(WARNING: The following column spoils a significant plot point. If reading any further ruins the game for you…well, I just warned you, didn’t I? Don’t come crying to me.)
John Marston is going to die, and I’m afraid to play Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption because of it.
Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. I’ve actually been playing Red Dead Redemption like a madman. Side quests, missions from strangers, poker tournaments, impromptu duels after being caught cheating during poker tournaments, impromptu desert excursions while on the run from the law after killing a man in a duel after being caught cheating in a poker tournament—you name it, and if Red Dead Redemption offers it, I’ve done it.
What I haven’t been doing is advancing Red Dead Redemption’s plot, because like I said, John Marston is going to die.
Yes, I know that Marston is just a video-game character, the latest in Rockstar’s long line of protagonists of ill repute. I am equally aware that by leaving Marston alive, I’m robbing myself of Red Dead Redemption’s epilogue and crowning moment of awesomeness. (I will not be detailing said moment here. I’ve ruined one huge spoiler already; two would be pushing it.)
I know that Marston must die if Red Dead Redemption is to live up to its potential, but that doesn’t make it any better. See, I like John Marston. He’s the classic bad guy gone good, a former outlaw who hung up his pistols in search of a peaceful life with his family only to grudgingly take up his gunslinger’s mantle at the behest of unscrupulous government men who send him to take down his old gang.
Marston is an iconoclast in his own game, but as a killer-turned-cowboy on the fast track to obsolescence who doesn’t particularly care if a cattle car can move a herd faster than a man on horseback can, he brings something more to the table than Rockstar’s usual “act incredulous/do a mission/repeat” fare. Unlike his Rockstar predecessors, he isn’t just the same guy (with a palette-swap here and there as needed) with the same skeptical reaction to the same outlandish urban assault missions that have populated the last few dozen Grand Theft Auto games.
And I like his world. It’s 1911, and the West is dying. Revolvers are giving way to Mausers; horses fall before the automobile. It’s only vibrant in the way that a National Geographic special aimed at middle-schoolers hammers home the desert as a biome teeming with life just to make a point, but it takes that habitat and breathes a dusty, trail-worn life into it. The best that the GTA series can deliver is a hint of Scorcese’s Brooklyn, but Red Dead Redemption is full-on Sergio Leone from start to finish.
Hell, I even like his antagonists. They’re assholes with quick trigger fingers and well-developed senses of self-preservation, fun to hate and more fun to hunt. They scamper like desert rats before Marston, sweating and cursing and exuding by turns intimidation and desperation.
And when Marston’s old gang is so much worm food, his Pinkerton kidnappers give him his wife back. They give him his son back. They give him his ranch back. They even give him some time to enjoy them. They let him think that he has a shot at a normal, happy life. And then—THEN!—they decide that Marston is too dangerous to let live.
The bastards. I won’t allow it. This isn’t like the time I tried to stop Morgan Freeman from dying in Unforgiven by fighting my way to the theater’s projection room. If I just keep shooting, and keep riding, and keep playing cards and picking herbs and train-hopping and wiping out the buffalo and doing everything else that Red Dead Redemption allows you to do, John Marston will never die.
You built it too big, Rockstar! There’s too much to do! I don’t have to bother with your depressing, genre-savvy plotline! I can ride off into the sunset, free of the oppression of your bittersweet ending! As long as one bounty remains unclaimed, one treasure remains buried, or one scrap of John Marston’s 14 costumes remains unlocated, I win!