Smile and Nod

Smile and Nod: I, John Marston

Russ Pitts | 22 Jul 2010 21:00
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Red Dead Redemption is not a role playing game. Although it could be argued that all games - in that they cause you to direct the actions of a character that exists outside of yourself - are role playing games, some games are designed better than others to allow you to impart your own interpretation of a character onto the narrative. Games that are designed in this way, that allow you to create your own central character, fully inhabit that character in whatever way you wish, and then lead that character through an adventure in which the actions are your actions, the resolutions based on your actions, are role playing games. Red Dead Redemption is not that kind of game.

Red Dead Redemption's narrative is pre-defined, its central character, John Marston, pre-written. No matter how you play the game, what actions you take or how you personally feel about it, the game will always end the same way - tragically. And yet, in spite of this fundamental difference between Red Dead Redemption and role playing games, in playing Red Dead Redemption I had the most profound role playing experience I've ever encountered in a videogame.

Very sincere spoiler warning.

I would like to share my experience of playing Red Dead Redemption with you and relate what it meant to me. I would like to do so without worrying that I'm ruining the experience for you, so I will assume that you have played this game through to the end. If you have not, and don't wish to have the ending spoiled for you, then I would ask that you read no further.

The end of very sincere spoiler warning. You will not get another. Read on at your own risk of being spoiled.

In playing the main story missions of Red Dead Redemption, you will experience the narrative of its central character, John Marston, as written by the game's designers. You can't influence this narrative no matter how hard you try, but you are able to take advantage of the game's open world to create antimony between John's story of redemption and his acts of brutality and lawlessness. In so doing, you can create an entirely believable subtext that makes it possible to believe in the character all the more. You can't re-write his story, in other words, but you can add your own flourishes. By the time you've fulfilled your obligations to your US Government overseers and are returned to your family, the entirety of your actions while away from them is not entirely up to your own imagination, but it can be largely influenced by it.

In playing Red Dead Redemption, I tried to make my John Marston a noble John Marston. I tried to avoid unnecessary bloodshed or random acts of lawlessness. I rescued women in distress and assisted lawmen in apprehending bad guys. I didn't shoot strangers and did my best to avoid breaking laws. And yet the temptation to go off reservation was very strong.

There's an achievement, for example, for using your lasso to hogtie a woman - any woman - and placing her on the railroad tracks to be run over by a train. It's a small achievement - only 5 points - but it's there for you to try to get or not. I'm weak. I went for that achievement. I selected some random woman who was weaving a blanket outside of one of my residences. I lassoed her and placed her on my horse. In so doing, I sparked a gun fight with the local populace, which led to senseless murder, which led to my being pursued by a posse, which led to more murder. At some point the woman and the horse I'd placed her on were shot and died - a senseless tragedy caused by my own inherent need to do evil things.

I felt terrible about this turn of events, and was eventually apprehended by authorities and forced to spend time in jail, because the game does not forget your actions and forces you to make amends or suffer. So I suffered, both in game and in my own heart, and yet at no point did I feel as if I had fundamentally betrayed either the character of John Marston or the rules of the real world this game world was designed to mimic. All of the things I did were possible to do and were actually done in the actual Old West, and a character like John Marston could potentially have done them all. My John Marston did, and so his narrative was that much richer and more real to me.

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