Trouble Thinking

June 7, 2010

How the Medium Subverts Red Dead Redemption’s Story

Filed under: Video Games — Tags: , , , — 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 simply crossed their fingers while they were making the game, praying that no one would notice. It is the massive elephant in the room throughout the entire playthrough, and is probably the only flaw (albeit, an enormous one), in what is otherwise a detailed, well constructed, believable game world. The problem I am writing of, is the fact that John Marston the story’s protagonist, and John Marston the player character, are not the same person.

By the time we meet him, Marston really isn’t that bad of a guy. He is a man who, while capable of great violence, is reticent to use that violence unless he is forced to. While he makes a lot of threats, and has a strong outward shell of cynicism, actions speak louder than words, and those actions show him standing up for those he feels are downtrodden or deserving of his help. He’s shown as a guy who ultimately wants nothing more than to do right by his family, and have a future where he does actual cowboy stuff like herding cattle, as opposed to movie cowboy stuff, like killing dozens of gunslingers in cold blood.

If actions speak louder than words though, John Marston the player character is some kind of maniacal sociopath. As a player character, Marston is a man capable of great violence, who thinks that that violence is fucking awesome. He’ll reduce entire towns’ populations to zero, drag people behind his horse at full speed, kill any number of defenseless farm animals, and tie women to the train tracks, like he’s Snidely fucking Whiplash, just so that he can get 5 achievement points.

Unlike games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, none of these actions affect the story in any way. John Marston can kill two dozen sheriff’s deputies one second, immediately after which he’ll go on a mission with his good buddy the Sheriff to bring in those rascally Bollard twins.

Yet, much like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption keeps track of all of your actions—in fact, even going so far to one up those games. In addition to a very Bioware-esque “honor” meter, the game keeps a surprisingly detailed inventory of all of your offenses, providing an enormous list of crimes, ranging from “vandalism” all the way to “murder of a law officer,” complete with a tally of how many times you have committed each. That, combined with a bounty for your arrest that only accumulates over time, means there’s an awful lot of continuity thrown behind all of your criminal acts—something which serves to make it all the more bizarre when none of the characters ever comment on it.

While it’s undeniable that the ability to be an utter bastard is a major source of fun in Rockstar’s games, it just seems so strange to me that Rockstar can use the medium to serve the story so well in one regard, while at the same time letting this issue do so much to undercut it. I know Rockstar did not intend to make a Mass Effect style RPG, but at the same time, they can’t go so far out of their way to pretend that Red Dead Redemption the game and Red Dead Redemption the story are completely different entities, when everything else about their game design demands that they be the same.


  1. Thing is, I think Rockstar are brilliant at casting the player in the role by giving you a moral compass. I played the game as I reckon John Marston would, doing good and being helpful. This way you can appreciate the story more.

    Sure, there are plenty of folks who will just go crazy and shoot everything and anyone and cause havoc, but I’m willing to bet these are more casual players who won’t be overly interested by the subtleties of the story itself.

    Played with the mind of Marston, the game is deeply moving and very effective

    Comment by Stuart — December 24, 2010 @ 5:29 am

  2. Take any Call of Duty game. You can kill a few of your allies, pick up an enemy weapon and charge right in, or do what your buds tell you to do. Same sort of thing, right? RDD isn’t quite as much what we normally consider an ‘RPG’. Sure, it’s a ‘role-playing’ game, where you take the role of the main character, but most games are like that, right? There’s not a lot of math behind it (such as character creation and leveling up, which we consider necessary for something to be an RPG); it’s more action/shooter than anything else.

    Comment by noahpocalypse — August 8, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

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