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The story of Red Dead Redemption explained

The Red Dead series has all the elements of a proper Western: gritty protagonists meting out their own version of justice, a crime-ridden desert backdrop, and long-awaited shootout showdowns that keep everyone on their edge of their seats. Plus, the Houser brothers have given the games a continuing narrative filled with heists and chases that gel well with the Rockstar brand. Red Dead became one of the most revered series in all of gaming, and it's story began back in 2004 with the release of Red Dead Revolver.

The "Red" in Red Dead Revolver is Red Harlow, who is on the familiar mission of avenging his family's death. After his father was double-crossed by his partner, Red became a bounty hunter, capturing and killing all sorts of ne'er-do-wells. In the well-intentioned pursuit of being paid for taking down outlaws (and an evil circus), he discovers the men responsible for his parents' deaths. In the ensuing battles, Red wins. Naturally.

While not the most remarkable game in its own right, Revolver set the stage for more stories to unfold in the lawless West. The next games would tell the better — and more epic — tale of an outlaw seeking redemption, his story inevitably ending bloody.

On the run from the law

The title of 2018's Red Dead Redemption 2 is misleading. It is actually a prequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption, telling the story of the infamous Van der Linde gang when it was still intact. The beginning of the game has the Van der Linde gang licking their wounds in a snowstorm after a heist gone awry. They have to move on without their rightfully stolen money from a ferry heist in Blackwater, because as the West becomes more civilized, the less luck outlaws and robbers like them seem to have. All they need is enough money in order to start new lives, and leader Dutch comes up with a plan to get that cash via train robbery.

This draws the ire of oil baron Leviticus Cornwall, who owned the train that the gang rob. He hires the gang's nemesis, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to get the Van der Linde crew, who are still doing odd jobs (the criminal kind) around the town of Valentine following the train heist. The Pinkertons make threats and try to get Arthur Morgan, the game's protagonist, to sell Dutch out. Dutch keeps assuring everyone that the next job will be the last, but their time in Valentine ends in a shootout with Cornwall's men.

They have to move on, and fast, still dogged by the law and their lives as criminals.

The Grays and the Braithwaites

They escape south to the town of Rhodes, where the people are still feeling the effects of the Civil War. The gang masquerade as reformed folks and get in good with the sheriff, managing to even get half of them deputized. Ever-opportunistic, Dutch sees a possible payout in playing both sides of two rival families: the Grays and the Braithwaites. Rumor has it that they are hoarding Civil War gold that's just ripe for the picking while they steal each other's horses and burn fields, so Dutch plays up their rivalry.

However, when Dutch's machinations are discovered, the families turn on the gang. An ambush by the Grays claims the life Sean MacGuire, the young and plucky Irish thief. The Braithwaites kidnapped John Marston's son Jack as revenge. After the gang kills most of the family in retaliation, the Braithwaite matriarch reveals that she had sold Jack to Saint Denis crime lord Angelo Bronte.

Fortunately, the man had taken good care of young Jack and returns the boy without much trouble. He mocks Dutch and even tips them off about a tram station filled with cash and ripe to be robbed. However, after the tram station job turns out to be a trap, the gang turns on Bronte. After decimating his henchmen and capturing him, they plan to hold him for ransom. Bronte insults Dutch one too many times, so he does the sensible thing: he drowns the Italian and throws him to the gators, shocking everyone.

Accidental cruise to Cuba

Still in need of cash, the gang decides to pull off further jobs in Saint Denis, including a bank heist. However, the Pinkertons turned out to be closer than anyone thought. The heist went sideways: the police showed up and killed Lenny, and Pinkerton Agent Milton shot and killed Hosea, Dutch's most trusted lieutenant and father figure to everyone. In the following confusion, Arthur, Dutch, Javier, Bill, and Micah hide aboard a ship to escape the authorities. When the ship sets sail, it is capsized by a massive storm. Arthur finds himself and the gang washed up on the island of Guarma, where the enslaved prisoners and locals are fighting against a tyrannical sugar plantation owner.

Mostly by accident, they wind up turning the tides in favor of the rebels. They help in several skirmishes against soldiers as they look for an escape from the island. Dutch winds up murdering an old woman, they blow up a sugar refinery, and sink a Cuban warship all with the backdrop of a tropical paradise. Leaving the island isn't easy, but after bringing down the tower that the island's dictator is in, the gang finally manages to get on a boat bound for America.

Arthur's disease and Dutch's downfall

They might be criminals, but they're not evil. Arthur has become disenchanted with Dutch — who he had considered family — and his extreme behavior. The rest of the gang is feeling the strain of the outlaw lifestyle as well, and questioning Dutch's decisions. After the Pinkertons assault their camp, Dutch becomes paranoid that there is a traitor in their midst.

John was arrested following the bank heist, and although Dutch wants to wait to jailbreak him, Arthur and Sadie Adler go ahead and aid in his escape from prison. While doing recon for the rescue mission, Arthur is diagnosed with tuberculosis: a death sentence at the time. This revelation galvanized the outlaw into becoming a better man. Meanwhile, Dutch's lover Molly admits to being the mole and is shot dead there and then.

Blowing up another bridge in a feat that nearly costs them their lives for the sake of one of Dutch's money-making schemes, John and Arthur vow to escape the gang together with John's family. Dutch has continually gone too far. His latest plan would claim the lives of US soldiers and Native Americans alike as he played up their antagonistic relationship. Dutch had killed Leviticus Cornwall in cold blood and later left John for dead in a train robbery gone wrong; he was no longer than man that Arthur had known and admired.

The mole in their midst

Even without their employer breathing air, the Pinkertons were still dogging after the gang. Another raid on their camp ended with Abigail kidnapped. Like any respectable outlaw, Arthur wants to go save her. Micah, now Dutch's right hand man, wants to leave her for dead. Arthur and Sadie take on the Pinkertons once more to save Abigail. When he finds her, Agent Milton reveals that Micah, not Molly, had been the mole all along, feeding the Pinkertons information about the gang and their whereabouts. Abigail kills Milton and they return to the camp with the news, but the gang isn't convinced. They take Micah's side even as the two draw on each other. The shootout is cut short by the invading Pinkertons.

Escaping, Arthur is given two choices and four possible endings: he can go back for the money or help John and his family escape. Both situations end in a fight with Micah that is interrupted by Dutch, who promptly leaves when he realizes that Micah is a rat. Arthur is weak from his lungs essentially liquefying, and if Micah can't kill him, he is quick to flee. Even successful, everything ends for Arthur Morgan. If the player had gained enough honor for the outlaw, then he gets to watch one last sunrise.

Lawless loose ends

The Marston family had escaped a life of lawlessness at last, but there were still some final scores to settle. John purchased some land to become a rancher and prove to Abigail that they can live an honest life. When John learns of Arthur's death, he sets out to give him a proper burial, facing the sunrises he loved to watch. Arthur's sacrifice allowed John to try to become a better man and he finally proposes to Abigail.  

When Sadie tells John that she may know where Micah has run off to, John cannot let his friend's death go unavenged. John, Sadie, and Charles track down Micah, who has formed a new crew and is camped at Mount Hagen. To everyone's surprise, Dutch is also there, but alongside John he kills Micah as vengeance for his treachery. The money the gang had left behind in Blackwater all those years ago is left for John to pay off his bank loans and start anew.

However, this killing draws the attention of Agent Ross from the Bureau of Investigation, leading him to John's ranch at Beecher's Hope, setting up Red Dead Redemption.

The deal with the devil

Civilization is taming the Wild, Wild West and the US Government is in favor of the days of cowboys and outlaws coming to a close. The Bureau of Investigation's mission is to eradicate the lawless gangs that persist in the heartland. Rather than get their own hands dirty, Agents Ross and Fordham track down John Marston and extort him into hunting down the remnants of his old gang and bringing them to justice. If he does, then he and his family will be free to pursue the peaceful life they had built.

Hunting down the likes of Bill Williamson is easier said than done. Bill was a hot-headed scoundrel in the Van der Linde gang, and has now formed his own gang in Blackwater. He doesn't think much of John for turning away from a life of crime, and when John confronts him, he refuses to turn himself in. Reaching for his revolver, John is shot in the side by one of Williamson's men and left for dead in the wild.

It worked for the Trojans

Thankfully, John is saved after being left to the mercy of the elements and rattlesnakes. Bonnie McFarlane finds him half-dead and takes him to the local doctor in Armadillo. He owes Bonnie his life, and $15, which he works off at the McFarlane ranch. While recovering and working off his debts, John is still determined to capture Williamson, but Bill is behind the high walls of Fort Mercer, surrounded by his loyal cronies. John will have to first get through the impenetrable walls before having to deal with a shootout. John makes some unlikely friends while working as a ranch hand in the form of unintelligible drunkard Irish, psychotic prospector Seth Briars, snake oil salesman Nigel West Dickens, and US Marshal Leigh Johnson. Not quite a gang, but an effective posse nonetheless.

When Williamson finds out that John is still alive, he takes it out on the McFarlanes. He burns down their barn and nearly hangs Bonnie. John and company form a plan to sneak into Fort Mercer via Trojan Horse — or Trojan snake oil stagecoach in this case. With a Gatling gun and the help of his newfound friends, John takes down most of Williamson's gang once Dickens ferries them into the fort. When the dust clears, they find that Williamson had already fled to Mexico by the time they had assaulted Fort Mercer.

Viva la revolucion

Irish takes John down to Mexico in search of Javier Escuella, another old Van der Linde gang member aiding Williamson. South of the border, he is forced to make a deal with the region's governor, Colonel Allende. Allende has a rebellion on his hands and in exchange for John's help, he will give him information on Williamson and Escuella. John isn't one for loyalty these days however, and takes a page from his former father figure's book, deciding to play both sides. The leaders of the revolution, lovers Abraham Reyes and Luisa Fortuna, are also willing to help John out if he helps them to overthrow Allende.

This is good news because when Allende finds out about John's treachery, Allende attempts to execute our protagonist. Luckily, Reyes and the revolution show up just in time and John takes their side in the ensuing battle. When the rebels storm the local Mexican Army fort, John finds Escuella, who tries to remind John that at one time, they were like family. For John, the past is in the past and he either captures or kills his old friend. When the revolution comes knocking at Allende's villa, John finds that Williamson had sought protection from the governor. Both Reyes and John find their targets: Reyes kills Allende and John kills Williamson. Reyes talks about marching on the capital, but John returns to Blackwater.

Our time is over, John

John just has one target left: Dutch van der Linde, the man who raised him. Dutch has made a new gang for himself out of Native Americans, bonded by a mutual hatred of the government. They have created something of a mountain fortress known as Cochinay and carry out various crimes upon the people of Blackwater.

Before John can even think of attempting to raid Cochinay, Dutch manages to rob the local bank and kill his human shield of a young lady right before John's eyes, disappointed that his adopted son had become an "errand boy of the law" and that he had "married a whore." Not the most happy of reunions, and not their last. Dutch would go on to nearly kill John in a hotel shootout before Agents Ross and Fordham got the US Army to launch a siege on Cochinay. There John narrowly avoids becoming Swiss cheese at the end of a Gatling gun and chases Dutch to the edge of a cliff.

Dutch tells John that his death will not release him from his deal with the Bureau, that the law will just move on to find another big baddie to kill. Rather than get shot or captured, Dutch steps off the cliff to his death.

The last enemy shall be destroyed

True to Red Dead form, Dutch's ominous warning turns out to be a premonition of the bloody future in store for John Marston. He is reunited with his family back on his ranch and able to know peace … briefly. Jack is 16 and optimistic, and although John seems just as hopeful for the future, he realizes what has come for him when a wave of soldiers arrive.

Agent Ross has naturally double-crossed John; John is the new monster to be slain for the sake of the civilization of the West. He sends wave after wave of US Army soldiers to assault the Marston ranch. At first, Jack disobeys his father and helps him tide the onslaught of hired guns. However, John knows how this battle will end. He sends off his family with a final kiss from Abigail and faces down the army, sacrificing himself for their future. John is an amazing shot, but he is unable to take on 20 men at once. He is gunned down bullet after bullet, and lays bleeding out when Agent Ross looks over his fading life, lighting an apparently celebratory cigar. The last of the Van der Linde gang is dead.

The cycle starts again

John knew that after his death, the government would have no reason to go after his wife and child. They could continue on with the dream of a peaceful future, but John's bloody end left its mark on the Marstons. Abigail followed her husband in death just three years later, buried beside John's own grave. Jack, now nineteen and the spitting image of his father, has forgone the simple life of a rancher. Jack has decided to avenge his father's death.

In the very last mission of Red Dead Redemption, Jack goes to Blackwater, pretending to have a message for Edgar Ross. He finds him duck hunting outside of town, and when he meets the man who effectively ruined his life, he channels Inigo Montoya.

"My name is Jack Marston. You knew my father."

Ross shrugs off Jack's accusations, saying that John's life of lawlessness was the real killer in the end. It's clear that only one man will walk away from this confrontation as the two hover their hands above their pistols. Jack has clearly inherited more than just his father's face as he turns out to be the quicker draw. He kills Ross and avenges his family, but is now the outlaw that John never wanted him to be.