“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a [cowboy]…”
I grew up on single-action revolver replicas, syndication, Cormac McCarthy novels (along with the imitators) and a misguided yet robust attempt at a Western film and television resurgence. And yes, I’m taking direct aim at The Young Riders here. Anyhow, my fascination with the period continued into adulthood, so when gaming powerhouse Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption in 2010, I was an easy target.
Red Dead Redemption, the video game that tells the story of a former outlaw hunting down three members of his former gang in order to save his family, has become the most profitable entertainment product in history in any medium.
From the beginning, Red Dead Redemption was about the myth of the old American West. Like most Westerns, it sought to hold a mirror to the culture of its time, while maintaining the familiar tropes of this “wild” past.
Unfortunately, the tale of the frontier is one of conquest, and many of the resultant tropes are steeped in the racism that fueled and enabled that conquest. The first installment in the series proved to be an exercise in erasure, as there were no named Black characters in the game. A glaring error at best for a game released 2010.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel set three years before the first installment and released in October 2018. Main character Arthur Morgan serves as second-in-command of the Dutch van der Linde Gang, a band of outlaws attempting to ride off into the sunset after one last score.
In a welcome move, the prequel features three Black characters. Additionally,the intricate story makes an effort to draw from history, featuring Black children of slaves, federal encroachment on Native American land and post-Civil War rivalries among white Southerners. There’s something to be said for a company with a troubling history around racial representation taking on such complex themes, and moving Black and POC identities to the forefront.
The diverse cast of characters, along with the game story, provides a fairly clear message about the politics of the game: They are seemingly liberal, progressive, Democrat-leaning, et cetera. Anti-right wing messages abound. In one city, the main character encounters a eugenics supporter preaching the white genocide myth. If you decide to give him a thrashing, there are no consequences, even if done in full view of the game’s ever-present constables.
But intention doesn’t always add up to positive action. A closer look at the characters and dynamics of RDR2 reveal some troubling and familiar cliches.
Charles, the most prominent Black character, is a biracial Black and Native man who never knew his alcoholic Black father or the tribal origins of his Native mother. When he’s finally accepted by a gang of white outlaws, he teaches them stereotypical Native skills like hunting, stealth techniques and killing poachers.
Tilly is the sole Black woman named in the series. She is a runaway from a former gang of ruthless, abusive and toxic Black men. At one point, Tilly’s former comrades kidnap her, seeking revenge for the act of killing that liberated her from them.
The sequence is extremely disturbing. Tilly is kidnapped, badly beaten, and tied to a bed. Her bruises are rendered in detail. Her rescue is disturbing too, as the player is directed to capture her fleeing kidnapper with a lasso from horseback, while one of the game’s white women characters urges you to “catch that animal.”
After his apprehension, the player is given the choice to spare or kill the him while holding a knife to his neck. It’s a visceral and disturbing scene that I suspect some players enjoyed for all the wrong reasons.
Lenny is the least realized of these Black characters, but through some of the game’s most race-conscious dialogue, we know that his family was enslaved and he’s on the run after a tragedy.
Black players in RDR2 come from broken, corrupt, and loveless Black communities. There is no solidarity between the Black characters, who have no interactions or ties with one another. This racist stereotype of a degenerate Black community is especially troubling when we consider the vibrancy and solidarity of Reconstruction era Black culture.
The concept of the individual is paramount in RDR2. Characters regularly wax post-racially about how there are “good and bad people on both sides,” that anyone can overcome their circumstances through grit, and that ultimately, we’re all doomed.
This nihilistic outlook is one of the most troubling aspects of liberal racism. It absolves those complicit in the current system. It’s easy to say everything is dying when you’ll be the last to feel the effects.
Even with its flaws, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an amazing accomplishment — and its flaws provide insights into how we can tell more progressive and inclusive stories in gaming and beyond. So how could it have been different?
What if RDR2’s main character had been a person of color? Doing so would have provided an opportunity to enrich the story and provide some real teeth to the progressive leanings of the game’s philosophy.
Are we as storytellers avoiding the common displays of Black suffering?
Challenging the false narratives that Black people have no community, connections, or functions besides moving white characters forward. Paying attention to the full spectrum of Black, Indigenous, and people of color experiences and history. Having Black characters love, support, and talk to one another,
Some may question the validity of criticizing an already progressive space. But I believe those spaces are our best chance at progress only if we routinely challenge and refine them.
By including and focusing on BIPOC characters, we can explore new stories of our past while better reflecting on it, and forging a path to a “New West”, that acknowledges and comes to terms with the conquest, slavery and genocide of this country’s past.
By focusing on these narratives, we can learn from a Black and Native anti-racist resistance culture with many parallels to our current experience, and interact with indigenous cultures that celebrated many of the progressive outcomes we seek — such as non binary identities and ecologically sound spiritual practices.
And perhaps most important, we can start to tell stories that include everyone sitting around the campfire, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ability or class.
Cir L’Bert Jr. is a writer and creator interested in afrofuturism, the people’s history and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter: @cirjr.