October is just around the corner and that means two big things. First, Halloween is almost here. Second, Red Dead Redemption II is now only four weeks away, fuck it lets say twenty eight days instead, sounds much closer. My fingers will be tired from all the typing I’ll be doing during the last couple of weeks of October covering all I have planned.
RDR II is on the horizon and I can’t wait. This is a game I’ve been looking forward to ever since I finished the first game (yes I do know about Red Dead Revolver, but you know what I mean) eight years ago, before this sequel/prequel was even announced. Yet wait is exactly what I must do and to help pass the time, I’ve been enjoying the stunning world Rockstar gave us with the first Red Dead Redemption. Yup I have played though RDR again ahead of the release of the new game. The 4K update for the Xbox One X backward compatible version is sexy and for an eight year old game, it can easily hold it’s own against games released today.
Now there’s a hell of a lot of things I love about RDR, the setting of the Wild West, the well written and acted characters with both main and periphery ones being very memorable, the world itself is full of life. The game is packed of things to do from the main story missions to side quests and even random encounters. Fancy taking on some wanted bandits, maybe hang out in a saloon and play some poker or liar’s dice? Go hunting for wildlife or even treasure. Unlock new clothing items, weapons and horses. RDR is one well packaged game with a lot rammed into it, so it’s kind of hard to single out just one favourite part…but I think I’ve manged to narrow it down.
As I said, there is a lot to like about RDR from its main story to its numerous side quests. The humor that is peppered throughout the game is brilliant and compliments the well written characters perfectly. Sometimes you forget you are playing a gritty Wild West game when you have characters providing comedy like Nigel West Dickens, Seth Briars or that Irish guy, I forget his name…
But its not the humor of RDR that is my favourite part. Nor is it the varied side-quests like having to collect a bunch of flowers for a dead woman or helping a stranger build a flying machine. My favourite part is not even the lead character of John Marston even though I thought he was an utterly charming and engrossing character to play as from start to finish – one of my favourite gaming protagonists ever. Maybe its the map with its beautiful locales and vistas that just make you stop what you are doing and look around, admire your surroundings? Nope. Could it be the weather effects in the game, how you can see storm clouds slowly building the bright blue sky before a torrent of rain hits you forming puddles on the ground as lighting comes crashing down, still the best weather effects in a game so far…not that either. I do love how the game is loaded with dozens up on dozens of tiny little details and random events/encounters so you never see the same thing over and over – but there’s a part I love even more. You may think its the fact you play as hardened outlaw, robber and murderer John Marston who takes time out of his busy schedule of being an all round badass to stop, pick some wild flowers and exclaim “you little beauty!”.
Basically my point is that RDR is full of moments both big and small that could be my favourite and selecting just one moment is next to impossible. Yet after replaying through the game recently…again, I have managed to pin down the one part where it hit me that RDR was more then just a game, it was an experience. I’m going to get into SPOILERS from this point onward as I cover the end of the game, so if you’ve still not played and finished RDR then stop reading now and go play it.
So if you’ve finished the game, then you know what happens at the end and how its one of the most emotional and impactful game endings ever. The climax is both a major downer and a brilliant resolve at the same time…yet its not the very end of John Marston’s journey, but more a case of the ending and everything that leads up to in the last hour or so.
I was talking to someone about the final few missions of RDR after Dutch is dead and you go back to your ranch. They said that part is the most dull and boring of the whole game. I respectfully disagreed as those last handful of missions are by far my favourite part. Allow me to explain why and maybe paint a picture along the way too of my first time experiencing the ending with a quick recap and my view of that final stretch of RDR.
So the basic plot of RDR is that you playing as John Marston is under control by the government who are holding John’s wife and son as collateral to force him to track down and kill his old gang members. After tracking down the final member, Dutch the old gang leader, the government allows John to return to his wife, Abigail and son, Jack on his ranch. Its that moment after Dutch is dead when the best part of the game begins.
See, John is now free from his governmental ties and rides back to his ranch and to his family. One of the few vocal tunes kicks in (Compass by Jamie Lidell) as you make the journey home riding on your horse through the Tall Trees and onto the Great Plains areas, the song wells up as you get closer to Beecher’s Hope, your ranch and your family. After his long action and violence packed adventure, John is back home and he takes to tending to his homestead. Doing a run to MacFarlane ranch to drop off supplies along with his slightly jealous wife, Abigail. He rounds up some cattle with the help of his cantankerous old uncle, scares birds away from his corn silo. John swears never to return to that outlaw life now he is free and plans on spending the rest of his days by Abigail and Jack’s side making a life as a farmer. He finally has his redemption.
Everything is perfect…but that’s when it hits you that you’re still playing the game. Surely it should’ve ended a while back when John first got back to his family directly after Dutch’s death. John has been freed from his government ties, he’s back home with his wife and son, happy ending, roll credits, job’s a good un’.
Only the credits haven’t rolled. So why are you still playing, you have finished the game, you have done what the government asked and are now free? Why are you doing these mundane tasks after several dozen hours of action and excitement? From mowing down Mexican rebels with a Gatling gun on the back of a train, taking out bandits and their gangs to getting involved in mass shootouts…oh and collecting wild flowers while exclaiming “you little beauty!”. Its been non-stop action and adventure for the best part of fifty plus hours and now you’re a farmer?
Its often said that Alfred Hitchcock was the master of cinematic tension and suspense. Well Rockstar are the gaming equivalent. While playing those last few “boring” missions, it was perfectly clear it was not quite over despite the fact you fulfilled your governmental duties and tracked down your former gang members. Something was amiss, you didn’t fully know exactly what it was the first time playing…but something was not right, you could feel it. There was a sense of unease and discomfort. With the sun glaring down on Beecher’s Hope while birds tweeted away in the background as Rufus the dog patrolled his territory happily barking away. It was peaceful and quiet – the calm before the storm and the longer these “boring” missions continued, the more tense and suspenseful the wait became.
As beautiful and serene those last handful of missions were, there was an underlying wave of anxiety. You didn’t want to see what happened next as you knew it was gong to be bad, you wanted John to be happy with Abigail and Jack, he’d more than earned it over the course of the game. You wanted him to make it as a farmer as “boring” as it sounds. I suppose you could turn your console off now and leave John on his farm with his family. But of course, you had to see the real ending. So you continued to play, herd that cattle and take them out to pasture, teach your son how to use a gun and take him hunting, kill a pack of wolves to sell their meat at a local store, break-in some wild horses. More “boring” missions followed as that niggle of negativity at the back of your head kept eating away. Something was going to happen, you were sure of it – you just didn’t know what or when.
And then it does happen, suddenly the ranch is attacked by the army under orders from the same government folk you have been working for the whole game. They want to cut all ties and that means John and his entire family must die. All hell breaks loose and that peaceful serenity of the farmer’s life is shattered as the bullets fly. John’s cantankerous old uncle is killed in the gunfight and this just spurs him on to fight back harder to save Abigail and Jack. The bastards even killed Rufus the dog who got caught in the crossfire. But there was a glimmer of hope as the numbers thinned out, the army were loosing the fight. This is it, take out the army, the crooked government officials, John can get on with his life and live happily with his family, roll credits…only that’s not what happens.
Rockstar decided to stick the knife in and give it a twist instead. With the initial wave of attackers dead and their bodies scattered around your ranch, John gathers up his wife and son and heads to the barn to get some horses – time to make a run for it. John sends Abigail and Jack away while he stays on to fend off any stragglers and as he opens the barn doors, the slow-mo Dead Eye game mechanic kicks in giving you the chance to target and kill every last one of the bastards – only that is just another Rockstar ploy, another twist of that knife, a ray of false hope specifically designed to purposefully give you a heart racing moment of blood and vengeance that John will never get. You try frantically to target each and every one of those corrupt officials. Only its just not possible, no matter how many times you reload that mission and try. The game is designed to show the inevitable end of John Marston…
It a bloody and brutal end too as John is gunned down by a couple of dozen army and government suits. He falls to his knees and wheezes as his last breath leaves his body before succumbing to the dozens of bullet holes. Its a slow and agonising death. Rockstar don’t make the end of John Marston an easy watch, they want to to feel the pain. You’ve just spend the entire game playing as John, got to know him as a character, got to know his life and even fell in love with him a bit…and now he’s dead and you’re going to watch.
All that time doing those “boring” missions was a build up to exactly this, the grand finale. They were meant to be “boring” to lull you into a false sense of security, to give you a little ray of hope that everything was going to be okay. And when you think that’s it, no more, its over and you’ve seen the worst. The game then makes you control his son, Jack and forces you to go back to the ranch and see John lying in a pool of his own blood as Abigail and Jack look over the dead, blood soaked body.
This is punishment, punishment for enjoying the game and for enjoying John Marston as a character. I mean after all, he was an outlaw, a thief and a killer. John Marston was a bad guy looking for a little redemption and he didn’t get it. The whole thing, those last few missions and John’s death, they are one and the same and you can’t have one without the other.
That is my favourite part of RDR, not just the finality of John’s fate but also those “boring” missions before as without them, the ending wouldn’t have had the same level of impact. If after dealing with Dutch, John returned home and it was a happy ending or if on your return to the ranch, the army instantly attacked – the ending wouldn’t have had the same level of impact. You needed those “boring” missions to juxtapose against the bloody and violent resolve. That’s why the “boring” part of RDR is my favourite. Its Rockstar’s Hitchcock moment and one that master of suspense would’ve been envious of. Well played Rockstar, well played indeed.
The climax of RDR is one of the hardest, most uncomfortable and yet most satisfying endings to a game ever. A finality I think that will be hard to top. It’ll be interesting to see what Rockstar have planned for RDR II, with it being a prequel we know a lot of what will happen and who will survive given the story of this game, so there will be a certain lack of surprise.
Can they catch lightning in the bottle twice and deliver an equally or even better resolve with the new game? Either way, RDR II has some pretty huge cowboy boots to fill.