Red Dead Redemption: The twilight of the West in a digital world
I’m not quite sure if it was the weekend in Vegas, the conference I attended on Modernism, or the righteous hangover I had for four hours in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport this past Sunday that had me contemplating the twilight of the American West. The industrialization of the world increased dramatically in the beginning of the twentieth century as maps filled and frontiers closed; for some, modernity sought to tame the savage places of the world. This idea was nothing new, of course, given the contemporary collapses of European empires in the late Victorian era, but the Machine Age certainly allowed for increases in productivity and transportation on a massive scale. The world was shrinking along with the mystery of untamed wildernesses. This is the climate in which Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption is set.
Few genres have had the lasting power of the American Western. Its influence made John Wayne and Clint Eastwood cultural icons, and its presence in all media can be seen from radio and television serials to revisionist film and novels. It seemed to me a strange (albeit exciting) turn that Rockstar set their blockbuster Red Dead Redemption in 1911, a time after the glory days of the Old West popularized by serial novels and Saturday matinees. By setting the game in a time of extreme cultural and technological flux, Rockstar recognized one of the key problems plaguing the game industry’s attempts at a real Western: hypostasis. Red Dead Redemption recognizes that the Western is a far more complex genre than its predecessors (Red Dead Revolver, Gun, Call of Juarez, Outlaws) would have the player believe. From the gratuitous spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone to the revisionist novels of Cormac McCarthy, the genre shifts and bends according to the person behind the camera or the pen, but the fixed archetypal elements remain present enough for the viewer/reader to understand the work’s function in its generic history. Red Dead Redemption fits into the protean spectrum of the genre through not only a provocative revisionist narrative but also its concept as a piece of digital media.
I’ll begin where the game ends: with the protagonist bleeding and broken at the hands of the government officials who sought to control him. Edgar Ross, the director of the American Bureau of Investigation, and his cadre of officers descend on John Marston’s well-earned idyllic farm on the plains of West Elizabeth with the fury of Crazy Horse’s cavalry. Though the player fights them off for a while, Marston resigns himself to a hero”s death so his wife Abigail and his son Jack can live in relative peace, far from the stains of his past. It’s a beautiful, tragic moment that wrests control from the player, and though the person with the controller knows that Marston has no way of surviving the barrage of bullets, he/she pulls the trigger to try and take down every one of those gun-toting bastards before collapsing in pile of blood and regret–a far cry from the noble cowboy riding off into the sunset having saved the town and killed the mustachioed villain. The finale becomes even more tragic when it is followed by a scene with an adult Jack, dirty and scarred, looking at the grave of his mother as he prepares to ride off into the West and leave behind his inheritance. The game falls somewhere between an ironic elegy and a twisted parable about masculinity, freedom, and modernity as the sins of fathers fall on the shoulders of their sons.
It’s certainly not a new tale, not even for the Western. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian explore the origins of the Old West as well as its lasting legacy with violent conclusions. Blood Meridian tells the story of the “the kid” and his journey’s with the Glanton gang, a band of scalpers and bounty hunters who murder their way across the primal West in the 1830s, following the commands and proselytizing words of the impossibly terrifying Judge Holden. McCarthy begins his novel with a description of the kid in poetic prose.
He can neither read nor write and in him already there broods a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man. –Blood Meridian
While the concept of inborn savagery may be a hallmark of McCarthy’s gnostic metaphysics, his emphasis on inherited brutality seems particularly relevant to Red Dead Redemption. The Old West was a violent place, and the game’s New Austin bears this well. When the player first controls Marston, the character is already wounded and bloody, barely a survivor of his first encounter with Bill Williamson. Even the household chores involve shooting vermin to protect crops or livestock, yet it’s through these simple gameplay elements that the game invests meaning in the most mundane daily activities. The game’s opening segments when Marston must help Bonnie McFarlane shoot varmits, herd cattle, and rope and break broncos set the player up to experience life on a ranch, and every bullet has weight and purpose because they are tools rather than weapons. Of course, it’s not long until the player finds him/herself treating the bandits of New Austin with the same indifference as the rabbits and coyotes who intrude on a neighbor’s farm.
It is precisely this turn that I find most interesting. I’ve done unspeakable things in New Austin. I’ve saved a whore from being cut to ribbons by a drunken patron, only to shoot her in the head and steal what little money she had. I’ve robbed a bank and then shot the teller in the kneecap and watched him drag himself across the floor as I slinked out the back of the building. I’ve hogtied a local sheriff and left him on the railroad racks just to watch a train roll over him while he screams and panics. And absolutely none of these heinous acts of depravity have any affect on the John Marston’s story. He’s still a man trying to do right by his family–a victim of circumstance in an unjust world. It’s classic ludonarrative dissonance with a particularly brand of dark humor. The game doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a morality tale about one man’s quest for redemption or a brutality simulator, and never the twain shall meet.
At least they didn’t until I reconsidered the ending. Even if I played the game as a relative Boy Scout, saving everyone in the name of puppies and Christmas and all that, I still would have to shoot countless digital people. From the outlaws that plague New Austin, the banditos in Mexico, and the government men in West Elizabeth, I’ve put more pixels in the ground than I could possibly count because, well, that’s how the game is played; that’s how the story progresses. Marston is not just a man controlled by Edgar Ross, he’s digital construction piloted around a simulation of the shrinking American West at the mercy of someone with a controller. The disturbing truth of the gameplay behind Red Dead Redemption is that the player doesn’t adopt the role of the noble cowboy at all; the player facilitates Edgar Ross’s story of modernization because he/she leads Marston to his inevitable end.
It is fitting then that the game opens with discussion aboard a train about encroaching technologies that challenge people’s concepts of God and freedom as well as the growing influence of big government in the once wild state of New Austin. Marston’s life as a free man and a violent bandit is over thanks to the deal he made with Ross to capture or kill his former brothers in arms, but as much as he can rage against the modernization of the American West, he knows it’s coming as clearly as the player knows it’s happened. Marston can’t explore the true West because it’s no longer there; all he has is the defined space set by digital parameters. By the architecture of the video game, the West in Red Dead Redemption is always closed, always confined to an invisible mass of data stored in a machine–a modern West indeed.
So we return where we began, with Marston’s body cold in the ground and his son Jack ready to take up the gunslinging mantle to kill the man who took his father’s life and home from him. If Marston is an avatar’s of McCarthy’s kid in Blood Meridian, then Jack is the answer to McCarthy’s John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses. John Grady leaves his family ranch in San Angelo Texas in 1949 in search of a life as a horse breaker in Mexico, finding that the life of the cowboy and the American West has past into the realm of “myth, legend, dust.” Similar to John Grady’s contemplative and often brutal quest across the border, Jack’s quest to avenge his father is a quiet one, mostly consisting of encounters with people who offer information about Edgar Ross’ whereabouts, punctuated by a moment of tense violence. A few conversations and an old-fashioned duel leave Ross dead on a dusty river bank and Jack victorious; roll credits. But the key difference between Jack’s final task and his father’s is that the player can elect to leave it unfinished. Jack’s final mission (appropriately named “Remember My Family”) appears on the map not with no more aplomb than any other side mission delivered by a stranger. It can be ignored completely or accepted with gusto, depending on how the player wants Jack’s story to pan out. The quest remains open to the person holding a controller–a quiet ghost haunting the last days of the digital West.
Red Dead Redemption shifts from a game and story about penance to one of a perpetual trail of violence–the true grisly inheritance of the Old West. John Marston exists as a relic in his own time and the video game medium, a tired man crushed beneath the churning gears of modernity embodied by machinations of the game’s narrative as well as the streams of data that make up his world. Red Dead Redemption‘s digital West, is always closed, offering nothing but mirage of a free land that has already become a world of ironic romanticism, steeped in blood and dust.
Perhaps Red Dead Redemption is the ultimate Western, by which I mean the last, because it gives the player the opportunity to close this chapter of American history through play. The digital West offers a simulation of an already closed moment in time and space, and with its ending, much like the world of Blood Meridian, “not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”