What A Video Game Gunslinger Taught Me About Grief
I was never on board with Westerns. they just weren’t really for me.
But then my partner convinced me to play Red Dead Redemption II - the highly-anticipated prequel to what many consider to be the game of a generation. What followed was a nuanced lesson in longing, friendship, and ‘disenfranchised’ grief. Be forewarned, there are major spoilers ahead. Trigger warnings for mentions and depictions of depression, loss, sexual assault, and violence.
the start of something
Red Dead 2 is set in the last decade of the 19th Century; a time when industry brought a specter of civility that meant the very end for cowboys and gunslingers of the United States’ South. Well-paid detectives from a private security organization named the ‘Pinkertons’ were on the hunt for any rough-types still on prowl. Principle playable character, Arthur Morgan, is one such ruffian. He, we’re told, is an early anarchist. Born in a saddle and raised by gang leader, Dutch van der Linde, Morgan is strongly and simply anti-government. Even when a player’s choices dictate Morgan’s moral leanings, he is anti-establishment to his last. He roams the last of the wild countryside with his fellow gang members. And what a countryside it is.
The game’s developers, Rockstar, have created a diverse, hyper-realistic Southern landscape with imposing detail. It’s a world that’s easy to admire, and very much like our own. Animals buck up their heads to sudden noises; characters speak up over rainstorms and distances; the sun shines red through your ear cartilage. It’s fucking immaculate.
friends 4 eva
This universe as arresting as it is, I was lulled into a routine of spending a few real-life hours every night fully immersed in my role as a gun-toting anti-hero. Gradually, as I made my way through its story and side missions, my relationship with Morgan changed. Admittedly, the ‘white guy with brown hair and a redemption arc’ isn’t from the outset an interesting character choice. I’ve seen it so many times that I now know more about what it’s like to be a white man in his 40s than it is to be a white woman in her 20s - the latter of which I currently am. But something special happened with Morgan that I’ve only ever experienced otherwise in books; I started to care for him.
True, he wasn’t inherently more interesting or kind or funny than similar characters I’ve known, but I think because I saw so much of him for so long I started to count on his presence. He became, as a friend from high-school, someone I had built a relationship with on the grounds of shared experiences rather than shared passions.
I even anticipated missing him when the game would reach a necessary conclusion.
I knew all of this sentimentality towards a fictional character, already a bit much for most when directed at a sentient being, was somewhat gauche. From books like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I knew trying to explain yourself to someone not going through the same thing was all but asking for a roll of their eyes. I risked it, divulging my budding friendship to my partner, who suggested I write about it. I scoffed.
This wasn’t the kind of crap you wrote about. But then the story brought out something in me I couldn’t ignore. I got curious. Turns out, there’s psychological precedence for this kind of relationship. And because it’s so loathed by the general population, it’s been called an example of ‘disenfranchised grief’; grief that isn’t recognized by wider society. But more on that soon. First, we lose Morgan.
A fine day in saint denis
In one mission given to Morgan by the gang’s crooked finance guy, Leopold Strauss, the player must retrieve an outstanding payment on a bad loan from a dying charity worker, Thomas Downes. Downes is sick with tuberculosis - a pervasive threat at the time.
The story requires that you, as Morgan, beat Downes before he is ready to part with what little money he has left to look after himself and his family. Later in the game, as things begin to unravel under Dutch’s increasingly-aggressive requests for tribal loyalty, and an unhinged plan of escape that sees beloved members of the group die unnecessarily, Morgan’s faith in his black-and-white moral identity starts to wane.
It’s around this time when, while walking along and minding his own business, Morgan is seized with a coughing fit and blacks out in the streets of Saint Denis; a fictional city beautifully modeled on New Orleans. A passing stranger takes Morgan to the doctor, where he wakes to bad news; Morgan has TB. TB he contracted while beating Downes.
Morgan’s world shifts and closes in as his ambitions turn from worldly to something close to spiritual. He invites, to his mental anguish and eventual redemption, moral ambiguity to settle over what had once gone unquestioned.
Morgan meets his end in varying ways depending on how you played the game. My Morgan, my poor, poor Morgan died on a mountaintop after giving away all his money, and helping other gang defectors escape a crazed Dutch and an angry Pinkerton mob. And then just like that, he was gone.
I guess on some level I had thought Morgan would pull through. How would the game stay open-world after the credits if not? But when the Epilogue began and I realised I was now playing as Morgan’s fellow gang member and the original game’s lead character, John Marston, the grief set it. Like a weak hook pulling at the meat in my chest, I was startled to find myself sad. Truly hurt. As John, I roamed Morgan’s former stomping grounds, finding old friends, sharing a few earnest words, and with some, moving towards a new life after my time in the van der Linde gang.
‘Is this normal?’ I wondered. Why am I so at a loss? I did some digging. A few articles popped up on my screen relating to the death of a significant character on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy. A grief counselor had spoken to TIME, no less, about what she considers to be a frequent occurance in her line of work.
‘Human beings love stories and making connections, even if it’s to fictional people. We create meaning and then experience actual grief when that connection is broken.’
Further, because of the likelihood of this loss being dismissed in broader circles, the death of a beloved character is called a ‘disenfranchised grief’, as I mentioned earlier. The death of a pet is a good example of this.
People who have pets die often have to explain their grief in urgent terms to make their feelings valid to others. They aren’t ‘just’ your pets, they were ‘like children.’ Accepted forms of grief apparently also cross into disenfranchised grief when others consider your allowed term of mourning to have ended; when you should be ‘over’ something ‘by now’. And so, down I fell into the rabbit hole of grief studies, all the while trying to eek out whatever was left of Morgan’s world from the game.
As John I explored the marshes of Lemoyne - a place I had written-off due to its abundant alligator population that scared my horse and then made traversing it difficult. On my journey I came across a small cabin, where a man invited me. I got a weird vibe from him, but went in anyway, armed to the teeth. As I walked in, the ‘no’ vibes were pretty loud, and I readied my gun. But it was too late.
He knocked me out, and I woke up in a field, with my movements implying that I had been sexually assaulted. My palms grew sweaty around the game controller; my heart beat grew stronger and my breath shallowed. I got on my horse, marked the perpetrator’s house on the map, and rode on. When I got there, I kicked through the door as he tried to escape through the back patio. I shot him once. Twice. Three times. He was dead. I shot him half a dozen more times, rhythmically. I picked up his body and carried it to the water’s edge, where I left it to the alligators. Turning back, I threw dynamite into his house.
My partner, sitting beside me this whole time, stared in disbelief. ‘What are you doing?!’ I came to, took an objective look at my actions, and realised I had somehow crossed an imaginary line. I felt ashamed, but on some very strong level, glad that justice had been dispensed.
I took to Reddit. I needed to know what other people had thought about what I’d been through. ‘I hog tied him and threw him to a gator in his back yard’; ‘I went right back and gave him a point blank chest full of explosive shotgun slugs’; ‘I went straight back to that shack and put all 14 rounds from my Varmit rifle into his groin.’
‘See?’ I told my boyfriend. ‘People feel strongly about this!’ Very strongly, as GQ’s Amelia Tait went on to write. This got me thinking. If there’s disenfranchised grief, is there disenfranchised anger?
It seems at least plausible; that you can feel anger towards a fictional character or event enough to make those around you question your rights to that vexation. But, in moving from something inherently personal like grief, to something potentially extra-personal like anger, do we forgo the grounds to call this a response to connection with a fictional character, and instead call it a personal flaw? That I don’t know, and suspect I need to speak to a professional to find out. A story for another time.
For now, you can find me on the plains of West Elizabeth, thinking always of Arthur Morgan.