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.
Red Dead Redemption is not the first of the so-called “sandbox games,” games which spread a seemingly open world before the player and set very few boundaries on what the player can do, but it’s one of the best, if not the best and it’s definitely the first to come anywhere near to presenting a role playing experience. It doesn’t achieve this by being more of a role playing game (by giving you the option to create the character or influence the narrative) it does it by being less of a sandbox game.
In Red Dead Redemption, you will not steal tanks and roll down city streets, launching rockets at passersby and hurling hookers off rooftops. For one thing, the game is set in the Old West, based on the Western United States in the historical period of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. There are no tanks or rocket launchers. You can hurl hookers off rooftops if you like, but you can’t have sex with them – Marston is a married man and refuses their advances. The game put you into one of those rare historical eras during which modern society temporarily stretched beyond the boundaries of civilization, during which men and women inhabited a world for which they weren’t entirely equipped. The result: all of the conveniences of civilized society with hardly any of the limitations on personal freedom, an environment seemingly custom-made for a sandbox game.
Yet due to this unique historical specificity, Red Dead Redemption limits your available actions to what could realistically be accomplished using the tools and techniques available at the time. There are cars, but John Marston doesn’t know how to drive them, so you can’t steal them. You can steal horses – even kill them – but you can’t hurl them off a mountain because the horse just won’t go there. The lawlessness of the Old West setting presents an opportunity for you to realistically indulge your most outlandish whims, but the strict historical setting enforces a harsh limitation on player agency which, instead of inhibiting the experience, actually serves to lift it above the norm.
Compare Red Dead Redemption to the genre-defining Grand Theft Auto series. The latest installment, Grand Theft Auto IV, has a similarly deep narrative to Red Dead Redemption, about a similarly conflicted outlaw attempting to effect a similar rehabilitation of his similarly dark past. Niko Bellic is an Eastern European import to the United States trying to get by in New York City. It’s entirely possible to play that game, as Niko, doing the things Niko might do and experience a rich narrative as you shoot, drive and hooker-punch your way through his narrative arc, but the second you step out of that narrative path, the illusion becomes untenable.
It is entirely possible that Niko Bellic, the character, might be enough of a social degenerate to willingly act in the many untoward ways Grand Theft Auto IV allows you to force him to act, but it’s unreasonable to believe that the environment of New York City (or any reasonably believable facsimile), would react to Niko in the way Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City is programmed to react. Anyone stealing an actual tank in an actual New York City would very quickly wind up in an actual jail or an actual morgue. Throw a few handfuls of hookers off a rooftop, or spray the city with as many bullets as Niko does, even in the narrative missions, and there would be no end to the manhunt for him – even if he spray-painted his car.
So while the Grand Theft Auto franchise may have a stranglehold on interactive open-world experiences, and may present entirely enjoyable narrative experiences in their own right, they require such an act of suspension of disbelief as to render any possibility of true role playing impossible. And that’s where Red Dead Redemption, although it may technically be considered less of an “open-world” game, has it beat nine ways to Sunday.
Start up GTA, open the door, walk outside, and the first thing you’re likely to want to do will be the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t be possible in an actual world, which is why it’s fun. Start up Red Dead Redemption, open the door and walk outside and the first thing you’ll do is wonder what you can do, before quickly realizing that in true open-world fashion, you can do pretty much anything you want. Yet what the world allows you to do is only and precisely those things that would be possible in a realistic Old West world, and all of them are entirely in keeping with John Marston’s character.
Look up and you’ll see birds in the sky. You have a gun. You can shoot those birds. You can track where they land, then take a feather. The game will even reward you for this, if it’s what you want to do. Shoot enough birds in the sky and you’ll complete a challenge. Look past the dead bird on the ground and you’ll see railroad tracks. Wait around long enough and you’ll see a train rolling by. You can jump on that train. You can stand on that moving train and shoot birds. That’s also a challenge, and the game will reward you.
At this point, you may be thinking this is a bit off the rails, so to speak. Standing on a moving train, shooting birds. That’s kind of far-fetched, isn’t it? Well my friend, they don’t call it the Wild West for no reason. Shooting birds, buffalo and even people from moving trains was good sport back in the day. People did it and no one seemed to mind. Or, more accurately, the structure of society that would prevent that sort of behavior today, or even during that period of history in more civilized areas of the country, simply didn’t exist in the West. John Marston the famous outlaw would surely have been able to shoot birds from trains, and if you choose to do so, you will simply be playing the part.
Try stealing a horse or shooting someone at random in Red Dead Redemption and see what happens. Would John Marston do these things? Probably. He is an outlaw after all. Sure he’s trying to redeem himself, but it’s part of his character. You can play the game as a straight-and-narrow John Marston if you want, and the game will let you, but the temptation to steal a horse or shoot someone at random is there for you, just as it would be for John Marston. If you succumb, passersby will run away screaming and, depending on where you are, you may eventually be hunted down by a posse of lawmen and bounty hunters, or immediately be set-upon by thrill-seeking, gun-wielding opportunists.
This is only scratching the surface of the things you can do in Red Dead Redemption, but all of them, if not entirely real, are at least believably realistic. People in the Old West may not have done all of the things you can do as John Marston, but they did most of them, or did things similar to all of them. John Marston is an allegorical Old West outlaw, he’s an archetype, and as such he combines elements of many real or imagined such characters into one all-encompassing avatar. Therefore almost anything any Old West outlaw did is possible for you to recreate, and although the game’s narrative thread barely takes notice of your extra-curricular activities, at not point do they break the fourth wall, or ask that you suspend disbelief in this character you’ve been playing.
The final few hours of the main narrative Red Dead Redemption are poignant and unsettling. John reunites with his family, resettle his farm and sets about attempting to live a normal life. His missions become mundane, even boring. He herds cattle from the ranch of someone he befriended in his travels. He teaches his son how to hunt, then rescues him after he goes off on his own to kill a bear and gets into trouble. He wrangles wild stallions with his old ranch hand, Uncle. These are all things you will have done before, as you employed John Marston’s deep pool of natural resources in order to enlist the aid of strangers in accomplishing your mission to apprehend or kill your old gang members, but in the context of having accomplished that mission, they are more than simple missions and simultaneously less. The game seems to be saying “this is your life,” and, while it is rewarding to be able to enjoy the fruits of your long labor, it is also a bit disheartening.
As John Marston, bounty hunter, government agent and occasional outlaw, you climbed mountains (literally), hunted wild animals and wilder men, cleared entire villages of outlaws and banditos, fomented a revolution and helped propel a Mexican guerilla fighter to the seat of his country’s power. You hunted and killed your best friends and left hundreds or even thousands of bodies in your wake. And your reward is what? To herd cows? To sleep in a bed with a woman who will barely say hello, and share a meal with a son who hates you?
To say that this part of the game is letdown would be an understatement, and it creates the very real possibility that, bored of these soul-sucking tasks, you, as John Marston, will head back into the hills to indulge in your previous passions, that you will take up unfinished challenges like hunting bounties, or killing the last of the buffalo, that you will, in fact, backslide in your effort to redeem yourself and begin to act like the outlaw you’ve always been. You may even end up causing more mayhem than you have to this point, resulting in spending more time being hunted by posses, more time in jail. I did. Yet after I was released, my family was still there for me, waiting for me to take up the mantle of father, husband and rancher. The game, too, never lets you forget that it’s time for you to set aside childish things, by refusing to allow you to change from your rancher clothes into any of the outfits you’ve unlocked along the way. It’s as if it’s saying “This is your life” in yet another way, one that’s impossible to ignore.
The game doesn’t end there though. It has another trick up its sleeve. Fulfill all of your obligations to your family and the game turns the tables once more by attempting to deprive you of them. You will fight the fiercest battle you’ve ever fought here, near the end of this remarkable game, as the US Army arrives to finally claim the last of your soul, or kill you in the process.
How the game plays out from here is pre-scripted and you cannot change how it ends no matter how hard you try. You are not playing a role at this point so much as you are watching in horror as events unfold in ways you would never in your wildest dreams have imagined. It’s possible to save your family, but you will not save yourself. You will die at the end of this mission, and you will be buried by the son you saved, the son you once scorned, who scorned you, but who, in the end, will ultimately avenge you. While you can’t change this narrative, can’t prevent your son from having to bury his own father, or even affect how you meet your eventual end, what kind of person your son buries – outlaw or savior – is up to you. Although Red Dead Redemption is not a role playing game in the strictest sense, I challenge you to watch its ending credits roll without feeling, at some level, that this tragic life you shared momentarily was, at least in part, your own.
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist. He is currently at 96.5% completion in Red Dead Redemption.