The original version of this critique, pretty pictures 'n all, can be found on my blog, Ambient Challenge.
My goal here was to write something interesting and accessible. You do not have to have played Red Dead Redemption; hopefully, you do not even have to like videogames to get something out of this. To some extent this is an exploration of gaming to better understand why I like games at all, but it is also a personal challenge to improve my writing skills.
Feedback appreciated here or on my blog. Enjoy!
I hate the ending of Red Dead Redemption. I hate it because John Marston dies, but I also hate it because of how he dies. The former reflects on how good Red Dead Redemption is, while the latter is a testament to how bad it can be. It's a game that excels in aspects of traditional narrative where most fail, but then fails to take advantage of the narrative strengths of its medium when it really counts. I feel strangely resentful toward its creators, Rockstar Games, but I can't say the ride wasn't worth it.
Released in May 2010, Red Dead Redemption was Rockstar's long-awaited follow up to its infamous and highly successful Grand Theft Auto IV. Being a financially challenged individual, I decided to wait for Read Dead Redemption to come down in price, and I eventually picked it up secondhand a few months ago. Upon its release, the gaming world was abuzz with giddy excitement and media coverage; the game scored an astronomical 95 on the review aggregation website Metacritic. Meanwhile, I was diligently avoiding the hubbub because I wanted an experience unmolested by spoilers and framed expectations.
Red Dead Redemption is so much like its sibling that it was often dubbed "Grand Theft Equine" before release. The underlying technology and many of the design conventions are the same. The most prominent difference is the setting. Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in a sprawling metropolis circa 2008, while Red Dead Redemption is set around the fictional border state of New Austen in 1911, a final vestige of the old west. The disparate settings give each game a distinct visual palette, but there are also structural and thematic differences. John Marston is a more delineated and principled character than Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, and he doesn't accommodate such a potential for amoral havoc. The nickname "Grand Theft Equine" quickly fell out of use once gamers actually experienced Red Dead Redemption for themselves.
John Marston is one of the best conceived, written, and acted characters I have encountered in any videogame. It is all the more impressive that he is the protagonist. There is an inherent potential for conflict in games between the personality of the player and that of the character they control. One way to resolve the conflict is to strip the character of all but the barest semblance of personality and allow players to fill the void; these empty vessels are the silent protagonists featured in so many games. Another method is to allow the player to create a character from scratch; this limits the potential for conflict by letting the player decide what personality the protagonist should have. Each of these solutions has its own drawbacks. Red Dead Redemption opts for the third and, perhaps, most challenging solution of all: it makes the player want to be John Marston.
Whatever Rockstar's intentions, the player still has the freedom to defy Marston's character and break the story at any moment. Marston refuses the advances of prostitutes, quipping "I don't think my dear wife would appreciate that," but there is nothing to stop players spending all their time getting drunk, cheating at poker, collecting herbs in the wilderness, or scrawling phallic imagery on buildings using bullet holes. It is possible to shoot-up the quiet town of Armadillo, killing dozens of innocent bystanders and law-enforcement officials, and then casually stroll into the U.S. Marshall's office, triggering a cordial conversation about achieving mutual goals as though nothing happened. The story can very easily be made into a farce.
The director of a stage production depends on her actors speaking their lines and staying in character. An actor may have freedom to interpret his role creatively, but only within certain limits. The impromptu decision of an actor to discuss his iPhone in an American Civil War drama, or a Juliet that suddenly decides Romeo needs a good kick in the balls are a distant hazard for all but the most unfortunate directors. Actors have a strong incentive to stay in character, can be replaced if they refuse, and their creative contribution is normally intended to serve the production.
All storytelling games are at the mercy of ill-behaved actors, and they can't be fired or replaced. The normal solution is to introduce arbitrary constraints on interactivity, but take this too far and the player loses all sense of agency. In the worst case scenario, games can be reduced to little more than a bad movie that occasionally asks the player to walk over there and push a button. Storytelling games ultimately need players to collaborate willingly with the fiction, but getting players to conform is hard when tempted by the cheap thrills of seeing how many carriages they can blow up with just one stick of dynamite. Rockstar had before them the demanding task of convincing players to stay true to the goals and values of Red Dead Redemption's protagonist.
We're introduced to John Marston as he arrives in the aforementioned town of Armadillo. His wife and son have been taken captive by unscrupulous government agents representing the interests of shadowy elites. Marston used to run with an infamous gang of outlaws led by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde, but he was left for dead after a botched robbery. He decided to go straight and become a farmer. However, Marston's old comrades were still out in the world causing trouble, and someone in power wanted them dealt with. Marston is told to track down and bring back members of his old gang, dead or alive, if he ever wants to see his family again.
Rockstar succeeded in making me want to be as faithful to John Marston as he was to his wife. The more I played through the story, the less I was tempted to break character. The many distractions of Red Dead Redemption's world started to drift into the background as Marston's goals imperceptibly became my goals. I dare say that at times I gave an Oscar worthy performance.
After John Marston arrives in Armidillo, a local guide takes him to a nearby gang hideout in an abandoned military fort. Marston has come for Bill Williamson, the first of the men he must hunt down. Marston attempts to bring Williamson in peacefully, but gets a bullet in his gut for the trouble. Left to die by the side of the road, he is rescued by a couple of locals and wakes up a few days later at a nearby ranch. A doctor has tended to his wounds at the owner's expense. To repay the debt, Marston agrees to help out around the ranch while he recovers from his injuries.
This episode of the story introduces Bonnie MacFarlane, the ranch owner's daughter, and provides a safe place for the player to grow accustomed to the game. In a medium notoriously underpopulated with developed female characters, Bonnie is a rare exception. She quickly falls for Marston, and she is just his type. Her presence provides the opportunity for Marston to demonstrate just how much he loves his wife and is committed to his family. Bonnie is one of the most likable characters in the whole story, and I found it genuinely sad that Marston couldn't be the man for her.
The problem with this whole sequence of events was the bullet wound that tied everything together. No matter how skillful the player, Marston will get shot a lot. He can survive several bullet wounds at once and automatically recovers from damage after a short time; the doctor who patched Marston up actually sells bottles of medicine that instantly cure any and all injuries. However, in the scenes described above, we're asked to accept that one bullet wound can require surgery and several days to recover from. The events surrounding Marston's injury are completely at odds with the rules established elsewhere in the game.
Red Dead Redemption is fractured into parallel narratives. In one narrative, bullet wounds are near fatal and Marston does not get shot on a regular basis, while in the other, Marston gets shot frequently but bullet wounds can be shrugged off with a short rest. Each narrative ignores events in the other to maintain its own integrity, but the game is then riddled with bizarre contradictions when taken as a whole.
Conventions can sometimes linger well after they stop being useful, and, before that, there is often an intermediary period when they are only sort of useful. The narrative schism in Red Dead Redemption is not unusual for videogames; most gamers have been trained to ignore the types of inconsistencies that it can spit out. I also understand the desire to tell a story in a more realistic world than one where Marston can be riddled with a hundreds bullets and not gain weight. However, gone are the days when technological limitations more or less forced the use of parallel narratives. Red Dead Redemption uses the same visuals for both narratives, and many of its storytelling methods blend seamlessly between the two. This just makes it all the more jarring when the two disagree with each another.
On occasion, Rockstar appears not to have even tried to avoid inconsistencies. A particularly egregious example occurs later in the story while Marston is on the trail of Dutch, the leader of his old gang. He is travelling with Nastas, a native American, and Harold MacDougal, a professor and self-proclaimed man of science. These happen to be two of the worst realised and least interesting characters of the story. Suddenly a grizzly bear appears on the road ahead and MacDougal panics. Despite Nastas's pleas for calm, MacDougal draws his sidearm and opens fire; the bear attacks and Marston is forced to put it down. The ignorant white man, MacDougal could only see a ferocious beast ready to dine on his innards. Nastas admonishes MacDougal; he explains how the bear was just minding its own business.and posed no threat. To all appearances, Nastas was quite correct.
But I wanted to punch Nastas. It was as though he was holding a giant sign that read: "here is why videogames are a stupid waste of time and you're a loser." This is the only bear in the entire game that does not immediately try to eat Marston in the face. When I saw it shuffling along the road, my first instinct was exactly the same as MacDougal's, because Nastas was completely wrong -- in the world of Red Dead Redemption, if you don't kill or run away from a bear quickly, then it will tenderise you before dinner. This event is the single exception to that rule. In one narrative, bears behave much more like they do in real life, and in the other, bears are perpetually angry and want you dead. Nastas was a stark reminder of Rockstar's unwillingness to tell its story in the world they had created.
Red Dead Redemption is huge. I tend to walk in games rather than run, literally and metaphorically, but by almost anyone's standard this game is epic. Its story has a leisurely and meandering quality much like its vast and varied tracts of wilderness; it felt like three seasons of a television show back to back. I kept expecting it to wind up to a conclusion and then further developments would push the credits back again.
I thought I had finally reached the end as Marston confronted Dutch, the last of his marks, on a precipice in the Redemption Mountains. Then Dutch was no more. Marston was congratulated by Edgar Ross, the government agent who had pressed him into service, and told that his family were safe and waiting back home. I was slightly surprised when control was handed back to me and an objective appeared instructing me to return to the farm. It was a powerful moment accompanied by a near perfect choice of music. Marston and I raced back as fast our our horse would gallop.
Rockstar does not have a reputation for happy endings, but when Marston arrived home, everything appeared fine; his wife was angry, but there were no missing limbs; it seemed everyone was just relieved their ordeal was over. I was shocked. A happy ending? Not quite, because this wasn't the ending. After spending a well-deserved night with his wife, Marston wakes up with a new life ahead of him. What was Rockstar up to? I immediately assumed that something tragic would happen, but instead Marston just went about herding cattle, exterminating vermin, teaching his son to hunt, and meeting up with old friends like Bonnie MacFarlane.
Maybe Red Dead Redemption didn't end with a bang. Rolling the credits right after the joyful reunion would have been a bit stingy, and Rockstar could have decided to let players experience some of the life Marston had spent so long fighting for. Perhaps the story would just peter out with everyone living happily ever after. Although the story had seemed to be heading for a tragic conclusion, Rockstar had been known to defy narrative conventions before. The more I thought about it, the more this low-key ending seemed like a great idea, and that wasn't just because I liked Marston and his family.
Alas, you know that John Marston dies. If you had not already finished Red Dead Redemption, then I spoiled the ending for you in the second sentence of this article. In the game, players have to trigger each episode of the story by travelling to a location marked on their map. Fearing that Rockstar was about to ruin the happy little existence I had made for Marston, I actually considered never activating that trigger. I was going to be the ill-behaved actor and defy my stage direction. In my version of the script, everyone really was going to live happily ever after. However, curiosity got the better of me, and I was soon watching Marston sling his pistol for the last time as he was gunned down by Edgar Ross and a platoon of U.S. infantry.
The death of Marston seemed like a cowardly move by Rockstar. It was expected and safe, but not narratively interesting or satisfying. For me, at least, Marston's death was just meaningless and frustrating, and the way it was forced by the narrative felt cheap and disengaging. I was upset that Marston had died, but I would have been okay with it had his death not felt so obligatory and contrived.
Marston actually died dozens of times while I played Red Dead Redemption. I could have let my story end at any of these moments and gone on to other things, but instead I restarted from a checkpoint or loaded a previously saved game. I tried and tried again until I overcame whatever obstacles had previously gotten the better of me; only one time could Marston's death not be revised by this method.
Someone high up had evidently decided that Marston was a liability and needed to be dealt with. Marston's new life was interrupted when soldiers, led by Agent Ross, attacked his little ranch. Marston and family defended their home and quickly made for their horses in the barn. Once inside, he had his wife and son mount a horse and sent them fleeing out the rear of the building; he was going to stay back and keep the soldiers busy while they escaped. Marston composed himself before peaking out the barn door -- soldiers were lined up with guns poised and ready to fire. He didn't share his thoughts, but just took deep a breath and stepped out. The player is given a fleeting opportunity to shoot off a few rounds before Marston is riddled with bullets.
There is something fundamentally weird about a videogame that forces the death of its protagonist. The player spends the whole game trying to keep Marston alive and then, suddenly, Rockstar imposes his death by fiat. I could have fought those soldiers and won, but Marston didn't even give me a chance. Because I was not complicit in Marston's decision to effectively end his own life, I just felt aggravated by the role assigned to me. I might have stormed off to my trailer had one been available -- I had not agreed to this death scene!
I suspect Marston was tired of fighting and wanted to protect his family. Dutch had been right, he and Marston were relics from a bygone era and didn't belong in the new world. Marston couldn't escape his past, and his family would always be in danger from people like Agent Ross. Perhaps it was better to just end it all and go down guns blazing. The trouble is that we're given little reason to believe that Ross will be satisfied with Marston's death; moments ago the whole family appeared to be on the hit list. Marston's son had just shot and killed U.S. soldiers, his wife had also once belonged to Dutch's gang, and both of them knew the same incriminating facts as Marston. Stepping out of that barn door, I thought, was sheer stupidity.
Whatever the case, the situation was inherently ambiguous. Its dramatic conflict had the potential to be very meaningful in all kinds of ways to different people. It was a perfect scene for Red Dead Redemption to take advantage of its medium and empower players to discover a meaning appropriate for them. But Rockstar stubbornly stuck to their authorial role and micromanaged Marston's death. We're left to scratch our heads about what they were thinking, rather than discovering the meaning of actions we chose. The latter, I think, would have allowed for a far more powerful and fitting end.
Red Dead Redemption is a supremely well-crafted videogame. I would recommend it to anyone interested in games as a storytelling medium; it is interesting for both its successes and failures. While it succeeded in making me want to adopt the role of John Marston, its clumsy use of parallel narratives often undermined my efforts. Although it deploys traditional narrative techniques far better than most games, it often refuses to break from those conventions when there would be much to gain from doing so. For me, these strengths and flaws trip over each other at its climax and leave my overall impression of the game sorely bruised.
Impressive as Red Dead Redemption is, its intractable contradictions and occasional reluctance to be a videogame leave me doubting that this particular mix of storytelling methods have much farther to go. Although John Marston's story is quite well told -- and I wish writing and acting of this quality were more common -- I don't really want other games following it down the same path. I suspect it's dead end.