The Real West of Red Dead Redemption

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

When I thought about the American West, I used to imagine an aging gunslinger riding out across the vast plains searching for peace in a fallen world. It’s the basic story of any number of John Wayne movies I grew up with: the idea that, in the end, all wrongs will be set right. The hero will always come in at the last minute and save the day.

I saw it in the films my father still loves to watch. Movies like Big Jake, True Grit, and The Shootist always showed a world-weary warrior doing what he could to clean up a failing situation. If push came to shove, and it always did, the hero would kill people to fix a situation, even setting himself up to die if needed. He’d be just as comfortable talking before shooting too; justice from a gun often came as a last resort. A punch might be needed from time to time, but a presence and a phrase can often serve just as well.

Across most of John Wayne’s movies, The Duke shows up as the imposing force who speaks little and shoots even less. As I would sit with my father and see these tales play out again and again, the idea of what the West was settled in my mind. From Rio Bravo to The Cowboys, it became a place of the occasional villain, but mostly good people trying to get by the best they could. The Duke only shot the worst of humanity and there was no such thing as casual violence; the heroes always survived and the villains always died.

Red Dead Redemption showed me a very different world.

It may have the sunsets and scenery, but RDR is all modern in its presentation. It has moved beyond the idealized West and settled into the real: murder is normal and the cost of living on the edge of so-called civilization is high. My father’s dream of the West I had been holding was transformed into a nightmare of causal murder and common exchanges of quid pro quo: no one does something for nothing and everyone wants something, often someone else dead.

John Marston is no errant knight in search of honor. He is bound by the intruding government who holds his wife and son hostage. He will pay any price in the unrelenting quest set before him of hunting down his old gang to win back his family. What morals he does have come not from a life of good works, but from turning away from his own criminal past. He may complain, but is quite willing to mow down hundreds of people with a machine gun for a cause, or even kill for coin if it will push him further in his mission.

The more I played Red Dead Redemption, the greater the contrast formed in my mind. The Duke would never loot dead bodies for spare bullets, and Marston did frequently. John Wayne might deal with the drunk and depraved, but it was always to set them back on their path. He would never indulge their whims. Yet, here I was gladly doing the bidding of the same criminals The Duke would arrest; if it helped them, it must also help me, I rationalized. And right there, I realized, was the simple and profound truth of the game.

It was me who put Marston in these situations. Each time, it was me. I did it.

Nothing in the story progresses without player consent. Every mission and request must be agreed upon before they start. Marston may be doing the shooting, but I am pulling the trigger each time. It is always me that rode from the idyllic plains and into the darkness found off the beaten paths. I washed blood with blood as I pushed him onward and into greater battles. I killed the birds of the air and took down the bears of the mountains. Not for joy or honor did I do these things, but just because the game challenged and the characters asked me to do it.

If this West was won by hard work, it was done so through a fierce cruelty of purpose. Peace can easily be found if Marston, and the player, just stops their quest. But he couldn’t — I couldn’t — and we took on everything that was presented. Each mission, every new addition to the numerous dead, brought us both closer to our goal of revenge and farther away from the dream of The Duke.

When the end came, I didn’t shoot. Surrounded by enemies, I had already seen the slow truth of this world, and I was ready. The game prompted me one last time to fire my gun, and I choose not to do it. I knew the fate of gunslingers. I accepted it. This wasn’t my West, and it wasn’t Marston’s, either. We had both done things that could not be undone. Our hands were too bloody and the vision of what the West could be was nothing but that, a heat simmer on the edge of the horizon. There was no lasting peace for either us if we continued going, just more death.

He died. I stopped playing.

But he grew old–
This knight so bold–
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.