By now many of you will have played and finished Rockstar’s Epic Western, Red Dead Redemption. As such I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss the game’s plot and ending, since I refrained from doing so in my review to prevent spoilers.
I think Red Dead Redemption is the best open world game available today. The sense of exploration and depth to the world is unmatched, and I found it hard to stop myself playing the game as I was reviewing it. You can read my review if you want to know how I felt about that, because in this article I’d like to discuss my feelings on the plot, especially the ending. Obviously this means that there will be spoilers in this post, so don’t read on if you’ve not played the game yet, and mean to.
Red Dead Redemption begins by introducing the player to the character he or she will be playing as: John Marston. There is very little known about him from the beginning, since the player only learns about him as the non-player characters do. When John tells a character his motivation for something, it will be new information to the player. This creates a bond between the player and John Marston in the same way the bond is formed between characters in the story.
I particularly enjoyed this method of storytelling. I was constantly learning about John; his motivations, his background, his personality. I grew to like John Marston. He was a character I was playing, but I did not feel like I was playing as him- I felt like I was helping on his journey, like a friend would do. For this reason, I was compelled to help him finish his quest, and let him be a free man.
Marston used to be in a notorious gang, we find out, but he is a reformed man now. Marston has a wife and child being held by the government, and they are using him like a puppet to round up the old gang members. We’re told that once that is done, Marston will be set free, along with his wife and child. Martson is genuinely sorry about his grizzly past, and makes sure that we know it. He is an honourable man, and that compels the player to act as John Martson would.
In Grand Theft Auto, I killed random people without hesitation, just because I happened to drive onto the pavement for whatever reason. In Red Dead Redemption, I went out of my way to move slowly in towns to prevent injury, help everyone I could, and always capture rather than kill ne’er-do-wells. Why? Because John Marston was my friend, and he would never kill an innocent person.
If you’ve finished the game, you’ll know that as the story progresses, Marston kills or captures all three other members of the gang he was once in. Once this is done, the government agents promise you and your wife and child freedom. Marston moves in to Beecher’s Hope, his ranch, to herd cattle, hunt wild animals, capture horses, and be with his family. The last portion of the game is spent here, on the ranch- and loses all the momentum it once had.
Up until this point, Marston and I had been buddies, dealing with danger and exploring together, having a great time. When I met Mrs. Marston and Jack (his son), I felt like I had been left behind.
Up until this point the game had introduced every character to me in a way that led me to know them, and be able to like or dislike them as I please. I liked Bonnie, for example, because she grew on me at the same rate as she grew on John Marston. I didn’t like the government agents for the same reasons. Now, however, I had been introduced to two characters that John already knew, and I was expected to straight away love them like they were my family members. They were not, however. They were his.
I felt like an outsider. I watched as John took his son Jack out hunting and went out to herd the cattle. I had been cut out of John’s life as quickly as I had been let in. I was now doing the chores while John got to be with his loving family. I quickly grew to hate them. They had stolen my friend away from me, and had the cheek to complain constantly. John’s son had no respect for him, and did not listen to his father’s wisdom.
Not only had these people taken the John Martson that I had spent so much time adventuring with away from me, but they didn’t seem to care about him at all. John’s stony-faced wife showed no evidence of being someone that John would like, let alone marry. I still had hope that John and I would be friends again, but it was dying fast. He was no longer an adventurous rogue. He was a farmer.
This is an example of the effect gameplay can have on the player’s feelings about a character. Up until the ranch, the player had been exploring with John, having fun. When the story shifted to Beecher’s Hope, the player was reduced to doing chores. Grinding for your character’s benefit is one thing in an MMO or RPG, where it has tangible benefits to the player (like XP or items), herding cattle with no reward to the player removes any of the compulsion. The fact that it’s a boring task means that the player does not attach to the characters like they would during an exciting moment. This is especially so when the characters actively make the task more irritating (in the case of Jack Marston).
By the time the credits hit the screen, I was long finished with the plot of Red Dead Redemption. Seeing John Marston die at the hands of the government men was almost like finding out that an admired public figure has died. You think a moment about their life and achievements, then that it’s a shame they’re gone, and move on. I remembered how I used to feel about John Martson, but the events on the ranch had separated me too much from John for me to feel upset about his death.
When I saw the credits start to roll, I was more disappointed than anything. I felt alienated by the story, betrayed even, and the ranch chores had even managed to take away the gameplay enjoyment from me. Even the last firefight had just felt like a token gesture to try and get me back. The thing that actually got my blood boiling happened after the credits had finished. I was now playing as John Marston’s son.
That little disrespectful shit, Jack Marston. Not only did he constantly ignore the wisdom of my old friend and his father, but he had the nerve to try and be like him? Needless to say, I did not let this happen. The first thing I did was to go and kill an innocent man. I cared about John Marston’s reputation, his wishes, his honour. I did not care one bit about Jack Marston. I turned off the game after about ten minutes of playing as Jack, and have not come back to it since.
Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic game, with a compelling and enjoyable story set in a very interesting period of history. I feel, however, that the end of the game was just not up to standard. Not only did John Marston leave me behind, but his family managed to make me hate them as well. The ending of the game betrays the player and then tries to involve them again by killing the protagonist- which is ultimately a flawed way to end what was a great story.