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The Time I Wasn’t John Marston


Ugh. How do we do it, eh? How do we make this work? What can we do exactly to make these bloody videogames just BEHAVE? Anyone? Developers?

I’m talking of course about that perennial problem -ludonarratological dissonance. Or, for those of you who aren’t friendless thinkletons, the fact that I can be playing as moody cowboy John Marston and still spend six hours repeatedly crashing my horse into a river just for shits and gigs.

How do we make it so we’re having fun with the game while still paying attention to the autuered stuff? After all, a central part of videogames is exploration, mucking about.

Red Dead Redemption‘s a pertinent example of this actually. On paper, it’s a superbly written, melancholic treatise on the death of the American West, but in the hands of videogame players, generally a ruddy mischievous bunch, it’s a total farce. Marston might have whined in cutscenes about how he “wanted to get back to his fam’ly” but as soon as I took over, I was off picking feverfew for days at a time and, I dunno, shooting nuns and shit.

And it’s not like the game even discouraged me; that flower picking bumf is a central part of playing Red Dead Redemption. The game even awards you experience points and goodies for doing it. On the one side are a writing staff, hours of FMVs and an aesthetic telling me to shut up and listen – on the other are hidden treasures, ambient tasks and optional missions, the game’s way of saying sod off and do what you like.

So how do we get this right? How do we make it so we’re having fun with the game while still paying attention to the autuered stuff? After all, a central part of videogames is exploration, mucking about. The most revered examples of “pure gaming” are things like Saints Row The Third which lets you toy with – or rather, play with – the game’s rules as much as you want. To eschew that in favour of just sitting still and listening to what we’re being told … we might as well just be reading books or some rubbish.

But at the same time, games are getting cleverer and writing is getting better – we need to pay attention to this stuff. So the resolution I reached in RDR was accepting that doing exactly what I wanted all the damn time would shaft the game’s story so totally up the wrong’un that it would ruin the whole thing. I had to method act.

This took some effort and, actually, a lot of frustration. The first thing I had to give up was, of course, the killing sprees. Like any old bugger playing a Rockstar game I constantly have this boisterous impulse to park the main story and run around shooting my gun like Yosemite Sam in a war. But I wasn’t trying to be me, I was trying to be John Marston or at least, a kind of interpretation of John Marston. And he’d never do that – he’s a reluctant killer trying to get his wife back, not some kill-loving twazzock with a shotgun. I had to rein myself in and dance to Rockstar’s tune.

The other thing was trying to actually fit the part in the first place. As I said, I was trying to method act; I was trying to ease myself into John’s mind and body so as to get the best from Red Dead Redemption‘s story. Like Daniel Day-Lewis (who, obviously, I’m just as talented as) I wanted to learn how to be the person I was playing. And the person I was playing was a fucking good shot with a revolver, so whenever I pranged the analogue stick and sent a .38 wide it would piss me off. There were several times where I would actually restart missions in order to try again to exude the amount of skill I thought Marston had, so determined was I to get this story on track. I wanted, badly, to unite those two things, play and story and if the story said John Marston was a dead eye, then damn it, so would I be.

And then I just had to ignore so much of the game itself. If I was riding back towards town to pick up my next story mission from the sheriff, and I passed an obvious starting point for a sidequest, I’d just keep riding, no matter how tasty it looked. Because why would John stop? The entire motivation of his character is wanting to get his family back as quickly as possible. If I took a few days’ worth of game time out to go help some lady who’d lost her husband, then I wasn’t being John. I missed a lot of Red Dead Redemption because of this.

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Is this what Rockstar would want? I don’t know. I can imagine the writers and designers who’d spent months making and placing those sidequests watching me ride past and getting upset – I was knowingly ignoring their contribution to the game. The makers of RDR want us to play these things, or else they wouldn’t be there. At the same time, playing them kind of torpedoes the whole experience.

I was constantly pushing and pulling between what I wanted to do with the narrative and what I wanted to do with the play.

And that went on for the whole game, really. I was constantly pushing and pulling between what I wanted to do with the narrative and what I wanted to do with the play. It felt insulting to trample Dan Houser’s script, but also, in a different way, insulting to ignore all the tightly programmed gunplay, too. It leads to this question of what is it we want more from games? I think it’s healthy that we CAN choose – that I had that choice to be or not to be John – but at the same time, I want games to be art; I want artists to choose for me, like when they place the camera a certain way in a movie or write a certain word in a book. I want to play but I also want to do what I’m told. How DO we make this work?

Because even method acting, even stepping to the beat of RDR‘s script felt wrong. I wanted to unite narrative and play, but it just felt like I was ignoring play. The one wee contrivance I came up with (and this took some imagination, I can tell you) was that I would put John to bed every night, save and then when the game restarted, pretend he was still asleep and having a nightmare. Then I’d do all the things I wanted to do – I’d saunter around Armadillo shooting everyone’s horse. I’d go help that lady who’d lost her husband. I’d put on silly clothes and jump off a mountain just for the piss of it. And then I’d load up again, and imagine John springing out of bed in a cold sweat, running out his room to make none of that had actually happened. It meant I was obeying – even adding to the narrative, by creating this troubled subconscious in John – but also still playing, still having the fun that Rockstar had built for me.

So, it sort of worked I guess, but it was also just a bullshit lie. I wasn’t really uniting the game, I was just making stuff up to suit me.

But then again – ARGH – then again, isn’t that what games are good for? Who hasn’t made shit up? Who hasn’t pretended they’re something the character isn’t? This is what it comes down to: Do we embrace that uniqueness about games and continue to struggle with the fact that they will always be inherently artless, that they’ll be authorless literature written by committee? Or do we ignore that and try to keep them as linear and as focused as possible? Make them more like films and plays and other things that are actually art?

Or is that running amok and doing what you want the true art of videogames? What do we do with these bloody things? Anyone? Developers?

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