Red Dead Redemption II and Breaking the Prequel Curse

    I’ll admit it – I’m biased.

    To me, Red Dead Redemption – Rockstar Games’ sweeping, open-world western epic from 2010 – represents an unequaled gold standard in video gaming. I’m fairly certain every single new video game I’ve played in the years since has been (unfairly, probably) compared to it in some way – a variation of, “Yeah, this is great… but it’s no Red Dead”, has escaped my lips more times than I can count. Sometimes a work just clicks so thoroughly, so entirely, with your sensibilities, tastes, and preferences that it’s difficult to put into words exactly why you adore it as much as you do, such is your passion toward it.

    That’s Red Dead Redemption to me.

    Redemption was almost entirely unconnected to its near-mythical sixth generation ancestor, 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, with only the vaguest of vague references serving as connective tissue. Was there any particular need to revisit the cast of characters from Redemption in any capacity, especially when it served so well as a self-contained story? I didn’t think so – but the powers that be did.

    Such was my concern when Rockstar revealed Red Dead Redemption II would serve as a prequel to its predecessor. Taking place fifteen years prior to the first Redemption, the new game would chart the dying days of the infamous Van der Linde Gang, to which Redemption’s protagonist John Marston (Rob Wiethoff) once belonged, and whose exploits were only alluded to in the broadest of terms.

    My concern stemmed from a simple belief I’d formed over the years – with the rarest of exceptions, prequels simply don’t work. They tend to produce one (or more) of three outcomes: they struggle to establish their own stakes and instead focus on connecting the dots to their predecessors (hello, George Lucas), exist as hollow, forgotten shadows of their forebears (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson), or result in a complete mess when an attempt is made to be simultaneously separate and connected (is anyone really still clamouring for another Fantastic Beasts?). I was concerned the follow-up to my favourite video game of all time would suffer the effects of the same apparent curse.

    To my delight, I was very wrong.

    Red Dead Redemption II is a masterpiece of prequel storytelling, perhaps even the definitive prequel. As I write this, I’m currently on my second full play-through of the game, and I’m still consistently stunned at how well it establishes its own individual stakes while laying the groundwork for those of its predecessor. Writers Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth, and Rupert Humphries expertly use framework, characters, and allusions from the original Redemption to broadly expand what we thought we knew of John Marston’s past. Redemption II broadly embellishes the smatterings of backstory established in its predecessor while refusing to be restricted by them.

    Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Property of Lucasfilm.

    There exists a tendency in prequels to present familiar characters as simply “the same, but younger”. Just think of Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi (as much as I enjoy that particular performance), or the crew of the Enterprise in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, who almost all arrive fully-formed and entirely familiar. This reliance on overt familiarity when re-introducing established characters perhaps points to a wariness to present beloved characters as anything other than what made them beloved in the first place. The result, however, is the nullifying of any potential character growth and development, presenting the audience (or player) with a character who is fully-formed on arrival, sailing exclusively on a pre-destined course.

    Redemption II avoids this pitfall by treating its returning characters exactly how they ought to be treated – as people. Some otherwise-familiar characters are very different, almost irreconcilable people between the two games. It’s difficult and disheartening to accept the sleazy, crooked bandit Javier Escuella as we knew him in the original Redemption was once the handsome, romantic revolutionary we meet in Redemption II. Likewise, the demented and psychotic Colonel Kurtz-esque Dutch van der Linde was once the charming and charismatic leader of a merry band of outlaws worthy of Robin Hood (at least, that’s how he’d have you believe it). Rockstar understand that people change – not always for the better – and treats their characters accordingly.

    On the other hand, Houser, Unsworth, and Humphries are smart enough to know familiarity has its place. Sometimes, there’s no need to greatly change a character who explicitly serves a purpose – as long as they aren’t who the story is about. To this end, antagonistic figures from the original Redemption like Bill Williamson and Edgar Ross are almost exactly the same when we meet them again (or for the first time?) in Redemption II. That’s fine. Some people change, some don’t. Certainly, it works for these characters, and others like them.

    Crucially, John Marston is not Redemption II‘s primary playable protagonist. That title goes to Arthur Morgan (Roger Clark), the Van der Linde Gang’s long-term enforcer and third-in-command who is neither seen nor mentioned in the original Redemption, leaving players with a somewhat daunting sense of inevitability during their time spent with him. Regardless, this shift in focus away from the familiar gives both Arthur and John the space to breath and function independently as fully fleshed-out protagonists. Even if their stories are intricately intertwined, it’s all in the greater service of the saga they inhabit.

    John himself – at least, in the prequel’s first six playable chapters – is about as far away from the man we knew in Redemption as possible, and that’s exactly how it should be. Rockstar isn’t interested in softly-retconning the character in ways we’ve come to expect from other prequels (“Actually, Han Solo had a good heart all along!”). They’re smart enough to know that we want to know how he became the man he was in Redemption – not that he just always was that way. This freedom of characterisation allows not only for all-important development and change – it also grants the prequel the opportunity to enrich and enhance the emotional experience of the original work, instead of diminishing and demystifying it.

    And that is an exceptionally rare feat for a prequel to achieve.

    By presenting otherwise familiar characters as entirely different people to those we thought we knew, Redemption II allows players to be surprised and engaged in ways we thought we couldn’t be. Yes – these characters are inevitably heading down a familiar path. But how do they get there, and why do they do it? That’s all up in the air. And if the story is told well enough, it’s every bit as engaging.

    Arthur Morgan (Roger Clark) and Sadie Adler (Alex McKenna) in Red Dead Redemption II. Property of Rockstar Games.

    Players know how the overall Redemption saga concludes, but that’s beside the point – with so many additional and unfamiliar aspects in play, we don’t know how this chapter ends. That’s not to say Redemption II doesn’t set up the original Redemption – it does, big time. In the prequel’s last two playable chapters, Rockstar goes the extra to connect every single dot it has to, but – crucially – refuses to rely on excruciating contrivances in the process (a dire mistake so frustratingly made in another otherwise-excellent prequel, X-Men: First Class). For example: major characters from Redemption II like Arthur, Hosea Matthews, Charles Smith, and Sadie Adler are never once mentioned in the original Redemption, despite having prolonged, meaningful relationships and histories with that game’s characters – and that’s fine.

    The absence of these characters and their of lack of mention are, funnily enough, not in-fact a result of lazy writing (as is so often – and unfairly – accused in cases like this), and has a simple, real-life explanation: these characters debuted in a game released in 2018, and simply didn’t exist in 2010. But if you want a narrative, “in-universe” reason for their absence – as so many fans of, well, anything these days seem to insist upon – Rockstar does provide one (the epilogue of Redemption II makes sure these characters are literally and geographically far removed from Redemption’s story). But equally – and maybe more importantly – it simply doesn’t matter. They’re just not relevant to the story the original Redemption tells.

    When Redemption II released, I was astonished at just how many people I spoke to who were playing it having not played its predecessor. Ultimately, I think that’s indicative of Red Dead Redemption II’s unrivalled strength as a prequel: it embellishes and enriches the experience of its predecessor without ever making the mistake of being beholden to it. If Redemption II wants to do something with its story that doesn’t totally match up with the original Redemption, it’ll do it. It doesn’t matter. The story and characters come first. And to that end – for this player – it established a new gold standard in video gaming, just as its forebear did before it.

    Red Dead Redemption II tells us continuity should be painted in lush, broad strokes, not in minute, excruciating detail.

    Sadly, that’s not the way prequels tend to go – but it should be.

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