Red Dead Destiny
In 2010 Rockstar Games released a game called Red Dead Redemption. While there had been earlier Red Dead games Redemption was, in many ways, the first of its kind. It blended the sandbox elements and criminal activities of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series into a plot-line about the dying days of the Old West in the fictional territory of New Austin. More specifically the plot is about John Marston a man who is in many ways an archetypal protagonist in a tragic story-line.
Not only is Red Dead Redemption technically and graphically impressive but the story it tells has the greatest emotional depth of any video game story ever told, at least as far as I'm concerned. Unlike Rockstars GTA IV I actually cared about the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption and I think the reason has a lot to do with the archetype that John Marston is built around.
Some Spoilers Ahead
Way back in high school, more years ago than I really care to remember (okay it was like six) we learned about the different types of conflict when working on a story. While John Marston faces off against bandits and lawmen alike the real conflict has less to do with shooting and more to do with destiny. What John Marston is really fighting is Fate. He's fighting a fate that has been coming to him. For years he has sown the seeds of his own destruction by being an outlaw. He leaves that life behind to start a family but as with all great stories the past will not die, it comes back to haunt him. Now he struggles to put his past to rest once and for all.
It isn't just man versus fate, it is also man versus himself. For Marston is fighting his own violent nature, his own sordid past and the darkness in his own heart. Which is where the Redemption comes in. Marston is trying to kill the past and redeem himself and start over again.
The story reminded me very much of the Odyssey. Odysseus is torn far from his home by the Trojan war but in the end he must combat the will of the gods to get home to his family on Ithaca. Forces beyond Odysseus' control keep him from returning to his family yet he continues trying to get home. That theme of homecoming is prevalent in Red Dead Redemption as Marston is just trying to get back to his wife and child and kill off his past, one man at a time if he has to. Marston's Odyssey is rife with peril, temptation and takes him across a wide variety of landscapes as he is pulled by the circumstances around him to the edges of New Austin and even into Mexico.
One big difference is that the Odyssey ended on a happy note, if a feud stopped by intervention from Athena can really be called a happy ending that is. Marston's story on the other hand is one that ends in tragedy.
The game offers you the ability to play Marston as whatever sort of person you want. If you think he's just a good for nothing outlaw and you want you can go around hogtying innocent civilians and blowing lawmen away. I, however, never saw such a thing as an option. From the very beginning I sensed there was something different about John Marston, something honest, qualities that some might call, well, redeeming. I play the game with the heart of the character in mind and at his core the protagonist is a man trying to leave his past behind and be a good man, a family man. While it's true that in order to get back to his family he has to kill off some of his old friends, most of whom have since become enemies, that doesn't mean he's a bad guy. The circumstances are quite beyond his control. In some sense Marston cannot escape his fate, his path has been chosen for him but he's also fighting the fate that he deserves for all those misguided years, he's fighting the karma that should be coming around to bite him in the ass.
So while some may feel content to go around in the game hogtying hookers and cheating at poker I don't think that's a path I can take. I care too much.
I care too much. The ending to Red Dead Redemption delivered what was for me an emotionally powerful blow. The story-line took me about a week to beat longer than any game since Half-Life 2. Over that time I'd learned a lot about John Marston and who he was and more importantly who he was trying to be. For all his pure intentions it was a story that couldn't have ended happily. He was a violent outlaw and even though he tried his best to leave that world behind in the end he couldn't escape destiny.
The ending also has Marston betrayed by those he trusted naively to do the right thing. While Marston repeatedly talks about his dislike in being pushed around by the Feds who have kidnapped his family in order to force his compliance he also is forced to trust them that when it's all over they will leave him to his life. After leaving so much blood in his wake, after leaving so many bodies and despite his good intentions it cannot end happily for John Marston. Tragedy is inevitable .
As the game ends we pan back to see two tombstones, one bearing the name of John Marston. When I first saw this scene my immediate reaction was one of anger. It wasn't fair. After all the fighting and struggling the character had done it just wasn't fair for him to die like that and what sort of reward was this for the player? To see that despite their efforts to redeem Marston he still died. As they continued to pan back they showed the tombstone of Marston's wife who died several years after her husband and finally they pan all the way back to show who is standing at the grave. To show Jack. To show John's legacy, his son Jack Marston.
Suddenly it all became clear. I was angry because I cared about the character but where one thing ends another begins. Where John's journey ends Jack's journey begins. Will Jack fight to create his own fate, to get out of the shadow of his Father and in some small way earn the redemption his Father never got to enjoy? Or will he too end up an outlaw merely postponing his inevitable downfall? Far from an ending it was actually a new beginning and I no longer felt as though I'd been betrayed by the story-tellers.
So why did I create this hub? I mean I beat Red Dead Redemption over the summer and it's now become Spring again already. I guess I just wanted to create a written explanation as to why I loved the game so much and why I think the story-line is so much deeper than most of what we see in video games today.
While some people complain that there is a lack of originality and new ideas out there I think that in the end it isn't new ideas that people are actually looking for. Far from it. At least for me the ideas I keep coming back to are old, far older than cinema. The ideas I come back to are archetypes, themes, conflicts that form the basis of essentially all stories.
Far from being original most stories are just repackaged formats of the world's most durable story elements and ideas. Some may see this as a bad thing but I don't. I am looking forward to seeing where the Red Dead franchise might go next, will we see Jack Marston forge his own destiny in the dying days of the Old West? Can they capture the "magic" that made the first game great yet again? I can only hope that they can and do so that once again I can have the privilege of caring far too much about characters in a video game.