The following entry contains details of Red Dead Redemption including a discussion about the game’s ending. Therefore please be warned that spoilers will be prevalent. Also, this is not a review of the game as Howling In The Dark really isn’t the place for it. It’s more an examination of the game’s story.
For all the gunfights, bar room brawls, robberies and good versus evil battles of cowboy western movies it’s strange to consider that they didn’t really get a good hearing in a videogame sense until Red Dead Redemption. Maybe we were all too busy playing as space marines to notice that The Wild West would be a fairly good setting for a game. In the early 90’s when full motion video was ‘a thing’ in gaming we had the light gun game ‘Mad Dog McCree’ and 2003 saw the release of Red Dead Revolver but both seemed concerned only with the shooting. There wasn’t really much beyond ‘walk into a town and shoot outlaws’. Then Rockstar, the publishers behind Grand Theft Auto, had a go. The result was a definitive game which is true to its setting.
To explain something straight away I never got along with Grand Theft Auto games. They are praised on high by many for the depiction of living cities but it seems almost too busy, as if the developers were too scared to leave you alone for more than three seconds in case you got bored and switched off. In most GTA games, there’s just too much noise and flashing lights. Red Dead Redemption took the same game engine and turned the volume down a little, often with massive expanses of desert wilderness rather than built up concrete jungles. There are often times in Red Dead when you only have a horse for company.
In the Grand Theft Auto games Rockstar often gave us main characters who were pretty undesirable. The structure of those games meant they often had to be as the story centred on the criminal underworld and running from police. Red Dead changes this slightly by giving you somebody who was a criminal but is trying to turn his life around and go straight. John Marston was formerly a member of an outlaw gang, responsible for robbery and murder. His efforts to rebuild his life upon leaving the gang are stopped in their tracks when the American government take his wife and son hostage. The only way Marston can see his family again is by helping them track down the remaining gang members and bring them to justice. John Marston does not want to work for the government, he also wants nothing to do with his previous fellow gang members but he’s dragged into this situation against his will.
Marston is likeable, a definite plus as far as having a main character in any medium goes. He has a world weary attitude and is miles behind the times even in 1911. The game portrays a time in which attitudes were shifting. Some form of civilisation is coming to the wild frontier and Marston is a relic of a rapidly vanishing era. He’s been staring down the sights of a gun rather than working out land deals or drilling for oil. At one point in the game Marston is a passenger in a ‘new automobile contraption’ and it completely baffles him why you wouldn’t just use a horse. Despite his past misdemeanours I warmed to Marston almost straight away, almost to the point when it became impossible to opt for the ‘bad’ way of doing things during my time in the game.
In the opening of the game Marston rides to Fort Mercer, a gang stronghold led by his old colleague Bill Williamson. Whilst he stands at the gates and tries to talk things over Bill shoots John and leaves him for dead. Marston is collected by Bonnie MacFarlane and is nursed back to health during a stay on her ranch. There’s a certain level of sexual chemistry between Bonnie and John in this section of the game as they both try to outdo each other by shooting rabbits in the fields. Bonnie is certainly no shrinking violet, her speed with a firearm proves that. Back in the Grand Theft Auto games it was quite possible to pick up any prostitute for casual sex, it’s therefore surprising that nothing ever happens between Bonnie and John. The relationship between the two is very subtle making it seems that bit more real.
The fictional part of America in which Red Dead Redemption is set encompasses the Mexican border to the South. Once Marston heals from his wounds he travels across the land meeting a variety of characters both trustworthy and devious. None more so than when crossing into Mexico for the first time when the game soundtracks this moment with the Jose Gonzales song ‘Far Away’. It’s the first time you’ve heard lyrics in any of the game’s audio and I know many players who thought this was something close to game breaking as far as atmosphere went. Personally I loved it…
Eventually Marston tracks down the member of his gang and brings them in but it’s obvious he still regards this as some kind of betrayal. The final act of this mission is finding the leader, Dutch van der Linde, high up in the snow capped hills. Instead of having himself turned in by the authorities Dutch instead leaps from the cliff edge and kills himself. Before doing so he passes some words onto Marston, telling him that the government will always try to find another monster to chase simply to earn their keep. They are words that will come back to haunt Marston.
With the removal of the gang Marston is reunited with his family on his ranch. The final few hours of the game’s story sees you doing basic farm tasks such as shooting the birds away from the grain store and herding cattle from one field to another. It’s a definite change of pace to the gunfights that have come before and the response from many players at the time was one of confusion. Why, they asked, does the game suddenly slow to almost a crawl as far as pace goes? Why are we expected to take on menial tasks as opposed to hunting down criminals? The answer is simple and it’s fantastic that a game can have the confidence to do this. This simple life is what John Marston has craved for the entire game. Some games want you to rescue a princess, others want to you save Earth from an invasion of alien forces. Red Dead’s main character is a man of much simpler means, his desire has boiled down to this and everything you’ve been doing throughout the game is what he wants to leave behind.
The Rangers find their new monster and in a effort to rid the gang once and for all the very people Marston helped to earn his freedom come for him. It’s a bigger betrayal than anything Marston has ever done and his final stand remains, for me, one of the best endings in gaming.
I felt genuinely sad at this moment during my play though. I’ve heard it mentioned before that games cannot possibly tell a story which gains an emotional response from us. The belief is that games will never make us cry or laugh, that they are somehow just a tick list of goals to cross off instead of any kind of credible story telling device. The ending of Red Dead proves otherwise. Having been with Marston throughout the entire game and saw him essentially battle his past it brings a lump to the throat to see that same past be the end of him.
It’s possible to reload the game from this point and play as Jack Marston three years on from the ending of John’s story. The final hours of gameplay are spent trying to find out where the head bureau agent Edgar Ross is and take bloody vengeance. Doing this it’s apparent where the ‘Redemption’ part of the game’s title comes from but it feels like a hollow revenge. In shooting Edgar Ross, Jack Marston has become everything his father wanted nothing more of.
It’s been about three years since I finished Red Dead but the story still holds many memories for me. The entire gaming industry has a habit of being concerned only with big guns and fast cars. Red Dead took its time, there were moments of near silence during the cutscenes as the characters appeared to be considering what they would say next. The story was given plenty of time to work it’s magic. Despite being ‘just a game’ Red Dead had plenty to say about America at that time, how people use the power they are given and how one man deals with a past he’d rather forget. As such, it’s a phenomenal piece of work.