Red Dead Redemption is John Marston’s story and not mine. This has become somewhat of a mantra as I follow the antihero to the end of the West and back. I use it to explain his odd choices of company, his sometimes off-putting quips, and the entire part of the game that takes place in Mexico. But by divorcing myself from the avatar constantly, by forgiving narrative blunders and being forced to justify poor characterization, I am removing player agency–and effectively making the game mean a little less each time.
Eventually, it adds up.
It’s finally when, back on John Marston’s farm waiting for the soldiers to come, I find myself staring down the climax of the Rockstar’s magnum opus and not knowing if I should flee or fight. Praise or criticize. Care or not. The entire experience of Red Dead Redemption has left me with a tangible malaise, and I’m not clear exactly why.
There’s a lot of things I like about Rockstar’s retelling of the frontier. The expansive desert, detailed scenery, and breathtaking sunrises are some of them. Characters like Bonnie, the Sheriff, and Louisa are another. I also like hogtying someone for a drag through the countryside, watching the movies in Armadillo, and the various shootouts in different gangs’ hideouts. The newspapers are a brilliant connection to the surrounding world and sometimes, when lightning streaks across New Austin’s night sky, I almost forget to breathe.
But beautiful weather effects and intense shootouts aside, it’s still John Marston’s story. And it’s one I am not sure I want to hear all of.
The problem is that Marston himself is a tired, lost protagonist and his tale of redemption suffers from the same ills. It goes on too long and tries to cover too many miles. It’s as if it were never put on the chopping block or edited; scenes stretch on and on, their narrative doomed to overextend and fall short in the same breath. The narrative is often extended unintentionally by the additional content Rockstar put into the game. Random events crop up like tiny wildfires and are stamped out without meaningful conclusions. Carriages are attacked without notice, women are chased by men wielding sharp knives, and horses are frequently stolen. Each time John Marston has the option to step in or not, but neither actions seem to matter one way or the other, and they begin to get more repetitive the more they happen. In the Wild West, it seems that Rockstar would have you believe that shootouts happened every five minutes and rapes every fifteen.
Worse yet are the “stranger quests,” larger missions outside the main storyline which vary wildly from feeling like minor revelations to gigantic wastes of time. Even when successful, as with the random small events, the larger stranger quests feel unrewarding. Bringing a bouquet of flowers to a crazy man in the wilds who lives with the emaciated corpse of his dead wife hardly feels worth it in the long haul, especially when Marston’s sole commentary, said while backing out of the tiny cabin on the fringes of town, is: “I forgot, I have an appointment with planet Earth.”
Much like John’s above line, the side storyline of Red Dead Redemption brings nothing positive to the table and frequently even detracts from the overall experience.
The overall player experience, too, is muddled with ambiguity. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about Marston and it bothers me. While I find myself wanting to play the role of a heroic cowboy, that is impossible with John Marston’s personality. Sure, he saves a whole lot of lives, but he doesn’t want to be a hero. He just wants to find his family, and he doesn’t care if I share his sentiments. He doesn’t take the time to explain to me why Abigail is the perfect woman for him, or detail to me how his daughter died; the closest we get to insight into Marston as a man are a few rapid exchanges with frontierswoman Bonnie while herding cattle and breaking in horses, but they are never expanded upon. The end result is I don’t care about his family because I don’t care about him. Through his indifference, he fails to make me care about any of them–him, his wife, or his son–until the final chapters of the game.
Of course, by then, it almost feels too late. This is the nagging flaw of the entire Red Dead Redemption narrative. It provides too little characterization too late and then too much information too soon on a bigger level. It’s hard to care when everything moves at contradicting paces; sometimes the broken pacing just serves to confuse and separate the player even further from the story. We speed through our welcome to the game, racing through the storyline involving Bonnie and the Sheriff at a neck breaking pace, but seemingly drag through the rebellion in Mexico. And for some reason, when Mexico comes to its end, a new hunt begins. The overall effect is that the title starts to feel like an endless, overwhelming race to a finish line that no one is sure they even want to see.
From start to finish and zone to zone, RDR loses a lot of its steam.
It is to its credit, however, it doesn’t lose all of it. In fact, in spite of these numerous flaws, it’s easy to see how strong the game is. Red Dead Redemption may have a confused storyline, a weak middle, and some entirely meaningless content–that much is true. But it also has a lot of immersion, terrifyingly bold imagery, and extremely solid gameplay. While the flaws it possesses might have been otherwise fatal to another game, Rockstar manages to dodge several bullets here and there, creating something not only salvageable but quite good. Make no mistake, I would suggest RDR to anyone reading this; I just wouldn’t offer it blind praise.
For me, Red Dead Redemption feels like a particularly long road trip to somewhere awesome. I’m filled with a strong relief when it finally comes to an end. Partially because I’m happy to be at my destination, but also because I’m just glad to get out of the car. I spent too many hours cooped up in a car with a driver who refused to ask for directions and took too many pit stops.
Honestly Rockstar, for the next roadtrip can the players just take the wheel? We promise not to crash the Turismo.