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When A Found Family Falls Apart

Last week's post focused on the Found Family trope and as I was putting it together, there was one example I intended to include but quickly realized would be better suited as a separate, follow-up post.

The Found Family trope is based around the idea that family is not about who you are related to by blood, but who you care about and choose to love. Characters in Found Families often come from different backgrounds and overcome adversity together while bonding in a family-like unit.

Found Family is such a powerful trope because these characters coming together is as much a reward for them as it is for audiences who have followed their journey.

And that's why it can be such a punch in the gut when a Found Family falls apart.

Saddle up, partners! Today, we're talking about Red Dead Redemption II.

"RDR2 again, Avril?" I hear you say.

Listen, friends. I'm the sheriff 'round this here blog and I get to call the shots.

If there is one video game I cannot and will not shut up about, it's Red Dead Redemption II (and more recently, the original Red Dead Redemption thanks to the PS4 port release). I don't want to admit to how many hours I've dedicated to this game, but suffice it to say that participating in NaNoWriMo this year has resulted in the longest time I've been away from the world of Red Dead Redemption since 2022.

Everyone has their "comfort game," the title they'll fire up when they need to relax. It becomes a mental home away from the real world.

What makes Red Dead Redemption II mine?

Even with all of the shootouts and gun smoke, there are moments of peace. I love to put an earbud in and listen to a podcast or audiobook as I'm galloping across the wilderness between missions and in the post-epilogue mode. But the thing that really keeps me coming back time and time again is Arthur and the gang.

From here on out, there are going to be massive spoilers for Red Dead Redemption II (and minor spoilers for Red Dead Redemption). Carry on with caution, partners!

Red Dead Redemption II is actually a prequel to the first game and follows the members of the Van der Linde gang. You play as Arthur Morgan, second in command to their leader, Dutch Van der Linde.

From the first chapter, you're introduced to this big Found Family. You've got John, the protagonist of the first Red Dead Redemption and not the best of fathers (as Abigail might tell you), but he's trying; his son, Jack, also refers to you as "Uncle Arthur" the way a parent's closest friends might be called their child's Aunties and Uncles. Dutch more or less raised Arthur, having taken him in as a teenager. Hosea is also something of a father figure to Arthur and tends to be the voice of reason. Susan Grimshaw is what I would call the "Camp Mom," who oversees the more domestic matters. Pearson's the cook.

Not long into the game, you meet Sadie after her husband is killed by the O'Driscolls, a rival gang helmed by Colm, and she becomes a leader in her own right when push comes to shove. You also, shall we say, acquire Kieran when he is captured out of a belief that they could get info on Colm out of him; Kieran eventually renounces the O'Driscoll gang and falls in with the Van der Lindes, though he maintains that he is neither an O'Driscoll nor a Van der Linde but is simply Kieran Duffy.

Despite their vastly different backgrounds, the members of the Van der Linde gang have created a strange but familial unit—Dutch even refers to the gang as the family. There are certainly rifts and squabbles, but for the most part, everyone manages to get along, even if it's only out of a need to survive and evade the law.

What's more is that they've formed this unit in a time where the ever-expanding civilization meant the time of outlaws is coming to an end.

Javier, John, and Arthur

One reason Found Families come together is finding acceptance with one another. Though the gang may be wanted dead or alive in Blackwater and highly unwelcome in Valentine and Rhodes after certain events, they have each other. Camp is the one place they are able to find a semblance of peace and safety when they have no other place in the world.

Even though they are always on the move, they're with each other through it all.

The group's camps are some of my favorite spots in the game, just because the vibe is so different. It doesn't have the glitz and glam of Saint Denis. You don't have lawmen gunning you down the very moment you set foot anywhere beyond the border of West Elizabeth. Gang members, for the most part, won't scowl at you the way folks do in Valentine or Rhodes or tell you that you're not welcome there. If anything, they'll complain about food shortages or tell you off for not contributing to the gang's savings frequently but still invite you to sit by the fire.

It feels like home not only to Arthur, but as a player.

At camp, you're able to play dominoes and poker with members of the game, and this is where a lot of banter occurs that you won't get if you play with strangers in the saloons. There were so many days I would come home from a late shift at the day job and play a few hands of cards with the gang before getting ready for bed.

Camp is also where these characters truly start to feel like family. As you mill around, you'll catch bits of interactions between the NPCs. Some pertain to in-game quests, but they'll just as often be shooting the breeze. It's here that you learn that Mary-Beth loves romance novels and that Sadie plays the harmonica. Hosea can be seen teaching little Jack how to read, just as he taught Arthur. In one of my recent discoveries, Sean and Jack find a white rabbit, with Sean telling the boy that it's a sign of magic and lovingly chiding Arthur's pragmatic suggestion of skinning it by saying he's got, "no room for dreams."

Those little, seemingly inconsequential details bring the characters to life and make them feel human.

And the cool part is that there's always something new to discover! Only on my third playthrough did I find out that Lenny is the son of a slave and that he lost his father's watch when the group fled Blackwater—and how his father came into possession of it to begin with.

You best believe I made it a personal mission to find a replacement for him after that harrowing tale!

It all makes for a warm, realistic feeling that I didn't experience in other open-world games I've played like Cyberpunk 2077 or Ghost of Tsushima. While I enjoyed these games for different reasons, neither had me feeling as close to NPCs as I did with the Van der Linde gang.

Even if you don't spend too much mingling time at camp, the game still makes sure you get to know Arthur's Found Family through the main missions. As you're riding out, Charles will talk about his childhood and growing up in his mother's Native American tribe. Hosea will poke fun at Arthur because of that one time he used the wrong gun to shoot a rabbit and mangled it all to hell. There's talk of Lenny having romantic feelings for a girl named Jenny.

And of course, one of my favorite missions I've ever had the pleasure of playing in a video game, getting drunk with Lenny. I'm including a link to some footage from "A Quiet Time" because it's hecking delightful.

You're made to bond with these characters and really get to know them on a deeper level than a majority of NPCs.

But Red Dead Redemption II is far from a chill, casual wild west summer camp experience.

The game opens in the wake of a robbery gone incredibly wrong. The gang lost pretty much everything they had, and several members were killed along the way.

In the very first scene, a member of the gang named Davey dies as the group takes shelter from a snowstorm. Dutch also speaks of losing Jenny and Mac, who we never see but learn a bit about through the gang's conversations later on.

This is sadly a trend that continues.

Every job Dutch promises will be the last is proven to be quite the opposite and results in casualties. Sean dies after a sniper shoots him in Rhodes. Hosea and Lenny are killed in a botched bank robbery. Kieran is captured by the O'Driscolls and tortured for information before they send his body sent back in a gruesome Headless Horseman fashion.

But it's not just enemies that result in the deaths of the Van der Linde gang's members. Some losses are the result of the friction causing the group to splinter.

Molly is shot out of the belief she went against the group, which ends up being false. Susan is killed by Micah after Arthur reveals he was the rat all along.

The group continues to dwindle, not just because of their deaths, but by choice. Trelawney can be seen packing up. Swanson leaves the group after a change of heart. Pearson can be found sitting by himself and in tears, distraught over the way things have gone to shit, and he eventually leaves sometime in Chapter 6. Arthur implores John to take Abigail and Jack and get out of dodge before things get even worse, begging him to not look back when the time comes.

That's what makes Red Dead Redemption II such a shot to the heart. You're introduced to this Found Family and made to feel like a member yourself in some capacity, only to watch it fall apart. There's a somber emptiness at camp when a member of the gang is lost, and you really get a sense of how dire things become as a result of Dutch's arrogance, pride, and greed.

And to top it all off, Arthur also dies after contracting tuberculosis. The last chapter of the main story prepares you for this. From his diagnosis and worsening symptoms, Arthur has to come to terms with his fate and impending death, but he also must accept the death of the gang as he knew it. Dutch is either no longer the man he once was, or he is at last showing his true colors. That, for Arthur, is almost the harder blow to withstand. He's looked up to Dutch for most of his life and was apt to defend his actions in the face of doubt. But now? How can he when so many people he cares about have paid the price for his reckless, money-hungry mistakes? After all of the times he promised that no more of his gang would die?

The exact nature of Arthur's death depends on his honor and if you choose to go back for the money stashed at camp or to go with John during the final mission.

In the high honor scenario, Arthur succumbs to his illness and wounds, passing away as he watches the sunrise. Low honor results in Micah killing Arthur.

For context, my first playthough ended with a high honor death after going with John.

I, like Arthur, had made peace with his inevitable end and knew it was drawing near.

After that fight on the mountain with Micah, there was still a small part of me that hoped Dutch would come back and be by Arthur's side for his last moments. He treated and respected Arthur like a son until things went bad, but deep down I like to think he still cared. An outright apology and admission of guilt felt too far-fetched in all honesty, but maybe he say something about how much Arthur's faith in him and try to reconcile even if only for his own peace of mind.

But we didn't get that. Instead, Dutch walks away, leaving Arthur for dead again, having done the same to him and to others several times over in previous missions.

Arthur dies alone.

My second, "bad boi" playthrough ended with Micah literally stabbing him in the back, further symbolizing his betrayal of not only Arthur but the entire Van der Linde gang.

A Found Family that fell apart.

Seeing Arthur go from having this tight-knit familial unit to dying alone was devastating. You spend most of the game desperate to protect this group. One last job, then they'll go start a new life in Tahiti. That's all Dutch ever promises. You want it to be true, for their sake, even if you don't believe his plans will ever come to fruition. You want them to make it. All of them.

That's not the case, however, and it's a theme that rolls into the original Red Dead Redemption. As mentioned earlier, you play as John.

I won't go too in-depth because I've already gone on enough tangents as it is, but the main plot is John being made to hunt down and kill the surviving members of the Van der Linde gang in exchange for his family's safety. This includes Bill, Javier, and Dutch himself.

Playing the original Red Dead Redemption after its prequel-sequel was a particularly harrowing experience. I had a difficult time pursuing the remaining gang members, even Dutch. These were John and Arthur's friends, nearly family, and mine by extension. Knowing everything they went through, it was crushing to bring more pain and suffering onto this Found Family, even if was no longer together all these years later.

And the fact that you were doing so as John made it sting all the more.

Red Dead Redemption II is truly special. No video game has made me feel so many emotions so deeply. Much of that magic comes from its Found Family and the little moments shared with them. It's an organic, slowly built connection, not thrown in your face or demanded by the game's code.

Found Family is already such a powerful trope. Red Dead Redemption II turns it on its head. No longer do you have the warmth and hope the trope is known for. All there is is anguish. An emptiness as you are powerless to do anything except watch it gradually fall apart.

But I think that's one of the lessons Red Dead Redemption II leaves its players with. Life is not always about coming out on top or what you have. What matters most are the little things and the people you choose to love, and those who choose to love you in return.

And, as Arthur would tell you, being loyal to what matters.



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