If someone told me years ago that one of my favorite videogame moments in recent memory would happen in a Rockstar game, I would probably have laughed. And maybe pushed them into a mud puddle. I love Rockstar and think they make really amazing games, but I think of their games as ambitious, technically impressive experiences, not as games containing a large amount of emotionally powerful moments -- moments that deeply affect me and change the way I look at videogames.
But then, Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption.
The game is visually impressive and a technical marvel, sure, but there is a moment near the end of the game that completely blew me away the first time I experienced it. Not only is this moment shocking, it hits you in the gut with its emotional punch, and touches your heart with its surprising beauty.
It may just be my favorite videogame moment of this generation.
I almost didn’t play Red Dead Redemption when the game was first released. As mentioned, I have always loved Rockstar games, but never feel the need to play them right away. The reviews for Red Dead Redemption were outstanding, but there was something about the game that didn’t initially appeal to me.
Maybe it was the tepid gameplay of the original game (Red Dead Redemption is a spiritual sequel to 2004’s mediocre Red Dead Revolver); maybe it was the unique, yet bare, Old West setting. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t going to play the game at all ... until I heard it was a pretty incredible experience from start to finish.
After hearing that, I had to try out Red Dead Redemption for myself.
In the game, you play as John Marston, a retired outlaw and former member of a notorious gang.
At the very start of the game, Marston is dragged away from his wife and son by government agents. To reunite with them, Marston is told that he must infiltrate his old gang and put an end to all of its leaders. Including capturing or killing a man named Bill Williamson.
Agreeing to do anything to get his loving family back, Marston agrees.
His quest to bring Williamson to his end takes him to many different locations and through even more dangerous missions and shocking plot twists.
Eventually, Marston kills Williamson in a massive shootout/betrayal in Mexico.
Finished with his mission, Marston returns to the urban settlement of Blackwater to be reunited with his family -- his main motivation for embarking on his dangerous journey in the first place.
Unfortunately, the government agents inform Marston that he is not done with his mission. He still has one more person to take care of: the original gang leader, Dutch van der Linde.
Obviously angry, but, again willing to do anything to see his family, Marston agrees to find Dutch.
In a confrontation on the edge of a cliff, Dutch commits suicide in front of Marston, warning him of the horrors and dangers of trusting the government just before he dies.
Returning with news of Dutch’s death, the agents finally grant Marston his wish, letting him return to his family and his ranch.
It is here on the Marston ranch when this week’s Memory Card moment occurs: The Marston legacy.
John Marston’s reunion with his family is wonderful. But, like with any family (especially one that includes a mother and son that feel slightly abandoned), highly emotional.
But despite the emotions, Marston’s wife Abigail and son Jack are happy to see him, and even happier that they are once again reunited.
Instead of the game ending at this point, the gameplay continues, following Marston as he participates in multiple “missions” that involve doing regular, everyday things around the farm. He is required to herd cattle, scare some crows away from the corn silo, and teach Jack how to hunt and ride a horse.
As his missions with Jack continue, the bond between him and his son grows.
In a game filled with violent, action-filled missions, performing daily, almost mundane duties around the ranch is a huge change of pace.
After many of these missions, the player starts to feel the game may end with Marston and his family living a happy life -- the perfect, peaceful closing epilogue to a game centered around a man’s search for his family.
But before the sun sets on Marston’s tale, his life is abruptly interrupted.
One morning, the same government agents that worked with Marston to bring down his former gang show up at his ranch. They have betrayed Marston and are there to take care of him and his family once and for all.
Marston knows what he has to do.
Causing a distraction, he gets his family away from the ranch and tells them to ride away as fast as they can. Upset, Abigail and Jack refuse, not wanting to leave his side. Marston promises that he will follow close behind, finally convincing his family to flee the dangerous scene.
As soon as his family is far enough away, Marston steps out in front of the ranch house.
The government agents -- too numerous to count! -- start to approach.
Marston looks over in the direction of his family. He can no longer see them. Their distance from the bloody chaos that is about to occur comforts him.
The government agents move closer, starting to surround Marston.
Marston raises his gun. At this point, the player takes over as the game enters “dead eye” mode, a mode that lets Marston aim and shoot his gun in slow motion.
Although “dead eye” mode helps Marston take down multiple agents, there are way too many of them for him to handle.
As his “dead eye” mode fades away, gunshots fill the air.
Marston is struck by a storm of bullets.
His body falls to the ground.
After hearing the gunshots, Abigail and Jack rear back their horses and hurry back to the ranch.
When they return, the agents are gone. All that remains is the body of Marston.
Abigail and Jack rush to Marston’s side and kneel down next to his still-warm body.
Abigail can’t contain her emotions. Jack embraces his mother, holding her close.
The screen fades to black.
When it fades back in, Jack and Abigail are standing in front of Marston’s grave. The phrase “Blessed are the Peacemakers” is inscribed on the wooden cross.
A gorgeous song plays in the background.
The scene fades out once again, with Jack and Abigail standing over the grave of their beloved father and husband, one of the bravest and most loyal men they have ever known.
In a shocking twist, the game does not end here. Instead, a new scene begins, showing Marston’s grave, somewhat aged.
Standing over Marston’s grave is a rugged-looking man with a striking resemblance to John.
It is revealed to be Jack, Marston’s son. Years have passed and Jack has aged significantly.
Older Jack nods his head, puts on his hat, and walks away. The camera slowly pans over and shows another grave, this one newly built. It is the grave of Jack’s mother, Abigail.
At this point, the player takes control of Jack. One last mission awaits him. He must find the government agent that betrayed his father and bring him to justice.
Marston’s legacy lives on in his son, a son who is determined to avenge the family he loves so dearly.
You can watch Marston’s tragic, heartbreaking sacrifice right here:
Whew! This moment really gets me every time I experience it. And there are so many reasons I absolutely adore it.
First off, the initial epilogue is completely unlike anything I have ever played in a game before.
In most Rockstar games (maybe all Rockstar games), the last mission before the credits roll is an over-the-top gun battle set among some ridiculous set piece.
And that mission exists in Red Dead Redemption. Before Dutch kills himself, the last few missions are filled with epic gun battles that take place in epic locations. But once Dutch dies, the game doesn’t end.
Marston rides back to reunite with his family, and still, the game doesn’t end.
At this point the player must participate in a decent chunk of missions that find Marston living his life on the ranch with his family. It goes completely against all the action-filled quests throughout most of Red Dead Redemption, and is a shocking change of pace.
And even though these missions could technically be considered “boring” when compared to early tasks, I found myself unbelievably sucked in to what was happening in the game. I embraced every second that Marston spent with his family. I found each mission, as slow as they were, to be beautiful, peaceful, and the perfect closing to the game.
Red Dead Redemption is all about Marston trying to find his family, so how else to end the game except to show Marston living his life with the family he loves? It just feels right and makes perfect sense.
As these missions were going on, I truly thought this was how the game would end. I thought after one special mission -- maybe with my son; maybe with my wife -- the game would fade out, ending peacefully for the Marston family.
But then it happens.
After one harmless mission, as Marston and his family are asleep, the government agents show up.
When this happened I knew something bad was about to happen.
But Marston is the hero of the game. Nothing that terrible would happen, right?
I was wrong.
After Abigail and Jack flee, Marston makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his family.
And this sacrifice itself is a moment of brilliance.
The way Marston takes a deep breath before he opens the door to the barn to confront his attackers. The way the door swings open and the camera slowly moves forward, revealing the staggering amount of enemies before him. It is all beautiful and perfectly directed.
And to top it all off, the player is given one final chance to take control of Marston. Automatically, the game switched to “Dead Eye” mode and lets the player (and, in turn, Marston) take out as many agents as possible.
You know you won’t be able to defeat them all. But this last creative choice perfectly illustrates the kind of person Marston is. He is not going down without a fight.
Once “Dead Eye” mode ends, it is all over. The agents still alive fill Marston’s body with bullets.
The moment is completely tragic. A main character in game. Gone forever. It’s a pretty brave decision for a potential franchise waiting to happen.
And it doesn’t end there. If all of this brilliance isn’t enough, the game then switches to control of Abigail and Jack. As a player, you know what just went down. When you take control of Marston’s family, you ride as fast as you can back to the ranch.
Maybe there is a way to still save him! More than any other scene in the game, this moment carries with it an immense sense of urgency.
No matter how fast you ride, though, Marston cannot be saved.
As his family mourns him, the game fades out, revealing its final, stunning twist.
Jack Marston is now older, and the player is in full control of him. With both of your parents’ graves in front of you, Jack has nothing on his mind but revenge.
And following (and loving!) these characters throughout the entire game, the player also wants to get revenge on the person who wronged the Marston family.
Every beat of this final epilogue is perfect. Absolutely perfect.
I love finding moments in videogames that surprise and impress me -- that’s what The Memory Card is all about! And this entire sequence is the perfect example of a videogame moment that truly changes how I look at and feel about videogames. It is memorable in every sense of the word.
When I talk about some of my favorite videogame moments of all time -- the return of Baby Metroid; Palom and Porom’s noble sacrifice -- the final sequence of Red Dead Redemption will easily join their ranks.
My God, I love videogames.
The Memory Card Save Files
What's Up? Our panel at PAX Prime 2014, Far Cry 4, Destiny Beta, Vietnam & a ferret
8:00 PM on 07.25.2014