Red Dead Resolution

Into the sunset

Good-bye, John Marston. We'll see you around.

I bought Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption the day it came out, May 18, 2010, and I just finished it this past weekend. Of course, I say that I finished the game. The game itself seems to think that I’m only 85.4% done. Red Dead Redemption doesn’t end when the credits roll. You can just keep going if you want, playing poker, hunting, gathering rare herbs, helping or assaulting people as your wont may be. I will admit to having done a little of all of these things.

To readers and fellow gamers mired in the southern portion of the game’s virtual geography, I say “press on!” After the initial “New Austin” portion of the storyline, the “Mexico” chapters are a bit of a disappointment. Progress is more tentative. The clichés are more offensive. Even though the territory is smaller, one seems to spend more time in transit on one’s horse. There’s an ill-advised stealth portion of the game with unreasonably lethal throwing knives. (Seriously, it can take a couple of shots to stop a guy who’s trying to kill you, but one throwing knife in the back puts your man down, every time. Are the things poisoned? The game never says anything about poison.)

But when you come back to the US, and gain access to the “West Elizabeth” territory (which is actually the easternmost potion of the game’s geography. Go figure), it’s all worth it. This is where Red Dead Redemption’s early hints that it wants to be a game about the end of the West and the conflict between the open frontier and creeping industrialized bureaucracy really come to fruition. [Let it be said that there are rather severe SPOILERS AHEAD, but if you really want some quality spoilers, go to the Red Dead Wiki. It’s pretty fabulous.]

Suddenly, in West Elizabeth’s largest town, Blackwater, it starts to feel like 1911 and not the 1870s. The streets are paved. You take a ride in (and make fun of) a car, which, of course, breaks down at a critical moment. You’re able to purchase a pretty sweet full-automatic German Mauser pistol, and you finally get to work face-to-face with the corrupt federal agent who’s been pulling your strings. (He’s been hovering in the background during the early portions of the game.) But most importantly, after all this, you do actually get your family back. And that’s not where the game ends.

Pale Rider

He'll take your confession, and offer the absolution of cold steel

My fondness for the last portion of the game can be at least partially explained by the fact that my favorite Western of all time is Pale Rider, and not the Clint Eastwood part of the film (which is, admittedly, pretty awesome), but the Michael Moriarty part of the film. The Clint Eastwood part of the film is about a guy who is probably dead and come back as an angel of death to take retribution on the bad men who killed him and are now hurting other people. Clint puts on a priest’s collar at one point, but he deals out far more ass-kicking than spiritual guidance. Michael Moriarty, on the other hand, is a prospector who is trying to pull his fellow prospectors into some sort of community and build a family with a woman who starts lusting hard after Clint as soon as he rides into town (her daughter too. Lusts after Clint, that is). Moriarty has a nice moment with a shotgun at the end of the film, but mostly he’s the quiet guy with the resolve to pull everyone together. (Did I mention that film is about mining instead of ranching? Not a cow in sight. Brilliant.)

After riding all over the West, killing and being shot at, John Marston gets to go home to his own property and try to reconnect with his family. Even though I knew it was coming, John’s reunion with his wife, Abigail was surprisingly affecting. Abigail, when you meet her, is a great character. She loves John, but she won’t take any shit from anyone, especially him. She has as much of a past as John does—she was a “working girl” who ran with old gang John has just killed off, and she has mixed feelings about that. In short, she’s a character worth all of the trouble you’ve just gone through. (Compare, say, to Super Mario Bros., in its various incarnations. What did Toadstool or Peach ever do for you?) The scene where Abigail meets Bonnie McFarlane, the rancher who saved John’s life and is more than a little sweet on him, is perfectly played. The two women have a lot in common, and like each other. The only sign of Bonnie’s feelings is the way the camera (can we call it the camera?—the game’s view) lingers on Bonnie as she watches John and Abigail drive away. It’s heartbreaking.

Bonnie McFarlane

As great as Abigail is, I think that Bonnie McFarlane is actually the best part of the game, and kudos to Rockstar for that.

It’s a nice character moment in an undeniably bloody game, and it’s what makes Red Dead Redemption a game worth talking about, and not just one that’s a great deal of fun to play. Sandbox games like Red Dead Redemption constantly have to balance the creation of a dynamic where the user can do whatever he wants with the constraints necessary to maintain some semblance of narrative and character consistency. While Red Dead Redemption offers the player a great deal of flexibility as to how violent or how law-abiding John Marston is going to be, the character is written as unwaveringly faithful to his wife. New Austin is full of “working women,” but John constantly reaffirms that he’s a married man. He does not and cannot flirt with Bonnie Marston. Marston may not exactly be Michael Moriarty in Pale Rider, but he wants to be. Once he goes home and puts on his rancher’s clothes, he never wears anything else. (The player literally loses the ability to change Marston into different outfits at that point of the game.) He herds cattle. He teaches his son to hunt. He shoots wolves and crows instead of people. He finds a different life, for just a little while.

It’s not quite Unforgiven, but it’s worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence.

If I had one complaint (other than Mexico), it’s that I’d like to be able to bump into the characters from the main storyline again in the game’s coda. (You are given brief updates on what happens to most of them in a newspaper you can purchase. Do.) I’d like to know what happens to McFarlane and her ranch. I’d like to get to see her meet Marston’s son. I’ve made an emotional connection with these characters, and that’s an extraordinary thing to be able to say about a game.

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

4 Responses to “Red Dead Resolution”
  1. Kevin Mattison says:

    Having just entered the Blackwater portion of the game myself I must admit to being a little taken aback by how jarring the transition was (in a good way). It’s really impressive to wander into a clean, well-lit, paved community after hauling ass through the deserts of Mexico for so long. Well timed and kind of breathtaking.

  2. Tim Carmody says:

    Gav, you should check out The Wild Bunch if you haven’t yet. A great scene where the outlaws encounter an automobile; also a terrific incursion into Mexico, which becomes (strangely) the real/new/old West.

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