I’ve played Red Dead Redemption 2’s story from start to finish three times now, and I know I still haven’t seen everything. I always try to take Arthur Morgan in different directions, explore regions I never spent much time in during my last go around, and make every attempt to encounter new strangers, new scenarios, and new stories. I would probably have played it even more times, if it wasn’t for one thing putting me off: the opening few hours in the snow are an absolute slog, and I could never bring myself to redo them again. After my latest playthrough though, I’ve become enlightened: now I know the snow is actually the best part of Red Dead Redemption 2.
The reason it drags so much on a replay is because we know how long it lasts, and we’re acutely aware that once we get through a couple of hours of it, we get to actually be a cowboy again. But the first time around, we don’t know that. Half the game could be up in the snow for all we know. We came to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting a rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ action fest, and the snow immediately pumps the brakes. We look back on Arthur Morgan now as one of the best written modern video game characters, but it’s easy to forget he posed a significant risk for Rockstar. Though you can still go through the game shooting everyone you come across, Arthur is a far more sensitive character than John Marston, far more contemplative on his place in the world, and far more aware of the consequences of his own violence. In many ways, Arthur is a man out of place, and the snow mimics that.
Arthur is not who we expected, and those early moments trudging through the snow add to this sense of displacement. The gang is out of sorts, suffering wounds and casualties, and just had riches slip through their fingers. They’re lost. Like cowboys in the snow, they don’t belong there. Arthur is lost too, of course, on the inside. He is quickly established as Dutch’s right hand man and the gang’s muscle, but he grows to distrust Dutch’s insistence on sticking to a selfish plan, and throughout the game reflects on what his role as ‘the muscle’ means for his life and his legacy. It’s not just in the gang where he feels his time is running short either; as the turn of the century approaches, Arthur is unsure whether there is a place for his kind in the world anymore. By dropping us into a place he so clearly does not belong in right at the start, Red Dead Redemption 2 has us thinking about the concept of being ‘out of place’ immediately.
Being up in the snow, away from the action and the typical shootouts of the genre, also forces a much slower pace. I hated this the first time around, I admit, but on reflection it eases us into the gear shift from Marston to Morgan. Arthur talks about his violence a lot in the opening exchanges, but aside from some wolves, he doesn’t shoot anybody until a few hours into the game. The snow offers the series a buffer between our two protagonists that it desperately needed, even if few of us will admit it.
As well the opening, the game’s ultimate ending also occurs in the snow. Again, this return to the blizzard fits with the theme of outsiders being displaced. Micah, so desperate to take Morgan’s place in the gang as Dutch’s de facto son, has ended up retreating to the mountains, with no other place in the world available to him. Even though Dutch is there with him, it’s ultimately Dutch who kills him, proving just how out of place Micah is.
Maybe you just don’t care about the symbolism of it all, the purpose of the snow in the game’s pacing and themes, or how the game uses it to bookend its tale of a band of misfits disbanding. Maybe you just want to be a cowboy. Well, I’ve got news for you: the snow is still the best part of the game, you just have to learn to trust it.
I’ll grant you that, from a raw “is this fun?” point of view, Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening is not great. I still think the ultimate ending on the mountain is fantastic, but it’s weighed down by John spending too long playing house at the epilogue’s early stages. But these are not the only times the snow is featured in the game, although it is the only time most of us see it.
Certainly, in my first two playthroughs, I only saw the snow at these two distinct story points. I think I wandered up there during the gunslinger quest once, but that was a very quick in and out. As I mentioned at the start though, because there’s so much to do in Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s always new areas to explore, and on my third playthrough, I decided to actually explore the snowy reaches of the north west of the map. If, like me in my earlier playthroughs, you avoided this whole area because of the prologue, then let me tell you: you’re missing out.
For one thing, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Red Dead Redemption 2 looks pristine anyway, but up in the snow with the crisp white drifts, it’s a different class. It’s so serene too, with Arthur and his horse crunching in the untouched snow. There are hidden caves and mine shafts to explore, abandoned huts, and ice lakes to fish in. It’s the perfect getaway from the often hectic open world of the rest of the map. If you want to explore the wilderness, the snow is your best bet.
The hunting is fantastic there, too. Creatures tend to stay out in the trees up in the mountain, given that there’s fewer of the trees around, and fewer humans to hunt them. That means the frustrations of hunting elsewhere aren’t really a problem here, with you free to take your time, prepare yourself, line up your shots, and hunt away. I only really hunted when I had to in Red Dead Redemption 2, both because of the fiddly mechanics and ethical concerns, but heading for the snow at least alleviates one of those issues.
I get that the snow is almost universally hated in Red Dead Redemption 2, and I know it feels like a grind at the start of the game when you want to go out and explore the world. But it’s there for a reason, and in time it has grown to become one of my favourite parts of the game. Even ignoring the way the opening and ending of the game reinforce its key themes, just running about in the snow during the mid-game is actually pretty fun. I know we all hate it, but Red Dead Redemption 2 just wouldn’t be the same without it.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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