Lessons Learned from Red Dead Redemption

Reprinted from vickiessex.com, February 27, 2011. Still pertinent and relevant.


For the hubby’s birthday, I bought him Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games for PS3. He’d been coveting it for a while, being a fan of the game developer’s other titles including the Grand Theft Auto series.

Red Dead Redemption is an open-concept third-person shooter/adventure-type video game set in the final days of the Wild West. You play John Marston, a reformed hoodlum forced to go after one of your ex-posse buddies. During your quest, you have to complete tasks for various people, accumulate weapons, ride hither and tither on your horse, and so forth.

I think the best review and summary is still here. (Warning: profanity laden, but hilarious.)

Generally, I don’t play a lot of newer video games—I’ve always preferred the old point-and-click or type-based PC adventure stories of the late eighties and early nineties made by Sierra. They had linear paths and set story lines. You had to do everything in sequence, and any deviation from that would likely result in a run time error. RDR, however, gives you a lot more leeway in terms of when and how you complete missions. You don’t even have to play the set storyline, as long as you’re content to ride across vast, scenic southern desert plains, hunt animals, pick flowers, collect bounties, and stop the occasional horse thief, rape, stage coach hijacking, or runaway bandit.

Which is generally what I enjoy doing. Or what I now enjoy doing, after watching my husband get to the very end of the game.


See, John Marston has a wife and son the government is holding hostage, to ensure you carry out your mission. After shooting your old friend dead, you get to go home, and there’s even a lovely, wistful song that plays as your ride your faithful horse across the lush landscape…but that’s not the end of the game.

Upon your return, you have to rebuild your ranch and your family’s trust in you—buy cattle to replenish your herd, do chores, accomplish various tasks for your family members. It’s all very domestic. Plus, you still have the whole world to explore and pick flowers in. There really doesn’t have to be an end.

Except there does.

After all, you’re a thug. A former wanted man. You’ve killed and maimed dozens in your quest for some skewed justice. So the government comes after you and your family at the ranch. An epic battle ensues. It’s just you and your son (but mostly you) against, like, forty guys. If you play through this mission, you will likely be killed a half dozen times before you actually get through it. But the gods of video games give you the power to come back to life and start at those blessed automatic save points, so all is well…for now….

The cut scene ensues. You get to the barn. You get your wife and son on a horse. You tell them not to worry. You kiss your wife goodbye and tell her you love her. You watch them ride away. John Marston is all alone now in the barn, surrounded by a dozen lawmen.


I think I nearly burst out in tears when I saw this. How could you devote an entire game—hours and hours of game play—to helping/being this almost unstoppable (anti)hero and not have a happy ending? He was just getting his life back in order, reconnecting with his family and rebuilding his ranch. And then, unjustly, it’s all taken away from him. More importantly, it’s all taken out of your hands.

Therein lies the real tragedy of this epic. Up until that moment, you had a choice in almost all things: you could choose to help those in need, or ignore them, or shoot them in the back and take their belongings. There were consequences to your actions, whatever you chose to do. But in this final moment, you can’t run away. You can’t get on a horse and follow your wife and son. You can’t surrender, or even find a place to cower in fear. The computer gives you exactly one second—that gold-hued flash of dead-eye cognizance that slows down time enough for one final act of defiance—to realize how futile your actions are.

No chance to respawn. No save points to be reborn into. The video game gods decide that’s the end of Jack Marston’s journey. Game over.

I was shattered. Inconsolable. I nearly flung myself upon the screen and cried along with his wife.

But that’s not the end of the game.

You “return” as John’s son, Jack Marston, three years later after burying his mother. Young Jack has a mission, and it’s to find the man who killed his father. My husband played through these missions right to the final showdown. And even as the man’s body lay bleeding out in the dust, there was no satisfaction in revenge. No riding off into the sunset or even a chance to move on from there. That’s the end. That’s where the curtain comes down.

I was thoroughly disappointed. Playing Jack was not like playing John—and I came to the horrible conclusion that John could never be replaced. It didn’t have anything to do with an actual change in the character’s identity, age, experience, game play, or any of those things. Sure, I’d miss that horse-straddled gait, those scars and that gruff voice, but Jack looked enough like his father that those things could be overlooked. And anyhow, you still got to play and do the same things you did with John.

Rather, it was about the character arc and the stakes the senior Marston faced. I didn’t like Jack because the only thing he had to look forward to was a cold, empty vengeance with no consequences. He didn’t have anything to lose. And we really didn’t want to spend any more time with him performing the same drudging tasks we’d gone through with John. The end result: most people who’ve played RDR hate Jack for deigning to fill his father’s worn, dusty, blood-splattered boots.

So what does this all amount to? What did this time sink of a video game earn me except a flat butt, a lot of heartbreak and an inability to move on with my own saved missions, knowing what lies ahead for poor John Marston?

On the writing side of things, it turns out I learned that one’s emotional investment with one’s characters is dependent on their journeys and the stakes.

Not that those are the only things that makes a good story/video game—I wasn’t nearly as invested in Super Mario Bros., ever. The story is as two-dimensional as the characters themselves (despite being iconic). Sure, there is satisfaction when you finally save the princess, but really, who the heck cares? Mario didn’t exactly grow as a person (no mushroom jokes, please) and the only thing he ever had at risk was his own overall-covered hide.

In addition to character journeys and high stakes, good storytelling involves unpredictable outcomes. Will they/won’t they? is the classic sexual tension plot. “Will he defeat this dastardly villain?” is typical of adventure and crime-fighting genres. The higher the risk, and the more that the character is developed with flaws and foibles to interfere with the goal, the more in question those outcomes become.

When things end happily, it’s great; but when it ends tragically, shockingly, you mourn for them, with them. And you look for what’s next, what the characters will do now. Just think of the end of The Empire Strikes Back—arguably one of the most successful cliffhangers ever. Or look at any of Joss Whedon’s work: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is rife with twists and deaths and shockers that become pivotal to a season arc.

So all those hours spent on the couch riding mustangs across an alternate-universe Texas didn’t go to waste. I now have a plot bunny for a Western fantasy I want to work on. And I can now add “scarred reformed cowboy” to my list of men I admire as (anti)heroes.

At the very least, I learned this from John Marston: life sucks, but you make the best of what time you have. And then you die.

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