Red Dead Redemption II Trailer III or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the western myth

Last week, Rockstar Games revealed the third trailer for the long anticipated and oft delayed “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Many in the game press and community were impressed with the visual impact of the trailer and the stunning graphics of the various cut scenes that the trailer highlights, noting the attention to detail and cinema like qualities – qualities that also revel in the mythic images and Hollywood tropes that plague this style of game, making players complicit in the reinforcement of Turnerverian ideals. The game’s trailer does what countless other westerns, both contemporary and those dating back to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, do: they stage a West that blends both history and myth together in a way that for the player/observer legitimates Manifest Destiny, elevates violence as a marker of masculinity, celebrates the triumph of civilization over savagery, and equates both with the extension of freedom over untamed frontier. And like the creators of the westerns that came before, Red Dead’s developers see no hypocrisy in lamenting the passing of this era and the emasculation of white men at the hands of the same civilizing processes they celebrate. In the trailer, Rockstar both celebrates the mythic West that purportedly redefined masculinity and brought civilization and modernity to the frontier while simultaneously mourning its passing.

As the trailer opens, a band of seven rough and tumble outlaws surround a train car, the leader crying out “...we don’t want to kill any of you, but trust me we will!" Just before gunfire erupts the trailer cuts away to another scene where our player character Arthur Morgan, under the tones of ominous music, sternly opines that “...we’re more ghosts than people…” The game narrative and character dialogue within the trailer continually reinforces something lost or passing. This passing is mostly confined to a landscape and an idea of manhood that only belonged to a time and a place that references the late 19th century. A few moments later, a title card appears that reads that, “[b]y 1899 the West had nearly been tamed.” Somehow, modernity appears on the scene as the century mark ticks over, thus offering a convenient marker for what was the past --savage, and untamed, and what the future entailed --  civilization and order. It also provides a convenient way to imagine a supposed lost era of cowboys, who are soon to be subverted to some federal and possible corporate concerns. In a nod to contemporary concerns about diversity, the game introduces new outlaws who are neither white nor male. There is an apparent Native American, Mexican (-American) and a woman who are part of the gang. It’s an interesting and wholly problematic way to introduce diversity into the carnage of the West: why explore the racial injustice when you can make ethnic minorities and women complicit in supposed outlaw violence of the West.

Eager video gamers are treated to a trailer that maintains both the visual cues and a emotional sense of the mythic West, portrayed in a way that purports to be real. This realism, however, conflates the actual history of the West with the mythic use of the West. A use of the West that calls to mind some frontier where men were men. What we are left with is more questions about how Rockstar will, if they do at all, reconcile these two wests. What role will the shift to modernity play in the game? How will gender and race be dealt with in the narrative? And what pray tell, will become of Red Dead's outlaws? Do they ride into the sunset of modernity? Do they disappear into myth and legend? Or will they smash the modes of modernity and save the West for real men? The trailer brings to mind a recent billlboard ad by a large beverage company that celebrates an equally mythic West: “Out Here, We Answer to No One” overlayed across the image of a squinting cowboy. Well, that maybe true, until you do, and according to Rockstar the cowboy's day of reckoning comes in 1899. Still, we are really looking forward to playing this in October.