So this is late - very, very late. Red Dead Redemption was released on May 21st 2010. TWENTY-TEN. Suffice to say it’s been a while, especially considering the fact I bought the ‘Limited Edition’ on launch day (it added some guns that were a mucky gold colour, and a pretty awesome horse to the game) got home and played it for a couple of hours and, hated it.
You see, the last Rockstar game I’d played was Grand Theft Auto IV, a landmark achievement that I adored. This felt very different of, but built in somewhat the same style. It felt like something shoddy dressed up in the trappings of something great (like a shit in a tux…) Red Dead Redemption, like GTA is an open world game, you have a sandbox that you can play in and missions can be handed out if you want to do things that are more structured. But unlike GTA IV’s setting of ‘Liberty City’ - a perfect parody of early 2000’s New York - this was a western set on either side of the border between New Austin and Mexico.
The protagonist this time is very different too. Unlike the stranger in a huge city character of Niko from GTA, we play as John Marston - a man who knows the early wild west setting of Red Dead the way only a man born and raised there can.
The first scene sees John get off a boat, an early version of the automobile is unloaded in the background and then you get on a train. From here on in, that’s about the only mechanised things you’ll be interacting with - asides from a healthy arsenal of guns. Instead John get’s a horse, which felt to me, after the heady car chases and motorbike drive-bys of GTA everything seemed to moving as though through treacle. So I rather foolishly just quit the game for a long time because I’dstubbornly decided I didn’t like it.
But eventually I came back and started again. Sometime during my absence I must have changed because suddenly everything was perfect. This wasn’t a tortuously prolonged game with awkward controls, it was an epic tale paced to perfection.
And so we come to the story, and typical of a studio known for wonderfully rich dialogue and characters - Red Dead Redemption’s story excels. I can’t think of a character that didn’t hit every note perfectly, in fact I often found myself missing them when their parts were played. But the void left by their absence’s were quickly filled by yet another perfectly voiced, animated and written player. But the main character we slowly get to know however, is the one we play as - John Marston.
John is a cowboy, in the final days of the wild west. Civilisation, cars and politics are coming to close out the era of terrifying outlaws, stoic legends of the west, ruthless bandits and of course - cowboys. He is a dying breed, those scarred and grizzled men who lived off and with the land, men with their own moral code and no organisation to tell them differently.
He’s a deeply flawed man, which becomes more apparent over the twenty or so hours we get to know him. He’s conflicted in his actions and convictions. He was in a gang; he’s robbed from the needy and rich alike, he’s killed innocent people and finally he tried to get out. John is a man on a path of redemption, but for nobody else but himself and his family.
But you don’t leave a past like that without it catching back up with you, and this game is the tale of what happened when it did…
Red Dead Redemption is set in a deep, breathing world. You can ride around for an hour and never see the same thing twice; a burnt-out shack which speaks of an untold tragedy, a man asking you to slow down and help him out only to pull you of your horse and try to run away, a cougar suddenly leaping from apparently nowhere to maul you, and if you manage to get the upper hand - vultures circling fresh meat. You can invest yourself in this world and inhabit it utterly, and perhaps more strikingly - you feel it will carry on even when you’re not there.
You can spend all your time just messing about if you want to. But if you’re not just out and about animal or treasure hunting, you can continue the story of Mr. Marston, and learn about why he’s doing what he’s doing.
-Spoilers from here on out-
John’s family has been kidnapped, and are being used as a bargaining chip for Marston’s cooperation in tracking down and killing the men he used to run in the gang with. He doesn’t want to - they are like a twisted ex-family to him - but with his chance at a normal life in the hands of ruthless politicians and lawmen, he has no choice.
It’s a dangerous and meandering journey to find the members of John’s former partners in crime. One which is filled with unlikely characters who will in equal parts help and hinder John whilst each having their own machinations and goals. Throughout the game you’ll meet crazed grave diggers, help charlatans for information, be part of a revolution and interact with both sides of the law. You’ll also travel to some incredible places, from outposts in the forest to villages in mexico, and ranch’s on the great plains to fledgling town’s, that even have paved roads!
During the time it takes to find all the former gang members you’ve learned so much about John and his past, the nature of the people you’ve been sent to kill and the conflict that it creates for John, that it is equal parts victory to eventually complete your task, and worry that it’s the end of the story.
Wonderfully however, you get to experience John’s return home. There are no other missions for you, you are literally given the objective to go home to your family. The traditionally stark audio is replaced with a hauntingly beautiful folk/country song by Paulo Nutini as you quite literally ride home to your family. And they’re there, waiting for you. It’s one of the many great moments in this game and one of my favourite sequences from any game I’ve played.
It’s not a joyous return, it’s real and gritty and quiet. John’s son Jack is confused and angry at being abandoned, Abigail - John’s wife - is similarly frustrated but can at least grasp the reasons as to why John had to go. And then there’s ‘Uncle’ an asshole of a man that was the only person they had left to turn to when John was away, but still did the best he could in John’s absence.
As with so much with this game, this is where another twist is introduced. It’s not actually the end. Instead you have several more ‘missions’ as a rancher, doing simpler tasks like herding your modest amount of cows to pasture, hunting with your son and learning how to live life as a family man.
It may feel like an anti-climax, and it would be if it wasn’t for the final twist the game has to throw at you. There’s another mission, and you expect it to be like any other you’ve played recently but this time, something’s different. It starts with an incredibly well written and truly beautiful conversation where John appears to finally be connecting with Jack when suddenly Uncle shouts that something is wrong.
John it seems, will never outlive his past. After protecting his home from dozens of soldiers - and losing Uncle in the ensuing firefight - he manages to send Jack and Abigail away, and prepares to face his retribution head on. You walk John out in front of his enemies expecting to be able to win against the odds like you have so many times before.
Except this time you don’t. John dies in a hail of gunfire, and it’s one of the most affecting things I’ve ever experienced in a game. I was utterly unprepared for it.
After fading to black we come back on John’s grave, Abigail’s is next to his dating several years later and we realise we’re playing as someone else, several years later. Turning the camera we see it’s Jack, older more grizzled and now our avatar in the world.
You can track down the man who gave the order to kill John, and end his life if you choose to - which will bring up the credits, and truly feels like the retribution you need to serve out to the man who murdered Jack’s father - but that’s it. John is gone, and the person we learned to love and understand is no more. What a perfect ending to a truly wonderful game.
I know Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games I’ve ever played, it will be a game against which I’ll benchmark others - however I don’t think I can call it one of my favourites. But I think that works in it’s favour. To illustrate, Mass Effect as a series has plenty of flaws but I’d always say it’s my absolute favourite, maybe even because of its flaws and the charm they bring. Red Dead arguably has less that is imperfect, but I think the fact it’s the story of John Marston (and not one I craft myself as in Mass Effect) that make it feel less personal, but in no way less incredible.
Today I finished Red Dead Redemption, it was a bittersweet moment truth be told. I decided to round out my experience the only way that felt appropriate; there were no antagonists left to find, no more people to save and all the stories that were going to be told had been expounded. I would make a final journey.
I decided to ride from the far side of the map to the ranch that was home. The journey started in Mexico during the burning hot midday and I arrived at the ranch in the dead of night, having seen all the places which housed the people I’d met on the great journey of experiencing this game.
I honestly don’t think I could have said goodbye to the world of Read Dead Redemption - and more importantly the Marston’s - in a more fitting way.