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In which Rockstar chooses to whistle Dixie.

Red Dead Redemption

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So I finished Red Dead Redemption last month. It was a pretty fun game and, despite excessive horse riding, I enjoyed myself. Then I got to the end and I never wanted anything to do with the game again. This is why.

Below are spoilers, so if you intend to play through Red Dead yourself do so and come back.

Rockstar has a tendency to write reluctant protagonists. Niko Bellic, from GTA4, wouldn’t stop whining about how he wanted to live the American dream in peace, even while he was shooting people. Red Dead is no exception. The main character, John Marston, is so eager to be done with his mission he practically gets killed in the first 30 minutes of the game.

Thankfully, Marston has a good reason for his reluctance while on an armed rampage. Our player character is an ex-outlaw and the FBI is holding his family hostage to get him to kill off his old running buddies. For once, I’ve found an open world game with a plot that actually makes a great deal of sense. In fact, overall, the game is well written; the characters seem fairly three-dimensional; the narrative thread is coherent and enjoyable; and overall the game mechanics make it just fun to play.

If you played through the first 95% of the game, you might very well be justified if you thought it was one of the best games you’ve played.

Then came the end.

Red Dead contains a great deal of homage to the old Wild West films and stories of its genre, but it is rarely predictable. However, about 35 hours into the 38 hours I spent playing the game, I had beaten everyone. All the bosses were dead, I’d cleaned up most of my little corner of the west and completed many of the side quests.  Marston’s family was and I went through a series of farming quests. I had to go hunting, pick up supplies, hang with Marston’s son and round-up cattle. I got a taste of the idyllic life of the Marston family farm. Of course, I knew what was coming. They were fattening me for the slaughter.

In this case the ‘they’ is the FBI, who have decided that, despite you having followed their orders and saved their lives throughout the game, you are clearly too much of an outlaw to live.

Now, you can play the game as a good or bad Marston but, no matter what you do, Marston is perpetually talking about his desire to just go home and settle down. The last few missions before the end are boring farm tasks. You just mosey around and build up a non-outlaw life for yourself. Despite this, the FBI send what is apparently an entire regiment of the American army to wipe out your farm. After killing what has to be a good 40 or 50 people, you and your family retreat to a barn. You make your wife and son go out through the back while you, in dramatic slow motion, push open the barn doors and confront about 12 enemies. You’re given the opportunity to kill some of them, but in the end they shoot you down.

This is not a bad concept. It’s easy to see that Rockstar was trying to emulate the old Westerns. In the typical western style it wasn’t entirely uncommon for the hero, running from a past he couldn’t escape, to die to protect the ones he loves. If that had been the case, the death scene and corresponding interactivity would have made a lot of sense. However, the scene, and indeed the whole final mission, did not fit in the existing narrative or character.

You spend the game fighting hard, even taking down governments, to gain back your family and farm. You’ve proved your potential usefulness and willingness to obey the FBI. You even spend the last few missions seeing just how much Marston loves his family and non-outlaw life.

There is just no real reason for the FBI to wait a week or two after letting Marston have everything back before hitting him. It’s just foolish to try to do so while he’s staying in a highly defensible position which he values. They could have just shot him in the back. Honestly. There are sniper rifles in the game, someone could have just taken a head shot. The agents could have just walked in the front door.

But ignoring that stupidity, there was no reason for the FBI to come after him to begin with. Marston had settled down. He’d spent all game talking about how much he wanted to become a farmer. If he had wanted to be an outlaw he could have gone off and never came back. He had just finished discrediting himself to the entire outlaw community by hunting down his brothers-in-crime, he was not a threat.

Then there is Marston’s behavior. They shot his uncle, they shot up his farm, they tried to shoot his family. While you play John Marston, you kill a fort filled with armed men, ride west, and start a Mexican revolution. You have friends and back-up all over. If the game hadn’t stopped me, I could have easily taken out all of those enemies. Marston, as a character, could fall back and gather friendly forces. He could even retreat to Mexico, where he’d be free from the FBI and probably able to put together a decent life.

There is another completely illogical element. That Marston would take a chance on a threat to his family continuing to exist. Marston is so in love with his wife that he refuses to have sex with the many prostitutes littered throughout the area (a serious act of self-control in a Rockstar game). He’s been all about his family this whole time. The game makes it abundantly clear that the West is still not a kind place to women who don’t have men. The strongest female character in the game still gets kidnapped and raped before you can save her, even with her having a father. Why, in god’s name, would Marston want to leave his family alone instead of going on the run with them? Isn’t that the opposite of what he’s been fighting for?

John Marston’s actions are essentially suicide without reason. It goes completely contrary to his character. Rockstar just wanted to shock you by killing off your character at the end of the game. But it’s a cheap shock, one existing outside of everything already established in the game and because of that it cheapens the whole game.

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  1. Cameron Yang on Tuesday 5, 2010

    You push a good point, I never realized how it was unexplained why they didn’t kill him straight away (the FBI), and how he did have friends he could have holed up with. But perhaps he just didn’t want to go back down that life again, running and fighting. Maybe he just wanted his family to be left alone in peace.
    I actually quite liked the ending, it made it much more emotional and mature than any other Rockstar game, and the whole game had a gritty, true western feel to it, not a John Wayne movie. However, I hated playing as Jack Marston, so I was conflicted over my love for the emotional ending compared to having to listen to his whiny voice every five seconds I progressed into a gallop on horseback.

  2. JuntMonkey on Tuesday 5, 2010

    The main story was by far the worst part of the game. The cutscenes throughout were often terrible and generally dragged on too long (much like GTA4, and the opposite of GTA3 and Vice City) and continue the trend of Rockstar taking themselves too seriously. So, to me the ending is mostly irrelevant. I have it as approximately my #2 game ever because I love everything else about it.

  3. Lazlo on Tuesday 5, 2010

    The only reason they didn’t kill him first was because they where to lazy to kill the rest of the gang them self, quoted by Jack “You sent him to do your dirty work, then you shot him like a dog!”

  4. Steve on Tuesday 5, 2010

    To your point: “Marston, as a character, could fall back and gather friendly forces. He could even retreat to Mexico, where he’d be free from the FBI and probably able to put together a decent life.”

    I think He had three choices.
    1) Either get back to the outlaw life with his family (which he didn’t want for them). And he has witnessed first hand, that even mexico isn’t safe against the feds (Escuella and Bill).
    2) Leave his family and go on the run, with the risk of course of people trying to get to him trough his family (which has proven to be his weak point in the past), not to mention breaking his promise to his son.
    3) Suicide by cop.
    So considering those three options, I don’t think he broke character.

    As for why the feds went after him after all: I would think that this one agent he worked with (who clearly despised Marston) didn’t like the idea of giving a criminal a free pass for past crimes. In general law enforcement don’t think in terms of ‘is this person still a treath?’, but rather in terms of ‘is justice served?’.

    As for the way how they did that. The agents already hinted in a previous mission that they care about appearances (they rather had Marston shoot dutch rather then executing him themselves). And a shoot-out, where Marston shot several men (as expected) would look better than just executing him, remember that you’re a legend and a hero if you played the game right.