Red Dead Redemption 2 and the (Un)Dying Old West

Today, Rockstar released the third official trailer for the forthcoming sequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption. In typical Rockstar fashion, it drip-feeds eager fans suggestions of what to expect, while still holding back enough information for them to run to the forums and tear the trailer apart, frame by frame, looking for clues. 

On the one hand, it confirmed the inevitable: that, being a prequel, Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist John Marston was to feature in this game too. This had long been suspected given that Rockstar had previously released information that the narrative would centre on Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang; the latter also featured prominently in Red Dead Redemption. 

I’m not here to hash out every specific thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 that the trailer may or may not have confirmed or suggested. I want to talk about something else that this trailer points to (and in doing so, blog for the first time about something related to my PhD thesis, dontcha know).

On the box art for Red Dead Redemption, the tagline reads “America. 1911. The Wild West is Dying.” The summary that accompanied the debut trailer for that game claimed that: 

“At the turn of the 20th Century, when the chaotic badlands began to give way to the expanding reach of the government and the spread of the Industrial Age, a former outlaw, John Marston, is sent across the American frontier, to help bring the rule of law.”

Yes, Red Dead Redemption is preoccupied with the advancement of technology, law and order, and the passing of a generation of (white male) outlaws. 1911 is a bit late to be proclaiming the end of the frontier, though: Frederick Jackson Turner had (for all of the issues with his Frontier Thesis) proclaimed it more or less closed in 1893. But positioning American history and this game’s historical context here, and like this, keeps the narrative themes of the game in line with other Rockstar titles (see GTA V and L.A. Noire most recently) that are also preoccupied with the unstable position of the (mostly) white male, in their particular contemporary American context. 

But this new trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 tells us that “By 1899 The West had nearly been tamed”. At this point, so we’re told, ‘The age of gunslingers and outlaws had almost passed into myth’, and the last of the outlaw gangs were being rounded up by bounty hunters and federal agents.

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I’m not about to split hairs about what’s meant by “nearly” and/or “dying”. And it’s not really about whether the time-stamp is right or wrong in this context. The point is these gestures to the passing of The Old West are deliberately unspecific.

Rockstar have long positioned the game as a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, and so can explore the same themes that they love to this way. But more than that, they’ve deliberately paratextually extended the timeframe of the passing of the Old West: leaving it on the precipice of ‘dying’ for over a decade more. Doing so seems to try and legitimate their telling of this kind of story over and over again by gesturing to historical “truth” — that is, their version of it.

Rockstar are good at projecting the image of their games that they want seen well before they’re released. By the time any player gets their hands on them, the promotional cycles will told them what to expect: what the story is about, what the gameplay is offering, how they’ve built on their previous work as a developer.

With their explicitly historical games, these promotional materials will often reorder fragments of American history into a new Rockstar-approved version of the past that most suits their interpretation, and in-game representation, of it. The same thing happened in Red Dead Redemption, where Rockstar’s Newswire hosted a series of blogs informing players about ‘The True West’; that is, the ‘history that helped inspire Red Dead Redemption’. It was a deliberately narrow selection of ‘historical insights’ about the vast and complex history of American Westward expansion, of course, that made Red Dead Redemption seem historically authentic (according to limitations Rockstar themselves imposed).

With this new trailer, we are again seeing the reordering of history around what Rockstar want/need fans to know in order to believe that their game is an authentic portrayal of The American West, even before we know more about it than just its overview.

There are of course other, more insidious meanings to the idea of “The West” being tamed, having more to do with racist, American Exceptionalist rhetoric and Native American genocide. But it remains to be seen whether Red Dead Redemption 2 will deal with this with more nuance than reducing it to the barely-three-mission-long conflict between Nastas and Harold MacDougal in Red Dead Redemption (let’s not get our hopes up).

Rockstar have certainly done their part in pop-culturally perpetuating the idea that The West was an inherently wild, violent and lawless place, on the edge of its demise ad infinitum, and fit only for (white) men. By the looks of thing, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t going to change things too much.

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