This is very very difficult to write about. So, before we begin, SPOILERS. MASSIVE BIG SPOILERS SPOILERS.
In my mind, the ending of Red Dead pulled a complete U-Turn from what I had expected from a free-roam game. I did like the story, I did like John; I did feel short-changed that I was dictated to have a wife. John had pre-determined characteristics and history, but I was going to give the game a chance to give me some authorship or control over what John does. For the most part, it sort of does, on some sort of leverage around Honour. It’s sort of just a little cover-up for GOOD/EVIL, which I’m so fucking tired of. Why can’t we have more exciting and experimental uses of moral indicators instead of “You killed a baby, now you’re evil-er!” or “You saved the baby, now you’re good-er.”
Going past this, I did feel a little let down by what Red Dead did as a narrative experience. Basically, Rockstar have this sort of formulaic way of doing things. They’ll put you in an open world, where the only thing you can do is shoot people, and then give you a story where you’re either painted as a criminal or just generally trying to get by. In Red Dead Redemption, there are random encounters where you can stop a thief or kill a guy who’s harassing a woman. That’s all fine, but I would have rather something more interesting. How about an actual criminal is being hanged, instead of the ‘damsel in distress’ that keeps arising. I think this would present an interesting opportunity rather than a choice for gamers.
It’s interesting that the story paints you as this heroic outlaw in the dying days of the West and you’re all doing this for your family. But, at the end of the day, they’re not my family. Not my wife. She’s hot, yeah, and she’s an okay character; nothing stands out as much. I think that’s why I also felt a little let down when I played Jack, since they only spend an hour or two characterising him. You can bond with John because of what he says in the cutscenes for 20+ hours or so. After you become Jack, there’s one Stranger mission and that’s it.
I did like that the whole “AVENGE YOUR FATHER” wasn’t a story mission, but a Stranger mission, you had to seek it out yourself. It did give some personal depth through it and I did like the fact you could avenge your own death.
The character within the story are interconnected in such a way that it’s just downright unrealistic. Nigel West Dickens, a scrubbed up polite man somehow knows a grave robber who’s obsessed with finding a map. He also somehow knows a drunken weapons arm dealer who keeps falling into death traps. I don’t like the conversations on the way to places either, it’s just sort of something that’s never stuck with me in Rockstar games. If you’re going to characterise the guy who gave me the mission, do it during gameplay, don’t find some shortcut of where you can fit it in during my drive to the real shootout.
I felt more in the element of the Wild West just going out and hunting, than interacting with the story characters.
The ending, again, I have to talk about. I liked it. I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did. What I didn’t like is that not everybody can enjoy the ending.
You weren’t given authorship over this giant crux of a game changing moment, you couldn’t run away. My John was a good, honest guy who saved women and was generally a changing man. Since he was a restored outlaw, I painted his character as someone who was becoming an honest man, trying to just get back to his family (who I didn’t care about). When the ending came, it did feel okay to me. If John had run with his family, they’d just send another John-character after him. If he had run away from his family, they’d probably go after his family first. So, when given the choice (if there was one) of running away or facing down character death; I would have chosen the latter.
While I was out giving money to the poor and being a good honest soul, others were doing impossibly fun thing. Shooting up bars, dragging people down stairs with the lasso and generally being the most evil bastard who ever could. I was using the things that Rockstar had put in place, to tell John as an honest man. Others were just having fun with it and saying John was an evil, heartless outlaw who just wanted to escape the hand of new government.
They weren’t given a choice in the ending, they weren’t given any sort of freedom within those restrictions. Rockstar constantly told them they cared about John’s family and that they had to die for them. I wrote my review as someone who loved the ending, and thought it was a powerful moment; it turns out it’s more ambiguous than anything else that Rockstar have done. Seeing it in new light has probably told me that Redemption is another Rockstar title where they spend all their production on working on scripted events and their assuming story. There’s moments I’ve outlined that just come out of nowhere. As Jack, after the story, I’m just totally going bonkers as an outlaw. I was in a poker game, losing terrible, and one guy just busted me out. I lassoed him, dragged him down the stairs (the police don’t get you unless you let go or hogtie him), dragged him all the way out of town and took him out of sight. I lay down one dynamite, kaboom, came back and looted his body for all the money he had taken.
Rockstar can do emergent gameplay REALLY well when it needs to. I just wish they’d realise that not everyone wants to be given a dictate story, that’s more than likely just inspired by film. When I watch a film, I do realise what that character is going through; but I’m not Jack Bauer. I’m not Luke Skywalker. Videogames as you to be someone else entirely in a whole different world; but it seems the stories are just based off of the traditional values of film. “YOU CARE FOR CHARACTER X, NOW GO SEEK VENGEANCE!” to give reason for a whole story. It would give me so much more drive, I would care so much more about the game if you did it to a character I care about. Not a pre-determined character a la YOUR WIFEY.
Just something I wanted to bring up.