The judicial system treated the Wild West bandits with an unusual degree of understanding. Those who surrendered and survived—Frank James, Cole Younger, Emmett Dalton—served a few years in prison and then went on with their lives…The West was closing up. The cattle drives ended in the early 1880s. Reconstruction ended in the South. Automobiles and movies and telephones and record players and electric lights and unions washed the continent. The world in which these men had murdered and robbed and plundered no longer existed, and no one felt much need to punish them here and now for the crimes they had committed long ago and not merely far away, but in a place that wasn’t there any more.

—Bill James, Popular Crime

As a Rockstar game, Red Dead Redemption draws heavily from previous entries in its genre, mostly in the medium of film. Ambient activities and quasi-linear missions surround a central narrative thread, and a vast map opens incrementally to player-directed exploration. Broad satire coexists with more serious themes. What is the balance between morality and expedience? What does it mean to be an American within the confines of a specific time, place and community? This earnestness is undercut by constant shifts in tone, uneven writing and pacing and structure that do not (and in fairness cannot) anticipate the precise path of the player through the game, either externally (“gameplay”) or internally (the relationships and actions of my personal Marston).

As a Western, Red Dead Redemption references numerous genre touchstones:

  • the nature and expression of savagery and civility;
  • the functions of solitude and society;
  • the disproportionate power of the determined individual in a sparsely populated and policed land;
  • the efficacy of violence;
  • the noble burden of stoicism and masculinity;
  • and the private tragedy but public good engendered by technological progress.

These motifs recur in the Western genre because they address questions that we have about life. Questions about how to live with other people, and about what leads us to commit good acts or evil ones. The Wild West is a mythic landscape—it has been so since (and even while) it existed as a real place. It’s a stage, a world with certain parameters, on which certain kinds of stories are told, and in which we are given possible answers to difficult questions. Is this character a stock type, and if so what does he or she represent? What conventions are being reinforced or subverted?

Red Dead hits these those notes, but there are two main problems that keep it from being successful as a Western. The first is so fundamental that it would ruin any story, in any genre, in any medium: there is no subtext. Everything that pertains to one of the themes above is overtly stated, loudly and bluntly. I’m not saying that there’s no subtlety; the relationships between characters are well-drawn, and are allowed to exist and develop with a minimum of explicit commentary or exposition. But the themes are presented with the idiot frankness of a dog offering a tennis ball.

As historical fiction, Red Dead Redemption is mostly the latter. The game is an extremely late-period Western. 1911, when most of the game is set, was not a time when the West was changing; it had changed. The time of bandit gangs and fur trading was over, decades since. Buffalo Bill Cody offered his first Wild West show in 1883. Over the course of the next three decades, Bill’s show toured the United States and abroad, bringing together cowboys, cavalrymen, Mexicans, Indian chiefs, retired outlaws, famous trick shots and riders—you name it, it was featured at one time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Bill had an 18,000 seat arena just outside the 1898 World’s Fair in Chicago. Here’s a description:

Visitors entered through a gate that featured Columbus on one side, under the banner “PILOT OF THE OCEAN, THE FIRST PIONEER,” and Buffalo Bill on the other, identified as “PILOT OF THE PRAIRIE, THE LAST PIONEER.”

—Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City


Does that sound like a reference to a way of life that’s still ongoing? Remember, this is 1898, fifteen years after Bill started doing the show—but still thirteen years before Red Dead Redemption is set.

Most of the big outlaw gangs in the west had been killed or captured in the 1870s and 1880s. I should mention here that much of my research about this was done online, including through Wikipedia—I did some reading, but I didn’t do much verification, and I don’t claim to be expert on the history from this era. I just had a sneaking suspicion that Rockstar didn’t know any more than I did.

Like John Marston, many of the men who survived their brushes with the law chose to reform themselves. Take the three men referenced by Bill James in the quote at the top of the page:

  1. Frank James, the older brother of Jesse James, was involved in a string of robberies and murders in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1882, tired of running and hiding, he surrendered to the Governor of Missouri. James was held in jail for about a year, but was acquitted of the few crimes he had committed within Missouri; he surrendered with the understanding that he would not be extradited to other states, where he had done worse things. James lived to 72, dying in 1915.
  2. Cole Younger ran with Jesse and Frank James, and was arrested after a bank robbery and gun battle in Minnesota in 1876. He spent 25 years in prison, and when he was released, Cole and Frank James got together and ran their own Wild West show for a time. He found God near the end of his life. Like James, he died at 72, in 1916.
  3. Emmett Dalton is the most interesting comparison to Marston, partly because he’s more of a contemporary than the men above. Marston was born in 1873, Dalton in 1871. Dalton was arrested in 1892, after a failed bank robbery (sensing a trend here?). He suffered a reported 23 gunshot wounds, but survived to face a life sentence. He didn’t serve it. Pardoned in 1906—the year of Marston’s own fictional failed robbery and departure from gang life—Dalton began trading on his celebrity. He wrote a couple of books, and in 1918 he starred in the Hollywood version of his own story.

What does this tell us? Well, 1906 was pretty late to be running around like yahoos and robbing banks. Marston is an anachronism not because he represents a dying way of life, but because he spent his youth imitating one that was already dead. Possible, even plausible, but strange.

Jack Johnson, “After delivering left hook to stomach.”

The date also introduces more serious problems with story details. The Wright Brothers flew the first heavier-than-air craft in 1903, and this was widely reported in exactly the kinds of newspapers Marston is always reading. Is it really plausible that he would be completely ignorant of this? He understands how telegraphs and trains work; the man grew up in an orphanage, not a cave.

I didn’t realize all of this when I was playing, and obviously Rockstar is entitled to a bit of sleight of hand with the dates. Red Dead doesn’t take place in actual towns or states, and there’s no reason why it should be beholden to an accurate timeline. There is a telephone in Armadillo, and an automobile in the opening cutscene, and there are numerous mentions of the fact that times are changing—but still, I was unprepared for the shock of entering Blackwater late in the game and realizing how late it truly was.

It’s in Blackwater, of course, that the central conceit of the plot is finally laid out in detail, and we learn how and why the Bureau of Investigation has coerced Marston into killing his former comrades. The “Bureau of Investigation” is the correct name, by the way—I had assumed that this was a fictional FBI analogue, but it turns out that the “Federal” wasn’t added until 1935.

Founded in 1908, most of what the Bureau did in its first few years was fight prostitution. It was the primary enforcement agency for the Mann Act, a.k.a. “The White-Slave Traffic Act.” Bureau officers enforcing this law were officially known as “local white slave officers” (it’s on the FBI website, I’m not making this up). The Mann Act was a broad and selectively enforceable law, and as the name suggests, it was inherently racist. The black boxer Jack Johnson was the first person arrested under the law, for having sex with his white girlfriend, who did happen to be a prostitute; just like John and Abigail Marston, the two later married. I don’t know anyone who ended up marrying a lover they first met that way. Maybe society has changed, or maybe I don’t know the right people, or maybe it’s just not the kind of thing you talk about in mixed company.

Anyway, the Bureau arrested pimps, prostitutes, madames and Johns, and fought land fraud. It also did some other stuff, although the modern FBI is intentionally vague about this, even a century after the fact:

Field offices existed from the Bureau’s inception. Each field operation was controlled by a Special Agent in Charge who was responsible to Washington. Most field offices were located in major cities. However, several were located near the Mexican border where they concentrated on smuggling, neutrality violations, and intelligence collection, often in connection with the Mexican revolution.

History of the FBI, Early Days: 1910 – 1921

That really does not sound like what Red Dead‘s Edgar Ross has Marston doing. Look again at the Bill James quote, too: he’s using the end of the Old West as an example of a time when American society was willing to forgive and forget past transgressions, up to and including felony robbery and murder. Rockstar must have some sources that I’m not aware of—after all, they worked on the game for years, while this post is the product of a few days’ cursory research—but I’m not sure that those sources would support the idea that the nascent FBI would ransom a man’s family against his extralegal cooperation in murder. Particularly when that cooperation seems likely to set off an international incident.

Williamson’s gang might plausibly be involved in smuggling or “neutrality violations,” but Ross explicitly demands that Marston cross into Mexico and kill or detain a Mexican citizen, which… well, I’m pretty sure there’s a treaty against that kind of thing. Nor does Ross seem at all interested in what Marston could tell him about Rockstar’s fictionalized Mexican Revolution. If he was, he could have done more than collect intelligence. Marston basically decides the outcome of that conflict.

“Decides” is perhaps not the right word. As a narrative arc, Red Dead seems to come in for the most criticism for the meandering Mexican section of the game. This is fair enough. The Nuevo Paraiso missions are badly paced and full of silly stereotypes. They’re also full of rapists and misogynists, and these scenes don’t add up to either a meaningful satirical indictment, or to a realistic portrait of life—two avenues that would tend to justify such material.

What these scenes do accomplish is throwing into sharp relief the fundamental problem with how Rockstar structures its games: the player and the Housers are not telling the same story. The player’s freedom to portray John Marston as she sees fit through thought and action outside of cutscenes and missions is undercut by main story sections, and the player’s personal interpretation of Marston is frequently rejected by the game.

I felt that Marston was a man sincerely troubled by his past actions, and unwilling to add to his sins. He didn’t terrorize innocent people. He saved strangers in the wilderness. He skinned every animal he killed, because to do otherwise would have been wasteful. Equally to the point, my Marston wasn’t stupid. He would not have believed that Colonel Allende was going to help him find his quarry, and even if he did, he would not have done the things that Rockstar’s Marston did in Allende’s service. My construction of Marston made sense within Red Dead until I got to Mexico, at which point the game blew me a raspberry and said “Fuck that, fuck you. You, who have saved a half-dozen prostitutes from sexual violence, will now stand there indifferently and watch girls get raped. Also, despite your past as a violent proto-Bolshevik bandit revolutionary, please throw this firebomb into a peasant village or else stop playing.”

I’m not saying Rockstar makes bad games. I liked Red Dead Redemption quite a bit. After Mexico, the narrative does beautiful things that I’d never seen done in a game before. Red Dead would have been a stronger game if the entire southern half of the map and the middle third of the story (which really does not function as a second act) were taken out entirely. And obviously the conflict that I see between player narrative and developer plot hasn’t stopped their games from selling. But there is a conflict there, and it’s not one that Rockstar seems interested in solving.

I’m not sure what this has to do with Red Dead Redemption, but I thought I’d mention it anyway: There are three things that often draw me deeply into a game, to the point where I start looking around for information about its development (and thus the intentions of its authors). Red Dead has two of these three characteristics, but for some reason I have no interest in the particulars of its development.

The first characteristic is a strong ambient emotional landscape, by which I mean an actual landscape—the world within the game, augmented by nonvisual elements like music and dialogue—which conjures emotions within me and allows them room to breathe. A world with a vibe, in other words. Nier has such a world, and Half-Life 2. BioShock. Often I find that games are successful in this regard because they create a convincing embedded narrative: you can tell that something happened here before you happened on the scene. Red Dead Redemption does have a strong ambient emotional landscape, in my opinion, but for the opposite reason: much of the nature is so unspoilt that it often feels like virgin territory. It’s a beautiful land, and it’s rewarding to just to spend time there.

The second characteristic is good writing. Games are multimodal, etc. etc., but I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy, and I’m as likely to have my nose buried in a book as I am to be glued to a glowing screen. I will never be really engaged by a story that is rendered crudely or naïvely. Bungie used to have fantastic writing in their games; the worlds of Marathon and Myth are totally engrossing, with vibrant characters and hints of knowledge and machinations beyond the player’s ken. The writing in Red Dead is mostly in the form of dialogue, and in general, I found the dialogue to be of good quality and well-delivered. There are some bad scenes, and some characters who could have been left on the cutting room floor. The quality of the voice acting and the writing also suffers significantly in the optional conversations that take place while traveling within certain missions. But this is forgivable in a game with so much content. Tell me, can you think of any other relationship within a video game with such subtle sexual tension as that between John and Bonnie?

Third, I’m always fascinated by artifacts of the development process that make it into the final game. Locations with no clear purpose; vestiges of cut features; storylines that dead-end because there wasn’t time to finish them. Think of the ending of Knights of the Old Republic 2, or that tantalizing island in the distance in the dam level of Goldeneye. There’s really nothing like this in Red Dead.

So, why don’t I care about Red Dead‘s development? My best guess is that it’s because there’s no sense of mystery to the game. I never really cared about Marston’s past life, although I did adore his family when they were finally introduced. And his present life wasn’t particularly exotic to me. I live in a desert very much like the one in Cholla Springs, and I can walk outside to see that landscape any time. I love whiskey and poker, I own a pair of cowboy boots, and if I want to follow a mutt around and watch him bark at people I’ll just take my own dog for a walk. The setting was just not hugely fantastical for me.