Video games have not always been a viable form of story telling. Back in the 1980s, we didn’t really care about the “story” behind the adventures of Mario, PacMan, and Link. It was about gameplay, nothing more.
That was a long time ago. Now story is as important as gameplay. The performance of an actor, the writing of a script, the direction…just as in a movie, these are what define whether or not a game is truly great. From The Last of Us to Bioshock Infinite and beyond, gaming is now a way for creative people to tell a ripping good yarn.
Never have I been more engaged by a Western than in the case of Red Dead Redemption. When you pop the game in you’re dropped into the year 1911, at the very end of the Old West. As with any open world game nowadays, the map is huge and there’s no shortage of activities, from duels to poker to hunting grizzly bears. You can choose to be a hero or choose to be an outlaw. Who the character is is largely based on your decisions.
That character is John Marston, former gun slinger and now a farmer and family man. The Bureau of Investigation (not yet Federal) has kidnapped his wife and teenage son and are threatening to kill them unless Marston hunts down his old gang and brings them to justice. Seeing no way out, Marston confronts his old friends, now headed by the ruthless Bill Williamson, and is shot and left for dead. He’s nursed back to health by rancher Bonnie MacFarlane, and vows to hunt down and kill every one of his former allies.
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Sounds like your typical video game character, right? Man with no choice, out for revenge, blah blah blah. That’s where you’d be wrong. As portrayed by Rob Wiethoff, John Marston is a damned soul determined to do right by his wife and child. While we don’t get too deep into his past, we find out enough to know that Marston has more than earned a place in Hell, and no matter how good a guy he is now nothing is going to change that.
Yet, if you play the game with good intentions (as is intended to advance the story), you’ll find that Marston is also a changed man. His black heart is full of love now, and he wants to do good. He’ll help a woman being battered or a desperate man whose horse has been stolen. There’s a profound guilt in John Marston. He knows he doesn’t deserve redemption, but he’ll seek it till his dying day.
From the dusty streets of Armadillo to a revolution in Mexico and the paved, “civilized” streets of Blackwater, Marston hunts his former friends, all the while being teased and tormented by the real villains of the game – the law. Portrayed as cowardly hypocrites, the G-Men who use Marston are bureaucrats who don’t want to get their hands dirty. They’re modern men who look on the recent past of the Old West with a curled lip of disgust. Marston is a caveman to them, and they have no problem using him to hunt down other neanderthals if it keeps their pretty suits clean.
Now we venture into spoiler territory, for there is no way for me to express exactly why John Marston is such a great character without telling you how this game ends. Throughout the game John talks about his son Jack, and about how he wants a better life for his boy. He wants him to be educated, and to never have to hold a gun. In this regard, John Marston proves to be a failure. That’s right, no matter how expert you become at the game, you will lose.
After completing the G-Men’s task and getting his family back, the Marston farm is besieged by men in cars with fancy new guns. Marston’s amnesty was a lie. The law has come for him. Ambushed and barely able to get his family out the back way, John Marston is killed in a hail of gunfire.
A few years pass. One day Ross, the head agent who orchestrated John’s death, is out fishing. A now grown Jack Marston approaches, dressed in his father’s clothes. He shoots and kills Ross, and in doing so becomes exactly the kind of outlaw his father fought so hard to keep him from becoming.
A damned hero isn’t a new idea. Many of fictions greatest heroes have their dark pasts they are trying to escape, but usually they emerge triumphant at the end. In the case of John Marston, his past is one that can never be escaped. Death will be his only reward, and the sins of the father shall be upon the son. Sometimes, it’s inevitable.

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