Red Dead Redemption has more to say than you think

Taylor Mitchell, A&E Editor

So I had an interesting experience the other day. I have been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (also known as Rootin Tootin Cowboy Shootin 2) over the Thanksgiving break and I have gotten to the third chapter of the game where the Van Der Linde gang is forced to move to the southern state of Lemoyne (fictionalized Louisiana) in order to escape the authorities. The gang doesn’t have a very kind view of southerners, not surprising considering the game takes place in 1899. True to life many people still blamed the south for the Civil War at the time, and Dutch van der Linde holds a very personal grudge due to his father’s death in the war. They have a point, as over the course of my travels in Lemoyne I have stopped a few attempted hate crimes, and discovered a gang of idiots that think the Civil War never really ended. Yet these hateful idiots that shot at my good buddy Lenny, while deserving of the justice that I wrought upon them, weren’t really anything I didn’t expect to find in this game, but something else I found certainly was.

Rockstar really surprised me with a character named Jeremiah Compson. The player meets Compson near the train station in Rhodes, I personally was on the way to pay a bounty, while he is sleeping on a bench while fall down drunk. Compson is an old man who spins a story of losing his job and subsequently his property to the bank without the ability to retrieve a few important mementos from his home before foreclosure. The game’s protagonist Arthur Morgan, and myself the player for that matter, take pity on the poor old drunk and offer to go to the house and retrieve the items namely: His grandfather’s pocket watch and pistol, and a ledger.

As I explored the house I found several notes that indicated Compson had worked for a local plantation and had been laid off sometime previously, and had even been told by his son that he would prefer if Compson does not come around his granddaughter anymore. Also in the house is a note about the death of a woman named Betsy which we will talk about a bit later. All this lead me to feel some sympathy for the man as he was apparently a victim of the horrible economy of the Reconstruction era south and later alcoholism. Those feelings changed horribly once I found the basement.

In the basement I found the ledger Compson wanted which listed the names and values of several slaves along with a few notes on how proud Compson was with his work. You see Compson wasn’t a victim… he was a slave hunter. Nearby there is a diary written by a slave, likely Betsy the woman mentioned in the note early, indicating she would not survive the whipping that she was sentenced to due to her attempted escape. The discovery that I had pitied and helped a monster made me almost physically sick.

When the player returns to Compson, Arthur berates the man for his former profession and throws his things in a fire, something I fully supported. This sends Compson into a rant about how he is supposed to be a “gentleman” who simply took pride in his work and that the situation is unfair. Eventually, all Compson can do is cry on the ground.

I wanted to highlight this mission because I didn’t expect this from my western game about being an outlaw. It’s a side of the reconstruction era that is hard to talk about, you see men like Compson did lose their jobs, they did end up sleeping on benches. That doesn’t make them less of monsters, but it is something that is interesting to see depicted at all.

The thing that struck me was it was men like Compson, “Gentlemen” who took pride in their work, that created many of the systems that have plagued race relations in the south for over a century at this point. There is a concept that has existed since the Civil War known as The Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause and those who support it seek to minimize the role slavery had in the outbreak of the Civil War, and to then emphasize the harm done to the South following the war as a consequence of Northern Aggression. If you have ever taken Dr. Paul Beezley’s Beginning of Modern America or Southern History classes you have probably heard about this idea before and even if you haven’t you have likely ran into this line of thinking before. Let’s face it, as a southern white male I have had this narrative repeated to me more times than I care to admit and seeing it addressed in a video game by someone who clearly believes it is something that I find fascinating. It’s important to acknowledge this kind of thinking in a historical context by understanding that people had a reason for the line of thought even if it is harmful and wrong. I believe that is the root of the depiction in the game. It acknowledges the thinking while clearly depicting why it is wrong. That is more than I had expected from Rockstar.

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