“Red Dead Redemption 2” doesn’t deliver one story, it delivers 23 of them. And in true Rockstar Game fashion, that’s not the game’s most impressive feat.
In taking on the prequel story of what made “Red Dead Redemption’s” John Marston the redeemed vengeance-seeking gunman he became, Rockstar drops players in the role, not of Marston, but Arthur Morgan, another member of the Dutch Van der Linde Gang.
The team of nearly 2,000 spent eight years working to breath life into the 22 other members of the gang in a way that is meant to both provide depth to Morgan and give the world that he inhabits meaningful friends, all of whom have their own powerful stories.
To do this, Rockstar Games tells Variety, the studio created so many lines of dialog and AI-controlled triggers that the game does away with the need for cutscenes, overt missions and even a singular take on who Arthur is, delivering instead a living world and an Arthur shaped by developer and player.
“We had to be careful not to John it up too much,” “Red Dead Redemption 2” producer Rob Nelson said, referencing John Marston who was the beloved central character in “Red Dead Redemption,” but is one of 23 meaningful characters in — and notably not the one controlled by players — in prequel “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
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“We don’t want to disappoint people. He was a character who really resonated. It’s exciting to have him back playing as a different character. But it’s also a bit of a challenge, a good challenge to have.”
People who played the first game will know Marston’s story, or at least think they do, and that could be limiting to the writers. That’s just one of myriad challenges the team faced in working to give life not just to their central character, but to make each of the gang’s 23 members feel like heroes in their own stories.
“A big cast of main characters was an advantage in many ways…it gave us a broad and varied set of perspectives and personalities to draw from and helped create the story we wanted – a gang on the run that functions as its own society, but it also created a lot of complexity,” Michael Unsworth, senior creative writer on “Red Dead Redemption 2,” told Variety. “We knew we needed a diverse and interesting mix of characters for Dutch’s gang and the challenge with any big ensemble cast like this is making them all stand out in some way and feel distinct from one another without descending into stereotype.”
Unsworth said that Rockstar as a studio has always tried to make characters, rather than tropes, in its games and as technology has improved, that’s become — in some ways — easier. The technology allows Rockstar to create characters who are deeper and more interesting. Or at least that’s the goal.
“We were obsessive about reviewing every character’s performance throughout development and re-recording/re-writing any lines that didn’t feel right to make sure they popped and expressed their personality in an interesting way,” Unsworth said. “In defining them we put a lot of focus on their individual stories, the series of events that brought them to this place in their lives – who they were and what got them here.”
The team had to know why each of the gang’s members was drawn to gang-leader Dutch. What did Dutch see in them? What made them decide to stay in the gang? And perhaps most importantly, how does all of this impact the member’s relationship with Arthur and everyone else in the gang.
“These are mostly misfits who have been marginalized in some way, either by society as a whole or on a more personal level, and Dutch’s anarchic, anti-establishment rhetoric is a compelling draw,” Unsworth said. “This is as much a family as a gang, offering a sense of belonging and purpose that a lot of these individuals desperately need, whether they admit it or not.”
On top of that, Rockstar Games had to contend with the other returning characters. Marston isn’t the only one who shows up in the original “Red Dead Redemption.”
“Who were these people ten years prior to ‘RDR1?’ Was there perhaps some revisionist history in Marston’s recollection of how things played out? We also tried to remain flexible and allow our characters to evolve somewhat with the actors … When you’re shooting and recording over a period of years, you start to see things in the performance that you weren’t expecting which sparks new ideas and some characters begin to shift in a different direction, which is almost always a good thing.”
While Rockstar has at times come under fire for its depiction of women in previous games, Unsworth said he doesn’t think those criticisms are entirely valid. “All of our games have featured strong and weak female characters, strong and weak male characters, and a range of races and sexual orientation, just like the worlds we are depicting,” he said.”That being said, we have been able to use the game mechanics, especially, the gang camps, to delve deeper into more of the characters with this game so it helps us make all of the characters more nuanced and interesting than was possible in the past, simply because you can spend much longer with them, and can learn more about them. Our favorite characters are not weak or strong, or good or bad, but combinations of both. Our goal in every game is to find the right set of characters for the story that we’re telling. There are millions of people from every background, ethnicity, age and gender playing our games now, which is awesome, and everybody’s perception is equally valid – but we have always tried to tell stories that are interesting about conflicts our characters face.”
In preparing for this and all of its games, Rockstar does a lot of research to try and find a way to tell stories that help bring the game’s mechanics to life, he said. The goal of a Rockstar game is to capture the essence of a time and place and then find strong, interesting personalities with that, he said.
“As you get to know Dutch’s gang, you quickly realize that nobody is going to mess with women like Susan, Abigail, Karen, Tilly, and Sadie and, if they do, they’ll learn their lesson the hard way,” he said of the women in the gang. “These are tough, self-sufficient individuals who’ve lived difficult lives and have chosen to escape that and forge their own path, so they’re extremely brave, resilient and protective of each other, but also flawed, like everybody.”
“Red Dead Redemption 2,” as with many of Rockstar’s previous games, incorporate an inclusive cast.
“All our games, as far I can remember, have featured multiracial, diverse casts, like the worlds they are depicting,” Unsworth said. “I don’t think we approached ‘RDR2’ remotely differently in that regard. However, since John had spoken at length in the last game about how, for all his flaws, Dutch was equitable in his approach to the gang, we already had this precedent and opportunity to create a diverse and multifaceted group of characters within the gang.”
That specific trait in Dutch was interesting to explore for the writers, something that underlines just how conflicted he can be at times.
“Dutch has always viewed himself less as a criminal, and more as someone fighting back against a corrupt system of power that’s been set up to divide and suppress,” Unsworth said. “At least that’s what he tells himself. In ‘RDR2,’ we start to see that idealism give way to disillusionment and, in turn, how that affects everyone who has believed in him for so many years.”
Work on “Red Dead Redemption 2” started right after work on the “Red Dead Redemption” wrapped, back in 2010. Dan Houser and a handful of other key people starting fleshing out what this game would be, Nelson said.
In creating this prequel, there were a number of driving concepts that helped shape what it would later become. Dan Houser liked the idea of more fully exploring the character of Dutch, leader of the Van der Linde Gang.
“We wanted to tell the story fo that gang,” Nelson said. “I think Dan had that in his mind first.”
But it was actually “Grand Theft Auto V” that had the greatest impact on “Red Dead Redemption 2.” In crafting the story of that game, Dan Houser and team leaned on an interesting literary technique.
Back then, the team was inspired by some of the narrative work they did with “Grand Theft Auto IV” and the original “Red Dead Redemption.” But they felt they needed to try something different, so they decided to tell the story of “GTA V” through the three protagonists. The three central characters were designed to share the spotlight in the game equally. Out of that decision came an interesting narrative question: What to do with the other two characters when a player is in control of the third? Rockstar Games decided to make sure that when a player slipped into a character that they would be doing something meaningful, not just standing around waiting for the player to give them life. That was, perhaps, most noticeable in the character of Michael, who was married and had a child. His non-player controlled life was a bit of a soap opera that added depth to the character.
“Once we decided this gang was going to be alive and we were going to push it as hard as we could, the world has to kind of hold up to that as much as feasible. It informed everything.”
So Dan took that idea and applied it to the game’s nearly two dozen main characters. While you can’t control anyone other than Arthur in the game, the sense of life those other characters have, even when you’re not around, adds meaningful depth to their personalities, which in turn helps to give life to Arthur through interactions.
“There is exposition all around you,” Nelson said. “You can find out so much about these characters because they are all around you.”
Unlike with something like television or movies, while all of this narrative and exposition exists around the player, they’re not forced to engage with it. They can instead choose what they want to learn about, which can help make them feel closer to the characters they like more.
“It’s an evolution hopefully in terms of what we want to do with character development,” Nelson said. “We wanted to stick with Arthur through this story and see how he changes from the start. What made him the person he is today and the things he goes through and how those effects him”
So instead of playing as several characters, as you did with “Grand Theft Auto V,” you play as one who experiences a lot of change both through his actions and his interactions with others.
That decision, Nelson said, shaped everything about “Red Dead Redemption 2” from the story, to its characters, to the systems that needed to be created to give life to both.
“Once we decided this gang was going to be alive and we were going to push it as hard as we could, the world has to kind of hold up to that as much as feasible,” he said. “It informed everything.”
As the work on the game accelerated, the company began to realize that the process of working as a group of distinct studios wasn’t the best approach on so complex a game. So they began to become a single, massive entity essentially.
As “Red Dead Redemption 2” wrapped up, it did so with a singular group not distinguished as Rockstar North or Rockstar Lincoln, but simply as Rockstar Games.
“Now we’re just one big group,” Nelson said. “It has allowed us to leverage the strength of locations, letting us hire the best people for each job from around the world.”
That decision didn’t come with some challenges. Chief among them, Nelson said, is keeping communication open between so mammoth a group of people. He said about 2,000 people worked on the game, 1,600 of which were developers. An interview in the lead up to the release of the game also ignited a conversation about Rockstar Games and mandatory, prescribed, or even the implication of required overtime. In the interview, Dan Houser talked about working 100-hour weeks. He later said that was meant in reference to himself and the game’s other three writers, but other former and current Rockstar Games’ employees have since discussed working overtime in the lead up to the game’s release.
Second only perhaps to character development, is Rockstar’s efforts at compelling storytelling through powerful themes and innovative approach.
Where one of the core themes of the original “Red Dead Redemption” was protecting your family at all costs, “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” theme is about the breakdown of a gang, which really is a family.
“This is the story of something falling apart,” Nelson said. “In ‘Red Dead Redemption’s’ story John said I rode with a gang that left me to die. He references it a lot. We wanted to tell that story of why it unraveled.”
And the decision to tell this particular story is what led to a desire to give life to so many central characters.
“We wanted a fully living gang society, that the player would interact with for a long time, and which evolves in the way it evolves through the story – every character was necessary structurally and interesting to us – we actually cut a couple who didn’t add enough early in development,” Unsworth said, noting that the themes of both games are ones that most people can relate to on some level. “I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that the gang at the end of the game feels very different than it did at the beginning, both in terms of vibe and numbers. Every member of the gang goes through their own transformation, for better or worse, and they all help to drive the narrative to its conclusion in their own way. If this was a two-hour movie, a cast this big would be daunting, but in a game of this scale, it’s very necessary to keep things believable. There were certainly a few times I asked myself if we really needed 23 gang members when we were writing fairly massive AI dialogue scripts toward the end of the project – but I knew we needed all of them – they all balance each other out, and give the game it’s shape.”
One of the goals of this game was to deliver an experience that vanquished the concept of “missions” and “cut-scenes” and instead just made the player feel like there were living inside a world alongside people they cared about. To do that, the team built out the concept of the camp, a traveling society peopled with characters that Arthur feels so close to they might as well be family. It’s through those interactions, filtered by so many perspectives and personalities, that Arthur takes shape.
“I think the gang’s camp is one of the most ambitious things we’ve ever done from a narrative perspective,” Unsworth said. “You aren’t just doing story missions with these characters, you’re living with them, and the storytelling is fully free-form and not limited to cutscenes.”
There are no end-of-mission pauses and few forced interactions between Arthur and those others that make up the gang.
“The story is Arthur’s whole experience of the world around him in the hands of the player,” Unsworth said. “We couldn’t have a big dramatic, cinematic scene then release those same characters to gameplay and suddenly have them feel like a bunch of mindless bots. The energy and mood have to persist and they need to remember what just happened. At the outset, this was a fairly daunting challenge.”
The result, Unsworth said, is a narratively-driven experience that is unique to video games. An experience that is determined as much by the player as the thousands-strong studio that made the game.
“There are some similarities with TV drama series in that our narratives tend to be somewhat episodic in structure though we’re able to develop characters and storylines more gradually over an extended timeframe,” he said. “However, television is still a fixed, passive experience. You might have a favorite character in a TV show but, in ‘RDR2,’ you can actually choose to have a direct, active relationship with that character. You can spend time with them, get to know them better. Arthur doesn’t fully belong to us as the storytellers, nor is he purely an agent of the player, it’s a delicate push and pull between the two. You’re partly experiencing the story, but partly shaping it, and that’s something that only an interactive experience can do.”
And importantly, those 23 characters all bring with them an obligation.
“It would be wrong of us not to finish telling their stories,” Nelson said. “We are not going to leave anything hanging or dangling. They all do have their stories. They all conclude.”
As with many video games, “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” clever narrative and character development lay across the mechanics of the game, how players control and interact with the world created for them and how that world provides players both control and a sense of agency.
To deliver the sort of experience that Rockstar Games was aiming for, the teams had to create a variety of systems to give life to the world, its characters, and the player. The narrative itself was built across a complex web of AI-driven dialog, actions, and interactions.
For instance, the camp — the heart of the game — operates on a schedule that drives and gives life to all of its members.
“We wanted it to feel like it exists,” Nelson said. “If you’re going to be running with this gang, living with this gang the camp has to be believable, it has to feel right so it’s not just a bunch of people standing on point waiting for you to come up and action them. The world can’t just exist for the player.”
So the team build a schedule of sorts for the camp, centering activity there around what makes real camping tick, mostly food and food prep. People have routines like starting the fire or putting coal on a dying fire. Some are morning people, others need a cup of coffee before you can really talk to them. They all have things to do inside and outside the camp.
“Once we started getting that down you see this sort of movement that feels alive,” Nelson said. “We figured out who in the camp would do what job. Who is a worker and earns their keep? Who is lazy? Who earns their keep in other ways? We needed to write tons and tons and tons of interactions between them.
“Those things run on a system that fires off in different orders depending on where you are.”
Rockstar refers to it as a walk-and-talk system, which allows you to sort of work your way through the camp while talking to people as they come and go. It’s important, because unlike a game like “Grand Theft Auto V,” there are no cell phones to use to tell you what you can do next in the world.
“You have to be told about everything you have to do,” Nelson said. “We needed ways in the world to tell you what you needed to do.”
Then to help empower the story and character development, the teams created a system of vignettes, short little conversations that you can pay attention to or ignore as you walk past folks in the camp. The system is even designed to acknowledge if you stop and start paying attention to the story or conversation.
“A system will acknowledge you and the conversation will branch and they might say something like ‘Isn’t that right Arthur?’ It’s weird when it happens,” Nelson said.
Loaded onto all of that contextual activity and conversation is the ability for Arthur to seek out or discover what are essentially missions. Many of the missions and jobs, Nelson said, can be played in any order. And because the camp is supposed to be alive, and its characters know you, they also have to know what you’ve done or are up to.
“They all need to know what’s going on,” Nelson said. “So they’re not giving you what feels like out-of-character or inappropriate responses or greetings. It was a real logistical challenge. The writers needed to really know things inside and out.”
“The idea of agency in a narrative, how much of Arthur is Arthur? How much you influence his path as a player. That was an idea we wanted to play with as well.”
On top of that, Arthur can go out with different members of the camp to do jobs or missions, and that all has to fit into the web of stories, characters, interactions.
“We had to create an insane amount of content,” Nelson said, “so when you do go out with them it feels natural. “
And all of that is handcrafted, Nelson said, the team didn’t want any of it to be procedurally generated for fear of it knocking players out of the finely-tuned experience.
Alongside these systems meant to give life to the world is another far less subtle system designed both to make Arthur feel slightly malleable in the hands of players, but also play with the notion of gamer agency in a narrative.
“We wanted to tell his story,” Nelson said. “But the idea of agency in a narrative, how much of Arthur is Arthur? How much you influence his path as a player. That was an idea we wanted to play with as well.”
Unsworth calls it a key narrative element, one — if it works — should be imperceptible to most players. The idea came about while the team was playing through and replaying through the game. They started to wonder why there were sections in the game that were essentially forcing players to be the good guy or the bad guy, or just a guy that didn’t feel like the Arthur the person wanted to play as.
“Obviously, we want to avoid someone acting like a maniacal lunatic for an hour then walking into a cutscene and saying ‘I just want to do something special for those poor kids’ but far more subtle examples than that can also start to compound over time so we reviewed everything again and started to write different dialogue options, and in some cases entirely different scenes based on how Arthur has been behaving in the hands of the player,” Unsworth said. “This ties into the game’s honor system and is less about creating branching storylines and more about keeping the character feeling consistent, and about what your character’s journey means to you.”
Over time, the player’s motivations in how they control Arthur starts to bleed into the character of Arthur himself and helps to shape not just the character, but in subtle ways, the story.
“I played the whole story multiple times as the nastiest player imaginable, as the nicest, and also (my comfort zone) as the unpredictable mood-swinger and it’s subtle but surprisingly effective in balancing Arthur’s on-mission and off-mission persona,” Unsworth said. “If nobody notices this, then we hope we’ve done a good job with it. The impact is subtle, but gives the game a weight we have never managed before.”
As the team nailed down the systems for the game, worked up the dialog and story, and created the “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” look, they were still revising and iterating on those characters.
“There were tons and tons of revisions and iteration,” Nelson said. “We wanted to make sure that all of the characters popped up against each other.”
Chief on the team’s mind was making sure that the nearly two dozen character would seem distinct and easy to remember in the minds of players.
“We were constantly pushing them away from each other without making them look like caricatures,” Nelson said. “We wanted them to feel grounded in reality. We are also making sure they all got enough time relative to their importance to Arthur and his story.
They also didn’t want to overwhelm players, so they worked to strip as much of the required elements of gameplay, the main story, narratively-driven portions of the game, back. Instead, making whatever they could optional to the experience.
“We kept stripping it back and back and back to make things optional,” he said. “Some of my favorite activities you can do are completely optional. Anything that made it feel like it was slightly out of character for Arthur, we would pull it back and make it optional.
“As much as possible, we tried to make a world that players can be surprised by, can believe in, can get lost in,” Nelson said. “Every decision we made was working toward those goals.”
And the work isn’t done yet. Once the game launches, there’s still the online element of “Red Dead Redemption 2” to come.
While both Online and the single-player game are worlds “based in the same reality” it doesn’t mean you’ll see the same characters in them. There are opportunities, Nelson acknowledged, to explore entirely new stories online or to simply leave those stories to the many players who will inhabit that world.
“We are rapidly shifting focus to get [Online] ready,” he said. “But we’re still exploring our options.”
“Red Dead Redemption 2” hits the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Oct. 26. It arrives more than eight years after the release of “Red Dead Redemption” which some players still visit, both to hunt for its many mysteries amidst the odd ghosts in the machine and to hang out in its increasingly desolate online servers. You may also want to read why other games clear the way when Rockstar releases a major game. You can read Variety’s review of the game right here and kill a bit of time before then reading up on the bios of each of the gang’s members.