Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dead End

I hate the ending of Red Dead Redemption. I hate it because John Marston dies, but I also hate it because of how he dies. The former reflects on how good Red Dead Redemption is, while the latter is a testament to how bad it can be. It's a game that excels in aspects of traditional narrative where most fail, but then fails to take advantage of the narrative strengths of its medium when it really counts. I feel strangely resentful toward its creators, Rockstar Games, but I can't say the ride wasn't worth it.

Released in May 2010, Red Dead Redemption was Rockstar's long-awaited follow up to its infamous and highly successful Grand Theft Auto IV. Being a financially challenged individual, I decided to wait for Read Dead Redemption to come down in price, and I eventually picked it up secondhand a few months ago. Upon its release, the gaming world was abuzz with giddy excitement and media coverage; the game scored an astronomical 95 on the review aggregation website Metacritic. Meanwhile, I was diligently avoiding the hubbub because I wanted an experience unmolested by spoilers and framed expectations.

Red Dead Redemption is so much like its sibling that it was often dubbed "Grand Theft Equine" before release. The underlying technology and many of the design conventions are the same. The most prominent difference is the setting. Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in a sprawling metropolis circa 2008, while Red Dead Redemption is set around the fictional border state of New Austen in 1911, a final vestige of the old west. The disparate settings give each game a distinct visual palette, but there are also structural and thematic differences. John Marston is a more delineated and principled character than Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, and he doesn't accommodate such a potential for amoral havoc. The nickname "Grand Theft Equine" quickly fell out of use once gamers actually experienced Red Dead Redemption for themselves.

John Marston is one of the best conceived, written, and acted characters I have encountered in any videogame. It is all the more impressive that he is the protagonist. There is an inherent potential for conflict in games between the personality of the player and that of the character they control. One way to resolve the conflict is to strip the character of all but the barest semblance of personality and allow players to fill the void; these empty vessels are the silent protagonists featured in so many games. Another method is to allow the player to create a character from scratch; this limits the potential for conflict by letting the player decide what personality the protagonist should have. Each of these solutions has its own drawbacks. Red Dead Redemption opts for the third and, perhaps, most challenging solution of all: it makes the player want to be John Marston.

Whatever Rockstar's intentions, the player still has the freedom to defy Marston's character and break the story at any moment. Marston refuses the advances of prostitutes, quipping "I don't think my dear wife would appreciate that," but there is nothing to stop players spending all their time getting drunk, cheating at poker, collecting herbs in the wilderness, or scrawling phallic imagery on buildings using bullet holes. It is possible to shoot-up the quiet town of Armadillo, killing dozens of innocent bystanders and law-enforcement officials, and then casually stroll into the U.S. Marshall's office, triggering a cordial conversation about achieving mutual goals as though nothing happened. The story can very easily be made into a farce.

The director of a stage production depends on her actors speaking their lines and staying in character. An actor may have freedom to interpret his role creatively, but only within certain limits. The impromptu decision of an actor to discuss his iPhone in an American Civil War drama, or a Juliet that suddenly decides Romeo needs a good kick in the balls are a distant hazard for all but the most unfortunate directors. Actors have a strong incentive to stay in character, can be replaced if they refuse, and their creative contribution is normally intended to serve the production.

All storytelling games are at the mercy of ill-behaved actors, and they can't be fired or replaced. The normal solution is to introduce arbitrary constraints on interactivity, but take this too far and the player loses all sense of agency. In the worst case scenario, games can be reduced to little more than a bad movie that occasionally asks the player to walk over there and push a button. Storytelling games ultimately need players to collaborate willingly with the fiction, but getting players to conform is hard when tempted by the cheap thrills of seeing how many carriages they can blow up with just one stick of dynamite. Rockstar had before them the demanding task of convincing players to stay true to the goals and values of Red Dead Redemption's protagonist.

We're introduced to John Marston as he arrives in the aforementioned town of Armadillo. His wife and son have been taken captive by unscrupulous government agents representing the interests of shadowy elites. Marston used to run with an infamous gang of outlaws led by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde, but he was left for dead after a botched robbery. He decided to go straight and become a farmer. However, Marston's old comrades were still out in the world causing trouble, and someone in power wanted them dealt with. Marston is told to track down and bring back members of his old gang, dead or alive, if he ever wants to see his family again.

Rockstar succeeded in making me want to be as faithful to John Marston as he was to his wife. The more I played through the story, the less I was tempted to break character. The many distractions of Red Dead Redemption's world started to drift into the background as Marston's goals imperceptibly became my goals. I dare say that at times I gave an Oscar worthy performance.

After John Marston arrives in Armidillo, a local guide takes him to a nearby gang hideout in an abandoned military fort. Marston has come for Bill Williamson, the first of the men he must hunt down. Marston attempts to bring Williamson in peacefully, but gets a bullet in his gut for the trouble. Left to die by the side of the road, he is rescued by a couple of locals and wakes up a few days later at a nearby ranch. A doctor has tended to his wounds at the owner's expense. To repay the debt, Marston agrees to help out around the ranch while he recovers from his injuries.

This episode of the story introduces Bonnie MacFarlane, the ranch owner's daughter, and provides a safe place for the player to grow accustomed to the game. In a medium notoriously underpopulated with developed female characters, Bonnie is a rare exception. She quickly falls for Marston, and she is just his type. Her presence provides the opportunity for Marston to demonstrate just how much he loves his wife and is committed to his family. Bonnie is one of the most likable characters in the whole story, and I found it genuinely sad that Marston couldn't be the man for her.

The problem with this whole sequence of events was the bullet wound that tied everything together. No matter how skillful the player, Marston will get shot a lot. He can survive several bullet wounds at once and automatically recovers from damage after a short time; the doctor who patched Marston up actually sells bottles of medicine that instantly cure any and all injuries. However, in the scenes described above, we're asked to accept that one bullet wound can require surgery and several days to recover from. The events surrounding Marston's injury are completely at odds with the rules established elsewhere in the game.

Red Dead Redemption is fractured into parallel narratives. In one narrative, bullet wounds are near fatal and Marston does not get shot on a regular basis, while in the other, Marston gets shot frequently but bullet wounds can be shrugged off with a short rest. Each narrative ignores events in the other to maintain its own integrity, but the game is then riddled with bizarre contradictions when taken as a whole.

Conventions can sometimes linger well after they stop being useful, and, before that, there is often an intermediary period when they are only sort of useful. The narrative schism in Red Dead Redemption is not unusual for videogames; most gamers have been trained to ignore the types of inconsistencies that it can spit out. I also understand the desire to tell a story in a more realistic world than one where Marston can be filled with hundreds bullets and not gain weight. However, gone are the days when technological limitations more or less forced the use of parallel narratives. Red Dead Redemption uses the same visuals for both narratives, and many of its storytelling methods blend seamlessly between the two. This just makes it all the more jarring when they disagree with each another.

On occasion, Rockstar appears not to have even tried to avoid inconsistencies. A particularly egregious example occurs later in the story while Marston is on the trail of Dutch, the leader of his old gang. He is travelling with Nastas, a native American, and Harold MacDougal, a professor and self-proclaimed man of science. These happen to be two of the worst realised and least interesting characters of the story. Suddenly a grizzly bear appears on the road ahead and MacDougal panics. Despite Nastas's pleas for calm, MacDougal draws his sidearm and opens fire; the bear attacks and Marston is forced to put it down. The ignorant white man, MacDougal could only see a ferocious beast ready to dine on his innards. Nastas admonishes MacDougal; he explains how the bear was just minding its own business.and posed no threat. To all appearances, Nastas was quite correct.

But I wanted to punch Nastas. It was as though he was holding a giant sign that read: "here is why videogames are a stupid waste of time (and you're a loser)." This is the only bear in the entire game that does not immediately try to eat Marston in the face. When I saw it shuffling along the road, my first instinct was exactly the same as MacDougal's, because Nastas was completely wrong -- in the world of Red Dead Redemption, if you don't kill or run away from a bear quickly, then it will tenderise you before dinner. This event is the single exception to that rule. In one narrative, bears behave much more like they do in real life, and in the other, bears are perpetually angry and want you dead. Nastas was a stark reminder of Rockstar's unwillingness to tell its story in the world they had created.

Red Dead Redemption is huge. I tend to walk in games rather than run, literally and metaphorically, but by almost anyone's standard this game is epic. Its story has a leisurely and meandering quality much like its vast and varied tracts of wilderness; it felt like three seasons of a television show back to back. I kept expecting it to wind up to a conclusion and then further developments would push the credits back again.

I thought I had finally reached the end as Marston confronted Dutch, the last of his marks, on a precipice in the Redemption Mountains. Then Dutch was no more. Marston was congratulated by Edgar Ross, the government agent who had pressed him into service, and told that his family were safe and waiting back home. I was slightly surprised when control was handed back to me and an objective appeared instructing me to return to the farm. It was a powerful moment accompanied by a near perfect choice of music. Marston and I raced back as fast our our horse would gallop.

Rockstar does not have a reputation for happy endings, but when Marston arrived home, everything appeared fine. His wife was kind of angry, but there were no missing limbs; it seemed everyone was just relieved their ordeal was over. I was shocked. A happy ending? Not quite, because this wasn't the ending. After spending a well-deserved night with his wife, Marston wakes up with a new life ahead of him. What was Rockstar up to? I immediately assumed that something tragic would happen, but instead Marston just went about herding cattle, exterminating vermin, teaching his son to hunt, and meeting up with old friends like Bonnie MacFarlane.

Maybe Red Dead Redemption didn't end with a bang. Rolling the credits right after the joyful reunion would have been a bit stingy, and Rockstar could have decided to let players experience some of the life Marston had spent so long fighting for. Perhaps the story would just peter out with everyone living happily ever after. Although the story had seemed to be heading for a tragic conclusion, Rockstar had been known to defy narrative conventions before. The more I thought about it, the more this low-key ending seemed like a great idea, and that wasn't just because I liked Marston and his family.

Alas, you know that John Marston dies. If you had not already finished Red Dead Redemption, then I spoiled the ending for you in the second sentence of this article. In the game, players have to trigger each episode of the story by travelling to a location marked on their map. Fearing that Rockstar was about to ruin the happy little existence I had made for Marston, I considered never activating that trigger. I was going to be the ill-behaved actor and defy my stage direction. In my version of the script, everyone really was going to live happily ever after. However, curiosity got the better of me, and I was soon watching Marston sling his pistol for the last time as he was gunned down by Edgar Ross and a platoon of U.S. infantry.

The death of Marston seemed like a cowardly move by Rockstar. It was expected and safe, but not narratively interesting or satisfying. For me, at least, Marston's death was just meaningless and frustrating, and the way it was forced by the narrative felt cheap and disengaging. I was upset that Marston had died, but I would have been okay with it had his death not felt so obligatory and contrived.

Marston actually died dozens of times while I played Red Dead Redemption. I could have let my story end at any of these moments and gone on to other things, but instead I restarted from a checkpoint or loaded a previously saved game. I tried and tried again until I overcame whatever obstacles had previously gotten the better of me; only one time could Marston's death not be revised by this method.

Someone high up had decided that Marston was a liability and needed to be dealt with. His new life was abruptly interrupted by Agent Ross and dozens of soldiers. The Marston family defended their home and made for their horses in the barn. Once inside, Marston had his wife and son mount a horse and sent them fleeing; he was going to stay back and keep the soldiers busy while they escaped. After a moment of quiet, Marston composed himself and peaked out the barn door -- soldiers were lined up with guns poised and ready to fire. He didn't share his thoughts but just took deep a breath and stepped out. The player is given a fleeting opportunity to shoot off a few rounds before Marston is riddled with bullets.

There is something fundamentally weird about a videogame that forces the death of its protagonist. The player spends the whole game trying to keep Marston alive and then, suddenly, Rockstar imposes his death by fiat. I could have fought those soldiers and won, but Marston didn't even give me the chance. Because I was not complicit in Marston's decision to effectively end his own life, I just felt aggravated by the role assigned to me. I might have stormed off to my trailer had one been available -- I had not agreed to this death scene!

I suspect Marston was tired of fighting and wanted to protect his family. Dutch had been right, he and Marston were relics from a bygone era and didn't belong in the new world. Marston couldn't escape his past, and his family would always be in danger from people like Agent Ross. Perhaps it was better to just end it all and go down guns blazing. However, we're given little reason to believe that Ross will be satisfied with Marston's death; moments ago the whole Marston family appeared to be on the hit list. Marston's son had just shot and killed U.S. soldiers, his wife had also once belonged to Dutch's gang, and both of them knew the same incriminating facts as Marston. Stepping out of that barn door, I thought, was sheer stupidity.

Whatever the case, the situation was inherently ambiguous. Its dramatic conflict had the potential to be very meaningful in all kinds of ways to different people. It was a perfect scene for Red Dead Redemption to take advantage of its medium and empower players to discover a meaning appropriate for them. But Rockstar stubbornly stuck to their authorial role and micromanaged Marston's death. We're left to scratch our heads about what they were thinking, rather than discovering the meaning of actions we chose. The latter, I think, would have allowed for a far more powerful and fitting end.

Red Dead Redemption is a supremely well-crafted videogame. I would recommend it to anyone interested in games as a storytelling medium; it is interesting for both its successes and failures. While it succeeded in making me want to adopt the role of John Marston, its clumsy use of parallel narratives often undermined my efforts. Although it deploys traditional narrative techniques far better than most games, it often refuses to break from those conventions when there would be much to gain from doing so. For me, these strengths and flaws trip over each other at its climax and leave my overall impression of the game sorely bruised.

Impressive as Red Dead Redemption is, its intractable contradictions and occasional reluctance to be a videogame leave me doubting that this particular mix of storytelling methods have much farther to go. Although John Marston's story is quite well told -- and I wish writing and acting of this quality were more common -- I don't really want other games following it down the same path. I suspect it's a dead end.


  1. Linkback:

  2. What did you think of the epilogue where Jack finds and murders Ross?

  3. Daniel,

    I didn't think it was important enough to mention. By the epilogue, I was dis-invested and slogged through Jack's hunt for Ross in a perfunctory manner. I didn't feel any satisfaction from Ross's death, and perhaps I wasn't supposed to. The problem was that I didn't feel anything else either: I had stopped caring.

    Oh, and first comment. Thanks!

  4. I haven't actually finished Red Dead yet. Unfortunately, I didn't see the 'spoiler alert' til after I'd read the spoiler, as it is posted on the sidebar, not as part of the article. Its too easy to not look at that before starting to read the article.

  5. Natalie,

    Sorry! Everything I write here is going to be full of spoilers -- this isn't a blog for reviews -- and I don't want to give spoiler warnings for everything I write, but I will try to make the existing warning more distracting.

    In any case, it's really not such a spoiler. It's pretty obvious that Marston (or his family, at least) is going to die by the end, in my opinion. Presuming you didn't go on to read the rest of the post, many important surprises still await you.

  6. Stellar article Lee.

    I have to say, though, that I took almost the opposite views of the ending. All the talk throughout the game of 'the nature of man' was something I took as a conversation about 'the nature of the gamer', and the inherent violence playing (almost) any modern game brings about.

    In that light, you almost get bored of Marston's home life, and the almost menial jobs he does around the farm. Sure Marston is reformed, but the whole open-nature of the game means that the player is still thinking about causing random violence and shooting something. Of course, that's exactly what you get to do when the Army comes knocking, and it leads to Marston's demise.

    The epilogue is (to me, anyways) a statement about the nature of violence in videogames, and that most attempts to stifle violence in games will ultimately fail.

  7. @Nober: I still think that the cognitive dissonance of Marsten essentially being a good man forced to do some bad things he doesn't want to do and then being able to act like a sociopath in non-cutscenes (not to mention the little things like game mechanics versus cutscene mechanics) more frustrating than anything.

    I also think that Metal Gear Solid trained me to like being non-lethal in games, so I was actually frustrated by being forced to kill people. I tried to finish most missions with disarms and with as few fatalities as possible. Marsten's home life was idyllic and nice to me and I hated having to be violent again.

  8. Thank you, Nober

    I was concerned that a lot of people wouldn't like my article because they didn't share my feelings about the game. That happens a lot on the internet. I tried to make it readable and full of interesting reflections so that anyone might get something from it, and I am glad that you enjoyed it. My first article on Crysis was very much practice; I think I found my style more with this one.

    You had an interesting interpretation of the message Rockstar embedded in the ending. Being Rockstar, I doubt they intended to put any particular message in the game, though I am sure they became aware of messages people might draw from the story. In any case, my initial reaction to your interpretation is that it is neither true nor very interesting. At least in my case, I actually wanted all the killing to stop, even though I could continue to do so if I chose.

    Ultimately, it seems to me the only real way to stifle violence in games like Read Dead Redemption is to convince the player to avoid violence where possible. Whether intentional or not, Rockstar may have succeeded in doing just what they were trying to say was impossible.

  9. Daniel,

    Being able to act like a sociopath is only really a problem if you actually choose to act like a sociopath. I think the game did a good job of convincing me not to do that where a lot of other games don't.

    Incidently, I also tried to disarm or hogtie opponents where practical. I wanted to mention in the article my frustration when finally catching up to Bill Williamsom (William Williamson, get it?). I had previously captured Javier Escuella alive and intended to do the same to Williamson, but the game inexplicably wouldn't give me the option. I tried to hogtie Williamson, but it just wouldn't; then I tried a disarm, but he died immediately from the gunshot to the arm.

    Rockstar had set up the expectation that I could choose to take these men in alive, and then arbitrarily intervened in the games ordinary rules to prevent it with Williamson. I found that very annoying.

  10. @Lee: I guess what bugs me about it is that the game only bothers with doing it halfway. You can't sleep with prostitutes because, "Oh no, I'm a married man!", but if you want to mass murder a town, go right ahead, John. There's no, "Oh no, I'm not a mass murderer" option enforced by the narrative, but he's "honorable" because he refuses to be unfaithful to his wife. Why enforce the character behavior on us with one aspect of his personality, but not the other?

  11. Daniel,

    There are technical limitations. The game can't understand the difference between a cold-blooded murder and someone caught in the crossfire by accident. Sometimes these events will appear very similar, and there is just no way to consistently prevent one without also preventing the other. There also have to be some limits on interaction if only because of finite resources during development. Sleeping with prostitutes is an easy thing to leave out because A) John Marston wouldn't sleep with prostitutes anyway, and B) its absence doesn't interfere with anything else Marston would do.

    Rockstar also want to give some wriggle room in Marston's personality to let the player express themselves. It's easy to go too far and end up with a Nathan Drake who the player only nominally controls at times.

    Finally, my decision, as John Marston, not to murder innocent people would not be meaningful if I couldn't anyway, because then it would never have been my decision to begin with. One cannot be a moral agent in a world without real moral options. Playing the part of John Marston wouldn't have been nearly so interesting if the game did all the work for me.

  12. Lee,

    I totally agree with you on the merits of the presentation. It's absolutely true that decisions only matter if you have the ability to make them and I even understand the technical limitations that would prevent the kind of narrative strictness I've been talking about.

    The real problem, to me, is that John Marsten is not a cipher the way he is presented. He's pretty clearly characterized in cutscenes and dialogue and the player is free to trivialize it and muddle the narrative. It's a struggle because you want to have fun, but it's the same thing Rockstar has been wrestling with for ages. Nico Bellic spends every cutscene whining about how he wants to leave his old life behind and then as the player you get a five star police level and you're mass murdering civilians.

    It's the same problem as Final Fantasy VII where Meteor is about to strike the planet, but you can waste all kinds of time in the Golden Saucer and even sleep in the inn so many times that, conceivably, the planet should be gone.

    This is, of course, why Ebert has famously considered games to be incapable of being art and it's a real problem for any designer who wants to tell a cohesive, logical story.

    I don't know where I'm going with any of this other than to say that I find games with this much freedom, but a tight story to be fairly unlikeable. I can't care from the get-go. I agree that a movie with "press A to continue" does not make for a satisfying game, but I also think that it's not unfair to have the game force some kind of consistency on you.

    Players HATE the timer in Dead Rising, but I think it's brilliant. Guess what, you don't have infinite time to just putz around in the mall if you want to continue on with the story. If you don't want to save the pre-ordained story hostages, you can't complete the story. It's either: cooperate with the story or don't participate with the story and they did it with enough agency within that rigidity to make the experience pleasant and believable to me where Red Dead Redemption failed.

    I liked playing RDR, but the story bits outside of the MacFarlane ranch and his home (with rare exception) was so out of control that it made no sense for Marsten to interact with any of the caricatures presented to him. Marsten has tremendous patience, but his fully-formed, three-dimensional personality did not fit in with any of the one-note characters, to me.

    Ramble ramble ramble, sorry, haha. Just dumping all my RDR thoughts out at once.

  13. Please, ramble. I insist. They're interesting thoughts, and I agree with most of them. I seems less perturbed by the potential for story breaking gameplay mechanics as you, but I completely understand the problem. A lot of this article is about precisely that. My apparent turnaround in the comments was just because I felt you were overstating the problem a wee bit.

  14. Oh wow. You just articulated why I tell everyone that I really like the game, but hate hate HATE! the ending.

    I'm getting agitated just thinking about this right now, months after finishing the game.

    Not being able to even *try* fighting your way out of the barn was a total kick in the balls to me. I understand that Rockstar needed to have him die to fit the story, but why not let you at least try to make it out alive? Only one out of a million would be able to anyway. Taking control from me at a critical point was completely antithetical to the other 50 hours I put into the game and made me regret that I actually finished the game.

  15. The game is in my top 2 or 3 ever, but I agree with most of what you wrote. I actually like the story elements quite a bit less than you, including Marston himself. I'm playing Undead Nightmare now and am reminded of how ridiculous it is that Marston is an Old West murderer who is also an extremely well-spoken and intelligent paragon of virtue. Plus he's fighting to end racism (in Undead at least).

    I also found the cutscenes to be quite dull and overly long, and in that sense I feel that RDR and GTA4 are a step back from the PS2 era Rockstar games.

    I fully agree that this style of storytelling needs to go away - the structure hasn't changed a lick in the 10 years since GTA3 set the mold, and has if anything gotten more rigid, not less. I'm not optimistic about the near to medium-term future.

    (If you're wondering why I still regard RDR so highly as per my first sentence, it's because of everything else.)

  16. Steve,

    I'm glad someone else shared my particular frustrations with the ending; I was beginning to think I might be the only one.

  17. JuntMonkey,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I feel the need to defend Marston a teeny tiny bit. (1) Marston was an orphan who grew up an outlaw to survive rather than choosing it as an occupation later in life. (2) Dutch was a charismatic and intelligent leader, driven more by ideology than lust for money or glory. He taught Marston to read. (3) According to all those twin studies, intelligence is mostly in the genes. (4) One of Marston's complaints about Dutch was that he went crazy and started killing for no reason. Finally, (5) when Marston describes his days in the gang, it's clear that, at the time, he didn't think he was doing wrong. I don't think his transition from outlaw to peaceful farmer is all that far-fetched, really.

    I haven't played Undead Nightmare yet, but, yes, Marston fighting racism does seem rather stupid. But, then, Undead Nightmare seems to be rather tongue-in-cheek. I mean, isn't it just cowboys vs. zombies? Once you've gone down that road, why not have Marston fight racism?

  18. Thinking about it more ...

    I said that Marston was among the best conceived, written, and acted characters I have encountered in a videogame, but that doesn't mean he is among the most believable. And neither do I think that good dialogue is necessary believable or realistic. There is a strong overlap between these things, but they aren't the same.

    If Marston's views about women seem strangely progressive, that's partly because he has to appeal to modern day players. We aren't going to want to play the part of Marston if we find him offensive and stupid all of the time. Marston is well-written for the purpose he serves in the game, and being believability does not trump all other concerns. For me, he is believable enough, given all the other roles he has to play.

  19. Fantastic article, and basically sums up my irritation at the game (which I've just started playing).

    However, I disagree with both sides of the "is it okay that you can kill loads of people" debate. Daniel says it's a problem that you are allowed at all to kill hundreds of people; you say it's not because that's the player's choice not to fuck up the narrative. To me, this is a structural problem: it's not so much that you CAN cause massacres, but more that the structure of the game encourages it.

    Take GTA - a game in which the whole system of the game is basically set up so that the slightest of confrontations escalates into a horrific bloodbath. It's really easy to run people over accidentally, really easy to scrape a cop car, and really easy for cops to provoke you by shooting at you. Nico's grumbling comes off as ludicrous not so much because you CAN contradict it, but because it's hard not to.

    RDR is not as skewed, but inherits many of the same mechanics from GTA. I've lost track of how often I have accidentally attacked someone (sometimes without even realising), acquired a bounty, been shot at, tried to lasso them, been shot at even more for doing so, and chased out of town. Then I kill everyone in a hundred mile radius and restart the console.

    Part of the problem here is that Rockstar didn't bother to offer the player many ways out of these situations. Ambient duels are initiated as you walk through the world, but nobody you accidentally run over on your horse ever challenges you to a duel instead of simply attacking you. The NPCs initiate force extremely quickly.

    But moreover, the combat system means you can murder all-comers with ease. In a game about the wild west, it is simply too easy to butcher entire towns (not least because of your Wolverine-style health). You don't have to go very far through the singleplayer game to meet missions where you kill 30 men in as half as many minutes; that's the kind of person the game makes you be. Is this supposed to be some kind of comment on the hypocrisy of the west's morals? I haven't got far enough yet to tell, but it isn't making a fuss of it if so.

    It's clearly Rockstar's intention to write Marston well enough that you don't WANT to contradict his character. But that's wholly countermanded by what the game's mechanics encourage you to do.

  20. John,

    Thanks for the comment!

    You also make some great points. I'll have to let them stew awhile, I think.

    One problem is that you are given few ways to interact with the world except through violence. It does make it hard to stay in character sometimes, and I too sometimes initiated hostilities by accident.

  21. No worries. Aye, it sometimes felt a bit sad wandering around the nicely realised towns knowing all you could really do was tip your hat at people.

    Actually, would you mind if I wrote a post of my own in response to this one? I reckon it's a big topic.

  22. Hi Lee,

    interesting article. I saw that there hasn't really been any defense of the ending in the comments (apart from Nober's meta-reading), so I thought I'd put in my two cents.

    While I have a lot of problems with Red Dead Redemption (the terribly cliched and one-dimensional characters the game is (mostly) populated with, for instance), the ending definitely isn't one of them. The reason the ending worked for me was BECAUSE of its (delayed) inevitability. Throughout the story you get hints that Marston will die by the end through the atmosphere and the brilliant Man In Black side missions. The game (especially the superior last act) is structured like a classical tragedy, and Rockstar's finest storytelling decision is the respite from violence Marston gets, right before the end.

    You talk about different endings, about leaving the decision in the player's hands, but multiple endings have no place in tragedy - they undermine the sheer inevitability of fate. If you had optionally been able to resurrect Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, her death wouldn't have had the enduring impact it has now.

    Red Dead Redemption (the divisive epilogue excluded) ended the only way it could have: a heroic, but inevitable death of our Old West hero at the hands of modernity and progress. Its very lack of interactivity drove its inexorability home all the more. So while I can agree that the ending was "expected", I have to say that it was pretty damned satisfying as well.

    Still, thanks for making me consider the strengths of the game more closely - your metaphor of the player-as-actor is a striking one.

  23. Marijn,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Let me clarify: I agree that sometimes things should be inevitable; not everything should be open to player choice. My problem was not so much that Marston died (though I think the alternate ending would have been a brave and interesting move by Rockstar), my problem was how he died.

    (1) Marston's death was not unavoidable in that scene. I could have taken those soldiers, and the barn had an -- apparently uncovered -- rear exit. Marston's death was far from physically unescapable. If it had been, then I would have been far less annoyed with the ending.

    (2) Marston's family was still in danger. I also thought he'd want to kill Ross before dying himself. I didn't understand, never mind agree, with Marston's decision to step out of the barn door.

    (3) Because of (1) and (2), I felt annoyed by the role assigned to me by the game. If the Red Dead Redemption was going to end with that scene, then it should have ended with the player being given some agency and multiple endings

    If Rockstar really wanted a tragic ending with Marston dying, then they should have thought of a better way to do it. I should have agreed with Marston that it was for the best, and I should have felt the weight of its inevitability. In other words, like I originally wrote, I should have been complicit in Marston decision to effectively end his own life.

    Throughout the game, Marston's values and goals became mine in that world, I shared with him a the drive to get back to his family. Like Marston, I wasn't killing all those men just for kicks, but because it was a means to an end. Right at the end that relationship was destroyed: I thought Marston was being arbitrary and stupid so that Rockstar could have their death scene. I really could have been satisfied with the ending had Rockstar handled it better.

    A good example would be Shadow of the Colossus. We don't learn much about Wanda. He seems to have only one goal and he is willing to go to any lengths to get it. I completely accepted my role in Wanda's slow and inevitable self-destruction. It sold me on that decision in a way that Red Dead Redemption did not.

  24. John,

    Go for it! You don't need to ask permission ... I wouldn't.

  25. Hi Lee,

    let me respond to your points.

    1) Fair enough. It didn't bother me that much, because my imagination tried to fill in the blanks: Marston was tired of running, he was making sure his family could escape, it made symbolic sense for him to die on his family farm, etc. It doesn't really matter that Marston could have escaped - he consciously decides to stop fighting for the sake of his wife and son.

    2) Marston's family was only ever really in danger when they were helping John fight the soldiers. Ross had no reason to kill Marston's family after John himself was dead - he didn't want to end Marston's life because of what he knew, but because he considered him to be an outlaw, a danger to the progress of civilisation.

    3) I guess we'll always disagree on this point, because I DID feel that suicide-by-cop was the most logical path for Marston to take. As you say, throughout the game, Marston does what he does to get back to his family, but when he sees that the US government is never going to let him walk away, he sacrifices his life so his wife and son can have some chance of building a peaceful existence. Of course, the epilogue shows that Marston's sacrifice was in vain, and the sins of the father are passed down to the son.

    I however agree that Shadow of the Colossus is narratively superior to Red Dead Redemption. Unlike RDR, Colossus rings true on every level, in every moment, down to the smallest detail.

  26. Marijn,

    We don't really disagree. I realised, when writing the srticle, that some people would accept their role in Marston's death and understand it as Rockstar had intended. I didn't, and I don't think it was my fault. I think Rockstar could have done a better job of helping me to feel like you about the ending, and I sincerely wish they had.

    The very fact that two people like us can have such wildly different feelings about the ending is precisely why I suggested it should have given the player more agency. For you, Marston's decision led the story to a satisfying end, but for me, it just cheapened the whole experience. (If tragedy was necessary, then perhaps all possible choices could have lead to different tragic outcomes.)

    But if Rockstar really wanted Marston to die in the manner he did, then I think they should have done a better job of putting you and me on the same page. I envy that you got to experience the ending that Rockstar intended, because it would have been satisfying for me too.

  27. By the way, thanks for the great comments, Marijn. Same goes for other commenters. Some really thoughtful and interesting responses here, and exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to provoke!

  28. Great article.

    I adore this game and so I was able to look past or gloss over most of what you cited as problems because ultimately, I think R* did a great job with what they had (and I am not generally a fan of their games). The execution of this game on all levels from the graphics to the voice acting to the awesome music was top-notch.

    And speaking of executions, I am surprised that, in a world where any popular cash-cow character is marketed into the ground, that R* had the nuts to kill off their main character (and I totally agree with you on how well-designed he is).

    Also, you never mentioned how you felt about Jack as a playable character. I am the bureaucrat at the Red Dead Wiki and the general consensus of the game's fans is that Jack is a little bitch and nobody really likes him.

    I have postulated that the reason we like Jack so little, is that we loved John so much.

    People have admitted to me that they cried when John died and tried desperately to re-load the game to attempt to save him.

    I don't know about you, but I've encountered people shedding real emotion over a video game's story and characters very, very rarely.

    At times, I'm not sure R* realizes the impact this game has had on some people.

    Long live John Marston.

  29. Hi Jack,

    Thanks for the comment.

    There's so much that could be said about Red Dead Redemption, and the vast majority of it's good. I cut a lot from the article because I wanted to concentrate on stuff that hadn't been said already.

    I think you're right about Marston's son. He feels like an interloper, and he has an annoying nasally voice to boot.

    Great wiki, by the way, I used it a couple of times while writing this.

  30. Thanks for the well-written article, esp. your thoughts on the ending. I didn't hate the ending, but I did not like it either. I spent so many hours getting Marston back to his family that I was genuinely enjoying the simple farm life. I knew it wouldn't end happily, but the way he died was pretty unsatisfying.

    I know that his death was supposed to spur me (no pun intended) on to hunt down Ross as Jack. I did so without any sense of enjoyment or even a bit of vengeance the character was surely feeling.

    Still, it was an amazing game. I want to go back and play it again. Though I think I may leave that final showdown in the barn unfinished.

  31. I thought the ending was great -- Marston can't have a "normal" life because there's far too much blood on his hands.

    And then his son avenging him? Perfect.

    Best scene in the game, however, is when Bonnie wordlessly looks down at her feet when she realizes she can't have John.

    So yeah, complaining about the ending here is going to be completely subjective.