Much of the game's missions find you moving from town to town, trying to stay ahead of the law and the march of industrialisation and technology. The game even opens with the gang battling the O'Driscolls in a dire snowstorm, all to a mournful soundtrack and howling winds.
When the gang gets settled and set up, you're immediately sent out to hunt for supplies to keep them from starving. Your fellow members are either locked up in prison or being dragged away by bounty hunters. For a significant portion of the game, you're blocked from a large area of the map and will be shot on sight if you enter.
The entire journey through 'Red Dead Redemption 2' is one of a hounded run through woods, desert, mountains and hinterlands for survival. Even though your character is capable and able to fight, it's never enough. The very nature of the game speaks to a kind of existential dread, and it's reinforced in the game's script. "This whole thing's pretty much over," Arthur Morgan keeps repeating.
It isn't just in the way that 'Red Dead Redemption 2' presents the death of the frontier, it's the smaller moments of the game that show just how sad it all is. If you journey off the trail and happen upon a house, there's a good chance that it's empty of people. Very often, the houses you find are either torn down or just left empty. For a game as big as 'Red Dead Redemption 2', this is clearly a stylistic choice. This is to show how the frontier is being abandoned for cities, and when you arrive in Saint Denis, the amount of NPCs you encounter makes this clear - the wild, open spaces of the frontier have been left behind.
One Easter egg in the game sees you finding a man, on the verge of death, shoving a letter into your hand that tells of a failed marriage, a family feud and said man exiling himself until he finds his fortune and can return. The recipient, it turns out, is a major character in the first game. Again, it's that same idea of an unforgiving and cruel land, and people failing to make good of it. A major arc in the series sees you dragged into instigating a land war between a Native American tribe and the US government.
So much of the game is spent riding alone, silently, through the frontiers and trails. This is a relatively common experience in sandbox games like 'Skyrim' or 'The Witcher', but here in 'Red Dead Redemption 2', it's the first game that makes it feel solitary and lonely. You might pass a carriage or even encounter a wolf or bear, but the interactions are brief and rarely resonate beyond the need to survive.
Survival in most games usually is about looting and grabbing up supplies to face some great boss battle at the end, or to help save a country, or rescue someone from the clutches of an evil villain. In 'Red Dead Redemption 2', there is no real villain, no noble quest to rush off into. Time and time again, the game's story reminds you that you are criminals, but not only that, that the odds are against you.
When members of the gang begin to be picked off by the law or fellow criminals, there's a sense that it could have been avoided. Even in how the game presents Dutch van der Linde, the gang's leader, slowly devolves over time. When he's first introduced, we see him as a Robin Hood figure who lost control in relatively unclear circumstances, but soon shows himself as a noble figure. It's as the story progresses do we see that there is something deeply broken within him, and that the conclusion of it is one that was already foretold in 'Red Dead Redemption'.
So few games truly try to examine the implications of your actions. Games like 'Spec Ops: The Line' present you with a choice, but knowing that you only have one real option in it. With 'Red Dead Redemption 2', it's different. You can make multiple choices, but the result will always lead to a variation of the same, grim end. You play the game, knowing that Arthur Morgan's fate is sealed from the very start.