Who Ya Got: John Marston vs. Arthur Morgan
** Spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 1&2 Ahead**
Rockstar Games has, once again, found massive success as they returned to their critical hit Western Franchise, Red Dead Redemption. The sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2, was released only a few weeks ago and has already exceeded the massive expectations that were placed upon it. Even with such a short time on store shelves, Red Dead Redemption 2 has already landed a Game of the Year nomination, among many others. As a fan of the series, I was incredibly satisfied with my experience in Rockstar’s beautifully designed world. Even after completing the game, I still find myself heading back into the frontier because it’s impossible to stay away.
Going into this installment, my one reservation was the decision to move away from playing as John Marston, the fan-favorite protagonist from the original game. Instead, we were filling the cowboy shoes of first-time character, Arthur Morgan. Marston’s story in the original is one of its most compelling characteristics and the idea we wouldn’t get to see the world through a younger John’s eyes was worrisome. With over 70 hours of experience playing as Arthur, I’m happy to report that not only is he a fantastic, well-rounded, and genuinely interesting character, but the ability to see John’s progress from an alternate perspective only added to my admiration for him as a character. The amount of time spent with both characters has led me to wonder which one I truly prefer playing as, and which one is the better overall character.
The story of Red Dead Redemption starts well after the van der Linde gang fell apart. The FBI has taken John’s wife, Abigail, and his son, Jack, and they will not allow the ex-gunslinger to return to them until he delivers the remaining members of Dutch’s gang. As the game begins, John goes to confront Bill Williamson, gets shot, and is left for dead only to be brought back to health by the kind Bonnie MacFarlane. It’s easy to feel sympathy for John as the story of a man trying to reunite with his family can easily pull on the heart strings of an audience. Not only is he sympathetic, but as the story progresses you realize he’s a very capable man who is aware of his past indiscretions. He doesn’t make excuses for the man he was and through his actions, he is truly doing everything in his power to make things right so he and his family can live a life in peace. John’s acknowledgement of his flaws and mistakes are some of his greatest strengths.
Those flaws are shown again during his time in Red Dead Redemption 2. Through dialogue between Arthur and Hosea, we find out that John had left the gang for about a year without so much as a warning. Later on, we realize he left because he is afraid of the responsibilities of being a husband and a father. His relationship with Jack is strained, at best, and he leaves Abigail worrying for his safety on more than one occasion. The beauty of RDR2 was how it conveyed the maturity of John through the eyes of Arthur Morgan. Arthur never minces words regarding his less than stellar opinion of John. He resents John for leaving the gang without a word, but being welcomed with open arms from Dutch upon his return. It’s easy to see these early instances of a younger John and begin to sour on the man we grew to love. As Arthur’s story progresses, so too does John’s, and what we come to find out is both of these characters saw the cracks in the foundation forming long before the gang fully collapsed.
Being a prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2 successfully sets the stage for the events of the first game. By the time the credits roll, John is solidified as the man we knew from the original. His genuine desire to give his wife and son a real life meets a few obstacles along the way, but his determination to finally give his family a home is a heartwarming sight. He’s never been the best at conveying his feelings but, in his own way, he shows Abigail and Jack how much they mean to him. Knowing the tragic end of Red Dead Redemption made watching John build this life for his family all the more bittersweet. John goes from an ignorant gunslinger who does whatever it takes to get by, to a true family man who isn’t too proud to do the dirty work necessary to build the life his family deserves. He has been a flawed character from the beginning, but his honesty has always shone far brighter than any of his negative characteristics.
We’re introduced to Arthur Morgan for the first time in Red Dead Redemption 2. Morgan is, essentially, Dutch van der Linde’s muscle, and Arthur’s faith in his confident leader has never wavered in the past. The seeds of doubt are planted very early on with the gang on the ropes after a robbery gone wrong. Arthur finally begins to question Dutch’s motives and wonders if the gang is living on borrowed time. The audience knows the end result for the gang, and it’s not a good one, but even knowing the ultimate conclusion it’s nearly impossible to put the controller down, thanks to the character of Arthur Morgan.
Arthur is as tough as they come but unlike certain members of the gang (cough, cough Bill cough, cough) he has a strong moral compass. Through interactions with other gang members you come to find out how revered Arthur is. They all know he’s level-headed and often times they look to him for clarity when Dutch’s “plans” continue to go sideways. Arthur is fully capable of handling himself when the going gets tough, and he never abandons his comrades. There are a couple of instances towards the end of the story where Arthur willingly disobeys Dutch in an effort to save an imprisoned John because that’s the type of man he is. Even after hearing his early opinions of John, Arthur still refused to let him sit in jail. Time and time again Arthur shows he will go to the ends of the Earth in an effort to help those who he cares about, and a prime example would be his interactions with a former lover: Mary. Out of the blue, Mary sends Arthur a letter to rescue her brother from a cult, and without hesitation Arthur answers the call. That type of loyalty is hard to come by and because Arthur’s loyalty isn’t blind but backed by logic, his character is that much more compelling.
It’s very impressive that Rockstar has been able to now deliver two protagonists who are both high on my list of all-time favorites. Arthur’s experience in the gang leads to moments of wisdom that we weren’t able to witness with John. Through numerous journal entries we’re given an additional look into the thought process of Arthur and we come to find out how complex of a character he truly is. This isn’t someone who shoots when Dutch points. Arthur will question decisions that deserve questioning and, like John, he’ll never make an excuse for who he is. There is also one attribute that could set Arthur apart from John, and that is his wonderful catchphrase: “Sure.” If you’re able to play this game and not say “Sure,” in Arthur’s voice then I question who you are as a human.
Of all the “Who Ya Got” articles I’ve written this is undoubtedly the hardest. Rockstar has outdone themselves in terms of creating well-rounded, complex, and honest characters. Both of these individuals are fully capable of handling sticky situations with grit and poise. Arthur and John will put their lives on the line if it means protecting those they care about but at the end of the day there can only be one. To my surprise, the final choice is: Arthur Morgan. I love John Marston and all he stands for but, without spoiling too much of RDR2’s endgame, the sacrifices Arthur makes to ensure John is able to build that life for Abigail and Jack give him the edge. With the walls crumbling down, Arthur makes sure that, once again, the people he cares for are safe. It’s an amount of selflessness that warms my cold heart.
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