With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has taken its critique of American culture and rewound back from the late 20th century, urban landscapes of Grand Theft Auto to cast its eye on the less civilized regions of the West around the turn of the century. Setting a Western in 1911 may seem an odd choice given that normally the height of the Wild, Wild West is seen as belonging more a mid- to late-19th century America, nevertheless, the time period becomes fitting as much of the interest of the game is about change and how to exist in the cusp of change and between ideas.
Indeed, the game’s protagonist, John Marston is very much a man in the middle. A former outlaw, who (quite unusually) for a Western is a married man, has been attempting to civilize himself (alongside an increasingly civilized continent – thus, the turn of the century setting) by settling down to ranching and raising a son. Unfortunately, Marston finds himself caught between past and future as he is recruited by that bastion of civilizing agents, the Federal authorities, to hunt down and exterminate his former gang or risk losing his wife and son.
As noted, the Western is not especially fond of the married hero. Because of the wildness involved in frontier life, most Western heroes tend to be ruggedly individual. While there are a lot of widowers in Westerns (see much of the Eastwood canon), such “widowery” seems essential to allowing the gunslinger or cowboy or outlaw the space necessary to be free from responsibility (in other words, to become a perfect emblem of liberty). Stephen Crane’s late 19th century critique of the West, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” for instance, features a formerly rugged sheriff of a small Texas town being married, which signals the end of the rough and tumble West. Crane features the sheriff’s nemesis, an outlaw named Scratchy Wilson, as something of a little boy disappointed and huffing and puffing when he discovers that he won’t be able to duel the sheriff anymore because of his former playmate’s married, responsible status.
Thus, Marston’s bind, as he is someone responsible to a family but, in order to protect that family, is forced back into his savage lifestyle. The game is full of such binary themes, some of which are fairly traditional ones to the Western genre, like wilderness vs. civilization, savagery vs. domestication, law vs. liberty, as well as additional related ideas like reason vs. faith and pragmatism vs. idealism. It is especially this last idea that places Marston in a bind and chiefly characterizes the game’s many characters. These individuals are walking contradictions themselves, though, with a cast of idealists who become bubble headed buffoons and pragmatists that look cold hearted and sadistic.
Marston is a man trying to remain in the middle, aware of his past but hopeful that he and his family can arrive somewhere new. The men and women that he encounters and that drive his mission are frequently equally idealistic as they represent social and political change (as they do in the sequences in the game that take place in a Mexico struck with revolutionary fervor), technological change, or civil change (as the newly formed governmental agency conducting Marston’s campaign is).
However, much of this idealism is bankrupted by a self interest practiced through pragmatism. The revolutionary leader, Reyes, is a man of principle who wants to aid his people, but who is also an absolute womanizer. In other words, one who clearly wants to use “the people” however he can. Edgar Ross, Marston’s government handler, himself admits towards the close of the game the contradictions inherent in attempting to progress towards a more secure society by holding a man’s wife and children hostage.
During the scene, Ross alludes to metaphysical writers that admire nature as being equally contradictory thinkers, and I can only assume that he means the American romantics, men like Emerson and Thoreau, who ironically are also, perhaps, partially the authors of the contradictory admiration for both idealism and pragmatism that is part of American history and culture. While Emerson was writing essays extolling the metaphysical qualities of “Nature,” he is also the author of “Self Reliance,” a study in practicality and a good, solid work ethic. Emerson would see these two opposites wed in a single philosophy, but Red Dead describes an American culture in which there is a constant tension between these ideas. Americans love their hippies as much as they jeer at them and spit on soldiers as much as they throw parades for them.
Marston himself attempts to stay in the middle, committing fully to neither the pragmatic or the ideal, the law or the lure of lawlessness. While Marston is not sadistic, he also is not the first person to leap to someone’s aid. The game represents this especially well through random encounters in the wilderness that the player can stop to help out with or ignore or take advantage of for his own benefit. Frankly, doing a little bit of all three is likely depending on what the player’s goals are at a given moment (to advance the plot, complete side quests like hunting or foraging, or just helping out for the sake of doing so). The game’s middle section in Mexico seems illustrative of this idea, as Marston goes between running missions for Reyes, the leader of the people’s revolution, and for the Mexican military. Reminiscent of the tactics of the Man With No Name in Fistful of Dollars (in fact, Marston gains a weathered serape to wear over his cowboy duds during this sequence), Marston plays both sides against one another because he is sold on neither position himself. His central focus is beyond these individual sequences, as he is interested in redeeming his family, much as the player in a game realizes that individual acts are part of a much bigger goal, to resolve the game. If the officers in the Mexican army are collecting young girls as prizes from their raids on suspected revolutionaries, how different is that anyway from a revolutionary leader who is equally taking advantage of the admiration of his female followers? The ideal of a civil order or of a revolutionary freedom is tainted by a pragmatic approach to achieving those ends, so Marston’s more apathetic position seems more appropriately that of a true “player.”
These moral cusps are mirrored in the historical advance of the 20th century on the landscape of Red Dead Redemption (the third and final act of the game sees Marston in a town complete with paved roads and automobiles only miles from rugged, snowy mountains populated by deer and elk) and the narrative reaches its head in a conclusion that seems straight out of 19th century fiction that is at the same time terribly modern in its eventual finality. Marston’s final confrontation with the leader of his former gang occurs about four-fifths of the way through the main story missions, leaving a lengthy dénouement that seems very much a piece with 19th century fiction.
Marston’s return home in the last 10 or so missions is seemingly a chance to explore resolution in a less than abbreviated way. While contemporary film generally rolls the credits moments after the last villain has been gunned down, Marston’s story ends in an Odyssean fashion with the wayward hero reuniting in his marriage bed with his wife, while instructing his son in the ways of ranching, hunting, and the like. These missions are fascinating and return the player to the beginning of the game as Marston basically gives a “tutorial” for his son that the player has already gone though in order to get the game going. Much like this year’s other father-child plot (in 2K’s Bioshock 2), Marston’s instruction seems to have some significance in considering how what we do as players in games matters because others that watch us may glean something from our choices. In Bioshock 2, the protagonist’s moral choices effect what choices his daughter makes at the close of the game. However, the more morally ambiguous and conflicted Marston leaves his son Jack with a much more uncertain legacy.
As a man committed to neither practical or ideal action, the possibility of redemption for Marston through his family (as it is for his nation though its future) is equally murky and ambiguous.