Screenshot from Red Dead Redemption 2.
I don’t find myself investing much in the kingdom of heaven. It has always been this way for me, even as a child. I prayed often, sometimes the requisite five times a day in my Muslim household. But I did it out of a sense of duty to my living, not what might exist after my living.
I can’t control my own arrival to whatever the promised land may or may not be, because I don’t have the rubric in front of me. I have sometimes been a good person who does bad things, and sometimes I’ve been a bad person who does good things. The way the afterlife is most often discussed is by way of a scale that sorts into binary categories. I grew up with Muslims who insisted that every bit of food left on their plate after a meal would be weighed against them on the day of judgment. I considered this: arriving in front of the robed choir, a few grains of rice tipping the scale toward an irreconcilable level of bad, banishing me to some fiery underworld.
In early 2019, spinning through Red Dead Redemption for the first time, I became obsessed with the idea of a heaven for someone who wasn’t real. Someone I had come to love, but who only existed in a fictional realm. It was a private thought. Discussing love and sanctification like this seems foolish, probably a byproduct of my many newfound chambers of loneliness. I wanted not only a kinship with this not-real someone, I wanted to save them, and save myself in doing so.
Not only is this foolish, it also tilts toward what some might consider sacrilege. But if you will allow me to soften the message: what I am saying is that I’m not invested in my own entry into heaven, but I find myself required to believe in its existence nonetheless. If enough people you have loved transition to a place beyond the living, you might grow to hope that place is heavenlike. I want everyone I have buried to be in a place of abundance, a place beyond their pain. For me, being consumed by silence—and an obliviousness to whatever has become of you—is one definition of peace. I’m fine with that for myself, but not for my beloveds. Not for you, person I do not know and will likely never meet. I want an abundant dominion for you.
The first time Arthur Morgan goes into a coughing fit in the game Red Dead Redemption 2, the TV screen trembles and floods with a sharp red-orange. Your controller matches the screen’s trembling and flashes some color I can’t recall. This happens in what is essentially the game’s final act, before its epilogue. There’s still enough of it to be played through as Arthur. By this point in the game, you’ve grown close to him. Your gang begins to dwindle, beloved comrades are murdered, or they’ve run off in search of more prosperous terrain. You’ve survived with Arthur, who is beholden to his instincts that he can make what he has work for him until something better comes along.
His coughing fit sends him leaning up against a wall in the town of Saint Denis, and then stumbling into a doctor’s office. The verdict is tuberculosis. The doctor grimly wishes Arthur well, in a way that doctors wish people well when they know there isn’t much time left.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in 1899, at the turn of a century when law and order is raining down on America, and the days of the outlaw are coming to an end. These are more the game’s words than my own—words that are shown as a preface to the opening. Arthur runs with a gang he’s been with since he was a teenager. Their leader, Dutch, is a dreamer who often waxes rhapsodic about Tahiti or Australia or someplace not in America where the gang could live out their days and flourish without a care in the world. This, of course, requires money. Arthur and the gang go through much of the game in pursuit of the ever-elusive One Last Score. Robbing trains for paltry bits of coin, taking down a stagecoach here or there. But it isn’t ever enough. No matter how much individual wealth Arthur amasses and pours into the gang’s camp fund, it will never be enough for the new world of Dutch’s imagination.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is expansive and immersive. While riding along the landscapes, you might be greeted by a person moaning in pain, pleading for medicine after being bitten by a snake, or a person begging for a ride home. Occasionally, you might be submitted to more nefarious characters: the person faking injured who pulls out a gun to rob you as you get close, or a KKK meeting happening deep in the trees. How each of these encounters is handled impacts Arthur’s honor throughout the game. There is a meter for this. It is quantifiable and certain, calculated and easy to see, like so many of our supposed good or bad deeds in our real lives perhaps should be but aren’t.
In my first playthrough, I decided early on that Arthur was a good person who sometimes had to do bad things to survive, but even before he was stricken with his illness, I was committed to raising his honor as high as I could. I’d sometimes ride around searching for good deeds to take on, anyone calling out for help. I’d kill if I absolutely had to, but I didn’t loot the dead bodies of those I killed, and I never drew my weapon on anyone out of a bloodthirsty recklessness. Only what I needed to do to survive, and nothing more. I figured there was something at the end of all this. Some way that Arthur might be rewarded for his goodness.
I am sorry to tell you now that you can’t save him. You won’t be able to, no matter how hard you throw yourself against the door of the closed doctor’s offices of towns at night while torches flicker above doors and virtual townspeople look at you with concern.
All of the video games I grew up loving had a fix for death. Nothing was permanent. At least not for you, the main character of the story. The first time I played Red Dead Redemption 2, I barely remember being affected by the reality of Arthur’s diagnosis. “It’s fine,” I thought to myself. “Something will come along and this will be fixed.” When Arthur’s friend—an Indigenous chief named Rains Fall of the Wapiti tribe—learns of Arthur’s illness and gives him a blend of herbs, you think this might be what heals him. But it’s only temporary. Within a few in-game weeks, Arthur is once again coughing, collapsing on the street of another town.
I know it is foolish to talk about grief in this way. To discuss coming to terms with loss through a character I would lose every time I was taken away from the game, to run some errand or to return some email. My first time playing, the world was a different one than it was when I played it a second time, which is of course true of any pursuit taken up twice over the course of linear time. During my first run the world had not yet been shaken by a pandemic. In my experience grief hums at an inconsistent frequency; I know it well enough to know that grief is never entirely done with me. And so—even in a world unaffected by COVID—it didn’t take much for me to mourn Arthur’s slow fading into the inevitable.
I coped in phases: first, I kept up on my path of trying to do as many good deeds as possible, thinking that if I tilted Arthur’s honor meter far enough in a “good” direction, it might save his life. Sure, the internet insisted that this was not possible, but what did they know? I might be on the verge of discovery! Yes, I will give you a ride to a town two towns away from where I need to be! Yes, you can rob me, person who perhaps needs my goods and wealth more than I do! And, Lord knows, more than Dutch does! Everyone can have all of my earthly possessions, my earthly time, whatever else can be spared!
When that didn’t work, I gave in and just accelerated the process of ending the game. I sped through main story missions, with Arthur getting visibly weaker. Bartenders and passersby commented on his sickly visage. Members of his gang expressed sympathy or mockery. He fought to stay alive, and then he didn’t.
When it was all over, I found myself laughing, alone on my couch. Despite myself, I’d once again fallen for the first trick I was ever taught: that on the other end of some vague and broad attempts at goodness, there might be something that saves me, that saves anyone I love.
Arthur gets sick in the process of attempting to collect a debt from a man who doesn’t have the money. This happens in the game’s first act. The man is not well, as is made clear by the man’s wife, who runs out of their modest log house after you, as Arthur, have grabbed the man, threatened him, and hit him a few times. During one such time, he coughs into your face. You might think nothing of it at the time, even as Arthur wipes blood from the man’s cough away from his mouth, resigned to the fact that there would be no money to collect. One act later, when it is revealed that the man has died, Arthur goes back to the man’s widow and demands the money the man owed. That’s the way it goes, of course. If the dead don’t pay, the living must.
The building where I worked as a debt collector in the 2000s looked like it could have been a portal to anywhere. Like anything could have been inside of it. This is how all the debt-collection buildings looked in Columbus, Ohio. Large, gray, nondescript slabs. Bricks sometimes, if you were lucky. All of them on the outskirts of the city, nudging up against a suburb’s borders but never in the suburb. Places where good people went to do bad work because they had to survive.
I needed a job. I had, by that point, accumulated a small criminal record, with a larger one to come. I had to find a place where I could accumulate some form of legitimacy, and no one else would hire me. Debt collection companies would take anyone. There was a boom in the industry. This was right after the early-2000s recession but before the more robust late-2000s recession. Broadly, this meant that there were more people in dire straits than there had been before. Misery as a gateway to opportunity: you might even call it the American Dream.
The base pay was bad, by design: as long as the base pay was bad, collectors would strive to make commissions on the money they had to collect. In a cavernous room lined with tightly arranged gray cubicles, people put headsets on and dialed numbers for hours at a time. At some of the more upscale collection agencies, there were computers that auto-dialed the numbers for you. My pals who worked at those described a sense of blissful detachment. They were not scrolling through a person’s information for long enough to make a person real. At my agency, we had to dial manually, finding the phone number at the bottom of a long file, outlining a person’s financial delinquency, scrolling past notes left by collectors who called before you got to a person. Notes about a call’s hostility, or a person’s anguish. There is something about the seeking of the number and dialing that made the work more intimate, for better or worse. Unmasking the hostage, so to speak. Occasionally, above the medium decibels of consistent chatter, you would hear someone shout, some display of aggression toward whatever person was on the line with them, threatening them, spitting out the word “debtor” like a curse. When they’d hang up the phone, they’d take pride in the fear the briefly injected into the life of a stranger.
I’d like to say, today, that I was bad at this job because it misaligned my moral compass. It did, of course, but really I was bad at it because I was nonconfrontational. Because I didn’t particularly like talking on the phone. Because when I would hear people—defiantly or weakly—insist to me that they didn’t have anything, I felt like it was my duty to believe them. It was my duty to understand them because I, too, did not have anything. On my breaks, I would look at my prepaid cell phone and see messages from bill collectors, calling me to collect what I did not have, and what I was not making at this job. And still, I called. I called widows, sometimes mere weeks—according to them—after a burial. I called elders who spoke to me sweetly about what they could not do. Some who told me that my voice reminded them of a grandson, or a nephew. I called people who were sick. I called people who spoke to me while machines beeped slowly in the background. Every day, I’d have to find some way to shake the guilt off after I clocked out, until I finally ran out of ways, clocked out, and never came back.
I don’t know how to define honest work in a dishonest place. This isn’t a noble thing, but back in those days, I didn’t ever mind stealing if it also meant that I could eat a decent enough meal, or find enough cash for a bus ride somewhere. I have struggled to explain this to anyone who hasn’t made a bed out of the concrete, below the sky in a quiet place. I was bad at stealing, and I was bad at lying, which is why I always got caught. But I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I minded working at the collection agency, or at the door-to-door knife-sales company, or at the front desk of the crooked insurance office that performed shady business I simply cannot discuss here but that anyone who has worked in such a place might understand. Call it selfish, but the thought was always that if I’m going to lie anyway, I don’t wanna do it on someone else’s clock. I don’t wanna do it in a way that detaches a human element from it. I don’t want to dull the sin. Sure, I’ll walk into a grocery store and walk out with some shit I ain’t have the money to pay for and wouldn’t have paid for even if I did have the cash. The entity of the grocery store will be all right, probably, and I get to survive a little bit longer. It always felt different when there was a name, a voice, a person on the other end of a line. A person looking at me through a screen door. Do only what you have to in order to survive, and take nothing more.
It has always been easier for me to convince myself that the sins I’ve been immersed in and the average time I might have left to make up for them simply don’t align. I’m a better person now than I have been in the past, though I’ve also dislodged myself from binaries of good and bad. If there is a place of judgment where I must stand and plead my case for a glorious and abundant afterlife, I hope that whoever hears me out is interested in nuances, but who’s to say. I don’t think about it, until I do. Until I get sick and wonder if I am sick with something beyond routine, or until I swerve out of the way of a car on the highway and feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead. It’s all a question of how close I feel like I am to the end.
I have no interest in playing God, but I do like low-stakes control of an outcome, which is why Arthur’s predicament suited me, in a way. Arthur is portrayed throughout the game as a conflicted but mostly decent man, trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t want him around anymore. In game-controlled missions, he helps people of a lesser station in life than his. He has a code. He maintains a consistent level of curiosity about his surroundings and the people in them. He sees all of the people in the camp as equals, and wants to get to know them. Charles and Lenny and Sadie—all people who have, in some way, been cast off by the harsh realities of the era—find closeness and comfort in Arthur.
A therapist asked me once if I thought of myself as redeemable, and I’m almost certain I laughed it off, or detoured toward another answer that sounded satisfying but actually said nothing. I believe in redemption in the same way that I believe in heaven: I feel required to. Not only because of my personal politics, but also because of my social interests, and my investment in others beyond myself, and also—yes—because I do imagine that somewhere along the uneven path of my life, I’ve tried to be better more often than I have been worse. I suppose I’m cynical about all of it, though. The world, as it stands, is obsessed with punishment, particularly for the most marginalized. Punishment for living in the margins, or an intersection of the margins. I don’t know if my personal beliefs in redemption can undo that massive ghost, hovering over so many of our lives, baked into our impulses, even when we know better. Even when we, ourselves, have been on the losing end of that impulse.
It is easy to attempt to redeem Arthur in a world that isn’t real. To play a mission where Arthur kills, rides away over a trail of dead bodies, and then goes and helps the camp with chores. Picks some flowers along a hillside. Helps a family build a house. In a world where no one is reminding you of the wreckage you’ve taken part in, it’s easy to compartmentalize your damage and chase after that which is strictly beautiful, or cleansing. Climbing your way toward the upper room by any means necessary, on the wings of anyone who will have you.
My most recent time playing through Red Dead Redemption, the world—the real one—had already ended, in some way. My pal Franny has a poem about the end of the world where she says that the world has already ended well before we arrived, and will end again many times through our lives, and I think I believe in that, too. That each time there is a massive rupture in some corners of collective living, the world has ended and started over again. Each time I feel pushed beyond a place of past comforts to a point where I realize I can no longer return, a world has ended and started over again. Like most things, it is easier for me to consider the apocalypse as a series of small movements instead of a single event.
This time, the world felt, to me, like it was in a holding pattern after its ending and attempting to begin again. The world was a car, stalling after not running for a long winter. There were those who decided that the pandemic was over and they’d go back outside, only to be rushed back inside by the inevitable spreading of the pandemic. Amid the grief, and amid the rage, there was something fascinating to me about being suspended in the somewhat-stillness of the world I’d built for myself, which felt like as good a time as any to replay Red Dead Redemption 2, and take a less emotionally frantic approach. All I ever want is to know my exits before I enter, and I took some delight in knowing what was coming for Arthur before firing up the game again, almost two years after I’d eagerly taken to it with oblivious wonder for the first time.
This time, I have yet to finish the playthrough. I might not ever finish it in the traditional sense—finishing the story missions to work through the game’s narrative arc. What I do love about the Red Dead Redemption 2 storyline is that it starts out bad, gets worse, but then has a quick uptick of goodness before descending again into bleakness. It’s not just Arthur’s illness. The gang dwindles. Some die, some drink themselves into misery, some simply leave.
I’ve found myself enjoying the game’s small pleasures, looking to slow down the realities that I know are looming around the corner. If large parts of my real, actual life are in somewhat of a holding pattern, I can force Arthur into that with me. I’ve stalled right before the game starts to turn completely downhill. Things are starting to get bad, but not so bad that my already somewhat fragile state might decline with the circumstances within Arthur’s orbit.
It helps, of course, that there is a lot to do in the game that has nothing to do with the main story, and has nothing to do with the good deeds I was obsessed with pushing upon Arthur my first time through. I fill my satchel with berries and plants that I never consume or craft anything with. I walk into the saloons and play card games for hours, winning or losing cents at a time. I drink and stumble around dirt roads with no aim.
And I seek out sunsets. This is my favorite part. The mountains along the virtual world’s western landscape are the best for this. I climb up one, set up camp, and watch as the sun goes down. I allow Arthur to fold into these daily routines, which strip hours away from my own real-life daily routines. And this is, I think, how I will leave it. This is what the game will be for me now. I can untangle myself from the desire to save Arthur if I stop considering the inevitable.
In my own orbits, in the center of trying to wrestle with my own goodness or badness was another option: complete stillness. I was most stagnant in my youth when I was trying to prevent myself from pursuing my lesser angels. My self-control is only a little better now, and so I do welcome the idling world, no matter how it comes and no matter how it might end up going. I find a type of salvation in holding patterns. Not one heaven, but many small, disparate ones. I sit on my couch for an hour without moving, and make a man sit at the edge of a cliff without moving, both of us watching a fake sky drown in color, both of us not yet sure when we’re going to die or how much time we have left. There are probably better ways to attempt the playing of God, but there are certainly far worse.
Last / Next Article