I was a reluctant latecomer to Red Dead Redemption 2. Before my husband insisted that I play it, I was certain I wouldn’t like it—I’d been disappointed by recent critical darlings in the AAA sphere, I’m always hesitant about Rockstar games (I conveniently forget how much I enjoyed the first Red Dead game as well as L.A. Noire and Bully, though their labor practices are still terrible), and who has time for a 60+ hour game, anyway?
And to be fair to my inner snob, I didn’t immediately fall in love with Red Dead 2, nor its grizzled cowboy protagonist Arthur Morgan. The game is slow to start, and, in my opinion, doesn’t really hit its stride until some ten hours in, after you’ve made it through the main storyline of Valentine, the first real town you encounter in the Wild West.
But there was something that drew me into the game before the story picked up: the in-game journal. Though often viewed as supplemental material for the completionist, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s journal is actually crucial to understanding the game’s main character and its rich themes of—you guessed it—the possibility of redemption. Without it, you miss out on Arthur’s complicated moral stances, his internal conflict, and his surprisingly tender artistry, all of which make him a well fleshed-out character, even if, unlike me, a player chooses to take him down a dishonorable path.
I’m a sucker for an in-game journal. Though they’re not always used well—The Last of Us 2‘s journal has sparse but valuable character insight with no incentive to check it, for example—I still pore over each one. In the Life is Strange series, they’re often used to show the disparity between how a character like Max or Chloe presents themself versus how they really feel. In Night in the Woods, the journal works as a sort of scrapbook for the game’s events and an insight into Mae’s artistry and way of thinking about the world. Sometimes they just seem to be a repository for cutesy jokes and artwork—looking at you, Uncharted—but I, ever the video game voyeur, nonetheless can’t stop looking.
In the case of a game as sprawling and even bloated as Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s a multitude of functions for the journal. It catalogs the game’s events and quests, including the drawings of flora and fauna that Arthur and the player take the time to notice. But more than that, it provides insight into Arthur’s inner life—a life that seems at odds with the tough cowboy persona he projects, at least through the game’s first third or so.
Without reading the journal, it’s easy to believe that Arthur, recruited into an outlaw gang as an orphaned youth by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde, really believes in his surrogate father’s mission. Arthur dutifully follows van der Linde and the less likable members of the gang, even beating a dying man to collect on a debt despite his opposition to usury. Though he might push back against Micah, the relentlessly skeevy newcomer to the gang whose disastrous plan leads to them being on the run, without the journal you’d be excused for thinking Arthur’s as money-hungry and dedicated to the life of the outlaw as his compatriots. With it, you see that he’s conflicted about his values and his place in the world. You also see that he’s an artist who tries to capture the wilderness—which he believes is being eroded by encroaching civilization, much like himself—before it’s too late.
But these thoughts aren’t just contained in the journal. As the game progresses and an honorable Arthur is confronted with an accusation that he’s a poet along with starting to verbally question van der Linde’s motivations and machinations, the connection with the private Arthur we know from the journal becomes clear. It isn’t such a secret after all; the others know something he’s only been willing to admit in his private pages.
Admittedly, I forgot about the journal for a good chunk of the early game. There are a lot of mechanics in Red Dead Redemption 2, enough that reading a journal slipped entirely from my mind. It didn’t help that, much like the early game’s story, the journal referred to people I didn’t know and events I didn’t witness. It wasn’t until later, until I spent time in saloons with Lenny and hunting bears with Hosea, that the journal and what it contained actually began to matter.
Journals, much like audio diaries, can be useful bits of worldbuilding. Much like audio diaries, they can also feel clunky and purposeless. Is Arthur the kind of man who would write things like, “[Charles] is a better man than me. He does not need to think to be good,” or, “The unkindness of existence I can handle just fine. But I do not love it, nor those who try to make things otherwise, I guess.” Or is he a heartless outlaw concerned only with lining his own pockets? In a game with a (dis)honor system, where the journal is an optional read, these passages can feel disingenuous or contradictory. They matched my concept of Arthur—the one who went out of his way to help every stranger he stumbled across, even if he got robbed for it, the one who put off shaking down the debtor who’d sign Arthur’s death sentence until the game simply wouldn’t let me put it off anymore. But this prescriptive notion of who Arthur is, a man morally conflicted about his place in the world, could be totally at odds with the Arthur of another player.
Which brings me to a question that I’ve been chewing on since I played the game over a year ago: is hiding these more internal sides of characters like Arthur—or Max or Chloe or even The Last of Us 2‘s Ellie—in journals rather than in cutscenes or interactive parts of the game ineffective? I suppose in some ways it is. Some players will never see it, and the game doesn’t insist that you do.
But on the other hand, this argument that hiding this content away in a journal effectively hides it from a large part of the audience who isn’t here for introspective cowboys doesn’t hold up for me, because that assumes that a journal is “outside” of play, and I don’t think that it is. Squinting at Arthur’s cursive may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but rather than assuming that the journal is some kind of bonus content for the completionist player, I think it’s equally possible to view in-game journals as critical content that some players choose to skip. There is nothing wrong with skipping it if you’re not interested, but the explanation for why characters respond to Arthur the way they do—calling him a poet even though he might be a grizzled old asshole in a player’s hands—is there. The story and characterization aren’t lacking just because the player isn’t forced to look at the content.
One of the many things I like about games is their unique potential for storytelling. They are at their best when they’re not recreating how a film or novel works on a 1:1 basis. The Red Dead Redemption 2 journal is sort of a clumsy attempt at approaching storytelling from a non-cinematic perspective; on the one hand, each journal is unique to the player, as when you discover the flora and fauna, what missions you choose to complete, and so on will change what’s on your pages. On the other hand, is asking the player to read static text really “play”?
Sure it is! Or it can be, depending on how it’s used. I have a flexible definition of what constitutes play, but I think that a journal’s inclusion suggests that it counts, whether or not that kind of play is appreciated by every player. It may not be the perfect method of deploying this information, but it isn’t invalid, even if many (or even most) players choose not to engage with it. The information is there to be read, and it only encroaches on the player’s concept of Arthur if the player has decided that their version of Arthur would not think those things—in which case, that means he’s better at projecting the uncaring outlaw image he’s trying to project, so much so that he fooled the player, too.
None of this means that the game’s journal is perfect—as I said, I went hours in the early game without interacting with it whatsoever. But game journals designed with purpose, such as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2, can add context and character depth that are harder to convey through traditional means like audio diaries, dialog, or—in my opinion, the worst option—cheesy voiceover narration. If players don’t want to find it, that’s okay; the work has been done, the context exists. But for those who look, there’s a reward of deeper characterization, which I’ll even brave Rockstar’s horrible tiny text for.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.