Monday, June 14, 2010

Fate and the Frontier

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as minor spoilers for Red Dead Redemption.

The mythological American West is a unique venue for protagonists. The border lands create opportunities to transgress normative behavior, shake up the onset of civilization, and eek out a dangerous living in a lawless land. But it is also a doomed environment. From our modern perspective, we know how the frontier ends. Thus, the heroes of Westerns often represent a nostalgic moment in time, before civilization claimed the unknown for itself. Red Dead Redemption's John Marston sits uncomfortably in this position, caught between the freedom of an open world game and the traditional fate of the tragic Western martyr.

Rockstar has successfully developed a character with all the aesthetic fixings associated with iconic Western outlaws. John Marston is a criminal with a heart of gold. Like the leads of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he is a charming and relatively honorable fellow. His gruff voice, rugged physical features, and soiled attire mirror the likes of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Russel Crow in the 3:10 to Yuma remake. Visually speaking, he is well representative of the Western protagonists we know and love.

One of the most interesting aspects of Western heroes is their common inability to escape their past identity and live in the modern world. John Ford's two films, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance best exemplify this characteristic. Both films star John Wayne as a melancholy hero from bygone days. Ethan Edwards of The Searchers is an ex-confederate soldier with a questionable past. Unable to settle down, he spends years in a fanatical pursuit of his kidnapped niece, only to end up once again aimless on the rapidly changing frontier. Similarly, Tom Doniphon of Liberty Valance is a traditional gun-toting cowboy with little faith in the power of law and honorable conduct to tame the west. In an act of sacrifice, Tom commits an unlawful murder and in doing so, speeds up the process of Western civilization. As a result, Tom eventually dies secluded and alone. John Wayne's characters expertly straddled the space between historical inevitability and idealized freedom.
From Doc of Tombstone, who dies with his boots off, to reluctant murderer William Munny of Unforgiven, Western heroes are victims of fate and their own past, and they often know it. As Chris Adams remarks at the end of The Magnificent Seven: "We lost. We always lose." But this is where Red Dead deviates slightly from the norm. Marston never seems aware of the unique venue in which he finds himself. I have yet to see any inkling of awareness of what he represents.

I should say, I have not yet finished Red Dead Redemption. Thanks to an inadvertent spoiler, however, I do know of John Marston's fate. How well the conclusion succeeds remains to be seen. Thus far, however, Marston stills seems to exist half in the world of Western tragedy and half in the realm of video game freedom.

Although Marston certainly has a criminal past, he also seems just as capable of living in the modern world as the old. According to the well established and geographically settled Bonnie MacFarlane, he would do just as well as a cattle rancher than as an outlaw. Similarly, his proficiency in hocking the snake-oil remedies of N.W. Dickens seems to indicate at least a fluid relationship with modern-day hucksters. He could also just as easily join the Marshall's attempt establishing the rule of law, considering how skilled he is with dispensing justice.
A more interesting aspect of his character, however, is its relationship to the player. In a player-controlled open-world environment, Marston can behave in an assortment of different ways. He can be an excessive drinker who assaults women, cheats as poker, and murders law men indiscriminately. Or he can be an upstanding citizen, coming to the rescue of helpless citizens, eager to tie up criminals and let the law sort them out. His character is up to the player - until it isn't.

Key story elements are immutable. John Marston will always help N.W. Dickson con easily exploitable farm hands, no matter how much it conflicts with the moral character of a traditional cowboy. Also, he will always ask Bonnie to one day buy some cattle off of her to start a ranch, even if players have already resigned him to a life of crime. These moments of conflicting stories can be unsettling, particularly when they contrast so starkly with characters in other Westerns.

Red Dead Redemption need not rehash old Western stories. I am perfectly fine with a diversely skilled protagonist, with a complex morality system. Yet Marston does share many similarities with his genre compatriots. While his fate might be sealed, his character is not packaged as such. On the frontier, where anything goes, destiny is a powerful narrative tool. Thus far, it seems wasted on the likes of John Marston, a man caught between being a Western hero, a modern hero, and our own playable character.


  1. There is much wrong with Red Dead Redemption. For all of the very careful marketing technique designed to defray the implication that this is "Grand Theft Auto Old West", Marston is no more your player to control than Niko was. Marston comes with a hard and fast personality - there's nothing wrong with that. Where the designers f'd up was the illusion of decision. Games like GTA worked because you understood that you essentially had no capacity for choice. You were reading a book and the completion of missions were how pages were turned.

    I had a moment in Red Dead Redemption where I snapped and shot every last person on Bonnie's ranch and then used a pardon letter. In the next mission we were pals again even though I had dragged her farmhands through the streets behind my horse, shot her dogs, etc.

    This betrayal of the illusion of moral choice is big in video games right now (see also: Bioshock, Fable, Mass Effect, etc) but I felt more burned by RDR's decision to denude the Old West of most of its peril by following in the well-worn footsteps of a dozen multiplayer games by implementing the now standardized "crouch and ye shall be healed" mechanism for health regulation. That system makes practical and structural sense in games like Gears of War and Halo but it's absolutely retarded in a place where ONE GUT SHOT usually meant certain death.

    I got caught out by a pair of cougars many miles from Armadillo - they mauled me and killed my horse before I was able to put them down... barely. I spent a long second reflecting on how cool it would be - how intimidating but fun - to have to stagger back across the desert with buzzards over my head and wolves at my heels, almost dead, vulnerable to the elements. Instead, I waited a few seconds, auto-healed, whistled for another horse and rode off like it was no big deal which, of course, it wasn't.

  2. inertiacrept, I completely agree.

    I *wish* there could be a hardcore mode, either embedded and unlockable after you beat the game or available as a micro-transaction, downloadable addition, wherein your imagination of how cool it'd be to have to drag your half-dead carcass across a barren wasteland with wolves circling.

    Where getting shot isn't a matter of ducking behind a large stone for 15 seconds and waiting for your health to magically regenerate, but a matter of *where* you were shot, from what distance, and by which caliber of gun.

    Where the majority of conflicts would be - hopefully - resolved by wit and tongue rather than bullets. Where both sides are loath to pull iron because the consequences are so dire, potentially for both sides.

    I understand implementing something like this would probably require a completely different game - not a simple add-on or "Hardcore" mode. This new imaginary game probably wouldn't appeal to the BOOM'SPLOSION crowd. I imagine, also, that I'm asking/wishing for way too much.

    But count me in the camp who wish there was more subtlety in both the art of making video games and the content therein.

  3. @ Intertiacreop

    As with Bill, I completely agree with you. The strange thing is, Red Dead exists in this halfway point between an immutable character and player choice. I like the world and the options I have, I really am ok with that. Its just incompatible with one aspect of Westerns that I also really enjoy.

    @ Bill

    I'm in the same camp. Even if it means suspending some of the mythology around western heroes.