When I first stumbled across the abandoned old shack, I never imagined the rusty, wicked array of relics gathering dust inside. There I was, trudging through the soggy mud and tangled underbrush of a nondescript Gulf South swamp when billowing fog suddenly gave way and the cabin came into view. At the time, I was hell-bent on hunting down a desperado and swapping him for a hefty bounty back in the town of Rhodes. Since he had a posse around, I knew I’d need some extra ammo, so I slid off my horse and popped inside for a quick look. What I found in the back of the cabin stopped me in my tracks.
I was, of course, not bounty hunting in the flesh, but living out my fantasies virtually in Red Dead Redemption 2. At the time, I thought I’d already sniffed out all of the brutal curios the game has to offer, from the dismembered victims of a serial killer strewn across the prairie to the public demonstration of an electric-chair prototype in St. Denis. But those macabre subplots had nothing on the newspaper clipping I found sitting on the cabin’s kitchen table. It was a wanted ad, placed by a slave trader seeking a runaway slave in 1859. I was stunned. And it only got worse when I turned around. In the backroom, I found a slave pen, complete with handcuffs and chains drooping from the walls. I never did find any loot—or the fugitive, for that matter—but I did stumble into one of Red Dead Redemption 2’s most compelling themes: the game’s overt condemnation of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. This marks a dramatic course correction for Rockstar, whose past megahits have either ignored racism altogether, like RDR2’s 2010 predecessor, Red Dead Redemption, or monetized racist stereotypes about black crime, like some entries in the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has been a smash hit since its release in late October, taking the gaming world by storm to the tune of $725 million in opening-weekend sales. That’s the second-highest-grossing opening weekend of any game, ever. Its success comes in part from its historical, open-world setting, a semifictionalized United States circa 1899. (If you’re unfamiliar with the series, think of it as Grand Theft Auto meets historical fiction.) The plot follows a hard-pressed gang of outlaws on the run after a heist gone wrong. Players assume the role of Arthur Morgan, a grizzled gang lieutenant with a nasty scowl but ultimately a good heart—at least, unless you owe his gang money. As Arthur and company flee across a modernizing landscape with little room left for good old-fashioned lawlessness, they struggle to stay ahead of encroaching Pinkertons. Unable to scrape together enough cash to quit the life, their situation grows desperate and the group’s cohesion frays. Arthur fights hard to hold things together, but … you’ll have to find out for yourself how it ends.
There’s a thrilling freedom of choice built into Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world. Through Arthur, players can do virtually anything. Bored with the main plot? Kick off your boots at the campfire and down some gin while your crew sings bawdy songs. Feel like robbing a train? Go for it. It’s easy to lose yourself in the glorious tableau of gambling, drinking, bounty hunting, and assorted misadventures around every corner.
But players be warned. In Red Dead Redemption 2’s America of yesteryear, actions have consequences. If Arthur hogties a bystander or sticks up a stagecoach, his reputation takes a hit in the game’s honor system. Murder someone in cold blood, and players might find Arthur chased from town under a hail of lawmen’s bullets. Through the honor system, Rockstar overlays a modern moral code onto the American past, rewarding players for doing good and punishing the wicked.
Rockstar’s version of American history is not for the fainthearted. The developer took pains to make Red Dead Redemption 2 as historically accurate as possible. Someone at Rockstar was clearly paying attention in history class, because Red Dead Redemption 2 unflinchingly confronts America’s ugly racial history throughout the game.
For example, the fictional state of Lemoyne—where I stumbled across the runaway ad and slaveholding pen—is infused with the white supremacy emblematic of Southern society during the late 1800s. Lemoyne stands in for the Deep South, where the Ku Klux Klan waged violent insurgencies to overthrow Reconstruction and where whites used black codes and Jim Crow laws to approximate chattel slavery and uphold white-supremacist regimes for decades after losing the Civil War.
The Lemoyne town of Rhodes prominently features a Confederate monument, old-money plantations, and racist white townsfolk. Wandering through Rhodes, players can overhear a white couple arguing over whether a local black man committed a heinous murder. One of them assumes the suspect’s guilt because he is “a darkie.” Rhodes’s high society is dominated by two extravagantly rich white families with Confederate roots, the Braithwaites and the Grays—subtly named, right? It’s implied that the families made their fortunes on the backs of the enslaved before the Civil War. One character Arthur encounters, from the Braithwaite clan, scorns the Grays as “slave fuckers.”
On the outskirts of town, Arthur encounters a black doctor named Alphonse Renaud. The good doc is noticeably skittish and even apologizes for taking up public space when Arthur, a white man, approaches. After some reassurance by Arthur, Renaud reveals his backstory. He was robbed and almost lynched by Lemoyne whites for being black, successful, and “irritating in nature.” Such blatant racism offends Arthur’s sensibilities. Acting on a tip from a local black man, Arthur tracks down the offenders, dispenses a healthy dose of vigilante justice, and returns Renaud’s medical wagon and supplies. “It wasn’t a trouble, now was it?” Renaud asks Arthur. “No, it was a pleasure,” Arthur replies. When players stray outside of Rhodes into the greater Lemoyne area, Arthur encounters the infamous Lemoyne Raiders, a gang of gun-running “free-staters” who spend their time robbing and assassinating state officials at random. The Raiders wear Confederate uniforms, even though it’s been more than three decades since the Civil War’s end, and they want to overthrow the government, a nod to the violent insurrections white Southerners waged against Reconstruction-era reforms in the late 1860s and ’70s. Arthur eventually corners an aging Raider in the gang’s hideout. Sensing the writing on the wall, the old man shoots himself in the head, but not before delivering a racist swan song about the passing of the pre–Civil War racial order and the “freedmen, the carpetbaggers, the army of criminals who stole our land and our government” during Reconstruction.
The subtle racial undertones of Lemoyne are soon eclipsed by more overt commentary about the brutality of life under slavery and Jim Crow. The most revealing example comes in the form of conversations between Arthur and his protégé, Lenny, who happens to be the son of freedmen. Sometimes you can overhear Lenny talking at the gang’s campfire about the scars on his father’s back and the rape of enslaved women by white slaveholders. At another point in the game, Lenny approaches Arthur with some choice intel about the location of the Lemoyne Raiders’ gun stockpile, information passed on to him by the black residents of Rhodes. Lenny tells Arthur, “There’s a gang of fools holed up in the swamps east of here, who think they war ain’t never ended.” “The Civil War?” Arthur scoffs. “Apparently it’s still raging in these fools’ minds 30 years later!” Lenny replies.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t merely depict the brutal racial realities of the 19th-century U.S. At several moments, Rockstar uses the game as a platform to actively condemn white supremacy. At no point is this more apparent than when Arthur encounters a midnight gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with a cross burning. If players mosey around the backcountry at night long enough, they will eventually spot orange flames illuminating the distant trees. Investigate, and Arthur winds up toe-to-toe with a dozen white-hooded Klansmen. Honor system notwithstanding, there’s not a thing in the world stopping Arthur from going full-on Django Unchained on those racist bastards. As players gleefully reported on Reddit, the game actually incentivizes killing the Klan members. Usually when Arthur commits unprovoked assault, murder, and even animal cruelty, his standing plummets, but not if players opt to eradicate the local klavern.
The Klan encounter is randomly generated, so casual players might never have the chance to rain hellfire down on the Klansmen. But Rockstar takes great pains to ensure that gamers don’t miss out on the intended lesson at a few other points in the game. My favorite teachable moment comes in a quest titled “The Iniquities of History.” In this subplot, Arthur finds himself assisting a pitiable old man, Jeremiah Compson, whose farm has just been foreclosed upon.
The bank took everything, Compson explains. He asks Arthur to break into the farmhouse and retrieve some personal effects, including a ledger.
Arthur, being a do-gooder at heart, obliges the seemingly noble request. But after breaking into Compson’s house, Arthur is revolted to discover yet another slaveholding pen, complete with a whip and chains. Worse still, it turns out the ledger is a record of runaway slaves Compson captured and returned to their masters before the Civil War.
Furious and disgusted, Arthur confronts Compson, who embarks on a jeremiad for the ages, lamenting the loss of his profession because of abolition. His “legacy” has been “pissed on,” Jeremiah says. But Arthur won’t have it. “Old man, some jobs ain’t worth savin,’ ” Arthur yells, casting Compson’s ledger into a campfire. Whipped into a frenzy, Jeremiah screams, “That’s my history! Damn you!” and tries to shoot Arthur.
Players are then free to do what they want. As with the Klansmen, killing Compson doesn’t cost Arthur anything. In fact, if the player chooses to kill Compson, the game actually rewards Arthur with a boost in his honor. Rockstar’s lesson—that slavery was, like the quest’s title says, an “iniquity of history” necessitating active measures to make amends—is impossible to miss. Gamers seem to have gotten the message too. Some have debated the ethics of killing Compson as punishment for his involvement in the slave trade, with many opting to do the deed. Others have widely reported the Klan encounter, lauding Rockstar’s messaging.
Amid today’s culture wars, in which neo-Confederates vocally deny the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow, historical video games like Red Dead Redemption 2 don’t have the luxury of being strictly entertainment. Rockstar seems to have realized that sympathy for white nationalism has been trending up among young white men, a key demographic for the gaming industry. With these high stakes in mind, Rockstar is using RDR2 as a kind of virtual classroom, one in which players are taught in 4K about racism in American history and encouraged to take a stand.