Underlying Themes of “Red Dead Redemption”

Posted on June 14, 2010

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John Marston chasing after a stagecoach.

Who would have thought that electronic gaming would be the ideal medium for perhaps the greatest western experience since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma?

In the spiritual successor to their coolly-received 2004 western epic Red Dead Revolver the player is thrust into a fictionalized West as the gritty, hardened outlaw-turned-rancher John Marston, reluctantly forced to do the Bureau of Investigation(proto-FBI)’s dirty work hunting down members of his old gang in exchange for the safe return of his family. Rockstar games (responsible for the now-iconic Grand Theft Auto series) have designed a game so immaculate in its detail that to attempt to describe it all would likely take as long as it does to complete it: the game is a huge open-ended sandboxer that actually makes the deserts, forests, mountains, valleys, plains, towns, and basins of the West come alive—supplemented with equally vibrant gunfights, train robberies, bar fights, gambling, duels, and other dastardly elements of the Old West. The developers have, in fusing the free-roaming mission-based formula of the GTA series with the tactical stealth and emphasis on foraging of the Metal Gear Solid series (particularly the third installment, what with the all the hunting and skinning in R.D.D.), created what The New York Times succinctly nailed as a tour de force.

Does the game have drawbacks? Sure. Those accustomed to expository metanarrative will be in for a shock. The game’s plot isn’t written out for you in stone; you have to piece together what happened to John Marston in his past that set him on his current path largely from conversations had with the numerous N.P.C.s and supporting cast that the game offers. If you’re one to skip dialogue, you’ll be scratching your head because, as an opened-ended game, the plot-flow is not exactly linear. This is not a bad thing and did not deter from my own enjoyment of the game, if anything it was enhanced, but some will certainly decry the departure from traditional storytelling. Still, an astute-enough player can at the very least piece together that the game transitions through four “Acts” which are constructed roughly as such:

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

1911

Act I: John Marston travels the frontier contriving with the locals a (very elaborate) plan to take out his old crime friends at Fort Mercer.
Act II: After his target flees to Mexico, John Marston pursues him and gets pulled into the Mexican Revolution.
Act III: After killing his former comrades, John is sent to Blackwater to work with Government agents in bringing his mentor Dutch Van Der Linde to justice.
Act IV: John, released from government custody, is returned to his wife and son, but must make amends to earn their love and respect.

Usually deep for a video game, wouldn’t you agree?

Stealth and cover are important elements in "Red Dead Redemption"

By taking place in 1911, our story is about the Wild West as it was wrapping up, sitting on its deathbed rather than in its prime. Doing so also strategically allowed the developers to toy with three pivotal scenarios observed in the Western genre. They recorded not only the West’s last breath but also chronicled the hardships of the Mexican Revolution and the tragic final moments of Native American prominence.

Another grievance players will have is that the game is sick with the Rockstar Curse: a tendency for their games, with their large scope, to have an unavoidable and expected multitude of glitches, crashes, and bugs. Many of these issues however were resolved by the patch released on June 12, redeeming it as it were, true to its name.

Other than that, there’s really nothing ill to be said of Red Dead Redemption. Even players who don’t salivate all over their experience with it will still contend that there is generally nothing wrong with the game, that it offers a unique and before unseen undertaking in gaming. What surprised me was exactly how relevant the game is thematically to our present era. Setting the game in the year 1911, almost exactly a hundred years from now, allows us to look back on our recent history and draw parallels between the turn of the 20th century and the turn of the 21st—in doing so we see that both put us in a world at odds with itself, torn between the ways of the old and the ways of reform; the horseback-riding conversations you share with locals concerning the “damn gubberment” and Marsden’s refusal to accept that the West is dying even as factories, automobiles, and flying machines encroach on his homeland are blatant references to the frustrations many people have had lately adjusting to our new, digital, progressive social order. It’s easily a commentary on today’s culture war. The period in which R.D.D. exists was one that saw the rise of modernism, which began to encapsulate every area of life; the Edwardian era overlapped the Victorian and people had begun to question “the way things were.”

The modernist movement is most heavily expounded by Agent Edgar Ross, a character who acknowledges that it is hypocritical to kidnap a man’s family in order to blackmail him into service for Good but justifies/rationalizes this behavior as a means of achieving what is necessary; “I’m not a great intellect,” he admits, though this does not slow him in his resolve to expand the influence of the federal government West and, in seeking to eliminate the last of its famed outlaws, impose on it the new zeitgeist. During the American Old West, the code of ethics was such that one could shoot-to-kill to defend ones self without repercussion. When twentieth-century men like Ross tightened control over the area, the culture and climate of the guns-and-cowboys days succumbed to modernity, bringing them to a close.

And yet, when approached by the fairer sex, his response is a polite "Sorry, I'm a married man."

Scrutinizing it even closer, what we pull out of all this culture-war-modernity mumbo jumbo is a conflict between chaos and civilization; opposites at arms with each other, and polarity plays another vital role in what is indisputably the games primary theme: redemption. The entire game, from its use of the Honor system (in which “positive” points are awarded for helping strangers, saving people, etc.; “negative” awarded for cheating, killing indiscriminately, etc.) which adds to your reputation, to the game’s central character, ceaselessly reiterates the question of whether or not a person can change. John Marston is a man hardened by a life of crime whose only wish is to be reunited with his family so he can reform himself into an honest man. Though uneducated, he displays a sharp wit and a high innate intelligence at many opportunities, cognizant of his wrongdoings and determined to change for the better. He is aware, as he tells his son near the end of the game, that everyone must face the consequences for what they’ve done, and yet when asked whether he was a good or a bad man, he says: “I guess I’m a bad man who tried to be a good father. I don’t know. Every man has a right to change, a chance at forgiveness. Ain’t that what the good book says?”

“I don’t know. You never read to me from the good book, sir,” his son Jack replies.

“Well, I imagine that’s what it says.”

The above is proof that dialogue in the game is priceless. Clever, smart, and well-acted, the characters feel authentic rather than carbon copies of Western stereotypes and allow the player to understand their moods and motives. At times, there are some rather funny exchanges. Much of the game’s charm is derived from its melting pot cast; take for instance the Snake Oil peddling fraud Nigel West Dickens who you’ll know from the TV spot as the “This Is AMERICA” guy.

Overlying all the other themes I mentioned, perhaps tying them together, is that of general Change and how people behave in the face of its inevitability. Whether it’s a shift from the old to the new, the conservative to the liberal, the condemned to the condoned, or chaos to civilization, R.D.D. is a study in what it means to accept fate, to succumb to what will be.

Does John manage to earn his prized Redemption? In more ways than one, though often not in the way we expect. In the 15-40 hours it’ll take you to complete R.D.D. in its entirety, you’ll see him shape who he is as a man, as a father, as a character. It’s a journey you’ll have to take for yourself, so saddle up. Don’t forget your spurs.

Other Items Of Mention: There’s a ton of humor to be found in The Blackwater Tribune, the fictional newspaper read throughout the frontier. The developers really show their presence as 21st century men and women here almost to the point of breaking the fourth wall. The stories in the newspaper are written in a sensational style typical of the era and some are obviously meant to poke fun at the superstitions and prejudices held by people during that time. For example, a letter of complaint written in response to news of the first female doctor in the area that can basically be summed up as “Women are dumb, how can this be? Doesn’t this woman know that she can’t be a doctor because she is so beneath us?” Others are equally offensive and hilarious in how unapologetic and ignorant they are. Definitely take the time to read the paper as some stories are very amusing. Also, I couldn’t find anywhere else to mention this, but fans of There Will Be Blood will surely enjoy that there is a town called Plainview that has a large oil derrick; in addition to that, the doctor in the town of Armadillo looks EXACTLY like Daniel Plainview from the movie. Awesome Easter egg, assuming that was intentional.

EDIT 06/14/2010 3:35 PM: Apparently I have a big sign on my head that says ‘PLAGIARIZE ME’, which is funny, because I almost certainly don’t.

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