Red Dead Redemption 2: how I found peace and tranquillity with a video game during COVID-19

Joshua Merricks, a local A level student, writes about how he was incredibly moved by an awe-striking video game he played over the lockdown period

Having grown up in the countryside in the Farnham area, I feel as if I have a significantly greater appreciation for nature and the world around me than some of my peers, so the thought of legislation being passed to make sure everyone stayed inside horrified me. Being around family 24/7 and not seeing my friends was certainly something that I dreaded (sorry Mum and Dad). This, alongside me not being able to do schoolwork effectively from home led to me, along with many others I am sure, becoming pretty unhappy. In an effort to cheer myself up, I turned to video games.

Having played and being astonished by the first Red Dead Redemption, which came out in 2010, I made the executive decision to buy Red Dead Redemption 2, released in 2018. It is a western-themed game, set in 1899, in the dying years of the American Frontier. Before I even played the game, I knew how much of a cinematic and detailed masterpiece it would be, but I was totally unprepared for the emotive impact it had on me, leaving me thinking about it for days on end.

As you play the game, you cover all types of terrain, from humid swamps to snow-capped mountain tops, to a bustling city and of course, the deserts of South Western North America. In total, the game has 29 square miles of land, all discoverable to your character, Arthur Morgan: a juxtaposed gunslinger, torn between loyalty and moral choices. The game took seven years to make, with a 2000-page script performed by 1200 actors leading to a total of 500,000 lines of dialogue. 500,000. This alone amazes me, having done various drama performances at school, this is unmatched by any video game I have ever played.

Even if you do not play video games, I’m sure anyone can appreciate the technical achievement. The various landscapes are populated by around 200 species of different animals. Dogs, fish, bears, deer, snakes, alligators, and even Gila monsters. The granular and fine details of continuity in Red Dead Redemption 2 are taken to the nth degree. The weather is unpredictable, each rock is uniquely modelled, and historical context is taken into account perfectly. If you don’t feed and bathe your character, other characters in the game will comment on your appearance, and even your horse suffers if it is left dirty, unfed and neglected.

Words could not describe my sheer astonishment at everything. But I loved it. In such a dystopian world where newsreaders were reading out the number of deaths caused by COVID, A Level and GCSE students were uncertain as to their entire futures and a state of panic had ensued, I was able to find peace whilst playing. Just the ability to freely explore this incredible representation of North America on horseback whilst listening to the ambience of the patting rain, the gushing of a waterfall and the howl of a wolf in the distance was what I found most therapeutic.

Perhaps this was because I wasn’t able to in the real world, but Red Dead Redemption’s virtual world feels so real that I was more than content playing for hours on end, losing all sense of time, feeling as if I was really there. The emotional impact that Red Dead Redemption 2 had on me was breath-taking. Trying to articulate words in order to describe this ‘silly video game’ to my parents and peers was, for the first time, very difficult. There was so much to say about it, that I simply couldn’t say anything at all. Not only did the game give me a sense of escapism, but it also taught me about the history of the time, the often-muddy lines between right and wrong, and I think furthered my appreciation for my surroundings. It may sound oxymoronic, but the world seemed more vibrant after I had played, even in the wake of a global pandemic.

In the main story of the game, you control the character of Arthur Morgan, who at the beginning of the game seems like he has no moral fibres whatsoever. He kills seemingly indiscriminately and appears to just be like every other member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang: the gang of outlaws which Arthur has been a part of since he was a small boy. However, as the game progresses, Arthur becomes more of who he truly is. It is incredibly evident to see the amount of time and effort has been taken to make Arthur’s character complex and relatable, he is a simple person, but this further adds to the game’s realism. He isn’t a hero, he isn’t astute or sophisticated, Arthur is a simple man, and after finding out some distressing news two-thirds of the way through the game, Arthur tries to right at least some of the many wrongs he has done throughout his life. I will refrain from spoiling the story itself, however in the eyes of many video game critics, they view Arthur Morgan’s character to be the greatest protagonist in the history of video games.

Never, in the entirety of my life, have I become so attached to someone who isn’t real. No film nor TV series has given me a connection with a character such as Red Dead Redemption 2 did. It may sound silly, but whilst playing I had genuine concern for Arthur, whether he had eaten, whether he was warm enough and whether he had a big enough hat on whilst it was raining. To you, this may sound like I’m crazy, becoming so attached to someone who firstly isn’t even real and secondly, a character in a video game. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is much more than the ignorant thoughts of ‘just a game’. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a work of art, and a truly spectacular one at that.

I believe the words of Jessica Hoffmann Davis, the 75-year-old mother of Benjamin Byron Davis who played Dutch Van Der Linde, sum this up perfectly. After playing the game herself on her own, she said that “Like other works of art, we never capture it all in one encounter, we can return and find new things over and over and the questions the work asks us are never fully answered, fraught with possibilities for interpretation….and my triumph by the way, learning something new for which I had no experience or ability, awakened by the challenges and delight of this extraordinary creation. What a privilege to play”.

These words, especially coming from a 75-year-old lady with no experience playing video games before, are particularly powerful. I believe anyone can play this game, and that everybody should. For your own sake, play Red Dead Redemption 2.

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