Do we need Red Dead Redemption 2 when the first provided gaming’s best moment?

Red Dead Redemption.

I’m starting to worry about Red Dead Redemption 2. Not because I’ll have two young kids by the time it’s released, which means I’ll still be stuck on the bit where they teach you how to herd cows until about 2019, although that is obviously an issue.

No, I’m worried about Red Dead Redemption 2 because it’s bound to be a disappointment. Sure, the worlds are likely to be bigger. Sure, the faces are likely to be more expressive, sure there is probably going to be an amazing online mode where we all get to live together in a wild west town, like a video game version of WestWorld (which is itself a comment on video game worlds, but let’s not go there right now). However, ask yourself this: how on earth can you improve on a game that contains one of the greatest moments in the history of interactive entertainment?

The moment in question comes about halfway in. It’s 1911 and you are controlling the wizened and regretful ex-outlaw John Marston, who, like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, has turned his back on gunfights and bank raids to raise a family. This all goes to hell, however, when the government turns up and blackmails you into killing or capturing everyone you ever rode with. Eventually it becomes clear that, to accomplish this, you’ll have to cross the river into Mexico, where a surprise ambush means you’re forced to spend 10 long minutes killing wave after wave of attackers. This is death on an unprecedented scale for the game, which already feels like a defeat in itself given your character’s determination to reject his old way of life.

In the end, you make the crossing. And then you’re alone. Your friends are far behind you, your family even further. You get on the nearest horse, and you ride. And right there, when you’re broken and exhausted and the sun is setting over the river, the dynamic Morricone-esque soundtrack gives way to something new. A song.


“Step in front of a runaway train”, it goes, “just to feel alive again.” It’s Far Away by Jose Gonzales, written bespoke for this very moment. It’s haunted and spare and resigned, but it’s beautiful. For a few moments it’s just you, your horse and Gonzales. The loneliness is as beautiful as it is stark. Nothing happens for the entire duration of the song. Nobody dies. Nobody attacks you. You just ride. When it’s over, and the dynamic score kicks back in, it almost feels like an intrusion. The beauty of the moment is gone. It’s back to business. The loss in that moment is tangible. It’s enough to stop anyone in their tracks. It’s even managed to shut up the gobbiest of walkthrough YouTubers, which is saying something.


The audacity is what makes it indelible. It’s a total departure from the grammar you’ve just spent the last few days learning. When the game tries to repeat the trick later on, playing a Jamie Lidell song as you return to your family, the effect is diminished. The song doesn’t carry the same psychic toll as Gonzales’s. The shock of the new has become rote.

The sustained coda to Red Dead Redemption is similarly punishing. Once your mission is over and your enemies have been vanquished, you return to the homestead and try to fit back in. You concern yourself with busywork, while attempting to reignite the spark of humanity that caused your wife to fall in love with you. You try to teach your son to be a better person than you, even though he’s still raw and angry from your abandonment.

[Major spoiler alert …]

Then, just as you start to succeed, you are killed. Some years later, you return as the son. You find the man who killed your father, and you murder him. All your dad’s effort was for naught. The violence is cyclical, and you’ve failed to break free of it. There never was any redemption. Game over.

[Major spoiler alert ends]

As a piece of storytelling, it is spectacular. But that’s all it is. As the player, you’re funnelled down a track that can only end one way. The Mexico crossing is special because you’re complicit in it. Climb off your horse at any point and the song ends, never to return. Call your own horse rather than the one provided, and it never even begins.

The song, when it comes, is a moment of understanding between the game and the player. You’re not just a participant any more. You’re a creator. “This is a moment,” it tells you. “Don’t let go of it”. It’s a progression of the form, it’s a masterpiece of expressionist narrative and – without exaggeration – it is my favourite single moment from any piece of culture that I have ever experienced. If Red Dead Redemption 2 can top that – if it can even come close – I’ll be astounded.