The first time that I had to herd cattle in Red Dead Redemption I hated it. The first time that I had to break a horse I thought it was stupid. Riding along in a wagon, listening to someone talk while traveling to the mission site was a mixed bag—sometimes interesting, sometimes boring or indulgent. I loved this game, but those were the moments that had me groaning out loud and muttering my traditional “I hate you” mantra at the game over and over until those cattle got into the damnable corral, which makes it all the more amazing that the best part of this game and the moments that I’ll hold with me for the longest time were largely doing all the things that I hated in the beginning.
I’m going to go ahead and say it. I think that the final act of Red Dead Redemption is one of the great storytelling achievements in video games. I think that it uses the tools that are unique to games to present the player with an emotionally satisfying experience that I can’t remember ever having experienced in any kind of entertainment. Part of the magic here is that the game takes its time doing it. There’s nothing rushed about this final act with it’s homey pacing and everyday concerns replacing the constant mass murder that makes up most of the game’s missions. It is, I think, a daring decision in many ways, and it runs counter to how traditional stories (both in games and other media) pace themselves.
Spoiler time. If you’re going to play Red Dead Redemption at some point, I urge you to stop reading now because this is an experience best had fresh and unaware.
All clear? All right. Wasn’t the ending awesome? If you don’t agree, you have no heart and hate life and love and all that’s good in the world and probably don’t much care for puppies either. But why is it so great? First, let’s recap: after defeating Dutch, your former gang’s leader, you ride back to your ranch accompanied by a suitably subdued but romantic song on the soundtrack. There you’re finally reunited with wife and teenage son, and it’s both as awkward and as touching as it should be. The game could end there. But no. Unlike any other game that I’ve played and most novels that I’ve read, this story goes on. It tells the part that happens after “The End”, the part in which these heavily traumatized people who’ve done bad things to stay alive now have to try and put the pieces of their life back together. You experience life after Marston’s life of crime, and while it’s not easy, it is rewarding.
The game makes you play the roles of rancher, husband, and father. Only the husband thing goes real well although even it has some hurdles to clear. Ranching turns out to be hard work and raising a 15 year old with abandonment issues is even tougher. All through the game, Marston is fighting for his family, but like in most games, they were purely abstract. But with this final act, we get to not only meet them but come to care about them. I never felt so much dread in the game as I did when I was riding with my wife or child. I’d ridden these lands; I knew how dangerous they could be. My finger was constantly on the trigger, ready to defend these people, because I’d worked so hard to get to this point where they were maybe (just maybe) finally safe. I felt like I had a real stake in their survival, and let me tell you something, that’s what drama is all about.
Making me feel like a dad and a husband is a real triumph for Red Dead Redemption, but there’s another, smaller success I want to point out. It made me care about herding cattle and breaking horses, the two tasks that had previously been my least favorite in the game. However, now these were my cattle for my ranch and these were horses for my family. Now I felt like it really mattered if I succeeded or not, so much so in fact, that it made me grateful to have had some practice early in the game when I’d done the same tasks with Bonnie. What in the moment had been a source of hate for me became in my memory an important life lesson that I was glad that I’d had. That’s some potent game alchemy my friends, and Rockstar deserves credit for both taking the risk and pulling it off. It might not be my game of the year, but Red Dead Redemption is definitely my Ending of the Decade.