Today’s announcement of a Red Dead Redemption sequel is well-timed, because the original’s message about the problems inherent in American mythology could not be more relevant today. Rockstar’s 2010 epic is a western in the tradition of classic western cinema. Like the best of these films, Red Dead evokes and subverts the myth of the “Wild West” to reveal modern problems embedded in the American way of life.
The game begins in 1911, with outlaw-turned-farmer John Marston forced by the FBI to hunt down members of his former gang and bring them to justice. It’s easy to predict where this is headed: confronted with the West, and all its chaos and senselessness, Marston will remember who he was and return to his outlaw ways. Instead, John takes a bullet to the gut and wakes, patched up, on a woman’s ranch. It’s after this “rebirth” that Red Dead starts to subvert expectations, by revealing that John is, ironically, something of an anomaly among Rockstar protagonists: a good man.
As John and rancher Bonnie MacFarlane get to know each other, John’s backstory is pieced together, and we get to see who he really is. When John impregnated Abigail, a whore who rode with his gang, he decided to marry her and raise the child, setting aside his outlaw life. The gang doesn’t take this well, and when John is shot during a job (he’s good at getting shot, turns out), they leave him for dead. John survives and runs away with Abigail and their newborn son, Jack, to start a new life. They do so successfully until the FBI come knocking.
Throughout the game John acts less like an edgy badass and more like an exasperated dad. In fact, the only time John seems to act out of character is when he’s attempting to project the persona of a cold killer. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny buries his outlaw ways beneath the facade of a changed man. Inversely, John Marston hides his decency behind an affected snarl and a quick draw.
John’s journey comes to a head when he confronts the leader of his old gang, Dutch van der Linde. Dutch is holed up with a group of Native Americans whom he has convinced, using his charisma and their desperation, to stand with him against the US government. John is forced to join an army of US Marshalls and they mow down Native Americans, for reasons that feel largely arbitrary. It’s a grim bit of foreshadowing that the most violent and senseless set piece of the game is instigated not by “outlaws” but by the US government itself.
By the time John fights his way to Dutch, we’re expecting some kind of psychopathic cowboy Charles Manson. Instead, we find a sad, surprisingly self-aware old man who clung to some ideal for too long and finds himself at the end of his rope. The central, subversive irony of Red Dead Redemption is that it’s populated by people who really are, on some level, what they believe themselves to be. Before Dutch kills himself, he issues John a prophetic warning:
“When I’m gone, they’ll just find another monster. They have to, because they have to justify their wages…Our time has passed.”
John goes home to attempt to rebuild his relationship with Jack, who blames John’s absence for his tumultuous life. As time passes, however, John’s son is won over, and we get to know him as a sensitive and intelligent young man who wants to be a writer. John’s only remaining ambition is for Jack to be more than he was. “He can be whatever he wants to be,” John tells his wife, “he ain’t gonna be no frontier gunslinger.” This section of the game plays like an epilogue; Rockstar lets it breathe just long enough to get you to drop your guard. As we can begin to conceive of John Marston riding into the sunset, the FBI comes knocking again.
Throughout the game, John Marston makes a compelling case to himself and the player that he is not simply an outlaw pretending to be reformed, but a good man. Throughout the game, FBI Director Edgar (subtle) Ross makes it clear he doesn’t buy it. In the end, the FBI had no intention of granting John the amnesty they promised. Ross leads the same army of Feds that fought Dutch to John’s homestead, and they murder John as he buys time for his family to escape.
At this point, the game cuts ahead four years. Jack Marston, a grown man wearing John’s hat and guns, kneels at his father’s grave. The player assumes control as Jack rides through the newly settled frontier in search of Edgar Ross. Eventually, Jack catches up to and confronts Ross as he hunts game on the Mexican border. In a classic quick draw duel Jack avenges his father by gunning down Ross and leaving his body for the buzzards. The game awards this last act with an achievement called “Nature or Nurture?” It’s a rhetorical question.
In the western genre’s canon, the archetypal outlaw clings to the bygone past of the Wild West because they can’t change. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, William Munny, the Wild Bunch, and even Dutch van der Linde are all variations on this theme. John Marston is not, however. John wasn’t an “outlaw by nature” (as if such a thing exists); he’s just a man. Jack Marston didn’t turn outlaw because it was inevitable for him to do so, he did it because an endless cycle of death and retribution claimed him as a victim.
By portraying the life and legacy of John Marston, Red Dead subverts classic Western conventions to suggest that it’s not “outlaws” who can’t leave the Wild West, and its “eye for an eye” frontier justice behind, but America itself. Just as Dutch said, the FBI needed to dehumanize John to make a “monster,” the same way they dehumanized Native Americans as “savages,” in order to perpetuate their system. Outlaws aren’t born, they’re made, and they’re not made by a “criminal element” but by the founding, systemic American ideology that some people are just born bad, and justice means retribution.
According to Red Dead, the Wild West never died at all; it’s alive and well in the deep need Americans have to dehumanize and destroy the people we deem criminal. Jack Marston’s fateful decision to shoot down Edgar Ross proves that the retributive system is self-perpetuating; monsters are created by our insistence that they exist and the actions we take based on this insistence. As long as America believes there can be no redemption, there won’t be—for criminals, or for ourselves.
Harry Mackin has written for Game Informer, Playboy and other outlets. He’s on Twitter at @Shiitakeharry.