Spoilers ahead for Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the story of outlaw Arthur Morgan until it’s not. The game is divided up into six chapters and a two-part epilogue. The six chapters are Arthur’s story of being a devoted, ruthless lieutenant in the Van Der Linde Gang and coming to realize that his morality has been deeply compromised by Dutch Van Der Linde’s failing leadership, so he resolves to try and do some good deeds before he dies of tuberculous. The epilogue picks up a few years later and follows John Marston, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption as he tries to build a home for his girlfriend Abigail and their son Jack.
The problem is that if you’re trying to tell the story of Arthur Morgan, a two-part epilogue that serves as a miniscule prequel to the events of Red Dead Redemption makes no sense. Either this is Arthur’s story or it isn’t, and the solution Red Dead Redemption 2 offers is that it’s Arthur’s story, but Arthur needs to die, and yet there’s so much to do in the game, we’ll give you a new protagonist. Rockstar attempted this with Red Dead Redemption as well where John Marston dies and then three years later the story picks up with his son Jack Marston being able to take on various side quests.
It appears that Rockstar thought the biggest problem with this approach wasn’t having an epilogue, but rather we just needed a protagonist we cared about. We didn’t really know Jack Marston beyond him being John’s son, and since John was Arthur’s friend and the protagonist of the first game, we’ll presumably have more attachment to him. It’s a reasonable approach, but it shows the divide in trying to tell a story and having people play a game.
If you’re just telling the story of Arthur Morgan, then an epilogue about John Marston makes no sense because nothing ties these two characters together beyond both being in the Van Der Linde gang. I suppose you could make the argument that John is Arthur’s success story as John went on to build a life for his family and that’s what Arthur gave his life for. But we already knew that because we presumably played Red Dead Redemption and also, it doesn’t work out too well for John Marston in the end—his family is abducted by the government, he’s forced to hunt down his former compatriots, and when the job is finished, the government betrays him and guns him down at his home.
I don’t have an issue with Red Dead Redemption 2 killing off Arthur Morgan, but if that’s the end of the game, that should be the end of it. When you tack on two chapters worth of epilogue, then Arthur’s story becomes smaller and less important. The protagonist is now just a supporting character in John’s story. That works the other way around because Red Dead Redemption 2 starts with John in a supporting role, but by elevating him to the lead, I’m being told that the story is over and now the work begins of completing the challenges, finding all the collectibles, etc.
Perhaps if there had been some kind of connective tissue where John is immediately picking up Arthur’s story or we get some subtext about morality or redemption (John’s redemption doesn’t come until his own story in Red Dead Redemption unless you think building a house and getting furniture counts as “redemption”). But John’s story is really just there to let you pursue various side quests and provide a little closure to the story of Micah Bell, which doesn’t even make a lot of sense.
When you reach the final mission of the game and confront Micah and Dutch, you see that the two outlaws have reunited and Micah is holding Sadie as a hostage at gunpoint. John is somehow able to reason with Dutch, even though Dutch has fallen for Micah’s flattery at every step, and Dutch shoots Micah in the chest. Maybe there’s a story about how Dutch was eventually disillusioned with Micah, but we don’t get to hear it. And Dutch’s decision to help John and save Sadie doesn’t seem to have much of an impact when Dutch and John meet again in Red Dead Redemption. It’s a hollow denouement led by a character whose purpose is to complete tasks, not provide a narrative.
I understand that Rockstar wanted to have Arthur slowly die from tuberculous so that A) his death was different than John’s in the first game; and B) give him time to reflect on his decisions. But you could have still had that reflection without the TB and killed him off from a mortal wound rather than a hail of gunfire. Trying to squeeze in an epilogue centered around John Marston doesn’t serve Arthur or John, but it does give me time to find dinosaur bones, so I guess there’s that.