A Red Dead Rant

Speak no evil? Not likely.
Speak no evil? HA! Not likely.

Last week on United We Game, I posted an article about replaying Red Dead Redemption as part of our “revisiting favorite games” challenge that we set forth in February. (Long story short, RDR remains a true favorite.) But during the process of writing, I took some time to look back on pieces that I had written about RDR shortly after I first finished in it 2013, such as my own article here, “I Don’t Know Jack (Marston).” Drawing back the curtain a bit, over the past several months or so, that particular post has become a regular line item in my daily stats, garnering at least a few new views each week. Going further, I glanced at my all-time view counts per post, and somehow it’s made its way to fifth place. That’s kind of remarkable. And it makes me feel like something of a double dealer since it seems the search phrases “how to play as Jack Marston” or “playing as Jack Marston” often lead to it. The post had nothing to do with that, you see. At most, I spoke of how much I didn’t enjoy the entire end of the John Marston’s story, with Jack and Abigail and the family farm and all the ensuing triteness.

After replaying and finishing the game again, I thought about that post, and I thought about revising or updating it in some way to reflect this new experience. But then, it turned out that I didn’t want to write about the game itself again, but rather I wanted to rid my brain of some unexpected anger and annoyance. So bully for you – that mental diatribe is this post!

After my second RDR playthrough, everything I said about the end of the game in that first post held true. In fact, as I approached the point in the game where John would be reunited with his family, I dreaded what was to come – a bunch of tacked-on “farm” and “bonding” tasks that were supposed to lend weight to Marston’s bloody end. Oh look! He’s getting his life back together and five quests later, he’s dead. Boo fucking hoo. But I went through it all, all up to Jack Marston’s ridiculous face-off with the eeeeevil Edgar Ross, who, granted, was a right asshole. And, the end. Even though I might have intended to, I didn’t continue to play as Jack Marston then, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna continue on with him now, despite trying. That said, I’ll take the game as it ended over a 30-minute shoot out with a terrible A. I. cavalry any day.

While I wasn’t necessarily pleased with the ending itself, I was able to let it go. With this most recent playthrough, however, I remained inexplicably angry for a time afterwards. Like, at first I thought the generally grumpiness was due to some sort of physical ailment (I seem to harbor many these days). But as I thought about it, I realized that I was physically angry at the game. I was angry at being forced to play as Jack Marston, a practical unknown after spending hours upon hours of getting to know (and love) John Marston. I was angry at how a group of thoroughly shitty quests led the game’s greatest and most horrifying, if inevitable, moment of Marston’s death. I was angry at wasting my goddamn time for a payoff akin to a big, smelly pile of rotting animal carcasses.

And then, suddenly, I was mentally rewriting the entire story of the game. I’ll admit that saw and still see RDR’s story through rose-colored glasses. But while I enjoyed the story the first time, this second time I saw that I could have been a whole hell of a lot better. Because if the writers wanted players to care at all about John Marston’s family, why make them ghosts until the last hour of the game? Rather than start the game off with some random guy on a train with other random people, assuming that players should care about Marston from the start, why not first present a collage of him as a “gang member” with his cohorts whom you’d later meet. Why not show him falling in love with Abigail, starting a farm, and having a child? Why not enter in the feds taking Marston’s family away and forcing upon Marston the deadly task of eliminating leaders of his former gang? Why not actually give us a goddamned reason to care about Marston’s plight in the first place?

What, introductory bullshit is soooo hackneyed, you say? Look. There’s storytelling that works for novels. There’s storytelling that works for movies. And then there’s storytelling that works for video games. Marston’s story as it was setup and told in RDR would make for a great book, because then the reader’s imagination needs drive the action. It’s a lot to ask, but I can certainly see becoming invested in Marston’s character as I might formulate him while reading. And I could internally rectify, and justify, his discordant actions, him doing wrong for all the right reasons, because that’s a fairly steady premise to understand.

But as a story in a video game, it simply doesn’t work well enough once you really start paying attention to things. There’s a very tangible disagreement between Marston as we see him in the game’s primary cutscenes – a once-angry killer who’s forced to kill further, a man who seems to hate everything he’s doing, up until he gets his family back, of course – and Marston as we see him during gameplay – a blatant killer of all the things, or maybe a really nice guy if you just need to get your wagon back, though he’s probably going to kill the thief because that’s easier than trying to use the goddamned lasso. Marston tells you himself that he’s not that complex of a fellow, and the game tells you that his situation isn’t all that complex either. But damn if the story doesn’t really know one fucking way or the other.

And then, oh and then, (sorry, complete tangent, rant continuing) don’t waste hours of storytelling on a single character only to take away that primary character in the eleventh hour and leave behind a supremely lesser version of that same character. If Jack Marston was to become the crux (crutch?) all along, then give people a fucking chance to know Jack Marston. Instead of a three-act play revolving almost solely around John Marston, how about a two-act structure in which the first act is about John Marston, his gang, the feds, and his death, while the second act is about Jack seeking revenge, seeking redemption. Shit, the title says it all, only we’re led to believe it’s John who is being redeemed, and that’s not the fucking case at all. I get that revenge stories are a dime a dozen and that they can quickly become stale, but they also aren’t rocket science, and you’d be hard pressed to find one too convoluted to understand. Plus, who doesn’t like a good revenge story? Consider me dumb and just give me a good yarn about two characters trying to do right in name of family, even it means they must go a little (or a lot) wrong. Like I said, it’s not hard.

Ugh. There’s probably more that I could say, but I’m tired of complaining, and typing. The bottom line is that I fucking love Red Dead Redemption, even it kills me a little each time I play it. And I will continue to play it. It’s one of my most favorite games for ever and ever and ever, you see.

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