Around the same exact time a couple of years ago, I was spending a large chunk of my free time riding around the wide open prairies (and swamps and mountains and hills) of Rockstar Games’ incredible Red Dead Redemption 2.

I found myself in the boots of a Mr. Arthur Morgan, a rough and tumble outlaw riding with the Van der Linde gang. It’s the dying years of the nineteenth century, and things were changing fast.

We start in medias res, riding through a blizzard, screaming exposition at each other on horseback. (Can you hear anything in a blizzard? I’ve never experienced snow — or actual horses — outside of a video game.) A botched heist had sent the gang fleeing from the law, at least 2 were for sure dead, and a few people were missing.

The gang was forced to flee so quickly that we had to leave our hoard of cash in Blackwater, where we were all wanted. Dead or Alive.

There we were, hiding out like rats in an abandoned mining settlement, the po-po right on our heels, asses freezing in the cold. Where I/Arthur was/were sleeping, there were spots where roof and wall were supposed to be, but weren’t.

Rock bottom.

Then around a year or so ago, I found the Yakuza series on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. I tried the older ones first, but realized they were simply not for me. I’m not good at video games to begin with, and one of the things I’m worst at are action games that require me to remember exact button presses to pull off combos.

I had heard the newest game, Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Ryu Ga Gotoku 7) had more RPGesque riffs and that, my friends, was music to my ears.

So off to fictional Tokyo I go, into the sharp leather shoes of an almost-bottom-rung Yakuza by the name of Ichiban Kasuga. It’s just before the turn of the 21st century, a day before Ichi’s birthday. Things were about to change really fast.

We start in Kamurocho, following a list of instructions from the captain, talking to people, and getting interesting backstory in the process. In the span of an intro, I had escorted my Yakuza boss’ son to a club (it didn’t end well), had a chase scene and fist fight with a dirty DVD hawker, and almost lost a finger to the captain for insubordination.

The next morning, which happened to be my/Ichi’s birthday, boss calls us over and asks for a favor: To take the fall for a murder the captain committed the night before.

Eighteen years later, I’m back out into the general populace. Like Ichi, I kind of expected a hero’s welcome and not a bullet to the chest from the boss himself, but we don’t always get what we expect, do we?

I wake up somehow in Ijincho, Yokohama, indebted to homeless people and not a yen to my name. The hobos had nursed me back to health, my chest patched up the best way they could, right beside the garbage dump where they found me.

Rock bottom.

Arthur Morgan is… a bad guy, or at least, that’s what he does for a living. He robs trains, houses, banks — you get the gist. He is, however, not a bad guy.

He’s inquisitive, artistic, and very smart (despite his frequent self-deprecating comments to the contrary). He’s also quite a writer. He shows an earnest, almost child-like interest in “new” things. In one of his visits to New Orleans-expy Saint Denis, he meets a scientist (Tesla-expy) who lets him try out what is essentially a remote-controlled submarine. Arthur is obviously delighted.

He isn’t gullible though, and expresses doubt without disrespect. It isn’t hard to like Arthur, especially if you’re playing high honor and even if you’re not, he’s still nice to his horse no matter what.

Ichiban Kasuga is… also a bad guy. It’s his job. He’s in the Yakuza, so he collects debt, cleans up ‘illegal bootleg VHS pr0n’, and acts as a bodyguard for his boss’ son. He’s not a bad guy either.

He’s earnest, intensely idealistic, and quite intelligent if he just stops to think. He helps whenever and however he can (usually with the use of his baseball bat and/or fists). He does subvert it in some of the side stories, one of which includes him sympathizing with a small, lonely child. We do eventually get to use our fists, however, it paints a poignant scene: an ex-yakuza sitting with a child at a fastfood chain. Kiddie meals were no doubt involved.

He can be dumb and gullible, however, it’s mostly because of a defining trait that we’ll get to later. Ichi is not hard to like — at the very core, he is a good person.

In their stories, we see different struggles but similar themes of family and honor. Neither are perfect. Arthur, especially, is a deeply conflicted and flawed man. Ichiban, on the other hand, suffers from the anime trope of the all-loving hero, and is infuriatingly naive.

Both were sort of drifters during their teens, having been orphaned very young. They both find their place with respective mentors who essentially raise them to be the men they are and shaped their world views. Loyalty is their best quality, and perhaps, their biggest downfall too.

So who are these men that shaped/warped these two?

Enter Dutch van der Linde — charismatic, refined, and intelligent. His rhetoric revolves around true freedom, family, loyalty, and trust. He leads a merry band of thieves and liars, products of post-civil war America (actually, post radical Reconstruction era). Systemic racism, poverty, and gender oppression plagued the land, so to speak.

You can call Dutch anything you want, but his gang was extremely diverse. Like some charismatic leaders, he will take in anybody who he can convert to his cause.

He is an optimist, always going on about having some sort of a plan. In fact, the first time we meet him, the gang huddled around, cold and miserable in a rickety building in the middle of a blizzard and Dutch goes on a rather inspiring speech about the people we lost at that disastrous ferry heist.

He adopted Arthur after his own father, a petty criminal, was killed. Dutch became the father Arthur never had, instilling in him a code of outlaws that was less about crime and more about fighting against a corrupt system. But as we journey through the game, we see Dutch’s ideals unravel, his charm turning into manipulation, his plans becoming more deluded. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion – you can’t look away even though you know it’s going to end badly.

Switching gears, let’s talk about Masumi Arakawa, Ichiban’s mentor. Unlike Dutch, Arakawa’s role in Ichi’s life is less about ideology and more about personal connection. He’s a father figure, yes, but their bond is rooted in genuine care rather than a shared vision of freedom or rebellion. When Ichi takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, it’s out of loyalty to a man who showed him kindness in a brutal world. But just like Arthur, Ichi’s unwavering loyalty leads him to a path of betrayal and heartbreak.

This brings us to the crux of the matter – loyalty and how it’s portrayed in these two games. In RDR2, we see Arthur’s loyalty to Dutch tested as he begins to see the cracks in his mentor’s armor. His journey is about questioning the beliefs he’s held onto for so long, wondering if the man he’s been loyal to is really worth it. It’s a painful realization, like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, but with more guns and less ho-ho-ho.

On the flip side, Yakuza: Like a Dragon shows us Ichi’s undying loyalty, even in the face of betrayal. His loyalty is less about ideology and more about personal bonds. He remains loyal to Arakawa, not because of a shared vision, but because of a shared past and emotional connection. It’s the kind of loyalty that makes you want to shake him and say, “Wake up, man! He shot you!” but also admire his steadfastness.

So, what do these pixelated tales of outlaws and gangsters tell us about loyalty in the real world? Maybe it’s that loyalty isn’t black and white. It’s not just about being faithful to a person or a cause, but also about understanding when that loyalty is being exploited or when it’s time to let go. Both Arthur and Ichi show us the beauty and the tragedy of loyalty – it can lift us up as much as it can tear us down.

As for me, well, I’ve learned a thing or two about loyalty from these virtual escapades. I’ve learned that it’s important to question, to understand the why behind the what. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve gotten a bit better at those pesky action-game combos along the way.

Until next time, keep riding through those virtual prairies or ruling the streets of Tokyo – just remember to keep an eye on where your loyalties lie!

Rock bottom? Maybe. But as our friends Arthur and Ichi show us, there’s always a way back up.