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John Marston’s story of revenge, justice and, eventually, betrayal in Red Dead Redemption stands as a wonderful video game. That much comes without argument.
But Rockstar Games managed to craft more than just a wonderful video game with Red Dead Redemption. This tale about the slow creep of law and order into the wild west actually stands tall amongst some of the best westerns in cinematic history.
In fact, I’d go so far as to offer that Red Dead Redemption is one of the greatest westerns ever told.
There are some ancillary reasons for this seemingly absurd claim, but it all boils down to the core storyline of Rockstar’s game. Red Dead Redemption is about the lawful slowly overtaking and destroying the lawless.
The wild west genre is about one main thing across film, television and literature: freedom. That’s freedom from government in a show like Deadwood, freedom from ownership in a film like Django Unchained and freedom from abduction in a flick like The Searchers. In Red Dead Redemption, our hero John Marston has left his life as a bandit and criminal in order to set up a farm on the fringe of civilization and live out his days as a law-abiding citizen. A reformed man, Marston is nonetheless forced by the encroaching government to round up or kill the members and leader of his old gang.
The lawless Marston is literally overtaken by the lawful and made to hunt down his past piece by piece in order to win his freedom. Marston, like so many figures in the western genre, just wants to be left alone. The heroics, the fame, the fortune? That’s all for the birds. We’re aiming for the ol’ dusty trail here, and it’s going to take months of tracking, fighting and murder to get there.
Marston himself is one of the best representations of a western hero, too. Sure, his graphical animations and voice work won’t really stand up well next to the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, but the character here is just as good as any those storied actors played.
We learn early and are reminded often that Marston gave up his life of crime and treachery in order to rest easy on a farm. The first town we enter, Armadillo, has its share of prostitutes and no good on offer, and most gamers familiar with Rockstar’s efforts in games like Grand Theft Auto would assume that buying the services of these working women would be a feature.
Nope, not here. Our heroic Marston is too busy trying to redeem his life and get back to his wife and son in waiting, and he’ll constantly rebuff the working women’s advances.
That even continues as Bonnie MacFarlane, a woman we’ll talk about at length shortly, offers her companionship to Marston on more than one occasion. No thanks, he’ll tell her, just like he tells the rest. Marston’s a married man.
The best western heroes take no pleasure in the actions they commit as they move toward their eventual goals. Marston tries to take the violence-free path on his march to redemption here, but that always breaks down into massive shootouts and violence. Marston regrets it, of course, but he won’t stop. That stoic pride and strength are indicative of the best heroes in the genre. Don’t mess with Marston, friends. He might not want to fight, but he will. And he’ll win.
As for the aforementioned Bonnie MacFarlane, Rockstar does a wonderful job with one of the western genre’s best and most famous tropes. Howard Hawks directed some of the best films to ever grace the silver screen, and his tough-talking, beautiful take on the female leads in these flicks became known as the Hawksian Woman. Angie Dickinson played Feathers in Rio Bravo, a Hawks film starring John Wayne, and she stands as a wonderful example of these tough and desirable women.
Rockstar delivered two of these characters in Red Dead Redemption. They come in the form of Bonnie MacFarlane and Marston’s own wife, Abigail. And both are played perfectly, complete with moments of genuine terror and triumph.
The biggest reason Red Dead Redemption stands as one of the greatest westerns ever told, though, comes from the fact that it’s a lengthy video game. Rio Bravo, The Searchers, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, etc. all fall short of this single quality because they’re films, restricted to a few hours of non-interactive bliss.
Red Dead Redemption presents western tropes like the Hawksian Woman, the slow decay of freedom at the hands of the law, the open desert, the crowded woods, unbelievable sunsets and the presumption of sunrise and explores it over an experience that runs 40, 50 or 60 hours.
We gamers take that for granted, as it’s the standard of the medium, but this length afforded Rockstar a genuine opportunity to push the character development of its characters out over dozens of hours instead of a little more than one hundred minutes. We had a chance to invest ourselves in this world and really get to know the desperation of its inhabitants, and that makes the redemption and revenge in the tale that much sweeter.
There are plenty of western fans out there who have never touched this game. They’re doing themselves a disservice. The western genre is home to dozens of indisputable classics, and Red Dead Redemption stands tall among them.
Joey Davidson has been on the internet writing about video games and nerd crap for something like a decade. Yell at him on Twitter @JoeyDavidson. If you want.
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