John, there will be those who remember him fondly and keep his true memory alive.
Why tell the story if we already know the ending? Because it was worth it. John and Arthur may have both died for Dutch’s greed, but those moments where they were happy were worth it.