I Don’t Know Jack (Marston): Red Dead Redemption

***Hold on there pardner…I detect a whole lotta of SPOILERS in the distance. Those who don’t know would do best to tread lightly…***

Red Dead Redemption cover art © Rockstar, Microsoft
Red Dead Redemption cover art © Rockstar, Microsoft (source)

As I neared the end of Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help but be a little sad. Sad not because of the story (it certainly tugged at my heartstrings) but because of Jack’s turn — or rather the way Red Dead’s writers turned Jack Marston’s story almost in that of his father’s.

And now you’re looking at me funny. Is that cause you’ve beaten it or because you haven’t? Well, if you haven’t, please go play this game. Please, please, pretty please with sugar on top! Anyhoo, whether you’ve chosen to stick around or not, I need to back up a bit.

After something of a delay, I finally completed Red Dead Redemption’s main story. Let me just say right off the bat that I was thoroughly impressed with the ending. Hell, I was thoroughly impressed with the whole damn game – the scenery, the music, the story, the characters, the gameplay. Though I did run into a few teeth-gritting glitches and never quite got the hang of horse breaking, these minor problems hardly colored the overall experience. Red Dead has firmly earned its place among my most favorite current gen games. But the ending. Yes, I was impressed with it, but that doesn’t mean I was happy with it. And now let’s back up a bit further.

As many know, Red Dead Redemption (2010) tells the story of John Marston, an outlaw turned not-quite-lawman who wants to escape his past, get a little revenge, and save his family. Part of the genius behind the game is the way the story unfolds, like a really great book, chapter by chapter. True, not all chapters are  winners as more than a few were little more than looting, escort, and racing missions; but the ones that built upon Marston’s story were damn near riveting. The horrible things he had done and had to do are masterfully revealed piece by piece. (And it really all does make sense once the final piece falls in place, though it’s not the most complicated puzzle.)

His "confused" and "Imma kill you" looks are very similar. (source)
Marston’s “calm” and “Imma kill you” looks are very similar. (source)

It’s easy to become immersed in Marston’s story, especially since Rockstar offers such a vivid environment. Bravo! to them for also including a fair share of history in the mix.  Players are transported to the “Western border states” of 1911. (Or, in my mind, Arizona/New Mexico since their dates of statehood and the turmoil of those territories vs. the federal government somewhat matches the timeline.) Trains snake around and through the landscapes, “auto-mobiles” are the newest of fangled contraptions that will surely destroy the lands, and some sort of flying machine is schedule to be debuted at a point in the near future. Meanwhile, Marston holds fast to the “cowboy” ideals of a bygone era where horses and guns are one’s only true friends. His runnings with the “wrong” crowd, which are alluded to throughout the game, get him mixed up with the local government, the federal government, and the Mexican government, as well as the locals from both U. S. and Mexico. You traverse brilliantly rendered American and Mexican territories – from red desert to white snow – and can stop in any number of towns for supplies and rest. Money is not easy to come by, but jobs and looting help pay the bills. And there are minor chances to forge relationships with people, but those relationships are mostly mission based, and most people eventually fade into the backdrop of the main story.

Gone, but not forgotten: Mr. Nigel West Dickens (source)
Gone, but not forgotten: Mr. Nigel West Dickens (source)

It bears mentioning that Red Dead is not a game of moral choices. There are different ways one can approach some missions, but they all turn out the same in the end. Marston’s path is fixed, but there are plenty of different ways to reach the end. Red Dead’s not an “infinite” open-world game. It’s easy enough to get lost in side quests, but the main story always welcomes you back (even if you’ve gotten little too off track with the side quests.)

So yes, I love this game, almost to a fault…almost. The one…no, two things that are holding me back from proclaiming the awesomeness of this game from the mountaintops are the epilogue and the ending. And not really the end of the ending, but the…the…oh, just read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Once Marston has completed his primary mission and saved his family, the epilogue begins. To be blunt, I did not like this part of the game. The reunion of Marston, Abigail his wife, and Jack his son brought a tear to my eye, and I would have been more than happy to have had the credits roll after that. Marston’s story reached a suitable and (mostly) happy resolution at that point and the game had closure. But no. The game did not end. Instead Marston’s story continued on his farm, and this is where things got really dicey for me. Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, but the storytelling really faltered here, especially in building the relationship between Marston and Jack.

Boy, quit yer damn readin' and grab ya a gun! (source)
Boy, quit yer goddamn readin’ and grab a gun! We ain’t the damn Victorians! (source)

As the story starts with Marston and Jack, it’s clear that Jack is a gentler soul and that there’s a good bit of disconnect between them. Jack enjoys reading, but Marston is not a “literary man” and doesn’t quite know how to encourage him. Marston enjoys hunting, but Jack expresses a dislike of it; yet this dislike never once plays out during any of the hunting scenes (Jack whoops and hollers along with his father). Jack keeps up with the times while Marston is stuck in the past. Jack wants to be his father but he doesn’t. Sure the Marston’s love each other as a family, and sure there’s going to be some tension between Marston and Abigail and Jack after what happened to the two them, but the story feels so disjointed that it was very hard for me accept Marston as a “father” and Jack as his “son.” When Marston’s past catches up with him in a barrage of bullets, his death is unfortunate, as is the discovery of his body by Abigail and Jack. But the idea of Jack seeking revenge some 3 years later just didn’t sit well with me. I mean, the act of revenge makes sense in the grand scheme of this type of story, but Jack’s fragmented character wasn’t nearly fleshed out enough for me to believe that he’d turn killer, even after the death of his mother left him an orphan. (Ahem, kinda like John Marston, ahem.)

This, it is the face of a killer? I can't quite tell. (source)
A killer or just bad sun glare? You decide.(source)

So no, I don’t like Jack, and I don’t like the fact that he’s the only playable character now that the main story is over. I don’t want to complete Marston’s side quests with him. Those missions are not his – Jack Marston is not John Marston. Hell, I’d almost rather play as Abigail. But what I’ll probably do is go back to the save point just prior to the finale, and I’ll keep playing as Marston; the John Marston who does not yet know his fate or what his son will become. And then I’ll go ahead with the “ending”…maybe.

Red Dead Redemption is a near-perfect game, and I only disliked the end of the game in principle not in fact. There’s no three-level boss battle, no 15 minute gun fight, no long speeches or meetings of the minds. The final scenes are as easy to handle as the rest of the game. The ending is wonderful in its disquiet and quietness. It’s a cleansing, deep breath in what’s otherwise an emotionally heavy and heady game. And though it didn’t make me happy, I can live with the ending, and I’ll tolerate Jack Marston as I continue to play. But he’s not his father.

22 thoughts on “I Don’t Know Jack (Marston): Red Dead Redemption”

  1. Seems like you originally kind of missed the point of the ending, haha. Ending is the best part. You can try and argue that it’s not really logical for that soft-hearted kid to obsess over avenging his father, but there’s plenty of lesser examples of other sons doing the same thing. The Place Beyond the Pines is I think the best/worst example, where Dane Dehaan wants to kill the policeman who killed his father even though he never knew his father and had no connection with him. I’d say that one’s a bit of a stretch, but Jack at least knew his father sparingly, in a (very intentional) awkward and disconnected relationship at the game’s current time and however he knew him before. Jack was just beginning to reconnect with his dad, over things like learning to use a gun (hence an emphasis on his lack of complaining after going hunting with John), and hell, you could even argue that he was set on revenge /because/ he didn’t have the most picturesque relationship with his father, a father whom despite his shortcomings he clearly loved and wanted, and when John was murdered he felt robbed. As to the reality of him slipping into the life of an outlaw entirely, conceivably that could have been due to some ill urge to follow in the footsteps of his father and the drastically changed outlook any kid would have with their father being killed, a close father or not, but yeah, Jack becoming a worthless outlaw is dumb. It’s awful and tragic and dumb, and that’s the point. The marshals had to have their way and the cycle of unmercy and revenge and violence continues just like John said it would, and after the game you play the horrible, unrelatable, wasted potential remnant of John Marston’s hurt. Yeah, it’s not too fun to play as him after the story’s done, but damn does it compensate it thematic fulfillment. That’s the reason you see the good kid Jack could have been in all that time spent at the ranch, and the reason a happy ending for the Marstons is just plain unbecoming.

    Like

    1. Good points all around; sounds like you gave Jack more of a back story than I perceived that he had in the game! However, I still think that the Jack/John storyline wasn’t as fleshed out as it needed to be to really make that ending believable. To me it felt tacked on and rushed. I just didn’t buy the father-son connection, or possibly, at that point, I was too involved with John Marston’s plight to want to believe that the connection was there.

      I’m also a bit of a sucker for happy endings. After all the crap that John went through to save his family, he deserved a little bit of happiness. The whole family/farm/John’s death/Jack’s revenge could have been condensed into an epilogue, and probably I’d have been okay with that. But I get why it, as gameplay, was included, and it did add some more depth to John’s personality, which was cool. I might have to give that ending another go now that I’ve detached from the game some. Maybe I’ll see things in a different light then.

      Like

  2. You see, I see a different picture with this game. John and Abigails death were shocking and yes I was hurt by their sudden end (not really Abigail’s but John’s) but as I played through all the side quests before moving on with the main story of the game, which in turn made me realize not Jack’s character but John’s. In my eyes this game was groundshaking to what the Ole’ West would have been like. After completing all of the side missions to the heartbreaking end into the epilogue… this game is really touching and now with my story with little to nothing more to complete (besides Remember My Family as the last side quest… which I havent started yet) I really think the writers should continue into this orphaned outlaw Jack Marston’s story. I think it just might actually be Video Game Gold if the player played its predecessor. That is all I have to add. Play the side shit first so then you wont be stuck with the son doing all the side missions (which have nothing to do with his character what so ever).

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment! You make a couple really great points here. Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to get back to RDR much since I wrote this post. I did, however, pick up with the last save point before the ended and started to work back through the side quests. It got me thinking that I’d almost rather start the game over, but I’ve no idea when that would happen.

      Like

  3. Great post as always, and thanks for linking to my blog!

    I think the switch to Jack Marston is a bit jarring, but it’s thematically interesting enough that I enjoyed its conclusion. A huge part of the game’s thematic sweep is how the world is passing people like John by, and how he has a tough time adjusting to modernity. So after his deal goes sour, I loved the idea that you get to actually see this passage of time play out through the eyes of his son, and that the game’s world extends beyond its protagonist. And on the flip side, when Jack decides to avenge his father and (probably) become the outlaw that he was, you get this really cool echo about how revenge and corruption and the dark side of man is something that the modern world can never quite do away with.

    Again, I don’t think the execution was perfect, and you do a good job pointing out why it’s troubling at points. But I found that very last portion of the game extremely haunting, and I applaud Rockstar for trying something so formally experimental and implementing perhaps the most cynical, uncompromising thematic message in any videogame ending except maybe Shadow of the Colossus.

    Like

    1. You are welcome! I really enjoyed your article; and I think that if I had read it before I wrote mine, my reaction might have been less knee-jerky and more thoughtful. You make a great point about Jack possibly becoming an outlaw, that it was probably inevitable. The game does a really great job in expounding upon the early 20th century senses of past and future. There really is a circular logic to it and history is (probably, always) bound to repeat itself in some way. There’s also the theme of history catching up with oneself, how it can’t ever really be escaped. Rockstar did a really nice job with that here, as well as in L. A. Noire, and hopefully is a sign of (better) game endings to come.

      By the way, you’re the second person in recent times to mention the Shadow of the Colossus. I don’t know this game, but if I hear it a third time, I must look into it.

      Like

      1. Oh man, you gotta play Colossus! Imagine the most atmospheric parts of Zelda but stripped down to this really beautiful, simple, tragic story. Saying much more would ruin it, but it’s certainly one of the few truly artistically coherent games I’ve ever played and probably in my overall Top 5 or so. It was the game that got me back into video games and encouraged me to start my blog. There’s a PS3 HD collection that contains it and its spiritual forefather, Ico, which is also excellent. (Unfortunately, it’s Playstation exclusive, so if you don’t have access to a PS2 or PS3, that might be why you haven’t crossed paths with it.)

        Like

  4. I agree with the ATB gentleman, whichever one wrote the above. The ending where he gets to farm with his son wasn’t the peak of the narrative, but it was a good easing into the end of Marston’s days as a renegade. When he gets mercilessly gunned down on his own farm, I cried, and it just seemed like the perfect, bittersweet ending to his complicated life. Then I got to play as Jack . . . I loved the gameplay, so I think I was more happy to get to keep the fantasy alive rather than ending it, ha. Jack’s voice was a little annoying to me though, as the end wore on. Also, live your own life, you know? I get that critique of yours. I will say my favorite line of the whole game comes from Jack. “Let me take your coat, madame!” ahahahahahah

    I’d still buy the crap out of a sequel to this game. I say sequel but I would love a prequel actually, living through John’s criminal days with the gang. Oh my god would I love that. . . I’m drooling on my laptop.

    Like

    1. Now that would be a GAME – Marston’s life of debauchery and crime? Sign me up! And I like that way more than continuing Jack’s story, though…I totally play that too.

      I know what you mean about Jack’s voice. It’s doesn’t quite…match (he obviously hadn’t taking up smoking yet.) It was nice that the whole epilogue was calmer than the rest of the game. The missions weren’t my favorite, but things didn’t feel as frenzied, and that was great (and needed) change of pace. It’s a risky way to end a game, but it totally paid off in spades for Rockstar.

      Like

  5. I prefer to think of Red Dead Redemption as ending when John Marston gets gunned down after taking out six or seven dudes in slow motion. The idea of his son taking his place seemed solid in principle, but in execution it was lacking.

    Like

    1. Agreed. That would have been a fine ending as well. And I could have done without the dead eye attempt, though I know Marston would have at least tried such a thing before the blaze of glory.

      ….aaaaand now, Bon Jovi’s gonna be stuck in my head all evening.

      Like

        1. As far as I know, once you kill Ross as Jack Marston, that’s it. End of story. From there you can continue to play as Jack, but there are no more missions. You can compete in online stuff, or, as you said, finish off any challenges or obtain achievements.

          Like

Start a conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s