Rockstar Games is saddling up to head back to the Old West when Red Dead Redemption 2 hits shelves this October.
The follow-up to 2010's massively successful Western, Red Dead Redemption 2 acts as a prequel, set 12 years before the events of the original game, and centers on the infamous Van der Linde gang.
Josh Bass, art director at Rockstar San Diego, and Aaron Garbut, director of art at Rockstar North, caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to offer exclusive information about the hotly anticipated game and the gang of outlaws at the core of its story.
"Dutch’s presence loomed over the original Red Dead Redemption, and his influence on events was a big inspiration for the setting and direction of Red Dead Redemption 2," Bass tells THR. "We all wanted to know more about him and the gang — what was it like riding in that gang? What led them to the events of the original game? What happened to them along the way?"
Fans of the original will remember Dutch van der Linde, the leader of his eponymous gang, as the primary antagonist in a story about the last days of the Wild West frontier. Other familiar faces crop up in the sequel as well, including former playable protagonist John Marston, seen in Red Dead Redemption 2 as a much younger member of the gang he will one day hunt down.
"In Red Dead Redemption 2 you get to see that gang, including Marston, at the peak of their notoriety and at the very moment things begin to fall apart," says Bass. "This story focuses on Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s most trusted enforcer. Adopted into the gang by Dutch when he was a young boy, Arthur considers the gang to be his family — Dutch has given his life some much‐needed purpose, and the gang has served as the one positive and constant in Arthur’s life."
The central plot of the original game focuses on Marston's quest to hunt down his former gang members and stop Dutch from forming a new posse. While the new title focuses on the days when the gang was still in action, it isn't quite set in the heyday of the lawless West, says Bass. "Things are changing — there’s not much room in a rapidly modernizing world for the gang’s way of life. Through Arthur’s eyes, you see events begin to take a toll on the gang as they are forced to flee across America, while at the same time, Dutch’s hold on the gang begins to slip," Bass explains.
"We’ve aimed to capture a wide slice of American life in 1899, a rapidly industrializing nation that would soon have its sights on the world stage — and would do whatever possible to 'modernize,'" Garbut says of the sequel's setting. "It’s a brutal landscape with a sordid history, but also one that’s full of opportunity. One of the most satisfying aspects of creating a world of such scope and scale is the ability to experience a whole range of stories and characters in your journey across that world. The gang’s journey and the game’s epic scope makes room to touch on all aspects of turn-of-the-century America in a meaningful, substantial way."
Rockstar, which is known for creating enormous immersive worlds, was focused on making Red Dead Redemption 2's open world a reflection of the time period, as well as a deeper, thriving environment for players to interact with.
"We are trying to make a world that’s both expansive and deep at the same time," Garbut says. "We’ve always tried to create worlds that feel like places as much as games, and we’ve been able to use the latest technology to push that idea forward in ways we never have before."
That includes not just the physical surroundings, but also the people that inhabit it. "The contrast between rich and poor, between weak and strong and between civilization and the wilderness really spoke to us," says Garbut.
"We’re trying to create a world where everything is more cohesive, so that both the player’s actions and the way the world reacts to your actions feel consistent no matter what you do or where you do it," he continues. "It’s persistent and alive, but also more deliberate and intimate in ways which makes sense for a world where you were still mostly getting around by horse or on foot. You can exchange stories with a barman in a saloon, talk yourself out of trouble with a local lawman, hijack a train or simply rummage through the drawers of an old homestead hoping to find cash or just some food to help the gang survive — and seamlessly transition between these things in ways that are both fun and in keeping with Arthur as a character."
It has already been revealed that Arthur Morgan will be the playable protagonist of the new game, but given the success of previous Rockstar title Grand Theft Auto V's three playable protagonists, some had wondered if a similar approach would be taken in Red Dead Redemption 2.
"Switching characters made sense and was a lot of fun in Grand Theft Auto V," Bass says, before adding, "Sticking with a single character felt more appropriate for the structure and narrative of a Western. Arthur lives with and fights alongside the other members of the Van der Linde gang, and they are a group of fully realized characters with relationships to each other and to Arthur, but this is Arthur’s story and we are placing players firmly in Arthur’s boots as he and the gang deal with a rapidly changing world. We think people will really love the feeling of being in the gang. It isn’t like anything we’ve done before."
GTA V is currently the highest-grossing media title in history, but Bass and Garbut are confident that Red Dead Redemption 2's world surpasses anything the game studio has done before.
"Grand Theft Auto V set a pretty high benchmark for us as a company, but even the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of that game were based on technical concepts from the PS3 era," Bass says. "Red Dead Redemption 2 is our first game for the latest generation of hardware, and was an opportunity for our teams to upgrade every single aspect of our approach to game design at once, from graphics and lighting to AI, to weather, sound and score, facial and body animation and more. We have used that power to create a world that goes far beyond anything we have ever done in terms of depth, interactivity and persistence."
"It’s the sense of life the game has that most sets it apart," Garbut adds. "When you first enter a town and you see the townspeople going about their business, building houses, selling papers, hanging out, you can instantly tell that we’ve never experienced this detail in an open world game before. Where you see a shack on a hill and you know there is something interesting for you there, maybe you will break in and stumble onto a mystery, or meet the owner and end up getting tangled in something. I think that’s when you can tell that it's new territory, when you are not even sure if what you’ve done was a mission or not. When all the systemic parts of the world come together with our scripted content in the right ways, it’s kind of incredible."
That level of immersion, Garbut says, is their biggest goal. "Making the player forget they are playing a game, and instead leaving them with a memory of a place," he says. "That’s how I leave this project personally, now we are finishing up, I’ve spent years living in this world every day and I’m going to miss it. But I leave it with memories of a place I’ve lived in. That’s pretty amazing."
On Thursday, Rockstar shared character posters and breakdowns of all the game's central characters. Red Dead Redemption 2 is available for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Oct. 26.
A complete rundown of all the members of the van der Linde Gang is below.
Dutch van der Linde: The leader of a sizable gang of outlaws and misfits. Idealistic, anarchic, charismatic, well‐read, well‐ lived, but possibly starting to unravel under the pressures of the encroaching modern world.
Arthur Morgan: Dutch's most dependable and capable enforcer since he was a boy, the outlaw life is all Arthur has ever known. Sharp, cool‐headed and ruthless, but with his own sense of honor. A man who gets the job done.
Bill Williamson: An ex‐soldier discharged from the army, possibly dishonorably. Hot-headed, he tends to act first and think later but is tough, dedicated and always ready to fight.
Javier Escuella: A notorious bounty hunter and Mexican revolutionary. Javier immediately had a strong connection to Dutch’s ideals. Very committed, passionate and loyal.
John Marston: Once an orphaned street kid taken under Dutch's wing at the age of 12, John has always had to live by his wits. Shrewd, fearless and strong‐willed, he and Arthur are Dutch’s proudest proteges.
Charles Smith: A relatively recent recruit to the gang, Charles is quiet and reserved but extremely competent in everything he does and virtually unbeatable in a fight. A decent, honest man who also happens to be deadly.
Micah Bell: A career criminal and hitman. Wild and unpredictable but he lives for the action.
Sadie Adler: A widow who is hell-bent on taking revenge upon those who killed her husband. Relentless and afraid of nothing and no one. The wrong woman to cross, but very loyal to those she loves.
Hosea Matthews: A master con artist, gentleman and thief, Hosea has been Dutch's closest friend and right‐hand man for over 20 years. Intelligent and quick‐witted, he can talk his way into, or out of, just about anything.
Abigail Roberts: An orphan who grew up scraping out a living in dive bars and brothels in the West, Abigail is a strong, straight‐talking woman who has seen a lot of life and knows what it takes to survive against the odds.
Uncle: A hanger‐on and good‐time guy, Uncle is always around when the whiskey is open and never around when there’s any work to be done. If he wasn’t so entertaining, Dutch would have cut him loose years ago.
Josiah Trelawny: A flamboyant conjurer, conman and trickster, Trelawny is a very hard man to pin down but he’s always able to bring good leads.
Lenny Summers: Young Lenny has been on the run since he was 15 years old after killing the men who murdered his father. Smart, educated, competent and ambitious, he is always ready to do his part.
Sean Macguire: A cocky young Irish thief and stick‐up man who comes from a long line of criminals and political dissidents. He always wants a piece of the action and believes in himself...perhaps a little too much.
Mary-Beth Gaskill: A kind, good‐natured young woman, which makes her the perfect criminal. By the time people realize they’ve been duped, Mary‐Beth is already on her way home with the money.
Karen Jones: A consummate scam artist and trigger woman who can drink pretty much anybody under the table. Bold and full of fun, she loves the outlaw life and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tilly Jackson: An outlaw from the age of 12, Tilly ran with another gang before joining up with Dutch. Savvy, resilient and dependable, she can more than handle herself and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Leopold Strauss: Originally hailing from Austria, Herr Strauss is responsible for keeping the gang’s books and running their money lending operation. A serious, somewhat shifty and unemotional man, he has all the qualities a loan shark needs.
Reverend Swanson: An ex clergyman now lost to debauchery, Swanson has fallen a long way from the standards he once set himself. If he hadn’t saved Dutch’s life in the past, it’s unlikely the gang would have kept him around for this long.
Susan Grimshaw: The undisputed boss and arbiter of justice in the camp, everything would have fallen apart years ago without Susan in charge. Tenacious and iron‐willed, she stands for no nonsense.
Molly O’Shea: A Dublin girl and the object of Dutch’s affection, for now at least, Molly is too high‐strung for a life on the run and it’s all starting to take a toll on her.
Pearson: The camp’s butcher and cook, Pearson served a short stint in the navy that he likes to talk about at length. A loud, jolly degenerate who is somewhat in denial about the turn his life has taken.
Jack Marston: Young Jack has grown up with the gang, although everyone has done their best to shield him from the more nefarious elements, especially his mother, Abigail. He loves everything about nature and the outdoor life, and is carefully watched over by his many aunts and uncles.
Staff writer Ryan Parker contributed to this report.