Redemption is a Misnomer

That’s right, I’m denouncing the critic’s (and many-a-player’s) darling. There is nothing Redemptive about Red Dead Redemption. Here’s why.

As you probably know, RDR gives players control over John Marston, a man who is living during a time of utter change in the United States. The days of the cowboys and the wild west are fading, and in its place we see the insidious nature of centralized government and cities. Though savage, the days that John Marston lived through in his youth were days were concepts like honor and integrity were central to the American ethos. You lived and died like a man, because that’s how the world worked.

What we see during the game, though, is that the bureaucracies and practices of “civilization” are probably more savage than the older days of America ever could be. As a testament to this, Marston is forced by the government to return to his old life–which he had abandoned in the wake of having a family. So, off he goes to do various spoilery things…a time during which he reminds you, at every point that he can, that even though he’s being forced to commit heinous acts by the government, that he’s really a changed man at heart. He is, as the title might have suggested, seeking redemption.

The game is an open world sandbox, and comparisons to GTA are spot on. You’re free to do what you want, in this open world, though your “choices” always come down to do I kill this person or not? I appreciate the ability to choose what I do in any given situation as much as the next person–I mean, I champion games like Dragon Age and Fallout every chance I get. Still, I think the fact that you’re given a chance to choose what Marston does undermines the entire point of the game: Redemption. It’s in the title! Should I really have the opportunity to kill an entire town, to hogtie a whore and lay her on train tracks?

Why do you have the option to be evil? It shouldn’t be an option. It doesn’t serve a function. If John Marston was actually looking for redemption, then they should have restricted our choices. I can’t kill a town and then cry about how I’m a changed man the next scene.

People have told me that it still works, though–I mean, a man like John Marston has probably committed bigger evils than we are capable of during the game, no? That being said, someone like him can’t just turn around and all of a sudden embody that changed man in a heartbeat. He’s sure to slip into his old habits, and, with the things the government has asked him to do, it’s probably easier to get rid of any internal conflict by attempting to embody the psychological and moral makeup of a natural-born killer. Right?

Wait. Hold your horses.

That implication would mean that John Marston is capable of moral complexity. Do you really think its moral complexity that would allow me to have a Marston that is all over the place? That. Is. BUNK. If this game believed in moral complexity then we wouldn’t be subjected to the mechanic which quantifies your honor. By this very measure, there is no such thing as moral complexity in the game. You either have honor, or you don’t. We can tell you how much you have by giving you an arbitrary number.

The thing is, it still could have worked. In fact, having choices which contradict the title of the game could have been addressed, and this could have made the game more interesting on a conceptual level. Instead, the choices that you make during the game have absolutely no bearing on what occurs in the main storyline–unlike, say, Mass Effect, which has many subtleties within its larger skeletal framework. There could have been a couple of different endings depending on the sort of Marston that you decided to play, and the characters that you interact with during cutscenes could have reacted to the sort of man who you’ve made Marston become. Nope. All we get is Marston saying he’s a changed man (which is probably a lie) and people not believing him (with good reason). At the very least they could have made us deal with the consequences of our actions….and by this I mean something more compromising than “you’ve got a bounty on your head!” In Fallout, if you kill all the merchants, well now…you’re fucked. You have no one to trade with. In Red Dead, you don’t have to worry because the shopkeepers return from their magical slumber in just a couple of days.

And ultimately, the choice of “Do I kill him or not” isn’t really indicative of whether or not Marston is a better man. Killing, because it’s a game, is so easy. We don’t really have to think about it. Since most games cannot exist (apparently) without giving the player the chance to kill, I figure that most players wanted to embrace the idea of a conceptually engaging experience amidst the search for Redemption. You know, so that the killing “means” something, or so that it’s justified because there’s some larger message to be found here? Only then could you take forget that what you’re doing is pretty damned mindless, because it would work within a larger conceptual framework.

MGS does what I figure RDR wanted to do–give us some larger, philosophical truth about the world. In MGS, the real point of the game isn’t to providing the player an obstacle whose purpose is to be killed or taken advantage of–though you will be forced to kill, if you’re not sneaky enough–the point is that what you’re doing is, in every sense of the word, wrong. This is why you get a better rating for killing as few enemies as you possible, for not getting spotted…killing the guards, people you don’t have to kill, undermines the point of ‘Tactical Espionage Action.” You can do it, but you’re not about to get a good grade in the game for it. The people you’re working for, they’re terrible people.  Snake knows it, but what can he do? That’s what he was created for. That’s his purpose, he has no say in it, he’s just a political tool. And so, the conflict that occurs between having to sneak by, being forced to kill certain people (bosses) and being graded for your performance by avoiding unnecesary deaths even though you’re a natural born killer is conceptually fantastic.

Hideo doesn’t pull any fast ones on us. He doesn’t glorify war, he, despite making us a tool that facilitates war, denounces it every chance he gets. The fact that we’re only a tool to facilitate war adds layers of complexity amidst this message. I’m sure that this fact has been drilled into our minds after 4 games’ worth of cutscenes. The acts that we are forced to commit are linear, but in doing so, they always serve the intended purpose: to drive home a certain message. This is not the case in RDR–choices undermine the “point” (which, might I add without being spoilery, is actually a pretty interesting one?).

But who wants to play a game of cowboys without a revolver and people to use it on?