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Two ideas have been circling around in my mind these weeks: the question, “Are games art?”, and the notion of ‘aboutness.’  The tragic passing of Mr. Roger Ebert saw the re-emergence of — or rather the typical fare of obits, which sweep through a person’s life with just the most ‘newsworthy’ peaks, kicked up — his declaration that video games can never be art.  I won’t attempt to answer this definitively here, but I did decide something related to it.  Enter: the notion of ‘aboutness.’

Depending on the subject, the word’s definition adapts.  Framing this long overdue analytical review is its use in literature and art, unfolded as thematic aboutness.  What philosophical idea does a work explore or explain?  What problem does it attempt to quantify, redefine, or solve?  What aspect of life does it illuminate?

What is a work really about?

RDR 01 Header-A

Red Dead Redemption | Rockstar San Diego | Rockstar Games

My view is that any work — including video games — approaches this strange and nebulous status of ‘art’ when it becomes about something, when there is some central driving force behind its creation rooted in real life.  All this really means is that a work becomes stronger when it gains aboutness.  Any claim to such elevation, of course, needs to be based in an exploration that has depth.  It isn’t enough to say something is about ‘death’ or ‘killing’ if it doesn’t really examine these ideas critically, intelligently, deeply.

At first glance, Red Dead Redemption wears its explored theme on its (game box) sleeve: can anyone truly redeem themselves of past wrongs, if the price is too high to pay?  But I wonder.  That question, I recently discovered, could have actually been much more specific.

Before I get to this part, though, I have miles to go.  First, I’ll be taking apart each of the three large arcs of John Marston’s journey to find what makes it all tick.  Spoilers abound!

RDR 02 Logo

I. NEW AUSTIN

“THE PROMISE OF THE OPENING CUTSCENE”

RDR foregrounds its decidedly filmic nature with its first 6 minutes, proudly announcing: “Warning — contains cutscenes.”  Devs show that they’re careful and deliberate with dialogue as well, thankfully, sparing it unless necessary.  They respect the player’s time (and ears).  This is what makes John Marston’s entrance so remarkable; not only are the handcuffs binding him invisible, but the animosity between him and whom I only later realized was Agent Ross, penultimate antagonist, is equally understated.  Through subtext and visual cues, devs establish a slow and pensive mood.

When the train gets going, the exposition follows suit.  As much as this part is criticized for laying information on a bit thick, for being too long, or for feeling forced, there’s a lot going for it.  The two parallel exchanges are entertaining for the hypocrisies they expose, utilitarian in their establishing of the zeitgeist, and immersive for subtly uniting player and avatar in the act of eavesdropping.  The minor characters here may err on the side of cliche and archetype, but they’re undeniably effective.  (One mystery I haven’t quite solved: why is Bonnie MacFarlane on this train, and why does she move seats?  What is the symbolism?  Drop a comment if you have an idea; I’m all ears.)

My final point is to draw attention to the two larger-than-life ‘forces’ introduced: God, of course, and the interestingly juxtaposed Nate Johns, whom we later learn is behind Marston’s redeployment.  Johns is arguably the biggest antagonist of them all, yet he makes no appearance in the game save through influence.  Is he meant to contrast as a certain other biblical figure?  In any case, devs took time in crafting RDR‘s substantive, layered intro to the story and rightly so.  First impressions are powerful things.

RDR 03 Opening Train Scene

“PROLOGUE OR FIRST BITE?”

I love a good prologue.  Although Marston’s reunion with Bill Williamson doesn’t quite reach the caliber of Seth Bullock’s execution of an inmate “under color of law” in HBO’s Deadwood, it holds its own.  The scene oddly draws attention to the word “implore”, distinguishing Marston’s correct usage from Williamson’s wrong one.  This highlights the fact that the former is speaking words that aren’t his own and performing actions bid by others.  He’s a puppet.

Fort Mercer may also be the first instance in which a higher authority betrays Marston — ‘higher’ in this case in the literal sense, as Williamson stands perched on a wall.  This motif repeats itself throughout.  What caught my attention (only on a second playthrough) is that when Bonnie finds Marston, she comes from a direction that doesn’t make sense: east from Plainview.  Why was she there, and how did she get there so quickly?  A simple line about her supply run, whatever it was for, could alleviate this.

“BONNIE MACFARLANE, A WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD”

For all the traditions of Old West mythology which RDR observes, Bonnie is one of the few characters who repeatedly draws attention to and doubts Marston’s persona: the brooding, enigmatic cowboy.  On several occasions, she classifies Marston’s identity — the criminal with the code, etc. — as “romantic.”  He breaks free from the cliche, arguably, for all his nuances, but it’s as if devs wanted players to notice the other conventions.  (More on this later.)

Bonnie is rendered mostly cohesively, with the exception of remarkable naivety in rescuing a gunned down outlaw outside the hideout of the region’s most notorious gang.  Her kindness is unquestionable, but her wit turns foolish by this one decision.  If this had played into the last Bonnie mission, whereby she was lured into a trap by someone she thought to help, at least it would’ve been a full-fledged character flaw.  As it is, the trait feels inauthentic.

Overall, she’s a solid character with depth and dimension as a strong-willed, intelligent woman who thinks for herself and gets things done.  She represents the innocence of the frontier, signifying a state and place to which Marston longs to return: his own family farm.

RDR 04 Bonnie

However, “Hanging Bonnie MacFarlane” poses other problems, not the least of which is why Marston cuts off all ties after the rescue.  We see a brutalized Bonnie hide her pain, trauma, and humiliation behind a familiar facade of humor and it’s a tragic, horrifying image.  Yet Marston’s response: a nonchalant shrug punctuating the scene’s end.  ‘Just another day.’  This whole questline, it suddenly seems, was just his way of repaying a debt.  Once he had outright saved her life, the debt was fully paid.  So he stopped pretending to be a friend.

This cruel version of John Marston wouldn’t be a problem if their conversations hadn’t seemed so genuine and warm, due in large part to the wonderful voice acting.  For this reason, I’m inclined to believe that something was left on the cutting room floor.  There’s an ambivalence to Marston’s reaction.  If we had ended the questline with a shot of him turning away from Marshal Leigh Johnson riding away with Bonnie, it would be unquestionable.  Similarly, if there was a subsequent quest where he visits her — which is what I think was cut — there’d be no doubt as to their platonic relationship.  If the ambiguity was meant to allow player interpretation, it should have been expressed through a choice in gameplay.

An alternative would be to leave this mission out entirely.  The concluding scene after “The Burning” was a quiet, poignant moment of mutual understanding.  Why end the arc by reverting her to the damsel in distress rescued by the male hero, when it began as the opposite?  We know the world is cruel to women; every other saloon has a guy beating or stabbing one.  The story also doesn’t need a second local climax; the showdown at Fort Mercer bookends this part with plenty of tension and adrenaline anyway.

But of course, Miss MacFarlane isn’t the only character we meet in New Austin. While Bonnie MacFarlane shows us a tamer aspect of John Marston, the other faces of New Austin bring out the side of him he has tried so hard to bury.  Through sheer number, we see which is winning out.

“MARSHAL LEIGH JOHNSON, VETERAN BADASS”

Marshal Johnson, being one of the few upfront, honest men in the Western Border States, is a subtle foil to Marston.  He’s long-lived because practicality tempers his sense of justice (i.e. keeping to his jurisdiction), whereas Marston acts out of self-interest with recklessness.  But they’re quite alike in their frank demeanor, resulting in one of John’s few male relationships that never includes a death threat.

One way in which this character misses out on a quick opportunity for depth: does he visit his wife’s grave?  Including her headstone at Coot’s Chapel is great environmental storytelling, but in a sprawling world, it needed and deserved more attention.  A mission could have began with finding Johnson paying his respects.  Marston, recognizing the private ritual, keeps quiet; when Johnson gets up to leave, he tips his hat in silent thanks.  Then they ride off to their next lead with nary a line of expository dialogue.

The scene would fit his character, on the brink of being obsolesced by civilization (ref. the telephone scene).  He’d be the only one who ever visits the dead and who still values a thing that is no more.  It’s no mistake that his final quest takes place in Tumbleweed, a town deserted when ‘the railroad tracks went right past’ and left it behind.  The Marshal is another such artifact of the old world — no less than John Marston — discarded by a growing culture of newness and greed.

RDR 06 Major Characters

“THE BUNKO, THE GRAVE ROBBER, THE DRUNK”

Bonnie and the Marshal can be made a case for in terms of characterization, but the rest of Marston’s motley crew function as fixtures of Old West narrative.  Nigel West Dickens never veers far from his interests in money and intertextual references.  Irish stays a weasel.  But Seth, a token fortune seeker driven mad, demonstrates an uncharacteristic self-awareness.  He knows he has lost his wife, kids, and even his identity in hunting for treasure, yet can’t stop.  A truly mad man cannot know his madness.

If every other character remained one-dimensional celebrations of the genre, it wouldn’t make sense to critique them for it.  But devs’ treatment of the cast is inconsistent.  Why is Bonnie, the Marshal, and (arguably) Seth characterized, yet West Dickens and Irish — who emerges from a catalog of stereotypes in being introduced with Welsh and French — are about standard fare?

We should catch a glimpse of what Irish wants to forget through drink: a terrible tragedy, his pitiful life.  We should have some clue why West Dickens is so attached to making profit: a sick relative, a gambling problem.  It’s great that these characters have credible lives outside their dealings with Marston, but I wanted a little bit more.

NEW AUSTIN IN SUMMARY

As the best paced segment in RDR, our first foray into the game is fantastic.  The colorful cast are distinct and never overstay their welcome, the beats build slowly but sure to the local climax at Fort Mercer, and we’re skillfully introduced to a duality within Marston.  I was immediately immersed in the world, riding to every destination to see the untamed countryside and meet its wayward people.  A hell of a feat.

RDR 07 San Luis

SECTION II: NUEVO PARAISO

“AN INTERLUDE LIKE NO OTHER”

Marston’s first ride into Mexico is one of the most haunting, memorable scenes in RDR, and in recent gaming memory.  Deconstructing the sequence reveals many factors which set it up, but José González deserves so much credit.  “Far Away” absolutely steals the show, and it’s no wonder that it won Best Song in Game at the 2010 Spike VGAs.

Everything plays a part.  The game’s minimalist soundtrack, which otherwise keeps you company without demanding attention, surprises you with the swell of a full song.  We land on a shore far from the next objective, allowing the song to play in full.  Marston says two farewells (Marshal Johnson and West Dickens) before departing, and another one later to Irish, to highlight his isolation.  The San Luis river gunfight ramps up tension only to have it fall sharply and leave us in a contemplative state.

And after a monologue filled with uncertainties upon coming ashore, a line from Irish frames the silent ride’s subtext: “You’re an angry and a feck-ugly man, but not a bad one.”

As John Marston, we ask the same question as he: “But am I a good man?”

My first ride through was at night.  Indescribable, breathtaking beauty.  Thank you, Rockstar.

“LANDON RICKETTS, A LEGEND YOU’LL NOT BE”

No single character embodies the theme of the Old West’s death more than Ricketts, the aging gunslinger legend from Marston’s boyhood.  Both men have earned “a strange kind of fame” by killing, yet Ricketts is sharp and critical of Marston.  He calls him out as an illiterate farmer with an awful temper (knowledge gleaned from about a minute of observation) who is inept at catching outlaws and has only killed peasants.  Raising these doubts about Marston grounds his character in reality.  He’s not a myth, but a man.

But this reality isn’t always true.  For one, the bit about “only killing peasants” would contradict the personal story of any player who has caught or killed bounties in New Austin.  Several NPCs before this point reflect player decisions through dialogue; the story could have used just one line here to avoid this problem.

Another point: when Ricketts parts ways with Marston back on American soil, he says: “You took me back to another time.”  We then see that he criticizes Marston so much because he sees a lot of himself in him.  Why then do their fates differ so radically?  Marston’s anger, a prominent motif, may be the reason, but it wasn’t clear.

Perhaps a mission might see the pair competitively clear a bandito hideout, at the end of which Marston shoots out the limbs of one outlaw leader to get information on their cache while Ricketts just puts the other down with a headshot.  In the heat of the moment, John might quip “What’s the matter, old timer?  Don’t have the stomach for it anymore?” to which Ricketts, flatly, just looks at him and rides off.

“REUNITING WITH THE OLD GANG”

RDR 09 Escuella Found

Not much can be said about Escuella and Williamson’s characters.  They appear so little and John shares nothing from their days in the gang that we don’t feel the former closeness he keeps mentioning.  These details could have helped players feel more conflicted about hunting them down.  Two rides in Nuevo Paraiso had no conversation: on the train with Ricketts, and a wagon ride with Luisa.  Alternatively, Escuella and Williamson could have reminisced a bit more during their short exchanges with Marston.

“Remember that one winter we was picking berries and cut into an angry-as-all-hell Mama and Papa bear gettin’ it on?”  Or, “remember that one summer we was so hot and thirsty, we dove buck naked into a lake and drank half the damn thing up?”

Devs made a telling choice in limiting a kill-or-spare choice to Javier Escuella, the one man from Marston’s old gang who never makes a direct attempt on him.  Williamson dies either by his hand or another’s, just like De Santa. On one hand, it depicts ‘Marston Wrath’ as something other than inevitable.  He has a choice to act on it or not.  On the other hand, it almost trivializes the choice (meaningfully) because either way they die, it isn’t really John that pulls the trigger.  The bureau is pulling his strings.

It was a strange feeling the first time I played through.  I had handed over Escuella to the agents alive, hesitated in killing Williamson which forced Reyes to do it, and then watched Van Der Linde fall to his death.  All around, my targets had died almost in spite of me.  It’s no wonder I couldn’t stop the bullet headed for me, either.

Before John Marston finds his two former ‘associates’, RDR treats us to the beginnings of a revolution.  Unfortunately, this inflated sub-plot lacked real relevance to the main conflict.

“TO MARSTON, A REVOLUTION NOT WORTH HAVING”

Structurally, the Nuevo Paraiso arc serves to escalate the stakes.  After a siege on one fortress, we face a civil war across an entire province.  Williamson, running and hiding, becomes a far less threatening antagonist so something must help him.  The problem is that he and Escuella have nothing to do with the revolution, leaving players as ambivalent to the conflict as Marston.  The final Reyes mission recognizes this by having Marston stroll through Escalera untouched, even as the rebels riot against the army.

This sub-plot functions seemingly only as a stand-in for Marston’s inner struggle, he apparently siding with the government in hunting down his old ‘friends.’  Ride dialogue reveals that Dutch’s gang thought themselves revolutionaries fighting for change, which makes John’s decision to trust Allende/De Santa all the more suspect.  But even if he left those ideals behind, he would have sooner enlisted the help of Reyes simply out of familiarity. After all, it’s his own government that holds his family hostage; why would he trust their equivalent?

These problems could be solved by giving Williamson and Escuella more direct roles in the war.  It’s mentioned that many ‘gringos’ cross the border to join the rebels.  The two could start protected by Reyes, who would not surrender men fighting for him because the cause is too important.  This forces John to assist Allende’s army, and takes ‘picking’ the wrong side out of the equation.

RDR 11 John in Mexico

Williamson could later betray Reyes and offer him to Allende in exchange for John’s death, which keeps in the story Reyes’ first capture and De Santa’s betrayal at the Chuparosa church.  A group led by Luisa could rescue him (or Ricketts), after which he’d rescue Reyes to side with him against Allende, Williamson, and Escuella.  The rest would play out the same.  Marston still jumps the fence a few times, keeping all the metaphors of his former life and current situation in tact.

“ALLENDE, DE SANTA, REYES, LUISA”

Of the four main Hispanic characters we meet, Luisa presented the most opportunities for real development.  Ricketts tells us that she’s a teacher, a good person, “a human being.”  But Marston never knows her as anything but a rebel — especially given how her entrance was as a prisoner.  In our eyes, she does not change.  If we see her as an intellect before taking up arms, she’d make a much more interesting and tragic ally.

Luisa, Allende, De Santa, and Reyes are distinct characters, again as archetypal fixtures of Old West mythology, but don’t have a lot of depth besides.  Everyone waxes political yet spends most of their time pursuing their carnal (in Luisa’s case, romantic) desires.  In fact, it occurred to me that one thing this arc does exceptionally well is emphasize Marston’s unflinching faithfulness.  He’s a gentleman-outlaw.  Doesn’t that seem odd?

NUEVO PARAISO IN SUMMARY

Many folks name the second act as RDR‘s weakest, and I tend to agree.  What takes on ‘main plot’ status feels like a sub-plot that lacks relevance, and many of its key figures lack dimension.  But a lot of this is due to such a strong first act and everything else that devs got absolutely right in this one.  Some amazing lines come from our time here, the setting is palpably unique, we learn about John’s past, recurring motifs and themes carry through, and it’s still damn fun to play (esp. with the introduction of gorgeous rainstorms).

And let’s not forget: the “Far Away” interlude is drop-dead f*cking genius.

RDR 12 West Elizabeth

SECTION III: WEST ELIZABETH

“EDGAR ROSS SHALL BE DESTROYED”

Agent Ross contrasts many of John’s virtues, which is an important element for any antagonist.  John is always frank and honest, even if he doesn’t share much about himself; Ross speaks in contrived metaphors and makes grand pronouncements.  John states outright in dealing with people that he helps to be helped in return; Ross manipulates people with blackmail and grand promises.  Most important is that John admits that he’s an outlaw; Ross plays at being a good guy while resorting to kidnapping and outsourcing his dirty work.

You’d never think of something like an objective marker to have anything interesting to say, but there seems to be more to the ‘G’ that denotes Agent Ross’ missions.  Yes, he’s a G-man, a man of the government, but Marston likens him to the now-insane Dutch for having ‘confused themselves with God.’  With Ross’ promises about being the only one able to give Marston absolution for his bloody past, one can see the double meaning.

Ross belongs to the more nuanced half of RDR‘s cast.  As John Marston, we only know Ross as a hypocritical lawman for whom an end justifies all means, including breaking the law to uphold it — an interesting parallel with what Jack says, in a different context, about John having one set of laws for himself and another set for everyone else.  But in 1914, Jack meets Ross’ wife, who claims he is quite sensitive, and his brother Philip.  There’s more to the man who murders his father than he thinks, which brings weight to the final decision in the epilogue.

“MAD KING DUTCH”

As a father-figure so many times alluded to, Dutch Van Der Linde’s reveal strikes the right balance in realizing his image as a fallen mentor and subverting our expectations.  He doesn’t present as a grand threat by way of a dramatic entrance.  Rather, he’s shown to be stuck literally repeating his old lifestyle in robbing the Blackwater bank.  The scene pays homage to the classics of anticlimactic introductions, in everything from Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Gustavo Fring in AMC’s Breaking Bad.

RDR 13 Dutch Reunion

There’s a subtle menace to his look.  While John and the others insulate themselves with shirts and vests and jackets and coats, Dutch has only the orange undershirt.  In a climate of gunfire, it’s a telling choice.  It’s a shame we don’t spend more time with Dutch — that is, more time hunting him down — and see just how far he’s devolved.  It’s also strange that nobody directly asks the question, ‘Where is Dutch now?’  There’s a sense that he’s off somewhere far, or is dead, or is otherwise not a major player.  I was puzzled as to the binocular scene in “At Home With Dutch” where Dutch takes a shot at Marston and knocks him out.  Is there another point to this besides demonstrating heightened awareness and dead-on precision?  (Comment below if you have any ideas.)

Thankfully, the arc’s abrupt length does not diminish his last scene and monologue.  It chills us to the bone.  The game’s central theme of redemption is brought to the fore as he laments the inevitability of change in the world, and the impossibility of it in his own nature.  He foreshadows Marston’s death, perhaps even foresees it, in a powerful setup to another song-accompanied interlude as you — in the UI’s words — “ride home to your family.”  And just as before, it’s an incredible moment.

What follows is perhaps (in this writer’s humble opinion) the most brilliant ending of any video game ever.

When the credits rolled, I was devastated.  Red Dead Redemption punched me square in the face in a way that no other video game or story ever has.  This is why I’ve titled this series ‘No Second Chances.’  John Marston’s death resounded with such finality that I did not want to play this game a second time.  But I say this not as criticism, but as the greatest damn compliment I’ve paid to any work of art.

I know I’ve just answered the question I raised in part 1 even though I said I wouldn’t.  But I won’t digress; my focus remains on how RDR served such a brilliant Act 3, which is so rare a thing in games.

“COMING HOME”

Dutch’s death at Cochinay begins the denouement.  From his dying words sprouts a root of foreboding that burrows into the back of Marston’s mind and ours: “Our time is passed, John.”  But it’s Jamie Lidell’s “Compass” — a brilliant song brilliantly chosen, echoing John’s longing for his wife and son — that scores our homecoming and informs the scene’s major emotional notes.  We know that John is thinking of just one thing.

“A DIFFERENT SIDE”

Designing the last missions around tame rancher duties was bold, but earned very few players’ ire.  It worked because the missions mirrored the ones at MacFarlane Ranch, inciting the mercy of nostalgia.  But more than that, the missions had a purpose.  This simple ranch hand is the man John wants to be.

“MEET THE MARSTONS”

As John spends time with Abigail and Jack, we learn that the family for which he’s fought so hard is, thankfully, far from idyllic.  A wife of loving banter and jealousy; a moody teenage son; family finances in dire straits; a lazy uncle.  The mundane portrait is as refreshing as it is worrying, but normalcy allows players to better empathize.  (Sidenote: seeing Bonnie watch John and Abigail ride off is such a wonderful and poignant moment, all done with subtext.)

Through John and Abigail’s dialogue, it becomes clear how much they want a better life for Jack.  John has been fighting for a more peaceful future, and no single person embodies the future more for a father than his own son.  He’s at turns distant and resentful toward his father for being an absentee dad.  But underneath his anger, all he really wants is his dad to stick around.

RDR 15 Marston Ranch

“THE OLD WEST AND CAMERA ANGLES”

In showing John Marston the family man, devs don’t just show us how much his family means to him, but also how much John means to his family.  And just like how the camera cuts to a familiar angle as Jack Marston skins his first elk, all this puts us in the viewpoint of the Marstons.

When we ride out through the wilderness, the camera pulls back not just to highlight the beautifully understated environments, but to show how alone John Marston is.  Traveling with him from quest to quest forms a bond, but the foundation of loneliness strengthens it beyond what’s expected between player and avatar.  We cling to him more so we don’t feel as helplessly alone in the game space.

The net effect of all this is every single forum post and article comment that expresses vitriol at John’s death.  Everyone feels dread when John steps through those doors and loss when John finally falls.  Devs make a point to show us that we feel what the surviving Marstons feel.

“GO DOWN FIGHTING”

Among the best examples of mechanics and narrative working together is the one final playable blaze of glory through Deadeye.  A semblance of power to emphasize John’s powerlessness, magnified by the preceding gunfight which lulls us into thinking we might actually win.  But in another way, John also exercises his greatest strength: his devotion to his family.

RDR 16 Firing Squad

“THEME”

RDR‘s ending builds on all these factors, but it draws the strength of its impact primarily through staying true to its theme.  The dramatic question is answered: can a man redeem himself if the price is too high?  Yes, he can.  But even John himself states to Bonnie in an early mission, “nothing gets forgiven.”  The unfortunate truth is that redemption has little to do with retribution.  One must be fought for; the other is inevitable.

Yet, one thing didn’t sit right: the open epilogue as Jack Marston.

“AN ASIDE: IN DEFENSE OF JOSH BLAYLOCK”

Behind the near-universal dislike of Jack Marston’s voice is one simple truth: the voice did not match the older character model.  Blaylock’s performance brings life to Young Jack perfectly.  But Jack the Elder looks less 19 and more mid-20’s.  I get that he had to be reasonably rough-looking to follow the grizzled John Marston, so the new avatar wouldn’t seem feminine by comparison.  It’s a tough balance to strike.  Had Rockstar more time, I’m sure they would have either edited the model, re-cast the voice of Jack the Elder, and/or altered the time jump.

“ENDLESS EPILOGUE”

When I became Jack, I felt a crushing sense of loneliness.  It went beyond having lost my former avatar/friend/father/whatever.  Every character John Marston knew had vanished from the world.  Jack had no one.  How did this fit in with the theme of a man’s quest for redemption?  Why was it that after discovering the emptiness of revenge and the inevitability of retribution, we could live as the blessed son?

RDR 17 Jack Exacts Revenge

Then I found this blog, which needs to be read by every player of the game.

“ABOUTNESS”

For me, reading about John Marston as a fictional construct within the game space blew my mind wide open.  It made such perfect sense.  The one question I kept asking myself at every opportunity John had to be unfaithful (which were many): how does an orphan boy raised by outlaws learn to have such respect for women without any sort of mother, sister, or matron figure?  All around him, men fall to their most base natures.  Yet he is a gentleman legend.  Only a child’s naivety could paint such a persona.

The construct theory could even explain why I was so resistant to replaying the game.  The permanence I felt of John’s death was because it had always already happened.  My agency is the mind of Jack Marston, who stands at the graves of his parents in 1914, envisioning the adventures and toils of his unknowable father.  Restarting the game would be pretending that he’s alive again, or worse, cheapening his sacrifice.  I could not play a second time because in the end even John, who fought so hard for a new life, earned no second chance.

And yet there was too little in the game to support it.

All RDR needed to fit this interpretation into canon was one additional scene right at the beginning: a 5- to 10-second medium shot of the back of a well-dressed young boy with short brown hair, against a vast blue sky and the sound of wind across a prairie, easing toward him from behind.

This initial establish is all it would take to frame John Marston’s story as a son attempting to get to know his father through imagination, through creating fiction, through being the writer his father dreamed of him being.  It’s subtle, obscure; it wouldn’t be clear until Jack’s epilogue.  The entire game, especially the story, would take on a whole new layer of meaning and magnitude.  A story within a story.  It’d pose a philosophical question about redemption, grounded in the heartbreaking relationship between a father and son.

RDR 18 Jack and John

Ultimately, RDR remains one of the best games I’ve ever played.  As it stands, this is the story it tells: in the dying days of the Old West, a man struggles to attain redemption for his past sins so that he can live peacefully with his family.  Devs treated the setting, theme, and subject with care and maturity, and it showed in their brave design choices and otherwise brilliant work.  Each character not only represented some facet of John’s character and some fixture of the mythology of Westerns, but also dealt with the game’s central theme.  And the ending is legendary.

But I still just wish I could remember this game for the question it almost asked: can a father redeem himself in the eyes of his son?

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