Red Dead Redemption is an open-world masterpiece and, arguably, the best story ever written by Rockstar. The development team took field trips to the Library of Congress to learn from history and watched countless western films to inform and inspire the journey of John Marston as he hunts down his former gangmates across the dying Old West of 1911.
The original game’s narrative took cues most ostensibly from Wild Bunch and A Fistful of Dollars, with more than a hint of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in its finale. Red Dead Redemption 2 has a different story to tell, though, and it can draw upon the following westerns to shape the fate of its new protagonist, Arthur Morgan.
All signs point to Red Dead Redemption 2's main theme being gangs of the Old West. There’s plenty of inspiration the game could take from a movie about two bounty hunters infiltrating the gang of a ruthless, sociopathic murderer haunted by the sins of his past. Perhaps we’ll see Arthur Morgan and John Marston worming their way into a rival outfit that threatens the Van der Linde gang? Or maybe Dutch will ally them with another band that will turn out to be out of control due to its leader smoking opium to cope with his animalistic nature?
Speaking of bounty hunters, it takes a really unsavory character chasing after outlaws to make the audience sympathize with the gang instead of the law. Marlon Brando was just such a character as a regulator who hunts down Tom Logan’s (Jack Nicholson) jolly band of rustlers.
The Missouri Breaks matches the freedom vs order theme of the dying frontier that Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to be going for. Nicholson’s character is a semi-decent guy who just happens to be stealing horses from a land baron that has enough money to have him and his friends all killed. Plus, you can’t help but notice that he even looks a bit like both RDR protagonists. If the young John Marston had his own gang, this is how I’d picture it.
One of the first revisionist westerns. It features Clint Eastwood as Jed Cooper, a man first wrongly accused of stealing cattle and lynched, then saved from near-death by a marshal and offered the chance to take vengeance with a badge in his hand.
Not only does the movie set up a grey morality from the very beginning, it proceeds to point out the hypocrisy of its lawful society, where a desire for vengeance, influence and a sense of belonging are passed off as longing for justice.
Back when Rockstar was making the original game, Rob Wiethoff, the voice actor portraying John Marston said of the character’s past:
I think John made some decisions in his life that made him feel accepted. I don’t know if he knew that what he was doing was wrong or not. I don’t know if he cared until, one day, he realized he didn’t want that life anymore.
Those words aren’t exactly canon, but if Rockstar proceeds with that or a similar interpretation of Morgan’s and Marston’s actions in RDR2, they’re going to need to picture a society that pushed them into this life. A society as flawed as the one depicted in Hang ’Em High.
Eastwood’s directorial debut is a simpler and more straightforward vision of the outlaw life, that also has some pacing problems. The heart of the story, however — a chased man’s search for a semblance of family and home, is very much in line with what we’ve seen in the trailers for Red Dead Redemption 2 so far.
The movie's not perfect — its action scenes and dialogues are a bit stilted by today's standards. Eastwood's Confederate sympathies are probably at their strongest here, which harms the story by crudely drawing a very thick line between good and evil. It's a beloved classic, though, drawing upon as well as cementing many tropes of the genre.
It’s the last Clint Eastwood movie on this list, I promise! Stay with me though, cause this one’s a real diamond and a Best Picture Oscar winner.
Let’s face it, if Red Dead Redemption had one flaw, it was the way it dealt with morality. The game just doesn’t work well if we’re trying to make John Marston a bad guy. It even sent us to perform honorable genocide on a band of cattle thieves (quite literally rewarding us with Honor points for murder) in the name of the law as soon as its fourth story mission. Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, is set to feature alternate approaches to conflicts and more interesting ways to be a bandit. It would be a waste if its story didn’t depict a complex society where good and evil are about more than the color of one’s hat.
Like The Missouri Breaks, Unforgiven makes sure your sympathies don’t completely agree with the legal delineation, though Gene Hackman is a very convincing and layered character as the movie’s sheriff. This film is also a deconstruction of iconic western tropes and features an absolutely badass portrayal of the outlaw archetype. Since we’ll be able to pick between good guy and bad guy lines in Red Dead Redemption 2, we can only hope they’re as powerful as the final dialogues of Unforgiven.
Neither a movie nor a western, Justified tells the story of Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as his over-the-top Wild-West brand of justice gets him sent to his backwater home county of Harlan, Kentucky.
For many viewers, though, the real hero of Justified is Raylan's friend from the old days, Boyd Crowder. Played with equal parts ham and finesse by Walton Goggins, the sly, affable, entrepreneurial criminal displaying model Southern manners arguably steals the show from the second season onwards.
Even though Justified has a contemporary setting, it's so intent on depicting the rural US as the modern frontier, that it's a western in all but the appearances. Red Dead Redemption 2 would do well featuring a slightly larger-than-life magnificent bastard with Goggins' voice, no matter which side of the law he would occupy.
This one’s pretty obvious, since we already know Red Dead Redemption 2 references The Assassination, at least in its trailer.
The legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is followed by a starstruck fan, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who tries to join the James-Younger gang. Train robberies, a botched heist, infighting within the gang, conflicting loyalties and honor among thieves — there’s a lot in this movie that could inspire a story beat or two in RDR2’s depiction of the dissolution of the Van der Linde gang.
For now, at least the film's beautiful cinematography made it to the game's trailer, which leads me to believe Red Dead Redemption 2 may be the second game with movie-grade visual storytelling coming out this year.
You might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the western genre since the original Red Dead Redemption came out in 2010. In case you weren't paying attention to the other audiovisual medium, this happened: a groundbreaking spaghetti blaxploitation western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Django: Unchained is at its core a universally relatable story of vengeance, love and freedom. As such, it is just an amazing movie, period, and anyone designing a narrative could benefit from analysing how Tarantino wrote it.
It’s also the first popular movie that depicted racial tensions in the Old West in a work of fiction meant mainly for entertainment.
Red Dead Redemption's producer and main writer for both games, Dan Houser, said back in 2009:
We didn’t fully represent era-appropriate racial attitudes because it’s too unpleasant to deal with, but we touch on those issues
The first game dodged this aspect of the Old West. In 2018 it’s safe to say that we’re ready to face at least some of that unpleasantness and that the general public appreciates inclusive stories that try to maturely approach all intricacies of their chosen setting.
Rockstar Games is known for getting their inspiration from movies and popular culture. Sometimes it’s the general outline of the entire main storyline (Red Dead Redemption and Wild Bunch), sometimes it’s the art, setting, and ambiance (GTA: Vice City and Scarface). The way they mix tropes and memes and create new ones in the process is always a joy to watch. If and how much they’ll draw upon any of the movies from this list in Red Dead Redemption 2 still remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, we can’t wait to find that out when the game comes out on the 26th of October.