The Legend of John Marston
HIGH Taking down the Bollard Twins gang in a running gunfight in Pike's Basin.
LOW A late mission using a surprisingly ineffective car-mounted Browning machine gun in poor visibility.
WTF I went through all that crap with the grave robber just so he could dance like a lunatic in Fort Mercer?
The West as we "know" it never really existed. It was created in the wildly exaggerated "memoirs" and Wild West shows of its would-be heroes, expanded in the dime novels of East Coast publishing houses, and then brought to life in the films of Hollywood. The real West hides beneath this palimpsest of fantasies, to which Red Dead Redemption knowingly adds another layer. In keeping with developer Rockstar's cinematic approach to game aesthetics, Red Dead Redemption succeeds in allowing the player to inhabit, in some measure, the Westerns on which it is based.
The game pretends that in 1911 the West is dying, but really the first coating of ink has already started to dry on its corpse. Young Jack is already reading those dime novels, and his father, former outlaw John Marston, has been sent on a quest that could have come straight from one of them. John's law-breaking past has caught up with him, and unscrupulous government agents have kidnapped his wife and son to force him to hunt down his former partners in crime.
The movies' take on the West has always focused on the land, with the idea that its vastness and majesty inspired heroism (and villainy) to match. Marston himself echoes this sentiment in one of the many conversations that accompany his travels across the country with allies, but the game doesn't have the capacity to sustain this idea. Red Dead Redemption's landscapes are appropriately vast and beautifully rendered, but their scale is distorted by the demands of the game's design.
As a third-person shooter, Red Dead Redemption is obligated to keep John Marston in the foreground. The camera—and there is a camera, as the blood and rain splattering on it constantly remind us—is almost never free of him. On the fluid gallops across the dusty countryside, it chases his horse. When he ducks behind the copiously-available cover, it pulls close to him. When he aims, it looks over his shoulder. Marston can never be dwarfed by the land, never ride off into the sunset. The game can produce nothing like the life-rejecting opening shot of For a Few Dollars More. Marston is always close to us, always larger than life.
Rockstar's triumph here is that the game's story matches this perspective, because in it man is always superior to the land. This is evident in the game world—in the town of Blackwater the automobile has begun to travel on paved roads. The gun, the electron, and the law are bringing all the wildness of the West to heel. The last of the buffalo fall to John's rifle, their skin, horns, and meat sold so he can buy more bullets, more guns, more dynamite to kill the bandits and rebels that stand in the way of "civilization." In Red Dead Redemption, man is insuperable, though the land outlasts him.
This is true for John as well. The land may have formed him one way, but he changed himself, becoming a farmer rather than a gunman. The player has the chance to further mold him, either as a defender of the law and the weak, or a ruthless man with no regard for either. In creating a character who could be hero or villain, Rockstar has made one of the West's strangest killers.
Marston can be a ruthless murderer, and the threat of violence constantly seethes in his dialogue. In the player's hands, Marston kills effortlessly, his aim automatically drawn to any nearby target. Nonetheless, John becomes an oddly passive and trusting dupe for almost anyone who promises to help him, however unlikely that aid seems. In the game's flabby Mexican midsection this tendency becomes almost comic, forcing him to assist both sides of a civil war. The thematic aim here is the same as in Far Cry 2, but Red Dead Redemption inherits its feeling of implausibility. John spends too much time doing too much work for men who have too little to offer his cause, a tendency at odds with his spoken impatience and short temper.
The words seem to contradict the man in other ways too. Despite being raised by a harsh orphanage and a charismatic bandit, Marston adopts an anachronistically progressive attitude towards women. John's former compatriots clearly do not share this opinion, nor his unusually courtly treatment of prostitutes. If they agree with him that their crimes should only harm the undeserving rich, they show no sign of it; nor does he, if the player chooses to assault farmers rather than bandits.
Almost nothing about John makes a lick of sense, and it's easy to agree when one of the game's characters mocks him and his supposed values. But then, John Marston is not a real man, any more than New Austin is the real West. Marston is a legend: the kind of man so quick on the draw and accurate that time slows down to let him make impossible shots. For an outlaw like that there is no contradiction between nobility and murder.
Of course, Red Dead Redemption gives John many more chances to kill than to be noble. Death suffuses the game; John trades in it when he skins a bear or takes down a bounty. The number of victims reaches into the thousands as the story meanders through its increasingly repetitive missions. While John can take time out from his quest to deal with the various "strangers" he can find in the West, he cannot leave death behind. They ask him to kill, die themselves, or send him after men already dead. Even the most innocuous of these tasks take a turn towards the macabre. By comparison, the grave robber John must help in the first third of the game seems almost normal. Besides, in a land that seems to have more headstones than houses, tomb raiding must be more profitable than burglary.
This obsession with the grave is natural, for the Old West of Red Dead Redemption is not dying on its own. The player is killing it, one outlaw and one buffalo at a time. Inevitably, all bandits must fall to the hand of the hard-charging lawmen and bounty hunters, and then those men too must die to make way for a more civilized world. The crime scene investigator replaces the marshal, and the open-sky prairie becomes flyover country. The legendary men perish, but the land that shaped them lives on, leaving the player and Jack to act out their dime-novel dreams of an Old West that has already faded into legend.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 40 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes. This review covers only the single-player aspects of the game.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs. It's a Rockstar game, so there's something here to offend practically everyone. There is a great deal of violence directed towards women (though generally not by playable characters), and unflattering depictions of certain ethnicities and other marginalized groups. The game's middle section features a "gringo who saves Mexico" theme that may offend; concerned parents might want to prepare a discussion to put this motif in its proper historical and social context.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound cues are generally not essential, and subtitles are abundant. Some dangerous animals make warning sounds before attacking, so hard-of-hearing players might experience a few surprising deaths, especially from bears. In addition, some (non-essential) sidequests start with audio rather than visual cues. Certain fonts are difficult to read even for a person with good eyesight, which will inconvenience players with modestly impaired vision.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.