The best games force their way into your memory. Days, months, even years later, you find yourself thinking about them and the complex story they told or the spectacular gameplay. Red Dead Redemption is one of these games. The story it tells and world it creates stands as one of the best in gaming, but what I find most fascinating is how it subtly establishes most of its major themes within the first five minutes.
For hundreds of years, Americans expanded west to snatch up cheap territory and to create a new life. With the rapid expansion, the government had a hard time enforcing laws. The west became a lawless land where people learned the value of individualism, self-reliance, and even violence.
In the early 20th century, as the last contiguous territories became states, there was nowhere left to expand; the government was finally starting to regain control over the land. This is where RDR’s story takes place, in the dying years of the American Frontier, or better known as the Wild West.
Like the west, John Marston is a dying breed, an outcast among the new civilized era. You can see it in the way Rockstar presents him to us. As Marston gets off the ferry in Blackwater, he looks unlike anyone else around him. Everyone else wears crisp, clean clothes with a piece of solid white garment, but Marston’s clothes are dingy and tattered looking. He has the air of a rough cowboy around him just from his attire. You can’t envision him driving the deep red automobile featured prominently in one of the shots.
The feeling becomes even more prominent when you reach the train. There are two groups that converse on the train. The first is a pair of snobby old women who obviously deem themselves as upper class citizens, while the other group is a priest and a young naïve girl looking to him for guidance. The conversations that take place between each of these pairs introduce us to many of the games main themes.
Mrs. Ditkiss: Well, I for one am grateful Mrs. Bush, that they are finally bringing civilization to this savage land!
Mrs. Bush: I could not agree with you more, my dear. My daddy settled this land and I know he’ll be looking down on us, pleased at how we helped the natives.
Mrs. Ditkiss: Yes they’ve lost their land, but they’ve gained access to Heaven.
The word “savages” applies to two groups of people: the Native Americans and the dwindling outlaws. Change is coming with this civilization that they speak of, and there will be no place for outlaws unless they conform to the ways of society. This ties in with Marston’s mission from the government. He is the enforcer of this new civilization, which screams irony because he himself is an outlaw and he must act like a savage to bring civilization to the “savages.”
Jenny : But Father, do you mean unless an innocent receives communion, they’re destined to go to Hell? That hardly seems fair.
The Preacher: What I mean to say, Jenny, is that there is a great deal of difference between an innocent and a savage.
Jenny: I never thought of it that way.
Mrs. Ditkiss: Yes, they live like animals. But they’re happier now.
The conversation here implies that there is a clear difference between the civilized and the savage. For instance, the game would have us believe that Marston is a savage and Edgar Ross, the government official responsible for kidnapping your family and forcing you to kill your former gang, is part of the civilized crowd. Seeing as how in the end Ross murders Marston even after he complied with his demands, this whole conversation reeks of hypocrisy. Any man can be a savage.
Jenny: Not only do people now have motorcars, father, but I heard pretty soon we will be able to fly.
The Preacher: No, only angels can fly, Jenny.
Jenny: No, no, apparently people can fly. Didn’t you hear? Out in Kansas a man even got a car to fly.
The Preacher: I hardly think so, Jenny.
The advancement of technology plays a large part in the game. Motor cars, Gatling guns, and semi-automatic pistols begin to make more frequent appearances near the end when your missions revolve around Blackwater. Blackwater is easily the most technologically advanced town you enter in the game and because of that it feels more civilized.
Technology is the weapon of civilized society. Marston makes this point best near the end when he talks about why Jack won’t become an outlaw like him. “”He ain’t gonna to be no frontier gunslinger, killing and running in no gang though. That way’s over. Railroads and government and motor cars and everything gone and done away with all of that.”
Mrs. Bush: Apparently, Mr. Johns wants to run for governor, which is why he’s so concerned with cleaning up the state.
Mrs. Ditkiss: Nate Johns?
Mrs. Bush: Yes.
Mrs. Ditkiss: His family is nothing but hillbilly trash that came here after the war. I don’t want to be judgmental, but this state should not be ruled by such a disgusting family. A family without class.
Mrs. Bush: Apparently the Johns family have made a lot of money, and he has a lot of friends in politics.
Mrs. Ditkiss: Mrs. Bush, money isn’t everything. There are many things that money cannot buy.
Mrs. Bush: It seems that money can buy voters, though.
The exchange here about class and Nate Johns “cleaning up the state” refers to why Marston has to hunt down his former gang and to the character Abraham Reyes. By having Ross and the Bureau of Investigation cleanse the last of Marston’s gang, it would make Johns look like a reputable candidate for governor. Not only that, but the by forcing Marston to do the dirty work, everyone from the bureau keeps their hands clean. When they eventually kill Marston, they look like heroes hunting down the last of a savage man who betrayed his old gang.
Reyes is from a wealthy family in Mexico, and after killing Colonel Allende and overthrowing president Ignacio Sanchez he hopes to become president of Mexico. A brave and loyal woman named Luisa loves him, but Reyes states that a peasant girl is below him because of his upper class heritage. He later becomes a corrupt ruler like the one that he overthrew. Reyes shows the foolishness of the class that these women talk about.
The Preacher: What you must remember, my dear, is that we have been brought here to spread the word. And the word and civilization, they are the same thing. They are the gifts. It is the opportunity we have — the chance to live among people who are decent and who do not kill each other, and who let you worship in peace.
Jenny: It’s so confusing, Father. Sometimes, I find it impossible to make the distinction between a loving act and a hateful one. I mean, they often seem to be the same thing.
The Preacher: Yes, Jenny, it is confusing, but you only have to ask me if you need help.
This last conversation bears the most meaning. Civilization brings the opportunity to live among people who are decent and don’t kill each other, but in order to civilize the land the remaining savages are killed. This is Marston’s mission, but even after he’s done, he cannot live in peace. It’s as Dutch says before he dies, “When I’m gone, they’ll just find another monster. They have to because they have to justify their wages.”
The death of Marston shows the falsity of the train conversation and proves Dutch to be correct. No man is decent, and the savagery of the old west will always be prevalent in society, because “People don’t forget. Nothing gets forgiven.” Violence is an endless cycle. By using violence to cleanse the savages, people become like that which they hope to end and begin the cycle again.
In just five minutes Rockstar San Diego is able to convey important information about Red Dead Redemption’s world. It’s a place brimming with savagery, technology, and hypocrisy. In the end, the savages and civilized are all the same.