In the wake of several month where I was living and breathing the promotion of My Best Friend is a Wookiee I decided that the first thing I should do is settle in to a deep, self-induced video game coma. But which rabbit hole do I jump down first? The news that Mass Effect 2 was coming to the PS3 (complete with a bunch of the DLC available for the 360 version) I decided to shelf that one for another couple of months. Maybe it was time to drink the Call of Duty Kool-Aid? Besides, if it’s got the shambling living corpse of Fidel Castro up in arms it’s gotta be great! So I did get Black Ops, and I’ve enjoyed getting my ass handed to me by tweenagers with far too much time on their hands, but what really wrapped me up in the sweet, pixilated embrace of HD-hypnosis was Rockstar’s appropriately deified Red Dead Redemption.
Rockstar’s sandbox games are what got me back into video games in high school. Sometime after Final Fantasy VIII, and despite a constantly renewed subscription to EGM, I found myself suddenly apathetic to the scene. Sure I got a Dreamcast, but only after Sega had begun to play taps for the poor little guy. Yes, I was one of those assholes who couldn’t be bothered to shell over original MSRP for the first born child of the previous console generation. But when it was whimpering in a Best Buy bargain bin, it’s price slashed to a desperate $50, I happily jumped on board. But as much as I enjoyed Shenmue, Jet Grind Radio and Quake III Arena I had no real urge take the plunge back into life as a gamer. That changed as soon as everyone, and I mean everyone, started talking about Grand Theft Auto III.
Rockstar’s “Do anything you want to whenever you want to” blew us all away. GTA3 was easily the Super Mario Bros. of the last console generation. Everyone at school was raving about boosting cars, picking up hookers and racking up a murder-toll so high that the game sicked a bunch of tanks on you. Letting your id go house on the fictional Liberty City was hours of pure, guilty pleasure, but between the bloody tire tracks and slowed down, drug-induced high your player got when he found the pill around the corner from the hospital was game about driving a taxi, chasing gangsters in a cop car or responding to wounded citizens in an ambulance. The beauty of GTA3 was its freedom to actually do ANYTHING you wanted in the city, good or bad.
(NEXT STOP SPOILER CITY! WATCH IT!)
So now we get Red Dead, a Spaghetti Western-inspired game built entirely in the spirit of GTA. Wide open worlds. Tons of characters to interact with. But RDR is only a cowboy GTA on the surface. Like the most recent batch of GTA games you play a criminal who has the whole world at his disposal, but unlike the playable characters in GTA: San Andreas or GTA4, John Marston makes it really hard to want to be a bad guy. Yes, GTA always gives you choice, but it never really gives you a strong moral center. Nico Belic says he wants a new life, but saying it isn’t enough. For me, the game never gave me anything to work towards, no real reason not to go on a murderous rampage. You get it out of your system, you play some missions, then you move on with your day. Maybe I’m wrong. I never finished GTA4 because my copy had some sort of fatal defect, but I never bothered replacing it either. It just didn’t grab me the way GTA3 had. But RDR sucked me in from the get go, in no small part because in John Marston I found a man who I NEEDED to help find that titular redemption. Marston was former criminal, sure, but he was also a family man. He had a farm and life that was taken from him as his own bloody past was yanked into the present. Think Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.
So we have Marston, a retired outlaw doing the Feds’ dirty work so he can get his wife, son and farm back. The way the character is written is enough to make you want to do good, but it’s really in Bonnie MacFarlane where the game almost makes you feel guilty about committing crime. Gameplay-wise she’s the first person you do missions for. Those missions consist or roping broncos, herding cattle; not exactly gangster shit. Story-wise she finds you near death on the side of the road after you foolishly–and rather ambivalently–try to take in the outlaw the Feds have you hunting. Bonnie never feels like a plot device or just another dull NPC to teach you basic game mechanics. Through her the game gets it’s strongest pull towards North on the ol’ moral compass. By the time she learns to trust Marston, I felt like I had earned something, despite the fact that I probably could have killed every man, woman, horse and nun I came across and the scripted cutscene still would have played out exactly the same as if I hadn’t. And when I later had to save her from being lynched by a bunch of bandits, it wasn’t a typical video game “save the princess” moment. Marston, I, was fighting to repay a life debt.
It’s a testament to the creators of RDR that I genuinely cringed anytime I found myself stepping out of line. More often than not it was an accident–failing to negotiate a turn the right way and running a dude down with my horse, locking on to a bystander instead of a bandit n a gunfight, etc–and it helped that Marston reacted with guilt when it would happen. Even more than him grumbling “what am I doing?” after killing an innocent is the fact that the consequence for your actions was even steeper here than in previous Rockstar games. Before you’d kill a guy, police would take chase and the mayhem would escalate until you shook them off your tail. Here it’s the same, only now once you’ve lost the fuzz they put a bounty out on your head. A sheriff might take you alive, but a posse of bandits might not be bothered. It pays to play nice.
(NO SERIOUSLY, I’M ABOUT TO DISCUSS THE END OF THE GAME IN EXPLICIT DETAIL! ABORT!)
I had never really bought the “left the life of crime behind me” lines from Rockstar before, but RDR made me as Marston want to be a better man. I had a family to save, damn it! and they, like Bonnie, weren’t just another video game trope. Mario ends when you save the princess. Zelda ends when you save the other princess. Logic and two decades of gaming dictated that RDR would end when I kill the last bad guy and save my family. I was dead wrong and blown away by the hour-ish of gameplay that followed what would have been a perfectly acceptable and well-executed “happy ending.”
Dutch is dead. Ross says your family is back at your ranch. Cue the beautiful song by Jose Gonzales as you mash on X to get your horse home to them as fast as you can. You the gamer meet your wife and son for the first time. She’s a tough broad, angry that you took so damn long, and your boy is quiet, caught between being mad at you for leaving them and thrilled to see you home again. As I wait for the credits to roll I start to reflect on the last 40 hours of game time and then, oh wait, Marston wakes up the next morning. It’s not a cutscene. Now you can do missions for your wife, your son, and your drunk old uncle. Not only did you save your family, but now you get to know them. Just like you got to know Bonnie, Reyes, Marshal Johnson and Nigel West-Dickens. As a reward for getting your family back you ACTUALLY get your family. For an hour you teach your son how to hunt. You break one of the three-star horses with your uncle. You take your wife back to the MacFarlane Ranch to meet Bonnie who, as you ride away from her for the last time, shows her first and only hint of female vulnerability.
In the end, Marston is gunned down by a small legion of US Soldiers, sent on the behest of a Federal Agent who viewed him as a loose end that need to be taken care of. All the promises of a clean slate were lies, but in that final brilliant moment of Marston’s life it is he who is taken from his family, not the other way around. Marston dies having regained everything he fought for. And for once, we the gamer get to enjoy the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the princess, the world peace, the MacGuffin that got the whole game rolling in the first place. Throw in a coda that made me want to give the game a standing ovation and what you have is a game that is more than just GTA by way of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Red Dead Redemption may prove to be a high-water mark in video game narrative. It was certainly nothing short of the most emotionally satisfying video game experience I’ve had in a ages, if not ever.
As I played I figured that I would go back afterward and raise all sorts of hell. having finished it it almost feels like that would be some sort of betrayal. Marston fought too hard to be a good guy for once in his life. I kind of feel like I should leave it that way.