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Are Outlaws Really Bad? | Philosophy and Ethics in Games

Welcome back to Philosophy and Ethics in games, the series where I dive into philosophical and ethical concepts and stories from games as I play through them over on Twitch. If you’re new here, my name is Josh “Bearheart” Hawk and I’m an author, photographer and gamer who enjoys deep diving into ideas and thinking outside the box.

Today, we’re stepping for the first time out of the world of Fallout 4 and into a world set nearly 180 years before the bombs dropped. Back when the west was wild, when cowboys didn’t dance, there was a group of outlaws known only as the Van der Lind Gang. Led by an outlaw known as Dutch Van der Lind, this gang of misfits traveled throughout the southwestern United States in the late 19th century in search of gold and freedom. They robbed trains, held up banks and stagecoaches and were known to cause general havoc wherever they went.

In 1899, the gang finally met their match in the form of the Pinkerton Detective agency following the botched robbery of a ferry in the town of Blackwater. Within months, much of the gang was dead or in the wind, and their outlaw ways had come to an end. They were one of the last major gangs of outlaws that called the west home, but were they really the bad guys?

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that was released by Rockstar Games in 2018. It follows the aforementioned downfall of the Van der Lind gang, and specifically the main protagonist Arthur Morgan, over the course of about a year. Normally, when we think of good guys, we think of the idyllic man in the white hat, riding in to save the day. He doesn’t rob, cheat or steal and he always arrives just in time to stop the bad guy from doing those things.

That is, of course, the way it goes in movies and books. In real life, things aren’t always black and white, and ethics are often bent to fit the situation. Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of those games that runs closer to real life than a fantasy when it comes to good versus evil. While it may seem at first that you don’t have a lot of choices as the player, the truth is a lot more nuanced.

See, as you play, you will notice this little meter that keeps popping up whenever you do various things. It’s accompanied by a little symbol and sound that indicates whether the action you just took was honorable or dishonorable. On a single playthrough, you might not notice any impact from this meter. You could, in theory, finish the game and not even realize your choices made a difference.

Now, if you know anything at all about the game, you’re probably aware that the level of your honor affects various cut scenes as well as opening up some extra missions and even changing the end of the game. One thing most people probably don’t think much about, however, is how this mirrors real life and brings into question everything we think of when it comes to good versus evil. Outlaws, or criminals, must always be evil, right?

If that’s the case, how could Arthur Morgan possibly be redeemed as a character?

To apply the proper context, we’re going to have to recap, and consequently spoil, most of the main story for Red Dead Redemption 2. If you don’t want spoilers, you’re going to want to come back to this article after you’ve completed the main story of the game.

When we first meet the Van der Lind gang, they are fighting a blizzard in the mountains as they work to escape the lawmen of Blackwater. They had been camped outside that small town for a while and just finished a job where they were robbing a ferry. We find out through dialog that an innocent girl was killed during the robbery and several members of the gang had been wounded or left behind in the aftermath.

This opening starts to paint the picture of who Dutch Van der Lind is and what the gang is like in general. As the opening chapter progresses, we meet several members of the group and learn that things aren’t as simple as they seem. There is a dynamic to these characters, each has their own reasons for being with the gang, and most of them are more interested in their own survival than anything else.

As we move through the chapters of the story, we follow the gang from location to location as they work to make enough money to escape the law and gain the one thing we all yearn for, freedom. They want the freedom to live as they choose, to be able to go where they please when they please and to be able to earn a living through hard work. We get to know more about each member of the gang, and by the later chapters many of them even begin to feel like a real family.

You have choices as the player throughout the game, mainly focused on how you think certain missions should be approached, but also what you want to do between missions. You can rob whoever you want, hold up banks, shoot anyone. You even have some freedom during the missions to cause more or less harm to civilians as you rob them. Each of these actions brings a consequence, usually in the form of an increase or decrease to your honor.

Besides the main story missions, there are a number of side missions and a metric ton of radiant quests. The side missions and radiant quests are not required to complete the game, and you could technically finish the story without doing anything extra. Aside from these, there are also chores you can do around camp, companion quests where people around camp might mention something in passing that they want and you have the option to bring the thing to them, and little details like increased honor for throwing back fish you’ve caught.

Much of this extra stuff is there, more or less, to add some life to the world and make it feel more like a real place than a game. You might be riding around in the backcountry when you come across what appears to be a helpless lady on the side of the road, begging you for a ride back to town. She might really need your help, or she might be bait to lure you into an ambush. If you’ve played as many hours as I have in the game, you might have a pretty good idea, having come across the situation before, but there is still always some doubt.

One set of missions you can do revolves around one Leopold Strauss. Mr. Strauss is a member of the gang who focuses primarily on loansharking, and he asks you to be his muscle and recover the money he has lent out to people who were unable, or unwilling, to pay it back. Most of these missions are optional, though a couple are mandatory and one of them actually results in Arthur coming into contact with a man called Mr. Downes who is very sick.

You’re sent to collect from Mr. Downes in chapter 2 as one of the early Strauss missions, and it’s clear he isn’t doing well. No matter what you try, you wind up beating him until he begins coughing up blood. Some of this blood winds up on Arthur, and ultimately results in his death from tuberculosis.

The first couple of times I played through the story, I avoided most of Strauss’s missions because I wanted to be a good guy, and collecting these debts didn’t feel right. In more recent play throughs, I’ve actually taken to trying some of them out, and there are some really cool stories buried in them.

The real reason I bring the Strauss missions up though, is because later on in the story you are able to actually forgive the debts Strauss has gathered and even make somewhat of amends with Mrs. Downes following the death of her husband. These optional quests are only available if you have high honor though. Likewise, the main story has several endings and optional choices based on your honor level. But can an outlaw really have high honor?

So that brings us back to the main topic of the video. As Arthur, you make decisions on who to help, who to shoot, who to rob. But doesn’t shooting even one person make you bad? What about robbing a bank? Is it even possible to be a “good guy” in the light of all these obviously bad deeds?

On the one hand, you could think of life as having a ledger like the honor meter in Red Dead Redemption 2. Maybe every choice you make adds or subtracts from that ledger, and in the end you are judged based on the overall sum of those totals. Shows like The Good Place have used this idea as a concept in the past, and to a point it kind of makes sense.

Most of us will have a funeral or memorial service after we die. At that service, people will reminisce about our life, remember interactions they had with us and talk about the good we did. Speaking ill of the dead is typically frowned upon, so the not so good usually gets swept under the rug and forgotten by most. There might be one or two people who really didn’t like you, but for the most part you will be remembered fondly.

Using a ledger means that you can balance out the bad with the good. As an outlaw, you could rob a bank and make up for it by using some of the money to feed the poor. Robin Hood, the fictional character created by Sir Walter Scott, was famous for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But does doing good really make up for the bad?

In practice, it’s pretty clear that no amount of good can outdo certain bad things. From a legal perspective, you could be the most giving person in the world and still be sentenced to jail for a crime.

Maybe there’s no ledger? Perhaps, you are either good or bad and there is really no gray? If that’s the case, the story of Arthur Morgan is a simple Greek tragedy, where he is doomed to a bad ending no matter what he does.

Then there’s the question of how culpable Arthur is for his crimes. He was raised by Dutch for the most part, led to believe the gang was ultimately honorable and the government that was growing more intrusive by the day was the bad guy. And was Dutch really wrong? Who’s to say what’s right and wrong, good and bad?

As a society built around the rule of law, are we just supposed to accept every law as good, seeing those who flout the laws as bad? If you rob a bank and only shoot those who shoot at you first, what makes you the bad guy? In the context of a game, the rules are hard coded. The lawman who fires at you on a mission was created specifically to do so. What about real life, though?

No one makes the “right” decision every single time. All of us have done things that others might consider bad or wrong. At the end of the day, morality is subjective and there isn’t any concrete good or bad that makes you individually a good or bad person.

Now, you might argue, as others have, that morality is objective. Most of the time, this argument comes from a religious sense, where a god has set down what is moral and what isn’t. I set this argument aside because either the god in question has set the moral standard, meaning that standard is subjective to their will, or they are simply relaying a moral standard in which case they are really just the messenger for someone else’s subjective standard. At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, your moral standards are directly related to the society you are a part of, and they change over time.

What does that mean for our hero, Arthur? Well, he lives with a ledger that fills or empties based on an objective standard set by developers with a subjective standard for morality. He isn’t good or bad, but his actions, directed by the player, are considered good or bad based on this standard. Like in real life, he has no way of knowing for certain what the eventual outcome of those actions might be, and he can only decide what to do based on the desired outcome and hope it works out.

The actions of Arthur Morgan will be remembered by those who live at the end of the game in various ways, but for the most part people will remember him fondly regardless of where the honor meter winds up. The ending of the game and his grave will be seen slightly differently, but no matter what choices you make, he still winds up dying.

And maybe that’s the important thing to remember. We all die in the end. Our choices through our lives, whether we make good or bad decisions, normally have a pretty limited impact on how we are remembered. But, like Arthur, we can also make choices that have a more lasting impact.

In the epilogue for Red Dead Redemption 2, you play as John Marston and have the chance to revisit people and places from the main story. There are instances, like one in Saint Denis, where you can see Arthur’s name on a plaque outside a war memorial hospital if you chose to make a donation to the construction as Arthur. You can finish up collections that Arthur started, running into people he met and hearing about how he impacted them based on how much or little you did for them.

Being an outlaw doesn’t make someone bad. There are consequences to every choice you make in life, and the impact you have on the world and those around you can be felt in ways you might not even realize before you die. Strive to do good, focusing on helping others and leading by example.

I want to thank you all for reading. I’m really enjoying working on this series and exploring these games from a different angle. You can help me out by subscribing on YouTube, liking the video and commenting down below to let me know what you thought and what other topics and games you’d like to see covered. I stream over on Twitch several times a week, with my posted schedule over there being up to date and the best way to know when and what I’ll be streaming. If you really like my videos and want to help out in other ways, I have a Patreon where you get early access to videos, behind the scenes stuff and exclusive info on upcoming works like my books and other projects. Have a great rest of your day and I’ll see you in the next one.

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