This summer has been proper shit; rain has lashed down, clouds have blotted out the sun and the mercury has barely nudged above 15 degrees for the most part. So if you want a decent sumer in England this year, you need to do what I’ve been doing: play Red Dead Redemption. (WARNING: HERE BE RDR SPOILERS!!)
This isn’t the first year I’ve sought out the sun indoors. In 2003 most of London and I lay down on the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project bathed us all in its radient glow. It was the only sunshine we saw all summer; outside, the UK skies tipped pathetically thin rain into winds that were strong enough to snatch handfuls of it and hurl it into the face of pedestrians, no matter how tightly they pulled their collars and hoods around them.
Eliasson’s masterpiece isn’t on display, but that hasn’t stopped me catching the odd sunset this year, thanks to RDR. I stroll up to a bluff or a hillock, stand stock still and stare in wonder as the skies bleed red and then purple and the glowing sun dips below the horizon. It’s one of the game’s many pleasures and one I didn’t really have a lot of time to enjoy when I first played it for review. Back then, I had to cane RDR and finish it as quickly as possible. I still enjoyed, but I didn’t have time to stop and smell the
roses cacti, so to speak.
I didn’t have time pitch a campfire and stare off into the sunset. I didn’t have the time converse with strangers and set off on side quests. I couldn’t put the hours or the work in to becoming a fully fledged frontiersman, by collecting plants, shooting and skinning wildlife and showing off trickshots. I didn’t risk numerous injuries perfecting my technique at five-finger fillet. I couldn’t waste ten or so minutes playing Liars Dice, or sink forty-five minutes into Texas Hold ‘Em. (Yes, I’ve done that. I’m not proud, but I’d do it again, dammit).
The massive open Wild West world is easily the best thing in Red Dead Redemption. Although I liked the story an awful lot, it owed a huge debt of inspiration – if not direct influence – to The Wild Bunch. Essentially, Red Dead Redemption’s story in which an ex-outlaw is press-ganged into helping the US Government Authorities hunt down his old gang during the dying days of the Wild West is a re-imagining of Sam Peckinpah’s classic, told from the point of view of the character of Deke Thornton. (If what I’ve written means nothing to you, rent The Wild Bunch. You’ll be glad you did.)
For me, though, the game’s crowning moment is its shock ending, which riffs on the melancholic end of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. If you’ve ever seen George Roy Hill’s classic (spoilers ahoy) you’ll know that it ends with the Butch & Sundance meeting an untimely demise at the hands of the Mexican Army in a shootout. The last shot of the film shows the pair of them running out of a barn, guns blazing, before a hail of bullets cuts them down. We never see them drop; Hill freezes the last frame and all we hear is the gunfire. Perhaps he knew that after spending so much time in their company, we’d hate to see them die.
Rockstar lets neither the protagonist of their game, John Marston, nor the player off the hook like that. After hunting down the gang he used to run with, Marston returns briefly to his farm and for a brief twenty minutes or so, the player is fooled into thinking that the game is going to end with Marston being left alone to make a go of his life. This impression is blasted away quite quickly with the arrival of the US Marshals who surround Marston’s farm and force him and his family to take shelter in a barn. Knowing he has minutes left to live, Marston puts his wife and son on a horse, lies to them about following after them and sends them on their way. He then opens the barn doors and walks towards his death.
In this clip, it’s at 1:18 where my heart jumped into my throat, and for a split-second I thought Rockstar was going to give me and Marston a way out. I believed Marston could take down his would-be executioners. This, of course, lasted about a second as the horror dawned on me that even if I could tag all of Marston’s assailants with a headshot cross in DeadEye (which I couldn’t), he wouldn’t have enough bullets in his gun to take them all down.
In a ten second window, Rockstar filled me with heart-bursting hope, and then snatched it away again. As I watched Marston cough out his dying breaths, I was conflicted. Here was a character I’d followed for the better part of 12 or so hours. I’d grown to like him. I’d started to care about him. I didn’t want him to die.
But throughout the game I’d also tried to keep reminding myself that he used to be the same sort of vicious scum that he’d recently been hunting down. Did he deserve a second chance? After all the misery he’d spread into the lives of others, wasn’t there something fitting about his death? Didn’t it balance the scales somewhat? I liked John Marston, because I met him at the right time, but that didn’t mean he didn’t deserve exactly what he got.
But maybe, like William Munney tells Little Bill in Unforgiven, “‘deserves’ got nothing to do with it. The slice of American history that serves as a backdrop to Red Dead Redemption was called the Wild West for a reason. It was a time and a place in which hideous things happened for no reason, where evil men did evil things simply because they could and where the life was brutally cheap. I doubt Rockstar wants the ending of Red Dead Redemption to serve as a reminder of all of that. Rather, I think the writers were just willing to give themselves and their story over to the reality of the world they’d created.
In the end, Marston died because he ran afoul of evil men. He shouldn’t have expected them to be different from his old gang just because they were wearing badges.
Oh, and before anyone writes me an email saying, “I can’t believe you wrote about Red Dead Redemption’s best bit and didn’t include this!”, here you are: