Civil Violence in the Old West

'Red Dead Redemption'

by Nick Dinicola

20 January 2011


As the name suggests, Red Dead Redemption is about a man searching for redemption. Ex-outlaw John Marston is trying to escape his past. His old gang left him for dead, and when he recovered, he took the opportunity to settle down with a family. That is, until Federal Agents kidnapped his wife and son, forcing him to hunt down and kill his old gang, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch van der Linde. Marston is a man of violence searching for a peace that constantly eludes him, and his journey reflects society’s attempted journey from lawlessness to civility.

Throughout Red Dead Redemption, developer Rockstar shows us three civilizations at different stages of development—the lawless New Austin, the warring Nuevo Paraiso, and the well established West Elizabeth. Each one has people within it working towards the betterment of that civilization through violence. We see over and over again that the bonds of society do little to quell man’s violent nature. Rather, man’s violent nature shapes the civilizations that we live in, creating a world of constant conflict on a personal and national level.

Civil Violence in New Austin
Violence and civilization are intimately entwined in New Austin. Individual acts of violence encourage people to form little civilizations, which then rely on more violence in order to survive, leading to an endless cycle of bloodshed.

New Austin represents that iconic image of the Old West. It’s s brutal, mostly lawless place, outside the reach of government intervention. There’s no singular civilization here, just individuals fighting to survive. Call it selfishness or rugged individualism, but the major characters of New Austin are first and foremost concerned with the life that they’ve carved out for themselves, and in this place, Marston’s hunt for Bill Williamson is a distant matter.

There’s Nigel West Dickens, the incessant snake oil salesman; Seth, the obsessive treasure hunter; Irish, a drunk who can’t be forced to care about anything; and Leigh Johnson, the District Marshal for Armadillo who ignores the threat of Bill Williamson’s gang because: “He’s out of my jurisdiction.” Each man cares only about himself or about what’s directly going on around him, so in order to buy their assistance, Marston helps them with their various problems. In Johnson’s case, Bill Williamson’s gang finally encroaches into Armadillo territory and suddenly the Marshal and Marston share a similar goal.

However, these men are not entirely selfish. Johnson is the only one with his own reasons for assaulting Bill Williamson’s hideout. Everyone else is simply fulfilling an obligation. Seth could split after his treasure hunt ends in failure, but he doesn’t. With the object of his obsession gone, he can see the world more clearly. He acknowledges Marston’s assistance and the debt he now owes. West Dickens could abandon Marston and New Austin for greener pastures to practice his brand of fraud and fleecing. Irish could flee into a saloon to continue drinking himself to death. But none of these men do. It’s not because of some code of honor but because sometimes selfless acts are a practical necessity in a lawless land. They finally help Marston because that good deed may come back around to benefit them in the future.

This is proven later in the game when Marston saves West Dickens from jail. The salesman is being dragged into a police station, facing charges of fraud, when Marston tells a government agent, “This man helped me take Fort Mercer”. As a result, West Dickens is let free. His freedom was contingent on his help. If he had abandoned Marston, he would be jailed. You can only go so far by yourself in a world as violent as this one. These characters know this, that’s why they help. Lawlessness breeds community out of necessity.

If Leigh Johnson represents the voice of Armadillo then the town can be seen as a place in which people don’t concern themselves with the problems of outsiders unless the people of the town are themselves directly threatened. It’s the same “practical selfishness” that Johnson exemplifies early in the game but applied to an entire town. By contrast, if Bonnie MacFarlane represents the voice of MacFarlane’s Ranch, then this town can be seen as a place in which people help those in need no matter what. Bonnie finds Marston bleeding in front of Fort Mercer and takes him in, bandages his wounds, and does so without the guarantee of reciprocation. In fact, whereas every other character in the game helps Marston only after he helps them, Bonnie saves his life even before learning his name.

MacFarlane’s Ranch represents the closest thing to a utopia in New Austin. It’s filled with people who are selfless but not helpless. Bonnie may help strangers in need, but she’s not naïve to the dangers of the world; she can fight and embrace her own violent nature if her community is threatened. However, she doesn’t let the violence of the world dampen her good nature. MacFarlane’s Ranch is just as violent a place as Armadillo. There are attacks on the barn, Bonnie is kidnapped at one point, and during a night watch, Marston might see multiple robberies and murders. However, MacFarlane’s Ranch has also reached an equilibrium that no other community in New Austin has. Its people help others when help is needed and then defend themselves with as much violence as possible when violence is needed. It’s telling that the utopia of this Old West is no less violent than any other town.

Bonnie MacFarlane of New Austin

Bonnie MacFarlane of New Austin

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