Red Dead Redemption 2 – The Morality System and the Illusion of Player Choice (Minor Spoilers)

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the many modern video games to introduce a kind of ‘morality’ system into the single player story. The basis of a morality system is typically that there are certain choices within the game, either during pivotal moments in cutscenes or more generally in the world, where the player can choose to be good and honourable or bad and self-serving. The problem is, in a game as depth-filled and enormous as RDR2, the morality system is largely an illusion with little impact upon the grand narrative.

So Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game set in the American West during the very late 19th century. You play as an outlaw named Arthur who roams around with a travelling band of outlaws led by the charismatic and eccentric Dutch. The group isn’t all gunslingers wearing bandannas and looking to shoot up every town, there are also women, children, a chef and even an old loan shark in the group. However, if there is one definite, it is that the group are on the wrong side of the law.

Dutch – Leader of the gang the player character Arthur is a high-ranking member of.

Though Dutch tries to eloquently chalk up their activities to some sort of perverted ‘robin-hood’ style of banditry, alongside a deep belief that the encroaching civilizing force of the government to the east is going to ruin the alleged untamed paradise that is the west. It is very obvious to the player by about 1/3 of the way in that this is just a way for Dutch to justify the groups activities morally as well as recruit new members into the fold.

Throughout the game, players are drawn to a ‘morality bar’ which moves to the left after performing ‘dishonourable’ actions such as murder of innocents and antagonizing people, and to the right for sparing lives as well as joyfully and enthusiastically greeting every NPC (non-player character) you stumble across. Become too dishonourable and your interactions with the characters around you will reflect how they feel towards you and your lone-wolf attitude. Become honourable and you will find yourself with grateful townspeople willing to stop and chat to you, or maybe even treat you to a free purchase at the local gunsmith.

As well as this, how honourable or dishonourable you are at the climax of the game also alters the series of events slightly, though mostly for flavour purposes with the end result being the same regardless.

Being honourable can involve being kind to women and non-white races in an era when both where mistreated.

Largely, the issue with the morality system is that is simply does not matter other than to give players a sense that their choices matter within the game. Choosing to spare a particular opponent ultimately does not impact the story as that player does not re-appear. Shooting up a town does not prevent or allow certain missions to be undertaken as you can just pay off your bounty. The main story continues in the same way, the missions to not change other than maybe the dialogue during and the climax always has the same result.

By itself, this is not actually a massive detriment to the game, having some choice, even if it is not impactful, is better than no choice. However, the big issue is the context of the game itself; Within RDR2 you play as an outlaw, killing innocents, stealing from banks and running away from the lawmen. The morality system does not change or impact upon this. You can try to make yourself the most law abiding, honest citizen in the world and max out your morality meter to full honour, but as soon as you decide to take another mission with the gang, you are inexplicably throwing your moral compass out the window and back to murder and robbing. In a way, it greatly subtracts from the morality system knowing that regardless of your own choices within the world and desire to be ‘honourable’, Arthur will join back in with the gang murdering hundreds after just a slight conversation and invitation by a fellow gang member.

This is where the illusion really shatters, when the main storyline forces you down a particular path irrespective of your characters honour. While Red Dead Redemption 2 is an amazing game and one that I love, the missed opportunities with the morality system, which really could have been something special, is one of my biggest gripes. Hopefully in any future instalments they can better use the concept of morality within the game for increased immersion, rather than immersion breaking.

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