Trouble Thinking

June 4, 2010

How Red Dead Redemption’s Story Uses the Medium to Subvert Players’ Expectations

I don’t particularly feel like writing a review of Red Dead Redemption. There are plenty of glowing appraisals of the game out there already, and all I really need to tell you is that, while I experienced a couple minor bugs and other petty annoyances, RDR is an excellent game, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and if you’ve been considering getting it, you should.

What I do feel like writing about however, is one aspect of the game I found especially interesting. That is, how it takes advantages of some of the standards tropes of the video game medium to allow the story to completely subvert the player’s expectations.  Word of warning, I intend to spoil the hell out of some important plot details after this point, so if you’re one of those people (like me) who likes to be surprised, stop here.

There are certain things gamers have come to take for granted in their games, even though, from a storytelling perspective, they may not make a single lick of sense. A good example can be found in Bioshock, a game which I’m assuming at this point that everyone and their mother has already played.

By the time Bioshock was released, gamers were already well conditioned to complete whatever in-game task any random asshole asked them to complete, without question. It’s the World of WarCraft style quest-giving system, and almost every game has it, though some pretty it up better than others: some NPC approaches you, says “Hey, can you help me kill those guys over there?” and, without considering why he needs you to kill those guys over there, who those guys over there who need killing are, or if it’s a very good idea to kill those guys over there, you say “Yeah, sure buddy!” and start killing those guys. So, at the beginning of Bioshock, when you first descend into the city of Rapture, and Atlas asks you to help him, you just start doing it. It doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of the narrative, but that’s just how video games work, so you go along with it. You don’t know where you are, or who Atlas is, but when he asks you to help him find his family, you do it. When he asks you to save that weird underwater forest thing, you do that too. When he asks you to hunt down the game’s villain Andrew Ryan, well, you do that too.

Then you find Ryan, and this happens:

The real twist to Bioshock isn’t that Atlas is the true villain, the twist is that this isn’t the game you thought it was. As much as you were playing the game, the game was playing you. We all know that we have no choice but to play a video game the way it wants us to—no game is completely open-ended, so you have to follow certain unwritten rules, such as doing whatever the NPCs ask. The difference with Bioshock, is in Bioshock, the game knows this too.  Developer Irrational took one of the biggest unwritten tropes of the medium, that the player will blindly follow any and all instruction, and in a brilliant postmodern twist, used it as a major point in the narrative. Bioshock’s story completely subverts the player’s expectations by taking advantage of key assumptions inherent to the entire medium of videogames.

With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar does something similar.  It doesn’t take a fancy pants Literature degree to see the direction RDR’s story is headed; the game is a western, about an old, run-down, outlaw trying to do good by himself and his family. Right from the get-go, it is pretty clear that things will not be ending well for John Marston. Yet, in spite of all that, the entire time I was convinced that no matter how badly events would turn, the one thing that would not happen would be for Marston to die at the end. Was that because I thought that Marston’s death would make for a poor ending? Quite the opposite: tonally, Marston’s death makes for the perfect ending. The simple reason I thought Rockstar would never pull the trigger on John Marston, is that Red Dead Redemption is an open-world sandbox game.

Open-world games like RDR need the protagonist to stick around after the story is over. The reason for this is simple, and no way related to the plot whatsoever: sandbox games have numerous tasks, side-quests, and challenges which have nothing to do with the primary storyline, many of which cannot realistically be completed until long after the story is over. So, if you want to give gamers the chance get to one hundred percent completion (and you really do, they get pissed if you don’t), you need to have the main character stick around to give them someone to play as. Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

Those of you who have beaten the game, of course, already know that Rockstar pulled a pretty cool trick on me. Red Dead Redemption does in fact end with John Marston going down in a hail of gunfire (as well it should), after which it cuts to several years later, where, unceremoniously, you suddenly find yourself in control of Marston’s now fully-grown son Jack—whom you continue to play for any post-game shenanigans that need doing. Just as in Bioshock, I was completely surprised. Rockstar worked entirely against my expectations, not from a storytelling standpoint, but because games as a medium had trained me to believe that the main character has to stick around.

In order to do this, Rockstar designed, from the ground up, a completely new character, with all new graphics, voice acting, and even completely new cutscenes for all available sidequests, so that they can be completed as either John or Jack. Jack Marston is just as complete a character, from a game design standpoint, as John, despite the fact that most players will barely even use him. Rockstar did all of this, just to surprise the hell out of you, and give the game the ending it deserved. They took full advantage of the expectations the medium has built up in players, and just blew them all away. There are so many ways the nature of games themselves can be used to enhance story in ways no other medium can, and it was wonderful seeing Rockstar follow the lead set by Irrational and other developers in this regard.


  1. […] Redemption, Rockstar Games, Storytelling — Chris @ 10:46 pm As much as Red Dead Redemption does right as a videogame story, there is another aspect that is so blatantly, glaringly, jarring that it’s almost as if Rockstar […]

    Pingback by How the Medium Subverts Red Dead Redemption’s Story « Trouble Thinking — June 7, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  2. […] entirely around telling a story, my hopes were raised. There are games out there that are well told, but unfortunately Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be one of them. Who knows though, I haven’t […]

    Pingback by Alan Wake Impressions « Trouble Thinking — June 21, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

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