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Red Dead Redemption: The Pinnacle of Storytelling?

The following deals with the themes and story found in Red Dead Redemption. It was spawned by a conversation that I had with Enosh in the comment section of his RDR review. I just recently finished the game and really feel like some of the things it explores in the narrative are worthy of examination. This article contains MAJOR spoilers for RDR. Do not read this if you intend to play the game or are in the process of doing so. If you have played the game or never plan to, I’d say start by reading Enosh’s review and the comments, then come back to this. I will admit this might be difficult to follow at points if your not familiar with the game at all, but I think the themes manage to show through. If you have any questions, leave a comment, I will respond! In case you can’t tell by the article, I would be eager to talk about any of this. Happy reading!

Remember when games had no story? I mean, sure, Mario had to rescue the princess, Link had to rescue the princess, Sonic had too….um…what the hell was Sonic doing? Gaming, as a medium, was not about compelling character developments or interesting metaphors. It was about throwing spears at goblins, or feeding your blob jellybeans.

Fast forward to the present (2010 for those of you reading this IN THE FUTURE) and we have Red Dead Redemption. It is brought us by every congressperson’s favorite developer, Rockstar! I’ve always enjoyed the way Rockstar does storytelling, most notably in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, but the early buzz on RDR was that was the new pinnacle of storytelling in gaming. I eagerly purchased the game, ready to be blown away. I wasn’t…..initially.

The start of the game seemed pretty standard. John Marston must go after his old gang members at the behest of the government, who are holding his wife and child. Those gang members left him for dead at a bank robbery gone wrong, so John probably isn’t dead set against the idea anyway. He brings those men to justice, he gets his family back. First man up is Bill Williamson, but he’s holed up in a fort with a gang at his command. So you go about recruiting some cliche colorful characters to your cause, the gruff sheriff with a good heart, the conniving snake-oil salesman, the Irish arms dealer, the insane grave robber (ok maybe that last one isn’t so cliche). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all these characters and the voice acting for this whole game is top notch. I felt like maybe the pinnacle of storytelling crowd just got a little too caught up in the admittedly stunning vistas and minimalist music. As the game referenced another member of Marston’s former gang, Javier Escuela, being located in Mexico, I felt like the stage was set. I take down this fort, then head to Mexico to build another set of colorful allies to get to Escuela, who will be in an even bigger fort! I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle!

So then, the first hint that RDR was reaching for something more happened. After winning the battle at the fort, it was revealed that Williamson wasn’t even there. He hightailed it to Mexico, supposedly to find a safe haven with Escuela. I found it interesting that after all this buildup there was no payoff. Now I correctly predicted I would be off to Mexico, but I had two men to hunt, not one.

So of course, the majority of Mexico isn’t even about Marston trying to capture his old mates. John gets caught up in the Mexican revolution, although not in the way one would think. John initially works with the government, then, when the government tries to kill him after going against their word to help find Williamson and Escuela, he ends up working with the rebels. The cliche in this instance would be that Marston sees the heroic rebels fighting against the oppressive government and valiantly joins their cause, helping Mexico out of a brutal regime and into prosperity. RDR surprises again when this isn’t the case at all.

Two things become clear over the course of the Mexico missions that I think made Red Dead start to earn its storytelling moniker.

She can't see through the revolutionary stars in her eyes. In another time, or game, maybe Marston could have saved her.

First: The rebels are not heroic, nor would they help Mexico even if they were to win. Their leader, Abraham Reyes, is a womanizer with no real plans for what he would do if his revolution actually succeeded. The missions you perform for the rebels are similar to the ones performed for the Mexican government, with both being sneaky, underhanded and full of dishonorable combat. The rebels are not the “good” guys. They are just desperate men and women. I would argue Luisa is the least flawed of the bunch as she is only an idealist who can’t see the reality of the situation she’s in. Incidentally, this gets her killed as she sacrifices herself for Reyes (whom she thinks she will marry) who can’t even remember her name. By the time everything is over and Escuela and Williamson are brought to justice (more on that in a second), Reyes wants John to stay and be part of his new Mexican government. Marston hastily declines, which is…..

Second: John Marston wants no part of any Mexican politics. As I talked about in the comments section of Enosh’s RDR review, I find John’s attitude toward the whole affair pretty incredible for a video game. He hates Captain De Santa and Col. Allende, and probably at least dislikes Reyes, although Reyes never actually betrays Marston. I got the sense he just felt sorry for Luisa because he could see Reyes for who he really was. Marston isn’t heroic much as the rebels aren’t. He’s there because he is forced to be. He is working with men like Reyes and De Santa purely because he needs them to find what he’s after.

Probably not often pictured in video game articles

The philosopherr Immanuel Kant wrote a lot of gobbly gook, but one easy to understand thing he did come up with was the Second Maxim of something he called the categorical imperative. (If your brave enough, hit up the wiki page for Categorical imperative). I’m oversimplifying this like crazy, but it basically says: People should never be used as a means to end, only as an end to themselves. To break it down even further, it becomes basically ; don’t use people. RDR can be seen as an example of the consequences of using people. The government is using Marston. Marston, in turn, uses practically everybody else he meets throughout the game. I could sense the frustration after every mission ended with Marston no closer to the men he chased then before it started. I found myself playing the game not as I would normally play it (I am a goody two shoes would stop a police car mid chase to help a cat down from a tree) but as how I thought Marston would approach the situation. I consider the fact that I was immersed in the game enough to want to change my approach because I felt it fit the story better a huge success on the part of Rockstar. I consider it an even bigger success that through playing the game I came up with an opinion of how I thought John Marston would act in the first place.

Dealing with Escuela and Williamson was also unexpected. When you finally get to the point of decision with Escuela, he’s running from you. The game gives you the choice to kill him or just capture him. I would have captured him, and I had that idea in my head as the mission started. Marston would not have. I could feel that sense of anger I mentioned above coming from Marston. I could feel the tension rise as Escuela tried to talk himself out of the situation right before this chase started. As Escuela denied leaving Marston for dead at the bank robbery gone wrong, saying they all thought Marston was deceased already, I considered for a second whether that was true. Then I realized: Marston doesn’t care if it is true or not. He wants his family back and he wants them NOW. Escuela is a piece of that puzzle, so unless he surrenders and goes quietly, he’s dead. Marston doesn’t have time for this shit.

The Mexican government leader, Col. Allende, offering up Williamson in an attempt to save his own life was brilliant in how pathetic it was. I spent the first third of the game hunting this guy, and he’s literally kicked from a stagecoach onto the ground at my feet. As Reyes put a bullet in Allende, I did the same with Williamson. This isn’t how video game are supposed to work. Antagonists aren’t dumped on the ground to be easy targets. Rockstar didn’t need to craft an elaborate scenario to get this guy. The kill wasn’t spectacular because it didn’t need to be. I love Assassins Creed, but I deliberately try to do each kill as awesome as possible. There was nothing “awesome” about Marston’s assassination of Williamson, and make no mistake, this wasn’t a shootout, or self defense, or even revenge, it was an assassination. But it was an extremely satisfying moment. Williamson as a person meant nothing. Williamson was just a piece of the puzzle. Which is why Kant would probably disagree with John Marston.

A surprsingly ominous sign

The sudden appearance of Marston’s former gang leader, Dutch, provides the last target of the game. The missions themselves at this point are somewhat predictable, but still had some small surprises in store. What struck me in particular was the first time Marston gets into a car. I had heard that RDR put forth an excellent point about how fast technology can change the world but had yet to feel like it did anymore than make a few references to crazy technology “back east”. As Marston rode through the countryside in a car, it felt odd. I echoed the sentiment that I’d rather have a horse any day! Post car riding mission, I realized how different Blackwater felt than the rest of the game. The only place to hear the sound of hooves on cobbled streets is there and the sound actually stuck out for how unique it was. Rockstar didn’t make its point about technology by throwing a ton of it your face. They made the point by having virtually none of it for two thirds of the game.

As Dutch hurls himself off a mountain after you corner him, he explains his decision thusly; the time of grizzled gunslingers like himself or Marston is over, and he would rather kill himself than continue on trying to be a relic of an age that is quickly coming to an end. Marston is silent on the matter and is overjoyed to learn his family has been returned to the ranch he owns, so off he goes into the sunset.

At this point, the game throws a curve-ball. The missions that involve just doing work around the ranch are striking in their simplicity. You help your son learn to herd and hunt. The old ranch hand needs help going out and breaking some wild horses to sell. Your wife needs you to scare crows away from the corn silo they’ve broken into again. These sound like perfectly reasonable and necessary activities for a rancher, which is probably why they’re so god damn boring. The game should have ended by now, right? I did the hard part, now I’m reduced to mundane tasks. It became interesting when I realized Marston thought the same thing. As I used the dead-eye ability to snipe crows off the silo, I realized along with Marston that this was overkill. Its not that the peaceful life of a rancher wasn’t something John wanted, it was just that he struggled with how to do it. It gave me the exact same feeling as another story I enjoyed recently, last years best picture winner The Hurt Locker.

From the insane to the mundane: They say Iraq is like the wild west right?

In that film, Jeremy Renner plays a bomb disposable expert whose eccentric, has a few screws loose, and is probably the best there is at his job. Spoilers ahead for part of The Hurt Locker! After surviving his tour of duty in Iraq, filled with many brushes up against deaths door, he returns home. There is a fantastic scene of him in the grocery store trying to determine which cereal to buy for his family. He says nothing, but you can almost feel the conflict inside him. Isn’t this what I want? Isn’t grocery shopping with my family a more desirable situation than trying to defuse a car bomb that could go off when I’m in the freaking car? For most people it is. Renner’s character signs up for another tour of duty in Iraq. Transport John Marston to present day and I think he would have done the same.

As soon as I played a couple of the Marston family missions, I realized what was probably going to happen. The game had been saying throughout that you cannot escape the past. That was the impetus to go after Williamson, Escuela, and Dutch. Marston himself asked his FBI handler, Edgar Ross, multiple times if once he got his old gang that this was over. Ross was always vague in answering. For a game that I have lauded for being unpredictable, I knew the other shoe was about to drop. When the attack on the Marston ranch by the US Army began, I wasn’t surprised. I certainly don’t think its realistic to think that the army would send huge squads of men to take on one guy. I don’t think Marston being able to take out about 35 people on his own is realistic either. But for this game and this story, there was no other possible conclusion. It never made sense for John Marston to be a rancher, living out his days herding cattle and skinning elk, even if he wanted too. Marston was a fighter. As he was gunned down outside his barn by Ross and his men (never mind that if I could have stayed in the barn, I could have easily dispatched those fools!) I knew this wasn’t the ending we wanted. But Marston being unable to escape his past extends beyond just him.

I wasn’t shocked when I took up the role of Jack Marston, John’s son. I also wasn’t surprised to learn that Jack had assumed a life much like his father, judging from his outfits and gun handling ability. Jack couldn’t escape his past either. He knew what his father was and he knew what killed him. John would have taken revenge for the death of his family and so must Jack. As I gunned down Edgar Ross on the river bank I tracked him too, there was no huge speech or earth shattering revelation. Much like Marston with Williamson, Escuela, and Dutch, this was business. Jack didn’t even seem to take much joy in it. John Marston tried like hell to escape his past not for himself, but for his son. In the end, he failed. I’d love to say Jack would overcome his past now. That his vengeance on Edgar Ross would be the end of his time living like his father. That, like John wanted, he would use his reading, writing, or skills with tools to become something other than a gunslinger. I could say that, but I wouldn’t believe it. For a game with Redemption in the title, there really isn’t any. Depressing as that may be, its a story that will stick with me for a long time. Rockstar might have reached that pinnacle after all.

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One Response

  1. Ok.

    I went through the whole post. No spoilers for me, I also beat the game. And I agree in every single point you made. This, as a game, is not expected to make such a deep impact in anybody’s mind, but for me, this was something beyond just another game. First of all, it was a fresh breath of air after countless First person shooters, intergalactic battles, and zombie apocalipses. Everything was outstanding. Music, art, settings, gameplay, storytelling, everything. This is one of the only few games I’ll take with me to the grave.

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