Note: There are vague, thematic spoilers below. Nothing is totally given away, but if you want to experience the game fresh, you may want to wait to read this.
Since the beginning of the medium, video games have been populated with heroes who must kill hundreds and thousands of people, both “bad” and “good” to reach the end goal. “The ends justify the means,” has been as much the mantra of video games as they have been the mantra of action films. The hero simply must do wrong so that a greater wrong may be avoided.
No game developer has exploited this fact more masterfully than Rockstar, the company responsible for the open-world Grand Theft Auto series. The series may be known for its’ giving the player the ability to run the gamut of criminal acts, but what it really represents is the logical implications of the typical video game hero: here we have a lone vigilante who makes up his own mind about what Must Be Done, and he carries out those acts despite all moral trepidation that may arise as a result.
Between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV, there was a shift: while the player was still allowed to harm innocents and villains alike, the way in which that killing was presented felt less fulfilling. The people being harmed just seemed too real, too lifelike, and too scared for the player to ignore the idea of what was being carried out. This was more than mere fun: it was a moral action, if only in a digital world. While we wouldn’t be held responsible for these acts, and shouldn’t be, the character we were playing as would, if only in his digital conscience.
When Rockstar developed a new game set in the wild west, Red Dead Redemption, many referred to it as “Grand Theft Horse,” but this is a misnomer. While the mechanics and open-world approach may be similar, the game’s narrative and gameplay arc manage to enable a unique experience in which the player relates to, converses, and empathizes with the protagonist, John Marston. The relationship between the player and John Marston is a complex one, but one that ultimately aids in the overall efficacy of the story.
As we get to know John, we begin to understand how desperate his situation is, as well as all of the reason he deserves what has been his lot in life. John has been a bad guy in his past, and he deserves every bad thing he gets. But as we guide John through an honorable routine of saving the lives of prostitutes, helping strangers recover their wagons from thieves, and occasionally being taken advantage of because of our naivete, we begin to think that maybe, with our help, John Marston can change.
But Marston fights us every step of the way, accepting jobs without the player’s consent that range from foolish to resolutely evil. Why does he insist on following through with them? Because his mind is focused exclusively on one thing: finding his family and leaving the life he once led for something more peaceful, honorable and simple. What Marston truly wants, but doesn’t quite know how to find, is redemption. He wants to escape the past and live a live of honor and nobility.
The game makes the mistake of making this clear by way of several explicit philosophical conversations between Marston and those he meets along the way, wherein he explains in great detail his motivation and his feelings. However, what the game lacks in subtlety it makes up for in the grand moments of encouraged meditation, signified by the few times Marston’s riding throughout the countryside is accompanied by actual songs, with lyrics intact. It’s in these moments that our motivations begin to sync with Marston’s: you both marvel at the surroundings, you reflect on what Marston has been through and what he’s put others through, and wonder whether any of this will be worth it.
The question at hand in Red Dead Redemption is a simple one: how does a man change? In other words, how can man become a better, “good” version of himself? It’s clear when playing Red Dead Redemption that such a goal is simply unattainable, and tragically so. Marston strikes us as a man with good intentions: he’s desperate to leave his outlaw life in the past. If he knew that the game of which he is the protagonist had the tag-line “Outlaws to the End,” he would be horrified. All he really wants these days is to be a rancher.
But he can’t escape his past, and those around him serve to remind him of that truth. In the last stage of the game, we see the effect of this on Marston and the way he treats others. As Marston desperately tries to pull up his boot straps and attain redemption for himself, he only makes things harder. Those sins he committed: he’ll never live them down, he’ll never shoot them all dead, and he’ll never be able to bury them all.
The Western genre is known for its loner mentality. It’s an individualist genre, and ultimately humanist. Men do their best to take care of themselves without any help physically, emotionally, and spiritually. With the implications of this worldview played out before us, we see exactly what this entails: In the world of Red Dead Redemption, redemption itself is ultimately dead.