As perfect evidence that the suspense and anticipation of a major announcement can often be sweeter than getting it, the wait for an official confirmation of Red Dead Redemption 2 has come to an end... leaving fans hungrier than ever for more details. But Rockstar Games is still playing it coy, releasing just one image of cowboys aligned across the horizon, and a gameplay trailer shedding more light on the game's world than its characters or story. Of course, that doesn't stop devoted fans from spinning theories to their hearts' content.
Count us among that group, as we're as eager as anyone to see how Redemption 2 will be continuing or expanding on the story or tone of its predecessor. The trailer didn't offer many hints of how the game would be linked to the life of previous hero John Marston, or to the first game in the series - Red Dead Revolver (if at all). But after taking a (much) closer look at the official artwork, and digging back through our memories of the two previous Red Dead games, we do have a theory.
What if Red Dead Redemption 2 was finally the game to link Revolver and Redemption as part of the same story? That's our theory, and it all begins by breaking down everything that Rockstar has revealed so far.
7. John Marston
We'll start by pointing out the one character among the aligned silhouettes that caught the attention of Red Dead fans right away: the scruffy man on the extreme left, gun resting over his shoulder. The images are intentionally rough, but the outline and basic features are a perfect match for John Marston, the hero of Redemption (the beginning of his facial scars are possibly visible in the image, too). There's one immediate problem to contend with then: the previous game concluded with Marston (spoiler warning) being shot to death and buried.
The inclusion of Marston here is an obvious choice - he was critically acclaimed as a well-rounded and expertly crafted protagonist - and the previous game's setting at the close of the Old West means a more distant past is mandatory. But Marston's inclusion, and specifically, his placement on the outside of the group, not the center, could carry even more meaning. Especially when you remember that the story of Redemption followed John as he tracked down his former gang in exchange for his pardon and freedom. A gang which he didn't lead... but which also included some other familiar faces in this promo image.
6. Bill Williamson
If Marston is easy to spot, then the shadow of Bill Williamson is downright obvious. It's his signature hat that acts as the clearest confirmation that the grizzled, menacing, bearded bandit in the image is Bill, another former gang member who once called John his brother in arms. In Red Dead Redemption, it's actually Bill who kicks the story into motion, refusing to surrender when John seeks him out years after they parted way, wounding him and leaving the game's hero for dead. In the end, John gets his revenge. But by then players learned that the pair's history is more complicated than former coworkers.
Both John and Bill came to competition, and eventually outright hostility over their gang leader, with each vying for the 'right hand man' role (one more fitting to John's talents, but one more sought after by Bill's power hungry nature). The gang eventually disbanded, with Bill making his own way and becoming a famous gang leader of his own. The pieces of the Redemption prequel begin to fall into place with both John and Bill hinted at in the artwork, implying that the oft-talked-about past of pain, betrayal, and at one time, criminal success could act as the main narrative of another adventure.
5. Dutch van der Linde
If you've got the two men competing for the second-in-command role of an Old West gang, it only makes sense that the former leader should appear in the image as well, if it's depicting a time when they group remained intact. Look no further than the grim, mustachio-ed face of Dutch van der Linde, the eponymous founder of "Dutch's Gang" (as it's referred to by John and Bill in Redemption). Dutch isn't actually seen in his typical cowboy accouterments in the course of the game, having shed most of his clothes for an orange shirt, but the placement among John and Bill makes the case on its own.
While John's character and temperament make his location in the image - placed at the extreme edge, looking off at something unseen (a future?) - Bill and Dutch, as we speculate, are placed alongside the central figure, looking determined to do some dirty work. The story of Redemption makes Dutch out to be more ideological than practical, hoping to turn his gang into an Old West version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. But John admits that the fairy tale was only ever used to justify their crimes, and Bill was probably just as nasty deep down as any of the rest of them.
Even if his image lacks a signature weapon or article of clothing, his presence in the promotional art means the game's main three characters are all accounted for. But there's one other detail of potentially massive importance: Dutch's Gang was made up of more than the characters seen in Redemption... players just never found out who they were.
4. Jack Swift?
If there's one silhouette that stands out from the rest, it would likely be the man second from the left, dressed in the manner more befitting an English gentleman than a rustler. But the pistol in his hand and the bandolier across his jacket confirms he's a dangerous gunslinger, appearances aside. And when you look for someone fitting that description, one man rises above all others: Jack Swift, the "Sandhurst man" who left England behind for the bank robberies and trick shooting of the American West. But the most important part of Swift's story? It was told in Red Dead Revolver, not Redemption.
As we mentioned above, the links between the first game in the series and its spiritual sequel are scarce, if any exist at all. While Jack Swift may not have been the main character of Revolver, he was a supporting player (and even playable). Although it's implied that he perished in that game's story, he was known to have cheated death once before - and in a campfire sequence hidden in Red Dead Redemption, NPC's discuss the fact that Jack Swift is still alive, while also making mention of the game's real hero.
So, did a supporting player from Red Dead Revolver wind up in Dutch, Bill and John's gang? Before we answer that, we have to continue... because Jack isn't alone.
3. Shadow Wolf?
The other character standing out from the rest of the Redemption faces (or so we speculate them to be) is placed on the extreme right, looking to have a mohawk, braids, and clothing reminiscent of Native Americans of the era. There were several Native American characters in both Revolver and Redemption - playing a significant role in the story of both - but the key to this character is his age. The younger recruits of Redemption are ruled out, if this image is set far enough in the past that Dutch's Gang remained intact.
The answer, then, seems to be Revolver again. Where Jack Swift now looks a bit more worn and ragged, could fans also be seeing the aged Shadow Wolf, friend and half-brother to Red Dead Revolver's protagonist? Again, it was implied that Shadow Wolf succumbed to injuries as well - but this was at a time when dialogue was scarce, and Shadow Wolf's "death" scene lasted a matter of seconds. If Jack survived to find a new mission - one that Dutch claimed was morally just for all people struggling in the Old West - then it would make sense for an older Shadow Wolf to follow along.
He would be older, given the difference in time periods of the games. Old enough that he might not even be recognizable to players based on his appearance alone...
2. Red Harlow?
Since most video game fans and players will be most familiar with Red Harlow, the hero of Red Dead Revolver as he appears in the above image - or in polygonal form on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox - a few details are key to explain our thinking. For starters, Revolver begins in approximately 1880, a full thirty-one years before the events of Redemption. Allowing for Red's maturation from a teen to a young man, and John Marston's explicit age (as seen on his headstone), it can be estimated that Red Harlow is as much as a decade older than his successor. So if Redemption 2 were set in the years prior to the gang disbanding, Red Harlow would have been moving into his forties at the time.
Take a look at the image, and the age seems about right. If one were so inclined, the hat would be a match, and you might even be able to make out a similar scar on the bridge of the nose. But the biggest clue, by our estimation, is his weapon-- sorry, weapons of choice. For those who have forgotten or simply never played the original Red Dead adventure, the story centered on Harlow's father and his friend and partner - a friend who would soon kill the elder Harlow for complete ownership of a gold-filled mountain.
Red survived the attack, and set out for justice carrying his father's brand new revolver... one of a matching set that the former partners had commissioned to symbolize their deal.
No surprise here: Red Harlow gets that revenge, picking up the villain's matching revolver, and striding off into the sunset never to be heard from again. Now the first image for Red Dead Redemption 2 arrives, set in the years between the two games, and featuring an aging gunslinger with a face almost completely obscured, brandishing a pair of revolvers.
We won't spell it out for you, but given the unmistakable hints to other characters in the line-up, this being a completely new characters seem less likely than a clever way of linking all three games in the series into one cohesive story.
There's just one mystery left to solve, assuming our theories are anywhere close to the mark.
1. Our New Protagonist
Finally, we arrive at the real mystery: the man at the center of it all. Typically in the slot reserved for the hero of the story, the man placed between Bill and Dutch is a complete unknown, largely assumed to be either the main player character, or a stand-in for a created one, for all players know. The presence of a new figure makes sense: simply walking down memory lane and seeing Dutch's Gang as John Marston described it would be a largely pointless task (it's a good story, sure, but players know it by heart). Unless, of course, Redemption hadn't given the whole story.
Add in one new character that led the group before Dutch, or Bill, or John considered a life after the crimes - maybe even the gunslinger that inspired Dutch to be more than a common criminal - and you've got a compelling, surprising story that fleshes out the lives of beloved characters. Doing it in a game that miraculously links two previously unconnected entries in the same franchise? That's just showing off.
So what do you think of our theory? Does it seem like a brilliant story for Rockstar to tell, or is it too good to be true? Think our detective work into the silhouetted outlaws of the official artwork is sound, or have we missed a crucial detail? Be sure to let us know in the comments, and stay tuned for any and all updates on Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 arrives in Fall 2017.