Character Flaws in 'Red Dead Redemption'

The fake killing is old hat. The helping fake people sell fake medicine to other fake people, for whatever reason, that really got to me.

As I mentioned last week, I'm devoting myself to compiling a catalog of moving experiences from video games in aid of adding a few of my own bricks to the mountain-sized edifice of evidence for the obvious fact that video games can be art. After that post, my friend Ben Mack sent me this: “Stephen Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You has great quantitative data to suggest video games as Hegelian art objects, 'An art object is anything that is a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness from which one never fully returns.'" That's pretty damn good, and plus it references Hegel, so clearly we're on solid philosophical ground here. It very much applies to the game that I've been playing most of late, Red Dead Redemption.

Next week I'll talk about the ending of the game, which I view as a clear artistic triumph, but I want to give everyone more time to finish it. Additionally, we talk about it at length over the next two Moving Pixels Podcast episodes. However, Red Dead isn't a perfect game by any means, even setting aside the bugs and occasional open world weirdness. The narrative is far from tight and focused, and the story is meandering and occasionally self-indulgent to the point where I know that some players were turned off by it. But even in the places where the game takes false steps, it still creates multiple moving moments that very much fit into the above definition.

Let's start with the main character, John Marston. I liked him more than any protagonist in a Rockstar game. He's good-hearted but badass, he often has trenchant comments about what's going on, and he's a committed family man with a goal that seems worth striving for. He's well written, well acted, and fun to play. I also really liked that you could, for the most part, play him as a pretty good guy. I went through the whole game without ever breaking the law and earning a bounty except for the one mission where you're forced to do just that. I generally prefer playing good people to bad, so it didn't come up, but I do wonder what playing him as an evil, casual murderer would be like. It doesn't seem like it would mesh well with the cinematic story scenes, but there's enough ambiguity in the character that maybe it would still play. Either way, Red Dead does a good job of getting me on Marston's side. Part of the reason that I liked Marston is because other characters in the game who I liked also liked him. Bonnie, the rancher who saves him in the game's opening, is very likable, as are a handful of others that you meet along the way. Likewise, I tended to hate the people that hated Marston or whom Marston hated. If you judge a man by the quality of his friends and enemies, John Marston mostly comes out looking pretty good.

The problem with making a well executed, likable character is that, when you're forced to do things that you don't like or that don't match what you've come to expect from Marston, the game can raise hackles. He may not suffer from the pure psychopathy of other Rockstar leading men, but Marston does play the Grand Theft Auto role of “guy who does whatever people suggest” pretty well. He might bitch and moan about it, but there are multiple moments where Marston seems to undertake a mission because that's what the game needs him to do. It's a phenomenon common to novels and movies as well -- plot points where the hand of the creators shine through and a character's common sense gives way to the greater goals of the story as a whole.

One moment that got me particularly riled up came early on was in a mission for the annoying and unscrupulous Nigel West Dickens. The snake oil salesman needs your help fleecing some decent rancher folk out of some hard earned cash. I personally have an almost fetishistic hatred for purveyors of nonsense masquerading as medicine. Homeopaths, energy healers, and other alt-med woo-meisters get my outrage generators working at full capacity. Yes, I think that murder is much, worse (although in some cases, fake medicine is synonymous with murder), so it's kind of silly to be upset about snake oil given the genocidal level of gunplay in the game, but we're talking about what moved me in Red Dead. The fake killing is old hat. The helping fake people sell fake medicine to other fake people, for whatever reason, that really got to me. And when later I had to save the charlatan's life from angry customers, I felt just plain dirty.

I felt dirty. It got to me. I was outraged. I decided to write a whole post about it. That's art working even when it's not working as well as it could. By this point in the game, I'd come to identify with Marston and to like him. It bothered me to endure him making what I felt was a bad decision to help a bad man. And clearly we're not meant to like Nigel West Dickens -- I know some find him just plain annoying, while I could see some humor in the character even as I disliked his actions, but either way, the negative feelings that we have towards him are evoked by design. Here we have a section of the game that could have been better and yet still rises far beyond any reasonable threshold for what is and isn't art. Of course it is.

And what makes it a kind of art that's unique to the video game is my own feeling of complicity. I had to pull off the trick shots that convinced the gullible crowd to buy that nasty ass tonic. I went and pulled the trigger. Movies and books can't do that. I think that it would've been better if I could (as I tried to) fail the test and thus cost Dickens his sales. That would've been more moving to me, but that's not the game that Rock Star was making here, and I didn't expect it. Like almost any time that an author inserts a poem or lengthy song lyrics into a novel (looking at you Mr. Tolkien), it's not the choice I'd have made, but that doesn't mean that it's not artful.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.