When players begin the journey of Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 they are presented with a nearly unprecedented amount of freedom. Much like the promise of riches and a better life that led travelers to go west during the height of the Wild West, opportunity is always present here. From testing your gambling luck in games of poker to trying to hunt the game that litters the world, there’s a distraction and something to do at every moment.
However, Rockstar Games’ open-world adventure isn’t set during the height of the gold rush. No, it’s set during 1899 and at the tail end of the era. Cowboys and the outlaw behavior that defined them was a dying breed as the country began to modernize away from the country style of living. In that way, it’s only fitting that so much of the freedom is ripped away from the player during the Red Dead Redemption 2 ending where Arthur Morgan is diagnosed with a fatal case of tuberculosis. It’s not only an incredible parallel to the time period that saw an entire way of life fade away, but it’s also a subversion of everything that makes the game tick on a mechanical level.
This feature includes major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s heavily recommended to finish the game before reading if spoilers bother you.
Here’s a game that is entirely about the player having control over every aspect. Even small things such as Morgan’s facial hair length can be controlled to a ridiculous degree and yet, their choices are all for naught. No matter if players went out of their way to keep their version of Morgan away from various vices such as alcohol and unhealthy food or indulged with them at every given opportunity, he winds up dying the same way. Just like in real life, death is unavoidable in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 ending | How it reflects authorship
What I respect most about the Red Dead Redemption 2 ending is how it is an incredible artistic choice. This is easily a title that players can spend over a hundred hours in and barely engage with the actual story due to how many gameplay systems are in play. Simply going hunting and crafting pelts can take up dozens of hours of a person’s time. So many players will never see the ending, and that has to be a strange realization for a game developer. They ultimately craft dozens, if not hundreds, of ridiculously nuanced systems that can be totally ignored for the most part by the player if they wish to.
That sort of freedom is what sets gaming apart from other mediums. Everyone that watches a film will ultimately be seeing the same thing and everyone will read the same words in a book even if they interpret them differently. However, there’s an incredible amount of variance from one player’s experience to the next person. From how they choose to engage with the world to glitches and their natural inclinations, there are thousands of differences that can add up. In a game as complex as Red Dead Redemption 2 this number increases to an unprecedented degree.
But there is one aspect of the game that Rockstar Games has total control in and that’s its story. While there are slightly different endings to see, the same core story plays out for everyone that makes their way through the impressive western. Every single instance of Arthur Morgan winds up contacting tuberculosis, which is made even more tragic when you remember that it happens over a minor story event early on and has to face the end of his mortal existence. It’s not just a story playing out, it’s the developer showing that they ultimately still have authorship no matter how much freedom they give to players. Players can impact how a game is experienced but they can’t author it. There’s a key difference and one that the Red Dead Redemption 2 ending brilliantly demonstrates.
Red Dead Redemption 2 ending | What could have been better
While I adore the brave choice that Rockstar Games made, there are some disappointing aspects to how they ultimately handled it. Most of Arthur’s illness and struggles with his disease is seen in cutscenes. There is one major in-game consequence as he gets an ailment called “sickness” that constantly impacts him to a small degree, but aside from the occasional cough he’s still able to move around and do everything that he could previously for the most part. It’s a decision that makes sense when you consider the vast amount of side content in Red Dead Redemption 2, but actually reflecting his poor health in-game more would have underlined the game’s themes better.
Even if it would have led to a worse gameplay experience, making it more of a chore to control Morgan during the final stretch of the game would have underlined Rockstar’s authorship even more. Imagine trying to escape a random encounter with bandits, but a bad coughing fit ends with Morgan falling off of his horse. Not only would that complicate the current situation, but it would better demonstrate just how much he’s struggling from compared to the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2. This is an epic adventure that takes place over dozens of hours, and it’d only make sense for the gameplay to evolve alongside with the story the entire time. By pushing his illness more to the side and relegating it to cutscenes, it undercuts the entire point of him contacting tuberculosis.
That being said, the Red Dead Redemption 2 ending is more of a triumph than anything and a few aspects not being fleshed out doesn’t tarnish that to a meaningful degree. It’s still one of the most impactful twists in a triple-A release in quite some time, and a story element that manages to hit close to home emotionally. Everyone deals with grief and losing a loved one in life, and it is heartbreaking when you know there is nothing you can do to help someone who is slowly dying. It shows just how little control humans have in life despite seemingly having full control at times, and Rockstar has been able to beautifully recreate that feeling in-game.