John Marston and Son

NB: This article contains big, fat, juicy Red Dead Redemption spoilers. If you absolutely, positively cannot enjoy a game when you know how it’s going to end, don’t even think about reading this, pardner.
Just so we’re all up to date here, here’s the recap of RDR‘s story: John Marston, ex-outlaw, is enlisted by government agents to head out to the territory of New Austin in order to kill the remaining members of his old gang. To ensure cooperation, the feds have “borrowed” Marston’s wife and son. Gunplay ensues.

I’d like to use this article and this other article as today’s jumping off point. Both of them make the case that the character of John Marston is one dimensional and the game suffers as a result. One claims that he talks too much and says nothing, the other says that without the drive to reclaim his family and ranch, there’s nothing to Marston but a cool hat.

They’re both right, but, in my opinion, they’re wrong to say that it hurts the game.

"Good, bad, I'm the guy with the played out quotes."

For the claim that Marston is one dimensional, I urge these men to look at the genre we’re invested here. We’re in the land of the Spaghetti Western, that of the Man With No Name. What was his motivation in any of Leone’s films? Sure, maybe he looked at a crying child once in a while or tried to find gold, but at the end of the day, it was all about that fistful of dollars. Have gun, will shoot banditos.

Marston may be single-minded, but it’s that single-mindedness that keeps our game on track. I think the current focus on grand sweeping stories can be harmful to video games, especially ones like RDR. At its core, every mission boils down to “Ride here, shoot him, hide from that, ride there, shoot that”. Sometimes in a wagon, sometimes with a shotgun, sometimes on a boat, sometimes with throwing knives. You want a tight story with a laser focus if that’s the extent of your gameplay. Expand it too much, and the cracks start to show, and I lose interest.

Of course, Mexico fucks it all up. When Marston hits Mexico, all of a sudden you have no idea what you’re doing other than a vague “Go find these guys you’re supposed to kill by talking to these two people”. There’s a brewing civil war, people are scared, and Marston finds himself working for both sides. The only problem is that neither side or the game acknowledges this. You can help rescue the leader of the rebeldes, and then immediately go help the Mexican commander transport valuable ammunition. The other problem is that the only way that Rockstar could find to keep Marston motivated is, quite frankly, dumb as heck. Walk up to one side’s leader, and he says, “Yes, senor Marston, we will help you find the man you seek!” Then you go and kill a bunch of rebeldes/soldiers, and come back to “Senor Marston! Mexico has won a great victory today! We must celebrate! oh by the way i haven’t done anything about the guy you’re looking for try doing the next mission” and Marston makes an empty threat and walks off.

This isn’t a flaw in Marston’s characterization, though – this is a flaw in design. Rockstar wants to make you work with both sides of this conflict, but can’t figure out a way to do it while keeping away from linearity (a dirty word these days). So instead we get a muddled chapter in an otherwise direct game. It’s a shame, especially after the fun of the first act, but you get what you get.
But with a return to the good old You Ess of Ay, we’re back into a pretty tightly paced third act. No longer does Marston have to hunt down criminals – his final bounty comes to him. Whereas before you saw the federal agents holding Marston’s family once or twice, now they’re riding with you (in an automobile!) as you go do dirt. And in between all the fine speeches about the supposed nobility and civilization of the Federal Government and the brief commentary on how Paleface Stole The Land Of The Proud Native Peoples (seriously every Indian in this game is one step away from “Makum Bakum“), something twinges and you realize.

John Marston is going to die.

*record scratch*

This is a game about wiping out the last vestiges of the Wild West. As you play through the three acts, you move from savage plains to barely tamed desert to the prairie and paved streets of Blackwater. John Marston, scarred face and cool hat and all, belongs out in the plains. Compared to the G-Men and US Army soldiers in Act 3, he’s a relic of an older time. In order to complete his own mission, Marston will have to die. It’s as much a part of Rockstar’s story as anything else.

But here we run into a problem of Gameplay Versus Narrative. If you give a gamer as much wide open space to roam as RDR does and then take it all away once they progress past a certain point, you’re not going to have a very happy audience. The term for this post-game play is Free Roam, and its been a part of the Grand Theft Auto series since… well, forever.

So after John Marston snuffs out the last of the gang, he returns back to his family and ranch for a nice spurt of missions that bookend with the tutorials from the beginning of the game. But all that I could think, having inadvertently spoiled part of the ending for myself, was “When can they just kill John so it’s over?” I didn’t want him to die. Even if he was one-dimensional, he was fun. He looked cool. He had quips for everything, and the way his gravely voice yelled “Mi nombre es John Marston!” as banditos shot at him… We were bros.

Then the army starts laying siege to the ranch. Marston sends his wife and son away on horseback, electing to stay and take down some of the bastards. You, as the player, get one last chance to shoot as many as you can, but it’s pointless. John will fall as the smirking face of Ross the Federal Agent looks on.

It’s a great moment. But how do you give me free roam if my character is dead?

You let me play as his son, three years later.

And goddamn but do I hate Jack Marston. I hate his stupid cream colored coat and dumb facial hair. I hate that he always sounds so angry or depressed, and is always yelling at his horses. I hate that he keeps talking about his pa, which makes me wish I was still playing as John.

"hurf durf i'm a big dumb idiot with a stupid beard. play as me. listen to me whine about my dad being gone. work you damn nag."

But there’s no way to do that. John Marston is gone, the character I spent 20+ hours with, and is replaced by an off-brand version. Sure, you can avenge your father, which is the only ending this game really could have. And Marston, Sr. couldn’t live. I accept all of that.

I just don’t have to like it. You’ve got a cheat in place to let me play as Jack, Rockstar. Give me one to play as John. Pretty please?


One Response to John Marston and Son

  1. Pingback: Max Payne 3: 193 Hours Of Shooting Men In The Face « Horrible Milk Experience

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