Whoever wrote the ending to Red Dead Redemption is one dumb cowpoke

Red Dead Redemption

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In which Rockstar chooses to whistle Dixie.

I finished Red Dead Redemption and it was a fairly fun game. Despite excessive horse riding, I enjoyed myself. Then I got to the end and I never wanted anything to do with the game again. This is why.

Below are spoilers, so if you intend to play through Red Dead yourself do so and come back.

Rockstar has a tendency to write reluctant protagonists. Manhunt dealt with a main character forced into action by a threat to his family. San Andreas’s CJ Johnson falls into working with an antagonist to help his own family. Niko Bellic, from GTA4, wouldn’t stop whining about how he wanted to live the American dream in peace, even while he was shooting people. Red Dead is no exception. The main character, John Marston, is so eager to be done with his mission he practically gets killed in the first 30 minutes of the game.

Unlike previous Rockstar protagonists, Marston is justifiably reluctant to go on an armed rampage. Our player character is an ex-outlaw and the FBI is holding his family hostage to get him to kill off his old running buddies. He tried to get out and his past, not his present, has put him in a bad situation. Overall, the game is well written; the characters seem fairly three-dimensional; the narrative thread is coherent and enjoyable; and the game mechanics make it just fun to play.

If you rode through the first 95% of the game, it would be valid to think it was one of the best games you’ve played.

Then came the end.

Red Dead contains a great deal of homage to the old Wild West films and stories of its genre, but it is rarely predictable. However, about 35 hours into the 38 hours I spent playing the game, I had beaten everyone. All the bosses were dead, I’d cleaned up most of my little corner of the west and completed many of the side quests. Marston’s family and I went through a series of farming quests. I had to go hunting, pick up supplies, hang with Marston’s son and round-up cattle. I got a taste of the idyllic life of the Marston family farm. Of course, I knew what was coming. They were flattening me for the slaughter.

In this case the ‘they’ is the FBI, who had decided that, despite you having followed their orders and saved their lives throughout the game, you are clearly too much of an outlaw to live.

Now, you can play the game as a good or bad Marston but, no matter what you do, Marston is perpetually talking about his desire to just go home and settle down. You spend somewhere between a few days and a few weeks just moseying around and building up a non-outlaw life for yourself. Despite this, the FBI send what is apparently an entire regiment of the American army to wipe out your farm. After killing what has to be a good 40 or 50 people, you and your family retreat to a barn. You make your wife and son go out through the back while you, in dramatic slow motion, push open the barn doors and confront about 12 enemies. You’re given the opportunity to kill some of them, but in the end they shoot you down.

This is not a bad concept. It’s easy to see that Rockstar was trying to emulate the old Westerns. In the typical Western style it wasn’t entirely uncommon for the hero, running from a past he couldn’t escape, to die to protect the ones he loves. If that had been the case, the death scene and corresponding interactivity would have made a lot of sense. However, that scene, and indeed the whole final mission, did not fit in the existing narrative or character.

There is just no real reason for the FBI to wait a week or two after letting Marston have everything back before hitting him. It’s even more foolish to try to do so while he’s staying in a highly defensible position which he values. They could have just shot him in the back. Honestly. There are sniper rifles in the game, someone could have taken a head shot. The agents could have just walked in the front door.

Ignoring that stupidity, there was no reason for the FBI to come after him to begin with. Marston had settled down. He’d spent all game talking about how much he wanted to become a farmer. If he had wanted to be an outlaw he could have gone off and never came back. He had just finished discrediting himself to the entire outlaw community by hunting down his brothers-in-crime. He was not a threat.

Then there is Marston’s behavior. They shot his uncle, they shot up his farm, they tried to shoot his family. While you play John Marston, you kill a fort filled with armed men, ride west, and start a Mexican revolution. You have friends and back-up all over. If the game hadn’t stopped me, I could have easily taken out all of those enemies. Marston, as a character, could fall back and gather friendly forces. He could even retreat to Mexico, where he’d be free from the FBI and probably able to put together a decent life.

There is another completely illogical element; that Marston would take a chance on a threat to his family continuing to exist. Marston is so in love with his wife that he refuses to have sex with the many prostitutes littered throughout the area, a serious act of self-control in a Rockstar game. He’s been focused on his family this whole time. The game makes it abundantly clear that the West is still not a kind place to women, especially those who don’t have men. The strongest female character in the game still gets kidnapped and raped before you can save her. Why, in god’s name, would Marston want to leave his family alone instead of going on the run with them? Isn’t that the opposite of what he’s been fighting for?

John Marston’s actions are essentially suicide without reason. It goes completely contrary to his character. Rockstar just wanted to shock you by killing off your character at the end of the game. It’s a cheap shock, one existing outside of everything already established in the game and because of that it cheapens the whole game.

This article is adapted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence from an earlier post on my personal blog.

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  1. Jake Davison

    Red Dead Redemption is my all-time favourite game, so naturally I’m about to jump to its defence. But not without reason, I do genuinely disagree with the article, but maybe there’s things I’ve noticed, that you haven’t.

    First off, I agree with you, that they could have just bumped him off by shooting him in the back after he kills Dutch van der Linde. The thing is though, what kind of ending would that be? Yes, it makes more sense, but who wants to play through a game with a character who is ended like that? Not me.
    When you say that there is not a reason to kill him, I also disagree. Let me share with you something I noticed on my second playthrough. Do you remember that scene from the start, when you are on the train from Blackwater? As you listen to the conversations around you, you hear talk of Mr. Nate Johns. Now Nate Johns, is running for governor and vows to clean up the outlaws in New Austin. That’s why you go through the whole ordeal, to clean up the outlaws. You’re the last guy left. The last person affiliated with Dutch and his previous gang. Johns doesn’t care that you’ve settled down, he wants votes.

    As well as this, you mention that he is essentially committing suicide by confronting the Marshalls and not running. What I took of it was that Marston needed it to end there. Yes, he could have ran. But he would only end up with he and his family on the run from the U.S. Government for years to come. Marston loved his family, and therefore in my opinion, acted appropriately. He died so that his family could be free. Had he fled, himself and his family would’ve been on the run forever more.

    So yeah, that’s what I think of it. Let me know how you feel about what I’ve said.

    • Yeah, I vaguely remember the conversation about Nate Johns, though it seems like a very small plot point to hang the entire ending on.

      Here’s my problem with the “needs it to end there” argument. Marston could have crossed the border and been perfectly fine, at least in the experience of the game. The FBI made a big deal out of how they can’t cross the border and the Army couldn’t have come across either. Marston would have been able to settle down there without too much danger.

      On the flip side, letting himself get killed leaves his family totally abandoned. His son is in no shape yet to protect himself and his ‘uncle’ is dead. All that’s left is his wife and she isn’t nearly as strong as Bonnie MacFarlane. Bonnie had her father too, whereas Abigail has no connections in the world after her husband.

      Look what happened to Bonnie. Even though she was the strongest woman in the game and had friends to rely on, she still got kidnapped and raped. If you do the math, Abigail and the rest of his family have a near 0 chance of survival without him. If he loved his family, it would have made far more sense to stay around to protect them. (Hell, for all we know she DID get killed by bandits, the game doesn’t tell us.)

      I know it wouldn’t have been any fun to get shot in the back of the head, I’m not saying they should have done that, I just wish the ending had made sense with the rest of the narrative.

  2. Jakerbeef

    I’m with Aram on this one. There is nothing in the world at all wrong with a twist-ending. However there are few narrative mistakes more heinious than a rug-pull that flies in the face of everything that went before it, escpecially if it betrays the themes/established logic of the story.

    Another ignoble example is the disgusting ‘GOTCHA!’ at the end of The Mist. The novella had a perfect ending before Darabont got his tainted fingers all over it. I can appreciate Aram’s fury since I left the cinema dizzy with outrage. No point in making a good tale if you’re going to undo all your hard work by serving up an ending in bad faith. Worst story-telling crime of the lot.

    • Glad you liked it! I’ll have to take your word on The Mist though, I’ve yet to see the movie or read the novella. Sounds like I shouldn’t bother either.

      • Jakerbeef

        Well The Mist is one of the better things Stephen King did, not that I’d be a fanatic, he has done a lot of rubbish too. But the novella is certainly worth the time to read it. Just avoid the film as the ending similarly sells its soul for cheap shocks.

  3. Hioarst

    I think this article is just a longer version of the “denial” stage I went through after playing the game too. I loved the game and hated that Marston died at the end. Marston was a deeply developed character, beyond his epic levels of Bad-Assery. When he died I was upset and thought it was one of the stupidest endings ever. But, after playing though the missions as his son, it only further illuminated the games theme of the senselessness of violence (at least that’s what I got from it.)

    Without Marston dying an almost pointless death, we wouldn’t love him as much as we do and we wouldn’t be talking about him now. =) So even though I hated the ending for personal reasons, I can’t deny that Rockstar did an amazing job.

    • I don’t think my affection for the character increased due to his death and I didn’t find playing as his son very interesting. Even the revenge mission felt a little meh.

      That being said, you are correct, it’s a good game. There is a lot there that’s well done. But, I think you have to land the ending to make a game truly great and I think they missed it.

  4. Laurie Cheers

    Hmm – so if you die while fighting the 40 or 50 guys, do they make you replay that bit?

  5. Michaeldiaz21892

    So is the endind when john gets killed

  6. Josephchil

    You ever think the point was that he had to go out there and essentially commit suicide because it was the only way to keep his family safe? The “FBI” would have chased him down until they killed him and he felt this was his only option.

  7. Mcerio

    Agreed…I may never buy another RockStar game again. It felt like a waste of about 40 hours of my life. A dirty trick. I would have even let it slide if they had a big cut scene at the end to tease a sequel…why would they ruin such an awesome opportunity to get me pumped for a new game. Very terribly done.

  8. Mog

    If you’re so awesome, make another game better than Red Dead. If you can’t, shut your gay and keep it shut.

  9. Xtravisganza

    what about the very last stranger mission after marston gets shot…

  10. Chris

    Whoosh. Right over your head. He sacrifices himself because otherwise his wife and son would have never had a peaceful life. You say he could have went on the run. Why? That was the exact opposite of what he wanted. Going on the run, looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life? Having to probably live in the wild since wanted posters would have been everywhere? Sounds peaceful! All of that before you even get to the fact he has a family to protect and care for. He was a man with a violent past that tried to make things right so he could live a quiet, peaceful life. But his violent past caught up to him and he realized he didn’t want to run anymore. The fact that all of this seems to have alluded you is…really sad.

    Did I mention the FBI would have pursued him relentlessly? People should stop thinking they are critics. Cause most of the time they just end up looking like goofs.

    • Matt

      Marston could just go to Mexico and chill there out of FBI jurisdiction and have the life he always wanted… But they kill him… I was in control of his life the whole game! I should decide whether he lives or dies… I coulda smoked those 12 losers at the end but noo the ga me wouldn’t let me. He should of lived full stop… Why play with a character you know is gonna die… What a waste of fuckin time saving his ass through out the game… Everything up until that very shit ending is good…

      • Andreas Sunde

        Go to Mexico to avoid the FBI. Didn’t Bill Williamson try that? And look how well that worked for him…