The Rockstar Protagonist
Since it was released several months ago, I have sunk a good many hours of my precious and fleeting life into the Goliath that is Red Dead Redemption II. It is a true landmark in video game history, and for quite a while seemed to be an unstoppable cultural phenomenon. And it was natural that it would be so very successful, after years of Rockstar Games abusing their employees and probably breaking many labor laws, in the pursuit of carefully animated shitting horse assholes.
But more than enough generic and uninspired “game journalists” have scribbled aimlessly on the halls of the damned about how impressed they are (these are scared, existentially challenged and socially anxious boys in their early 20's like myself being impressed here), by the scrutiny put into Red Dead 2. What I found myself stricken by (and again, I'm a pathetic emasculated social leech so it should come at no surprise) was the main character, Arthur Morgan.
I'm going to divide this into two articles, the first, which you are reading now, will be about how Arthur Morgan initially fits very much into the mold that Rockstar Games has created for their protagonists, and what that mold is, and the second article will delve into how this character completely subverts this mold in a remarkable and unexpected way, becoming one of the most memorable characters in this generation of video games in the process.
I'd like to note that this first article was started smack dab in the middle of my first playthrough of the game, and the second article was written recently, a long while after I'd beaten the game and had time to evaluate things. I'll also note that this article will be SPOILER FREE, but the sequel article will have HELLA SPOILERS.
Arthur Morgan, to attempt to sum him up, is the quintessential Western American stereotype; a square jawed, macho, fearless, anti-hero cowboy. Complete with a deep Southern drawl, a cynical worldview and a rude disposition towards anyone around him. So naturally, myself being dorky little bitch, my subconscious mind's first instinct was to begin idolizing this figure as someone to be like. What I found interesting is that eight years ago, when a middle-school aged Bill was introduced to the first Red Dead Redemption, I very passively put John Marston on a pedestal in my head as a “cool badass dude who I wanna be like” and went on my merry way. Today, though, since I've matured greatly (in other words, I'm pretentious and have literally nothing better to do with my worthless time), I took to viewing Arthur Morgan as a model to deconstruct how Rockstar Games builds their protagonists in a more general sense.
If I had to use a handful of words to describe common traits between most Rockstar Games protagonists, I'd say cynical, sometimes grumpy, stoic, composed, physically imposing, humble, more knowledgeable than they let on, sarcastic, masculine, witty, smooth talking, focused, more skilled and dangerous than most, and usually the most sensible person in any situation.
Did you notice something about that list of common traits? It's pretty damn long. Basically the only character I could think of that doesn't fit this mold to the letter is Trevor Phillips from GTA V, who we all know was kind of deliberately crafted to be a subversive joke. So as far as I'm concerned, he doesn't count. I'm also not counting Max Payne from his first two games, and any characters from The Warriors, as neither characters were written by Rockstar developers. I am however counting Max Payne from Max Payne 3, as he is noticeably given a Rockstar flavor to his character in that game. Rockstar wrote and developed that game, as opposed to Remedy in the previous two.
I think Rockstar Games writes a concept, a theme, an idea, before any characters. A modern crime drama immigrant's tale, themed as a tragedy about inevitability, fate, nature vs. nurture, optimism vs. cynicism, and American hypocrisy. A satirical take on the American school system, both old and new, and a comedic glimpse adolescent rage. An extremely gritty and grim look at the fabled world of high production snuff films, with an overarching homage to John Carpenter. A look into the final years of the old west, as a man struggles with escaping his past and somehow coping with an extremely different, foreign future.
This interchangeable protagonist designed by Sam and Dan Houser is carefully chosen, and tempered with age. Early on, it was almost a parody – Rockstar would simply toss a mannequin in as their blank slate main character, with the excuse that he's meant to be a window for the player to view through. Claude from Grand Theft Auto III is the best example of this. With Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, they took that blank slate and were able to characterize him exclusively through voice – distinguished actor Ray Liotta, who made the role entirely his own. Tommy was Claude, with a tropical twist and an expressive voice. And then Manhunt took it right back to mannequin. However I do think this benefited the theme and appeal of Manhunt, as the characterization came exclusively from the antagonists, and much of the fear of the game derives from a lack of detail – you know just enough to set your mind ablaze, yet you understand what it is you're dealing with.
The Rockstar Protagonist is a product of, and very complementary to, the story, theme, and games Rockstar develops. A grounded, capable, and misanthropic anti-hero for a gritty, wanton, cynical world. Where there is mayhem, you must be a brave and distrustful human to meet it. It just so happens Rockstar Games creates worlds and stories that necessitate this character in about every game they put out. Their pattern, their cliché is in their most renown talent: vast and detailed open-world games viewed through a satirical, nihilistic lens.
Many a pretentious nerd has said that the writing style of the Houser brothers is often disjointed and shallow, with surface-level critique of American life and lazy satire regarding capitalism and modern culture. I've always liked the simplicity of whatever message Rockstar delivered in their games. They can usually maintain whatever theme they're going for and often times can be very original in their conveyance (Manhunt, Bully, and the original Red Dead Redemption come to mind as very creative and well-executed outings).
I'm not here to debate the writing style of a couple of millionaire British dudes. And while I'd love to hear your opinion, this article isn't about that, mollusk. I just wanted to talk about the thoughts I would have during my playing of the first half of Red Dead Redemption II. And how I couldn't help but be reminded of most of the prior Rockstar Games protagonists as I watched Arthur Morgan act gruff towards silly dumb people and drop dry sarcasm that his peers didn't pick up on. Arthur Morgan is, on the surface, another Niko Bellic, another Jimmy Hopkins, another Max Payne (3). A grizzled, angry badass in a dreary and hopeless world worth despising. A Rockstar protagonist in a Rockstar world.
The follow-up to this article, "Arthur Morgan: Breaking the Mold" is coming soon. Thank you very much for reading. I love you so very much, and I hope to see you again. Please, please don't go.