I loved Red Dead Redemption. Let’s just get that out of the way. I did everything; tamed every horse, did every side-quest possible and upon entering Mexico and that beautiful song played – Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” – I threw my controller across the room so as to not interrupt the love being made to my ears.
From start to finish I was engrossed, but where the game truly shined was the ending. The whole game culminated in this final scene that left me staring at the credits in contemplation, and not like Assassin’s Creed where I’m just staring because I have no idea what just happened.
This will, in case you haven’t already realized, be spoiler heavy. So... play the game first, because you’ll kick yourself to have it spoiled.
Redemption, it's in the title. This game has one of the most poignant and accurate representations of redemption that I've experienced in any medium. Though RDR stands in comparison to Western films who address the same topic, the interactivity that it bestows makes the experience stronger than anywhere else.
John Marston seeks redemption. Not for his conscience, but because he is forced to do so to earn his family's freedom. He spends most of the plot seeking the former members of his gang and hunting them down at the behest of the FBI. By killing those who left him for dead, he not only gets revenge for what they did to him, but redemption for his actions as an outlaw.
The effort that John Marston exerts in his quest for redemption is not for his own benefit, or even for his wife Abigail’s; it is for his son, Jack. John and Abigail speak several times about their desire for Jack to live a life as far removed as possible from their own: The Marstons lived their earlier years as outlaws, robbing banks and killing people. Many often question John about how he managed to justify his actions as a law-breaker and he responds that he was “kinda like Robin Hood” stealing from the wealthy and undeserving and helping out those that needed it. This justification isn’t held up by the members of their gang or by the FBI, however. It does seem as though John and Abigail honestly regret their criminal life, John states that he “had to live the way [he did]”, and that he was in awe of Dutch “just like everyone else was”. Ultimately, however you look at it, John Marston was a man trying to live by pretending the things he’d done didn’t happen. It is difficult to imagine that John could really believe that he would be allowed to walk away unharmed and free.
However, by what we assume to be the end of the game, John has finished. He has as good as killed Dutch, fulfilled his obligation to the FBI and earned his freedom. He’s finally allowed to return to his farm with his family and live out the rest of his days as a peaceful ranch-owner. Besides shooting Elk and bears, as well as the occasional cattle-rustler, John Marston will likely never have to pull his gun out in anger again.
Honestly? I thought that was it. I thought that I’d get a rather cheesy, happy ending with the whole family together forever. Thankfully, I was mistaken. We return home, and we still pursue missions. They’re calm, tranquil and are essentially the same missions from the very beginning of the game back at the Macfarlane Ranch. We hunt with Jack, we shoot crows off of the grain silo and we ride with the Missus.
After several conversations and missions with the Marston family however, I realize that it’s all a lead-up. The moment where I consciously realized that these missions were happy and peaceful for a reason was when I knew that the Marston’s weren’t going to get a happy ending.
I loved that.
I know the John Marston was the protagonist and, at the end of the day, he isn’t a criminal anymore. He simply wants to go home to his family and live a quiet life. But in the big picture, that’s just not how it works. John was, and still is, a criminal. He’s killed countless people even before the game begins. Unfortunately, you don’t get to leave all that behind and start anew. As much as that might be seen as the right thing to do – the criminal finally turning over a new leaf – that’s just not how it works.
There is a battle fought in the background of the story of Red Dead Redemption between the untamed, wild ways of the West and the encroaching civilization. We play a man who is firmly rooted in the self-sufficient, anti-government mentality that so many people felt in the West. These people settled and tamed this wild land, turning it from a dangerous and desolate area into a blend of nature and civilization. With the onset of the railroad, people were able to come and go so much more easily, enabling government influence to extend into corners of the country previously untouched. This was not met with glee; throughout RDR many characters blame any and all bad occurrences on the government and “their interfering ways”. These people don't want big government and meddling agents or the large cities and extensive colonization that follow. They want their quiet, settled life with strong familial ties and their self-sufficiency. They wish to deal with things in their own way.
Under this model of life, it is understandable for John to walk away from his actions. After all, he has helped many communities, sheriffs and even revolutions, hopefully working towards saving lives. These actions should redeem John Marston from the errors he’s made and the people he has killed. If there were no government or code of law, perhaps that would be the case. But the government does exist, and the people who get left behind from the killings desire justice. And so John Marston, having ignored Dutch’s warning that “they’ll never leave people like us alone”, finds his farm under attack by waves of US forces, all trying to kill the entire family. As the player, I was confused as to why they would attack. I expected something tragic to happen, but I didn’t necessarily expect the FBI would double cross him.
I later came to the realization that they had to kill him. The FBI was determined on rooting out all bandit and outlaw gangs. They set out to eradicate the entirety of Dutch van der Linde’s gang, and John Marston was the last. If they let him live, they would be undermining their very mission; preserving the peace and delivering justice. True, it might seem that, as John was the protagonist and he’s performed so many good actions, he should be allowed to go free. That can't be, because the people desire justice. The media desires justice. The game paints the government agents – and the government as a whole, really – as malicious and self-serving, not doing what is right, but merely what is most likely to win them acclaim and get them promoted. True, the FBI seem more concerned about how it would make them look if they fail, but that feeling of shame is closely tied to the expectations of the people who were hurt, either directly or indirectly, by John Marston and his gang.
During the game, the player can play John Marston either good or bad, making choices in select missions as to how you act. It’s relatively minor, as no matter what John Marston is concerned with getting back to his family. The way you play him also doesn’t really matter except for an individual player’s view on John’s character. Either you play him as a reformed criminal trying his best to get peace and choose good options, or you play him as a jackass who only left crime to start his family, but is still perfectly happy to let that damn cannibal eat whomever he likes.
All comments about the conflict between civilization and the wild aside, Red Dead Redemption is fundamentally about John Marston’s redemption. He quests for it by hunting his former allies and both he and the player believe that he has finally earned it once they are all dead. However, the actions of John Marston will forever haunt him; just because he hunted his former gang won’t stop law enforcement wanting his blood. They don't want to just kill John, but his family as well. They will never be safe until the FBI finally kills John Marston. And at the end, once John finds himself surrounded and with no safe way out, he knows it.
Marston finally realizes what he has been hiding from himself the entire game: that he can never gain redemption for his actions while he is still alive. No matter what he does to try and clear his name, he will always be hunted, and by extension so will his family. John’s primary focus is to preserve the innocence and ability in his son and to let him live a life free from his own past. But as long as John Marston lives, that can never be true.
I genuinely felt that John Marston fully comes to terms with his fate trapped in that barn. He and his family have made it into relative safety. He could grab a horse and ride away with his family, shooting down the FBI as he went. He could go to New Austin to gather support or to find a place to hide. Or maybe he could go to Mexico, get Abraham Reyes, the revolutionary whose quest for the crown only managed to get a start thanks to John. He could be safe there, right?
Hardly. He would be hunted down. No matter where he went, he would be a wanted man, never free. That probably wouldn’t bother John Marston; he’s been like that all his life. But his son would suffer. He would never live a life of his own, free to do what he wants without fear of suddenly being surrounded by the army, or mercenaries or bounty hunters or whoever.
So John Marston sends his family away, steps outside the barn doors guns blazing like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, knowing that he’ll die. His death brings freedom to his wife and son; they won’t be hunted by the FBI, they’re of no concern to the government. By sacrificing himself to save his son’s future, John Marston finally achieves redemption. His life, filled with crime and murder, has at last been absolved through his self-sacrifice for the good of his son.
The final twist to the whole thing is that Jack Marston becomes just like his father. You re-enter the game 3 years later, after the death of Abigail. Jack looks just like his father, bar a stunning facial resemblance to Johnny Depp, and has become exactly what John didn’t want him to be. We have no clue what to do with Jack, only an odd stranger mission off in Blackwater that becomes Jack’s short quest to get revenge on Edgar Ross, the FBI boss who ordered John’s betrayal and murder.
Jack follows leads – under the guise of a simple message carrier – until finally finding Edgar Ross at a convenient river far away from anyone. He duels him, and kills him. And with that final killing, Jack turns away and “Red Dead Redemption” is slashed across the screen. This saddening ending, and indeed the whole game, is a wonderful example of eventual true, honest redemption that unfortunately goes wrong.
A lovely touch exists that I feel further expands on the monster that Jack Marston has become exists after the end of the game. During the game you can buy newspapers throughout the plot, often with references to John Marston’s exploits. At the end of the game, you can buy only one more. It contains an article about the death of Edgar Ross, and it assumes his death was a result of hold-up by robbers because money he had on him before he died that wasn’t on his body.
When you shoot Edgar Ross, you can decide whether or not to go up to his body and search it; if you did, you’d receive $200 he had on him. This seems like nothing at the time, but the newspaper seems to establish it as canon that Jack Marston robbed this man’s corpse for any money left on him. When you do it as part of the game, you tend to not really think about the fact that you’re essentially stealing any final possessions on a man you’ve just killed, but reading that Jack took the money just cements him as exactly what John never wanted his son to be.
Just like him.