Since Rockstar announced Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2016, much of the conversation surrounding it has been preoccupied with the sequel’s relationship to its predecessor. One popular theory suggests that Red Dead Redemption 2 will be a prequel focusing on series protagonist John Marston’s days as a member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang of outlaws. The idea has fans excited enough that some are going to… great lengths to hunt down clues confirming it.
It’s not hard to understand why. Red Dead Redemption is often considered one of the best games of its generation. John Marston himself is frequently cited as one of the best characters in gaming. There’s a lot of affection for John and the world he inhabits. It’s hard to blame fans for wanting to return to that world, in whatever form that may take.
It would be a mistake for Red Dead Redemption 2 to tell a story about the Marstons, though. Whether it’s a prequel or a sequel, tying Red Dead Redemption 2 to the Marstons would invariably make it supplementary to the first game, rather than a truly worthy successor. If Red Dead 2 is going to occupy the same exalted space as its predecessor, Rockstar has to look past its superficial franchise potential and instead engage critically with its deeper themes. Red Dead Redemption may star the Marstons, but they’re not what Red Dead Redemption is about.
There’s a reason why the first Red Dead Redemption starts years after John’s outlaw career. It’s the same reason we don’t see flashbacks to William Munny’s brutal past in Unforgiven or learn more about Shane’s eponymous gunslinger. Westerns as a genre are (appropriately) obsessed with the past, but the past they’re obsessed with is one that’s viewed from far away—that has been distorted by time, ideology and storytelling. “The Wild West” itself is a story—a story about the past, even within Westerns themselves.
In Red Dead Redemption, the past is a plot device. John’s time as an outlaw is important because it establishes him as a man attempting to redeem himself. Its ambiguity gives it much of its weight. All we know about John’s outlaw days is that he did bad things, met his wife, and had a falling out with his gang. The blank spaces between those beats—along with John’s single-minded obsession with making sure his son Jack doesn’t repeat his mistakes—speak volumes.
John’s past has already served its purpose—as has John himself. Throughout Red Dead Redemption, we come to see that, ironically, the story John tells himself about his life is actually true. He really is a good man struggling to overcome the mistakes of his past. By omitting the actual events of his outlaw life, Rockstar can focus instead on the redemptive aspects of John. By seeing him as a father instead of an outlaw, we can see that John is the redeemed man he’s trying to be.
Seeing John as redeemed is critical to the tragic theme of Red Dead Redemption. After John commits the terrible acts the FBI forces him to, they gun him down for his “crimes” anyway. Jack Marston grows up to murder the FBI agent who betrayed his father. Thus, an outlaw is born and the cycle begins anew. It’s the very thing John spent his life trying to prevent.
Red Dead Redemption is ultimately a tragic parable about the truth of the Wild West and America’s flawed conception of justice. The story of the Marstons demonstrates how America perpetuates the lawless Wild West and creates its own “outlaws” when it chooses not to see the capacity of criminals to redeem themselves. However well-developed and beloved they are, the Marstons are a means to the end of making that point.
Red Dead Redemption makes John’s past powerful through ambiguity; the fact that we don’t see it means we can’t know whether or not any given retroactive interpretation of it is correct. Knowing exactly who John was before we got to know him would make Red Dead Redemption didactic and rob it of its most powerful point at the same time: it doesn’t matter who a person was if they’ve changed, and as long as America goes on believing that people’s natures are predetermined, we’ll keep making the same tragic mistakes.
What would a prequel starring John Marston really add to Red Dead Redemption’s indictment of American retributive justice? It seems unlikely that a Marston prequel would attempt to make a new point about the problems of American ideology. If they wanted to do that, it would be detrimental to use the Marstons. John and Jack’s story is already told. It would be very difficult not to automatically interpret a new John Marston story through the lens of the original game, knowing what we know now.
If a prequel couldn’t make a new point, then the best it could do is add nuance to or problematize the original’s point of view. However, even that goal would be hampered by the Marstons. In Red Dead Redemption, John and Jack are the means of telling a story about American injustice. They’re not franchise mascots; they’re plot devices, just like John’s past is a plot device. Including the Marstons in another Red Dead game would shift the focus away from the game’s critical themes and towards a less pointed, character-based critique. Many games do this quite well—The Witcher and Yakuza series come to mind—but that was not Red Dead’s goal.
With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar set out to make an American Western in the truest sense—a sweeping, epic story that shines a light on problems inherent in the American way of life and makes an argument for how they must be improved. That goal is bigger than the Marstons, and continuing to explore it in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a more exciting prospect than returning to a character whose story has been told. If Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to re-capture the spirit that made the first game exceptional, it has to look forward, not back.
Harry Mackin has written for Game Informer, Playboy and other outlets. He’s on Twitter at @Shiitakeharry.