Red Dead Redemption 2 is a truly fantastic video game. Over the course of 50 hours or so, Rockstar Games puts players through an industrial-strength emotional shredder, introducing us to a group of characters - a family - before slowly breaking them up in the most heartbreaking manner possible.
It's no secret that the Van der Linde gang's days are numbered, is it? Even if Red Dead Redemption 2 wasn't a prequel, the fact the game opens with them cowering in the snow and on the run from the law makes it abundantly clear that these people don't fit into the American dream anymore.
And so we lose them. One by one. Some die, others leave. There are betrayals, heartbreaks, murder, and everything in between. There have been understandable criticisms levelled at the length of the game's story, but I maintain that Red Dead Redemption 2 is as long as it needs to be. Without the early chapters, which document near misses and parties and wild nights of drinking with Arthur and his crew of misfits, those latest chapters wouldn't sting quite as much. It's not an easy task for a video game to make you care about such a large cast of NPCs, but there isn't a single person in the Van der Linde gang who doesn't feel like a fully realised character.
Let's be clear, there are a lot of fantastic scenes and set-pieces in this game. Drinking with Lenny. Raiding Braithwaite Manor. Randomly stumbling across the KKK in the game's open-world and tying them up so you can watch a train run them over. Perfect moments, all. None of these quite hit me in the same way as my all-time favourite, though.
As you probably know by now (and spoiler alert if you don't), Red Dead Redemption 2's post-game sees you playing as John Marston. Arthur Morgan has been dead for some time, and what's left of the Van der Linde is in hiding, scattered across America.
This is the oddest part of the game, in many ways. For one thing, I'd already put around 40 hours into Arthur's adventure and had experienced a rollercoaster of highs and lows. I remember being unsure as to whether we even needed an epilogue. On reflection, I'm glad Rockstar Games included this final chapter.
I don't know how much time you put into exploring the epilogue as John Marston, dear reader, but you should. There's an eerie melancholy in riding through a post-Arthur world. Our hero, the one we spent so many hours with and watched develop from an outlaw into a genuinely sympathetic presence, is dead and gone. His absence is a constant presence, a bleak reminder of the fact that the heady days of those early chapters are gone and never coming back.
It's a rare thing for an open-world game to actually change to reflect what's happened upon completion. Games like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will always reset before the final ending, not giving you a chance to explore this new world. Rockstar bucks that trend and invites you to sit with the consequences of your adventure for as long as you want to. You can visit Arthur's grave, settle some of his old debts, and even take his old gear and dress up like him if you really want to (though that always felt super weird to me). Ultimately, in the epilogue, the Van der Linde gang are nothing more than an echo.
Which brings me to my favourite moment in Red Dead Redemption 2. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I decided to take John Marston up to Horseshoe Overlook, near Valentine. As you may remember, this is where Arthur and the gang set up camp in the game's second chapter. It's the site of a fair few happy times for the outlaws, and I wanted to pay it a visit.
Not expecting to find anything in particular, I walked through the empty clearing where the camp had once been. Not much to suggest anyone had ever been there, save for a few planks of wood and some other materials scattered in the grass. And then I heard the voices.
You're probably already well aware of this particular Easter egg, but heading back to any of the gang's old camps as John Marston will trigger the briefest of audio cues. Up at Horseshoe Overlook, I heard the faint echo of Javier's guitar, the clank of tin cups, and the warmth of laughter shared by the fire. I wasn't prepared for it and I certainly wasn't looking for it, but this quiet moment of reflection has stuck with me as the most memorable part of Red Dead Redemption 2.
In this moment, I feel Rockstar truly captured something I'd always previously felt to be indefinable. I have, on occasion, found myself passing by streets or houses I used to have a deep connection to years ago. Places that no longer have any relevance in my life for whatever reason, but that can always summon a rush of memories: the house where my nan and grandad used to live before they passed away, or the first flat I shared with my girlfriend (now wife) at university. Simply standing in these places again, places that have nothing to do with me anymore, fills me with memories, with a pang of sadness for a time I'll never go back. I'm certain you've experienced something similar. If you haven't, that is the feeling Rockstar managed to nail.
The way in which the studio managed to so perfectly convey something so unique and make it look so easy, the way it was able to make me nostalgic for a time I could literally reload from an earlier save if I wanted to... this one, small moment truly is a testament to the writing and acting in Red Dead Redemption 2.
The adventures I had with the Van der Linde gang were among the best I've ever had in a video game. Standing there alone at Horseshoe Overlook when all was said and done, left with nothing but memories and the faint echoes of the past still leaves me with chills. An especially phenomenal moment in a game filled with phenomenal moments.
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