Of the 118 games shown at E3 last year, only nine featured a female protagonist. Of the eight games nominated for OnlySP’s Best Game of 2018, three feature a female in the leading role—only one of which as a sole protagonist. The remaining titles, however, do not revert to the damsel-in-distress or oversexualised tropes of old; instead, they feature powerful women who guide—and often save—the main protagonist in multiple instances. Marvel’s Spider-Man’s Mary Jane Watson proves that super powers do not make a superhero. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom’s Aranella gives Evan the guidance to become a great king, and Tani leads an army to help this dream become a reality. However, one of 2018’s greatest champions for women in video games was Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption 2 — a surprising feat, considering the developer’s history.
Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar’s flagship franchise, is a game series synonymous with violence. Despite specific criticism of violence against women, the games allow violence against all individuals regardless of gender, leading players to only deal with temporary consequences—that is, after being caught by police, to respawn at a police station with the opportunity to repeat the offenses again. The games have also received understandable criticism for their depiction of women—and not necessarily because they are scantily clad, but because the games have so few women and they are all scantily clad. With the possible exception of Grand Theft Auto III’s Catalina and IV’s Michelle/Karen, every woman in the series is either overly sexualised or a damsel-in-distress. How, then, was Red Dead Redemption 2 one of the best representations of female characters in 2018?
In celebration of International Women’s Day, OnlySP is taking a look at some of the strongest female characters of Red Dead Redemption 2. Beware of spoilers within.
The character development of Sadie Adler, brought to life by the incredible Alex McKenna, might be the strongest of the entire game. Still grieving after the loss of her husband, house, and former life, Sadie joins the Van der Linde gang and follows them as they run from the Pinkertons. Initially assigned to help the men to prepare food, Sadie becomes bored around the camp and demands to help run some errands. She quickly proves herself useful with a gun as she helps Arthur to fight local enemy gang members, but she truly demonstrates her leadership during the game’s fifth chapter—after the disappearance of the gang’s strongest men, Sadie steps up to help move the remaining members to safety in an abandoned town, gathering supplies to ensure their ongoing survival.
After the gang reunites, Sadie helps Arthur to rescue John from prison, fight against Pinkertons and enemy gangs, and ultimately gets her revenge against the O’Driscolls for the death of her husband. Never one to truly settle down after Jake’s death, Sadie finds solace in travelling and bounty hunting, demonstrating that she is not one to cross, but is very loyal to the people she loves.
The arbiter of the Van der Linde gang, Susan Grimshaw (portrayed by the memorable Kaili Vernoff) was one of original members alongside Dutch, Hosea, and Arthur. Indefatigable and headstrong, Grimshaw is responsible for assembling the camp upon each move to a new location. She assuredly confirms her role as the gang’s caretaker in the game’s fourth chapter when, upon Tilly’s disappearance from the group, she immediately asks Arthur for help, killing one of the men who kidnapped her. Despite showing it in unconventional ways, Grimshaw has deep love for every member of the gang and will go to great lengths to protect them. Undoubtedly the voice of reason in the group, the Van der Linde gang may have fallen apart long before the events of the game if not for her strong-willed guidance.
Mary-Beth Gaskill and Tilly Jackson
Both kind and charming women, Mary-Beth Gaskill and Tilly Jackson (played by the talented Samantha Strelitz and Meeya Davis, respectively) entered the life of crime at a young age—Mary-Beth as a successful pickpocket, and Tilly as part of the Foreman Brothers gang—before being found and brought up by Dutch. While the two women both boast unassuming exteriors, they are conniving at heart and demonstrate their usefulness and strength within the Van der Linde gang. Mary-Beth proves her skill as a thief, both by discovering leads to a train robbery and by helping to rob a stagecoach, while Tilly, honest and outspoken, guides Arthur throughout his journey during the quieter moments at camp. Without their help both in and outside of the camp, the gang would not remain as strong for long.
Addicted to the outlaw lifestyle, Karen Jones (brought to life by the phenomenal Jo Armeniox) is talented and strong-willed yet heavily flawed—and, thus, very human. A talented gunwoman, and skilled at scamming any unassertive victim who crosses her path, when Karen returns to camp, she fails to keep away from the alcohol. Seen drunk most of the time around the camp, Karen most strongly represents an important factor of humans that game developers often forget: people are not perfect. Despite her debauchery and alcoholism, Karen proves herself a worthy criminal, without whom the Valentine bank likely would have remained un-robbed and the gang even poorer.
The original Red Dead Redemption, set twelve years prior to the events of Red Dead Redemption 2, perpetuated the damsel-in-distress trope within Abigail Marston: she remained imprisoned while her husband John fought to rescue her; and after she returned home, John spent his time hunting and farming while Abigail remained indoors. Even the early missions of the second game continue this stereotype, as Abigail begs Arthur to rescue John while she is forced to stay at camp and look after her son at all times.
The final mission of the sixth chapter begins with a familiar premise: Abigail has been kidnapped, and Arthur and Sadie must save her. In the process, Sadie is also captured, and Arthur—the big, strong man—must swoop in and save the women. But this does not happen. Instead, Abigail saves Arthur and Sadie by shooting their opponent in the head. Despite her poor upbringing and motherly appearance, Abigail is a strong, honest woman who knows how to survive, and Red Dead Redemption 2 proves this in a powerful epilogue to the series. Cali Elizabeth Moore’s performance as Abigail is outstanding, and the character would not be as memorable without her.
The game features countless other powerful women in its narrative, including Molly O’Shea (portrayed by the excellent Penny O’Brien), Catherine Braithwaite (Ellen Harvey), and Lillian Powell (Bridget Ann White). Despite its reputation for poor representation of women, Rockstar Games crafted an incredible narrative with Red Dead Redemption 2, and in doing so created one of the greatest representations of women in gaming of yesteryear. As writer and vice president Dan Houser stated in an interview with Vulture, 1899 “was a time when women were beginning to question [their roles], and the Wild West was an area where people could invent themselves for the first time; many of the people who were inventing themselves were women.”
And Red Dead Redemption 2 proves just that.