Deterministic Redemption with a Dead Man’s Gun

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October 18, 2012 by eclare138

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Red Dead Redemption (RDR) is an open world action game released in the May of 2010. It is an open world action game with an evoked narrative. The ending of RDR is an interesting case on how a seemingly poorly executed ending actually works with the main themes of the narrative in such a way that makes it overall quite impactful within that context. The game’s narrative centers around John Marston, an ex gang member who has been trying to set his life on the straight and narrow, being dragged back into a conflict between his old gang and the Department of the Treasury. The federal agents will grant John amnesty if he helps to track down his old colleagues and are holding John’s wife and son hostage as leverage. RDR has a series of resolutions that tie up different aspects of the experience, by structuring and sequencing these resolutions in a purposeful way, the anticlimactic ending serves to be a powerful narrative statement.
RDR’s narrative is heavily laden with deterministic themes. Determinism is the idea that the conditions surrounding a situation will inevitably produce a certain outcome. Unlike fatalism, there is no implication of a cosmic force. Or as John Marston puts it “My side ain’t chosen. My side was given.” Expressing his inability to control the situations around him in any real meaningful way. John’s inability to escape his past or change the course of his life for the better is constantly mentioned and demonstrated in increasingly tragic ways.
Interestingly, many players never fully complete RDR. The main narrative is brought to a resolution with the death of the character Dutch. However the game continues on past the narrative it had been focusing on for the length of the play time and shows John’s home life afterwards. The peaceful and family oriented depiction of John’s new life is a stark contrast to the gritty and violent scenarios present throughout the rest of the game. This relatively normal family life is shattered when the federal agents come back to John’s farm to finish him off, as he is seen as a loose end. His outlaw identity is inseparable from him regardless of his social standing indicated by his “honor” score. Honor is quantified on a sliding scale that players can affect through performing different actions (retrieving someone‘s stolen horse is an honorable action, while robbing a train is dishonorable). Story required missions focus more on rewarding fame points, which only note how well known John is. His honor score affects how different functional characters react to him ranging from praising him as a saint to fleeing in terror when he approaches. So while a player cannot prevent John from become famous, they can shape his reputation quite profoundly. Though this could be argued as an example of ludonarrative dissonance, because the player’s honor ranking is useless in preventing John’s murder, it is actually quite purposeful. If the deterministic viewpoint is to be taken seriously, then it would only make sense that no matter the morality of John’s actions he would be hunted down like an animal because his circumstances determine that to be the only outcome.
The emotional cues that occur during John’s death are also important to note when contrasting it to the real ending. The sigh of resignation when John realizes his inevitable fate and his attempt to go out in a blaze of dignified glory ring tragic as the player is forced to watch John be overwhelmed by federal agents. The way his death is shown is radically different than the other numerous deaths in game. Comparatively is it extremely graphic. The player must watch as the character that they have spent so much time with and grew sympathetic towards is riddled with bullets and mangled. The camera lingers on John in his death throes. No music is playing, only the sound of his strained breathing choked by blood. The scene serves as the emotional climax of the game, and very few players are left unaffected. John’s family returns and the player sees them mourn over their loss. The scene cuts to his grave in the “beautiful place” shown in a side mission earlier in the game than a jump cut to many years later and his wife is now buried next to him and his son, Jack, is grown. The player then assumes control of Jack.
This is where a lot of players stopped playing RDR. It seemed that Jack was just a way to finish up any loose ends the player may have left, which could be many since the game is based in an open world and all the story missions have been completed. However, Jack serves as the vessel for the main punch of the narrative. After assuming control of Jack there is a side quest available, though it is not obvious and a bit hard to find. It is a man saying he knows the whereabouts of the man who ordered the death of his father, Edgar Ross. Jack then embarks on a quest to find Ross and avenge the death of his father. Along the way he encounters different people who knew Ross, his short interactions with them paint Ross as a rounded human with flaws, rather than the monster Jack envisions him. Jack finally tracks Edgar down on a riverbank in Mexico, far enough out that he can easily extract his revenge without any complications. Jack angrily confronts him about killing his father, to which Ross replies “your father killed himself with the life he led.” The player is then forced into the dueling combat mechanic (there is normally a prompt allowing either acceptance or refusal) and then proceeds to kill Ross. The title then flashes on the screen, the credits begin to roll, and the player unlocks the achievement “Nurture or Nature?”
This ending, especially when paired against the crushing emotional weight of John’s death, comes off as quite emotionally hollow and unfulfilling. Though the player and Jack gain closure, they receive no pleasure in doing so. The game had taken the warped fantasy of revenge and shown it in its true colors, an ultimately meaningless and pointless act. The deterministic themes are especially important when discussing the “redemption” mentioned in the title. The quest for redemption is a cruel joke. John never gains the redemption he seeks for himself, or even his family. The expressed reason for John’s attempt to leave the gang was for the chance of a better life for his son. John was an orphan and forced into criminal activities to survive, and he wanted his son to have a choice. John encourages Jack to read novels and pursue his dream of becoming a writer despite Jack being the only person in the family who is fully literate. When John is denied personal redemption, Jack seeks it in the form of violent revenge. By killing Ross, Jack instantly makes his father’s sacrifice worthless and damns himself to the exact life his father was trying to save him from. Not only that, but Ross’ death is not rewarded with either emotional closure or in game rewards. The question of the validity or determinism is posed with the achievement title. Were John and Jack both doomed to a criminal life by their circumstances? Or did they choose, however subtly, the criminal life?

Almost counter intuitively the developers were able to take what would be, for most games, a poorly constructed and executed ending and make it into a powerful statement questioning the futility of revenge and showing the tragedy of determinism.

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