Red Dead Redemption 2 uses Western Expansion as a story telling device to characterize, worldbuild, and immerse players while mirroring reality.
Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption has never been a series to shy away from the uglier aspects of life out West during the age of outlaws and cowboys. Often romanticized, this time period could be brutal, lawless, and more free than anywhere found in the United States today. Red Dead Redemption 2 utilizes commentary on Western Expansionism at the end of the 19th century and the effects it had on those who stood against society in a bloody, tragic story.
Focusing on the Van der Linde gang and playing as one of their chief enforcers, players experience an unabashed view of the people moving West to flee civilization. On the run from the law after a failed robbery in Blackwater and surrounded by a gang fraying at the edges with paranoia and fear, players consistently have one sentiment pounded into their heads: living freely at all costs. Despite the criminal nature of the gang, Dutch assures his people that they are in the right, and the civilization which seeks to encompass the whole country is the true villain.
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Early on in Red Dead Redemption 2, players witness the result of the violent displacement of Native Americans. Two members of the gang, Hosea Matthews and Charles Smith, who is half Native American, discuss the injustices the indigenous people have faced as they move on to catch up with the rest of the gang. Despite their criminal occupations, the Van der Linde gang shows compassion for a people expelled from the country whose new occupants deemed them a nuisance. The Van der Linde gang is home to several demographics that suffered violent discrimination in 1899 and beyond, including immigrants, people of color, Native Americans, and the children of slaves. As an ostracized and hunted population, the gang represented a side of humanity that society sought to eliminate from the United States.
In RDR2 & Real Life, Civilization Could Be Brutal & Was Anything But Fair
As the continued expansion of civilization and lawful society into the West gained more and more momentum, the Van der Linde gang fled deeper into ‘civilized land’ to escape. Red Dead Redemption 2 territories like Rhodes exemplified the explicit inequality and divisions harbored from the Civil War, where racism ran rampant and many functions of slavery were still in place. RDR2’s Saint Denis was another in-game location where the perfections of society were heavily contrasted by the looming existence of organized crime and corruption. While some of these issues existed in the Van der Linde gang, it seemed the natural injustices and brutality of humanity worsened the more ‘civilized’ the territory was.
As society continued to glorify the West through Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush, the West became something of a vacation spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes a point to parody these individuals in the form of a New York tourist who needs to be guided back to Strawberry by Arthur Morgan, and Albert Mason, who has a series of Stranger Missions in RDR2’s wilderness. These men show severe ineptitude in surviving in the wild, and while Arthur has the opportunity to assist and educate both of them, the effect of society’s inability to adapt to the territories does not change. To capitalize on the value of the land and ease the process of living in the West, the territories will eventually become civilized and settled, becoming the country people know today.
The desperate flight and subsequent destruction of the Van der Linde gang and their way of life in Red Dead Redemption 2 was a perfect downscaled representation of the damage Western Expansionism inflicted on those who did not fit the status quo. The exploitation of labor, discrimination, corruption, brutality, and a lack of genuine connection run rampant throughout a society obsessed with expanding into unsettled territories. This expansionist frenzy and its unfortunate side effects are represented through the plights of the Van der Linde gang, and the fates of its members. Red Dead Redemption 2 successfully utilized Expansionism as a storytelling tool, while still keeping true to the effects it held in our world.
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