No Clip: Red Dead Redemption

[No Clip is a Destructoid community blog series. An experiment in player interaction, AwesomeExMachina returns to popular games and plays them with a set of critical restrictions to rethink what we thought we knew. Note: this edition contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Red Dead Redemption. Want your own work on the front page? Write something awesome in the community blogs. –Kauza]

Somewhere outside a dusty, dilapidated ranch where a man scarcely knew how to raise a cow rests a partially askew wooden grave marker etched with the words “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If you stood above this grave as a hushed young man, you can be assured of one thing. Your father saw redemption by the end of his life, because you – the player – stand there and because there is sorrow in the way you dip your hat.

This is the finale to the tale of a legendary western character. Though once despised by the countrymen of New Austin, you achieved John Martson’s deliverance through wholly good actions, even if you left the path from time to time to don a handkerchief and shoot a few nuns. 

The protagonist of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption stands as one of the strongest characters of recent memory, whether you see him as conflicted or contradictory. Rockstar took some inarguable narrative risks by starting the player dead middle of his exciting life as a thief turned mercenary with a heart of gold. Even further, by leading you to chase an invisible goal of familial bliss and, even riskier still, continuing the tale long after John’s death. I certainly don’t stand alone in marveling at this dicey story design and I’m still applauding to this day. 

John Marston’s character was an equally risky move, as before the first cutscene even fades in, he is legendary for his evil deeds. Our hero is a common thief and murderer. Once in our hands, we know him as an ex-criminal, but we only attribute the “ex-“ prefix because the game tells us so. Whether or not John is done robbing and murdering his way across the Old West is left in our hands. His life is in shambles, his past haunting him and his future held at gunpoint. John Marston is a broken man and, if fiction has taught us anything, it’s that a fractured character can reassemble itself anyway it wants. 

Morality systems are the bread and butter of games these days. As stories branch out and become more complex, so too do your actions. Games reward these varied decisions with the addition or removal of karma points along a sliding scale of a benevolent friend to all or malevolent murder of everything. It’s a simplistic, yet entertaining system. But, after that last boss has been defeated, your karma score is as relevant as the color of your pants. 

Commander Shepard may have shot his Krogen teammate in the face to end an argument, but the entire galaxy still speaks of him in grateful whispers. The unnamed hero of Cyrodiil can pillage whole villages with the legendary amulet that holds the fate of every living thing sitting ignored at the bottom of a satchel. Yet he or she still receives a statue in honor of their bravery as soon as they get around to taking care of a few Oblivion gates. The protagonist in all these stories is still the champion because these are the tales of heroes. That part cannot be altered. But only if your goal is to win the game. 

The only thing keeping John Marston on the track of his crime-free ways is the narrative, which has written him onto the path of salvation. Whatever deviations you make don’t matter ultimately, because the story will go in the direction it has been written. There is an order, like to all games, and John’s death at the hand of Edgar Ross is as inevitable as his salvation. But a tale independent of the written story can go anyway it wants. The end is written by my own restrictions and definition. So my challenge was to take him off this course and instead bind him to the low road. Of course, there would be a few gameplay restrictions to make sure this choice was still a struggle. 

– My new goal was to cheat, steal, and rob my way to $20,000 
– Only accept missions where I stood to selfishly gain something (i.e. new weapons or map areas) 
– No positive honor points earned outside of missions 
– No pardon letters or bounty debts paid 
– Expert targeting mode 
– No Deadeye usage 
– Permadeath 

I made sure to restrict my character as much as possible because, simply put, I didn’t want Marston to be powerful or the experiment would be nothing more than roaming from town to town, committing atrocious acts for the hell of it. But with my life in constant danger, I had to keep myself in check. My acts couldn’t be Grand Theft Auto level destruction, but instead had to be carefully plotted thievery. 

I had to be smart. Without the chance to pay up for my crimes, each time I added an offense to my escalating bounty, it made my imminent death even worse. Lawmen, federal marshalls, and posses of bounty hunters became increasingly frequent as I worked towards my goal. Once my first bounty was earned, it began an never-ending onslaught of ambushes the moment I stepped onto the desert sand. No longer were long rides along the windy trails of New Austin laborious and there was no time to enjoy the scenery. Attacks became so frequent and unexpected, in fact, that I grew distrustful of any soul that rode in my direction. My finger hovered tensely over the left shoulder button, which drew my weapon, each time a figure appeared on the horizon. 

I continued through main-line story missions, to open up new areas, but there was a strange disconnect between the light-hearted but gruff John Marston from the cutscenes and the one I controlled. As I left a wake of dead sheriffs on my trail from each crime, it felt strange returning to making innocent quips with Bonnie and quietly tending to a ranch. After breaking into Armadillo’s bank in the dead of night, robbing the vault, and shooting my way to freedom, I felt remarkably two-faced the next morning when Bonnie sarcastically asked “Have you needlessly risked your life since we last spoke, Mr. Marston?” 

I was a reverse Batman. When it was dark, I stormed the towns of New Austin and robbed them blind, decimating their law enforcement and anyone that got in my way. But during the day-time, I was a ranch hand and friend to the law. They must have known, as I never once used the bandanna item to neutralize my negative karma points. At some point, every man, woman, and child must’ve known of my legend as a thief, but like every other crime that happened right before their eyes, the people of New Austin were unfazed by corruption until the gun was pointed at them. 

But keeping myself from gaining positive honor points proved to be one of the more guilt-inducing gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Without the possibility of altruism, I couldn’t save anyone. Not a single person. Not even my own family. And though I never saw anything bad actually befall them, the same can’t be said for the steady stream of innocent settlers and kindly prostitutes that were murdered right before my very eyes. 

As if the game predicted my intent, the first thing I spotted upon entering Armadillo and casing the bank for the possibility of theft was a working girl being restrained to the dirt in center of an alley, knife held just above her neck by a screaming, sadistic patron. Previously, I’d have played the role of superhero for the sole sake of doing the right thing. It wasn’t even an action I questioned. Saving the day is as natural as anything. Even still, I could have shot them both just for the kick of being gratuitously evil and, after watching the man slowly stab the lady over and over until her cries turned to desperate gargles and then to silence, even the evil option seemed merciful. 

It was a startling reality that, without the hero John Marston, the Wild West seemed to tumble into an unchecked wasteland. These killings in the city took place with terrifying frequency and always in broad daylight. Yet not once did one single lawman do a damned thing about it. Townsfolk strolled past without a single eye ever turning to the crime happening inches from the walking path. It was only after each prostitute lay there dead, the killer on the run without chase, that any of the NPCs paid notice enough to walk over, stare for a moment, and then go right back to strolling into the saloon for a drink. 

This rampant death happened everywhere. The roads were plagued with strangers being mauled by cougars, women being kidnapped, and settlers getting hijacked. Without the hero John Marston, their cries fell on deaf ears. It was a paradise for murderers and highwaymen, a utopia for thieves. Just as if you were to pull Clint Eastwood from the genre of Westerns, all that would remain is murder and tragedy rampaging through a lawless void. 

Yet, despite my disgust, my character was no better. Perhaps even worse, I was both a propagator of terror and neglector of it all the same. Though, some of my evil acts were out of accident or necessity. A once simple highway robbery went south when a passerby spotted my misdeed and attempted to flee. In giving chase, I encountered another witness. And then another. My panicked attempts to silence my crime exacerbated until kindly roads turned to killing fields. 

Gunfights themselves became different. On the ground, I was still a skilled shot from hours upon hours of online multiplayer played in Expert aiming mode. But fighting on a horse without Dead Eye, drawing a bead on a target was an exceptional and risky challenge. This brought me to the uncomfortable reality that I must aim for the larger target. The morality of the idea was difficult to swallow, as even the horse of a gallant lawman was inarguably the more innocent of the two. 

Each time I was ambushed by bounty hunters and federal marshals, I was forced to lead them off the beaten path to even the odds. Fights took place in abandoned barns and the front lawns of farmhouses. I used rocky areas with hills for proper cover, which also gave me the opportunity to break sight-lines and sneak around their flank. On the losing side of every fight, I had to play dirty. I couldn’t afford a straight fight or any threat to my life or cash-flow. Before long, I was shooting others in the back, cheating at poker, and shooting potential threats before they had a chance to draw their weapon. I was a f#@*ing monster. 

But the villain known as John Marston never saw his greedy ambitions come to fruition. He never saw his family again either and because the newspapers never mentioned him by name, they would never know of his evil deeds. Instead of riding triumphantly home to his quiet ranch, to live out his last days as a father and husband, my John Marston was gunned down in Mexico, just outside a dusty saloon known as Casa Madruga. 

His avarice getting the better of him, John shot three men in cold blood after losing a bet in a poker game. He hadn’t anticipated the rest of the townsfolk to stand up to him, in spite of his name, which was spoken in whispers. Strangers more often ran screaming at the sight of him. After a string of victories, John got cocky and neglected to buy medicine. In the end, it was a brave but nameless soul – perhaps more the hero than John Marston himself – who shot him in the back as he ran for safety out the front gates. 

My emotions were rather twisted as I watched my character bleed out into the rocky dirt outside a grimy saloon. He was the villain, the bad guy, without a single redeemable trait. He ruined lives for money and only earned a measly twelve grand. He hadn’t even reached his goal despite his rampant destruction and was still $8,000 short of his goal. All the greed seemed even more pointless as it sat as discarded as the man that held it. 

Yet, despite the despicable nature of my character, all the misdeeds and contemptible tactics seemed justified in their respective moments. My John Marston always had the world against him and his backhanded actions were in response to this. The government took his life and held him by a leash for their own diminutive gain. There was something liberating about making John break away from this restraint. John may have been a cowardly, wicked son of a bitch, but he was a free man. 

All the same, no one but myself mourned this incarnation of John Marston. He abandoned everything that mattered and sought a selfish fortune. His story was a difficult and cautionary tale, but managed to demonstrate something important. I had previously always seen the evil choices in so many games to be frivolous. For every carriage there was to be robbed, somewhere there was a simple mission waiting for my steady rifle to resolve and reap the cash reward. Even when replaying solely to experience the darker side of things and see new dialog or options, acting like a psychopath while simultaneously saving the world seemed so contradictory. 

But when the paths of good and evil are unbalanced, and one becomes easier than the other, the choices become a more rewarding predicament. Not only that, but it lends some believability to those that chose the easier, wicked course and a difficult world. It also manages to add further regality to those that take the higher road too. Because if there was any notion that stood out from playing the villain John Marston, it’s complete respect for the conventional version, who seems infinitely more admirable by comparison.