Red Dead Redemption Wants You To Be Good

Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Gaming | Tags: , , , | Posted on 02-06-2010-05-2008

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* An analysis of the ending of Red Dead Redemption, strong spoiler warning *

Finally, Rockstar have come up with a game that wants us to be good. Playing as a reformed outlaw in a graphically gorgeous title combining almost every aspect of the Wild West we’ve come to recognise through films, TV shows and folklore, the most surprising quality of Red Dead Redemption – even more impressive than the amazing attention to detail –  is the enforced morality and, in line with the game’s title and its central theme, redeeming qualities of the main character. John Marston, contrary to those previous incarnations of Grand Theft Auto and other Rockstar Games’ antiheroes, is not seeking success and wealth through crime; he is aspiring to be good for the betterment of himself and his family.

As in previous open-world games the players themselves are free to do as they wish, inevitably leading to a sandbox environment of carnage and chaos as the he/she sees fit. In Red Dead, the option to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is presented – do you capture criminals alive to collect bounty rewards and shoot the weapons out of people’s hands instead of killing them, or decide to go renegade by robbing the innocent and, as an homage to the classic Western cliche of moustached villainy, tie a woman up and place her on railroad tracks? Despite your decisions in these situations and regardless of your own personal play-style, the most striking thing about the main story missions is how Marston always, from the start of the game to the finish, chooses the honourable route.

Blackmailed into hunting down his former brothers-in-arms by a pair of lawmen who have his wife and son held captive, Marston is sent out on a quest to essentially rid the land of the last surviving remnants of his own criminal past as the violent era of the American Old West comes to an abrupt end. Marston chooses to deal with hostile situations by speaking with restraint and politeness instead of pulling out his gun, and his actions throughout the story are often heroic, albeit through unavoidably violent means. So outside of the story missions when players may utilise their freedom to go out and commit evil deeds should they wish, it all seems a little inconsistent – hypocritical even – when compared with the predetermined intentions of the character during the game’s cutscenes that drive the plot forward.

* Spoilers from this point on *

By the end when the violent and bloody missions are seemingly over and the police allow Marston to be reunited with his family, the game gets you to play through mundane chores tending to his farm, herding cattle, and spending quality time with the wife, Abigail, and estranged teenage son, Jack, who is more interested in reading than holding a weapon. It is quite the contrast to the majority of the game and, accompanied with a chillingly ominous score that haunts these segments, there is a feeling of impending doom: that this peacefulness is too good to be true.

It is no real surprise then when the lawmen return to betray and murder Marston and his family; on the contrary there is a sense that this is a true calling. A life as a simple rancher is not something John can adapt to, regardless of his intentions, and there is an acknowledgment at this stage of Red Dead that not only can this videogame character never escape his outlaw past, nor can the player escape from the violent dynamics of the game by which they are now well-accustomed to. John is deadly, remarkably efficient in killing those coming for his family – his prior sins have ensured that he is in his element when with a gun in his hand.

Marston manages to send his wife and son away on a horse with tears in his eyes and, having said his goodbyes and surrounded by the army and the police with no chance of survival, realises the price of true redemption – not for himself, but for his family – before taking a deep breath and accepting his fate. But the real tragedy of this finale is that, when his death should have marked the end of the Marston family’s affiliation with its dark past, it is actually through his passing that the once-innocent Jack seeks his own revenge, now controlled by the player 3 years later in the game. Violence begets violence and the son follows in the father’s footsteps; exactly the sort of future John Marston had tried to protect Jack from.

The feeling of surprise and shock when playing as Jack deliberately merges the player’s experience with this new character: Who am I? What do I do now? Not only has the player lost all their invested emotional connection with John, but so has Jack. And it surely says something of the impact and tragedy of the story’s conclusion that, when assuming the role of the son, I immediately travelled across town to hunt down the policeman who ordered the execution – a bonus mission in the game – and going on a random rampage against the law looking for revenge instead of redemption, a pointless, empty lust for blood so commonly found in the genre which conflicted with and was completely contrary to the values John Marston had strived for and realised through his sacrifice. The Wild West was dying, and so too was that young Jack’s apparent incorruptibility.

For all its technical qualities in creating a believable world outside of the player’s influence and overlooking the flaws – namely the many unnecessary, superfluous supporting characters and, especially, the disappointing and drawn out missions towards the end involving Marston’s former gang leader - Red Dead impresses most in its subtle morality tale behind the familiar GTA-template, told through an excellently-realised and ultimately sad journey that lives up to the game’s tagline, ”Outlaws to the end”.

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Red Dead Revolver (PS2/Xbox) review

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Comments posted (12)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the ending to this game, being as I want to play it and haven’t, but the allure was too much.

Even knowing how it ends doesn’t tarnish what I think will be a memorable experience. In fact, I think it makes me want to get to it all the more.

Great article, Will.

Thank you for reading, hopefully my appreciation of the finale doesn’t adversely effect your own playthrough. The final third of the game really plummets and it wasn’t until the very end that things all fell into place. Actually, if it wasn’t for the ending I’d have said that I was greatly disappointed with the story

Didn’t read beyond the spoiler warning, but I will say that it’s a bit of a bummer for me that most aspects of the game strongly encourage you to go the honorable route. As much as I’m a huge fan of the classic cowboy attitude, say John Wayne and his moral certainty, sometimes I just wanna be a Black Hat, you know?

After playing Fallout 3 and recently going back through Fallouts 1 and 2, I agree: the GTA formula (as with most other deep-down linear games) is just too rigid, especially in a game which has the feature of giving you choices to make.

I really wish that there were more consequences in Red Dead, i.e. Don’t want to do a mission – Take out the person offering it. Shoot someone in town – everyone turns hostile when you return.

In the meantime I guess you can just take your time going through the story missions and enjoy the free roaming evil stuff with/without the bandana on =) but indeed, it’s a shame the story doesn’t alter itself to reflect that.

Yup, there is so much potential for open-world games that it’s a constant disappointment when a new one is released and that potential still isn’t fully realized. And it’s little things, too, that you’d think they’d get right but they don’t.

Can’t do everything, I understand. But there are certain things that open-world games really ought to be doing.

Adam: Also, style of play aside, is this the Western game you’ve been waiting for? =) Does it impress you?

Ha! Good question. It’s close. I’d like to see multiplayer come into its own a bit more. Simple things like having a bartender in the bar and all the gambling available to me and my buddies would be nice. Oh– and train robbing with my friends would be great, too. But no trains in multiplayer? :( Can you even get a lasso? If not, that’s a shame. Maybe I’m just not leveled up enough.

As for single player, well, it’s a good step. We’ve already discussed the unfortunate rigidness of the morality system. And the open-world aspect of the game is great, but I would like to see much more non-game-related stuff to do. How about HUGE cattle drive scenarios? Not a dozen cows, but hundreds! Not possible on today’s systems, I guess, but one can dream.

I must admit that I’m having a hard time recollecting what I must have been wishing for last time I mentioned a dream western game. But I do know that this game isn’t quite it.

I agree, multiplayer does seem very untapped. As you say the gambling and trains should definitely be in there and I don’t know why you aren’t allowed to skin animals in mp, there really should be an online economy system and … a massive co-op horde-mode bear hunt! The way it is now it’s good how the world is there for you, but really not much to do in it unless you plan something with a party.

There’s no lasso in mp. I can kind of see why as it’d be a real pain if someone else caught and dragged you around in humilation for half an hour, but there are ways to avoid that. E.g. give the caught player Dead Eye for a short moment after getting noosed. Something.

One tiny little thing in single player which has turned out to be a real annoying issue for me is the shifting of your character after looting, skinning an animal, or picking herbs. Because of how wide the horizons can be I often completely lose my bearings after Marston gets up, now facing a totally different direction after pressing Y.

… and no swimming! An instant death when you touch the water is ridiculous!

Ah yes, that disorientation is a bitch. Luckily the map takes very little time to load, so I just snap to that for a second just to see which way my character is facing and what landmark is nearest.

And now that you mention it, I could’ve sworn that there were group hunts listed as a feature in multiplayer, which I assumed was– just as you said– something like Horde Mode. But nope, nothing like that at all. It’s just so obvious, like, “why the hell isn’t something like that in there?”

Why are there herbs to pick in multiplayer, anyway?

And my BIGGEST beef with multiplayer is the respawn system. In free-roam, with random people, you just *know* some higher-level asshole with a better weapon and impossibly precise accuracy is gonna come around and shoot you down no matter how inconspicuous you’re trying to be. And what does the game do? It respawns you a few yards away from where you died, doomed to be shot down again and again by the very same asshole. And Lord help you if you’re unfortunate enough to run into a posse of assholes. I find myself switching rooms too damned often when all I really need to do is have the option of respawning somewhere else on the map, away from the spawn-killing assholes.

Your RSS is taking a dump. Nice! :)

I’ve only played one western game in my life: Serious Sam. lol that took place in the country? Right? -Raw

Technically, yes! =) Red Dead is well worth a look, great gunplay mechanics… it’s no Serious Sam though! Nice to hear from you again, Raw

Same here. I followed you through 1up. I can’t believe it’s been 5 years. That’s crazy. You’ll have to swing by the new site. You were good at Beating it. lol :)

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