Kirk Hamilton wrote recently about Red Dead Redemption’s flawed middle chapters; basically spanning from the annoying Irish to the bloated McDougal, with caricatures of the worst human beings you can have south of the border in the middle, but also its surprisingly well-developed early and final chapters. What’s interesting is that both those sections of the game take place around a certain type of location: a peaceful ranch.
After being shot in the chest, Marston is saved by rancher girl Bonnie McFarlaine and taken back to her father’s ranch. At this point, Marston’s quest is suspended for a moment. You go around the ranch hunting rabbits with Bonnie, you hurdle some cattle, you patrol the ranch at night and you play a few friendly poker games with the guys after a hard day in the sun. At this point in the game, you can also take on a few missions with Marshall Leigh Johnston in return for information about Williamson. If this game is based on the western genre, why was I more interested and invested in the daily business of running a ranch than the manly cowboy action of shooting the bad guys hidden in a canyon?
Apart from the point Kirk Hamilton makes in his piece; the characters around those missions are much more well written, I think I enjoyed those missions so much because I was free not be violent, not to be a tool in some sociopath’s hands (I’m looking at you De Santa). The first few missions in McFalaine’s ranch are obliviously tutorials giving you pointers on how to ride your horse, shoot a gun and lasso up horses and bad guys. By breaking those few tutorial missions with some of the Marshall’s missions, all involving shooting bad guys in the head, I found the ranching missions much more innovative. Hurdling cattle may not be the most interesting job in the world, but the mechanics revolving around those missions was novel and interesting enough to keep me hooked and actually enjoy riding behind a group of cows while keeping them in check.
You really get to appreciate those missions once you are at the end of the game. After hours of being a carpet and doing horrible jobs for even more horrible people, you are free to get back to a “normal” life with you family. This is the redemption the game is telling us about, this is the freedom you’ve earned. For a few missions, the game lets Marston, and the player, be something else than a killer. It lets you be a human being who tries to put the pieces of his life together by trying to get his ranch back up. Just like Marston, I didn’t want this part of the game to end. I would have enjoyed just living on this ranch, working everyday to make it better by taking the cattle to the pasture, get some horses to sell them back, get a little garden that the wife would take care of, go hunt with my boy and bond a little, protect my ranch from rustlers and bandits, sell and buy merchandise with towns and other ranches, just put the killing life behind I guess.
Sadly, the cruel world created by this game denies Marston and the player this freedom. It is brutally, but not surprisingly, taken away from you in a moment of violence. Marston’s redemption was short-lived. The civilized world will inevitably kill the old anti-hero of the West; the law does not forgive the criminal turned vigilante. The game completes the circle by giving us control over Jack Marston, John’s son, the boy who lost his chance at a normal life with his family. The son literally becomes the father as the player is given the same control over him and as the game is giving the same options to the player. Jack cannot be a rancher. He can only be the same as his father was during the game, a man who wanders the land in search of someone to help, or someone to shoot.
Who knows, maybe one day Rockstar will release a DLC that will let us be an honest rancher? John wasn’t able to enjoy his redemption but maybe we will be able to lead Jack to his.