Sunday, January 23, 2011

Games As Art: The Ending of Red Dead Redemption

Author's note: I wrote most of this post back in June but failed to publish it. Then in the fall Rockstar released the Undead Nightmare DLC, causing me to return to the game and subsequently this article.

Note: Major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar Games's recent Red Dead Redemption is a sandbox-style game set in the old-west that players explore in the role of outlaw-turned-family-man John Marston. The game is comprised of a multitude of tropes and images from western films that the developers both lovingly recreate and actively critique using a post-revisionist lens. Red Dead presents Rockstar's most introspective examination of the violence that characterizes their games. This is particularly true of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, which has garnered worldwide media attention for the freedom it gives players to commit depraved acts. Through Red Dead and the character of John Marston, whose story is explicitly one of redemption, Rockstar directly addresses the moral divide between their interactive fantasies and the often mundane reality we inhabit. Never is this made more clear than in the final missions of the game when players are given the unusual opportunity to reap the fruits of their labour by continuing to play beyond the climax through a sort of "ever after" sequence.

The bulk of Red Dead sees John Marston tracking down and executing his former gang members. Government men have abducted his wife and child and in order to get them back John has to do the law men's dirty work. When players finally eliminate the last of the outlaws they witness the Marston family reunion and then continue to play through a series of domestic missions as the characters begin to put their lives back together. Objectives in these missions include herding cattle, delivering grain, and scaring crows away, all of which are a far cry from hunting down bandits. The real meat of this section is the introduction of John's teenage son, Jack, and the development of that relationship.

Jack admires his father's gun-slinging ways, much to John's dismay. The boy is enamoured with romantic fantasies from the novels he reads, and he wants to "be a man" like his father by going on adventures and fighting bad guys. Many of the missions in this section of the game boil down to reverse tutorials whereby the player teaches Jack how to complete basic day-to-day activities on the family farm. John uses these lessons as an opportunity to try and dissuade the boy from choosing a life like the one he had, explaining that gun-slinging and murder are neither moral nor admirable.

John's interactions with his son present an overt dialogue about the nature of violence and the differences between a normal life and a fictionalized dramatic one. Jack repeatedly glorifies fictional accounts of "heroics" in the wild west, including killing and vengeance like that which characterized earlier sections of the game. The boy complains that the menial tasks of farm-life are boring, and John responds that reality isn't like the stories in adventure novels. He tells his son that it's easy to enjoy exciting tales because they excite the imagination, but that people tend to hate actual drama because it's frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable. John tries to teach John how to appreciate their everyday activities despite their subdued and repetitive nature, and his attempts compromise the final missions of the game.

Through this conversation between Marston and his son Rockstar directly addresses the expectation of and taste for violence in their games.

The developer anticipates the frustration of many gamers at the tutorial-esque missions at the conclusion of Red Dead, and Jack vocalizes their concerns with his demand for adventure. The boy is characterized as being obsessed with fiction, with his head more in his books than his real life. Over the course of the late-game missions, however, Jack comes to appreciate the value of commonplace activities and (after a close encounter with a grizzly bear) the relative safety of a "boring" life. By the final missions Jack begins to openly critique his father's propensity for guns and violence, and quips that he will write a story called "The Day John Marston Stops Shooting." Johns responds, "I don't think that'll sell, people like shooting in them things," and thereby gives voice to the developers responsible for games so often criticized for their violence.

Through Red Dead, Rockstar actively engages in the moral debate about violence in video games. Never is this more apparent than in the conversations between John and Jack, in which the developer adresses the depravity of the game's content. However the dialogue also draws attention to the differences between fantasy and reality, and the state of commercial entertainment. Rockstar's stance is less a defence and more an indictment of the audience, not going as far as to blame players for the violence in gaming narratives but definitely acknowledging their role in its propagation. The morality and politics thus embedded so deeply in Red Dead's narrative make it much more than just another violent game from the developers of Grand Theft Auto. This discussion is just one more reason why Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic game, firmly rooted in the tradition of revisionist Western cinema and well worth your time.

1 comment:

  1. And then John dies and you have to play as the Jack, who looks like he's aged 10 years (even though it's only 3 years later) and still sounds like a 15 year old.  You somehow retain John's Fame and Honor (fame I can sort of understand-- but honor?!?!) and are able to complete most of the stranger missions, because somehow people don't have anything better to do than sit in the woods with a broken glider for 3 years waiting for some fucking beaver fur to make glue with.