Jun 082010

I want to begin by saying that I really like Red Dead Redemption, and a positive review will be forthcoming as soon as I stop being so bad at writing it. Rockstar’s new Western is an improvement over their work in GTA IV in a lot of ways, not the least of which is that I didn’t feel like I needed to take a shower after every play session. But the developer’s bad habits have a way of shining through, and to a large extent I liked Red Dead Redemption in spite of itself. No part of the game took more effort to look past than John Marston’s adventure in Mexico. The scenery down there is beautiful, but the narrative is a train wreck.

Red Dead Redemption‘s Mexican sequence starts just after John Marston and his band of freaks, frauds, and drunks take down Fort Mercer, only to find that his target Bill Williamson has fled south of the border. Realizing that another of his targets, Javier Escuella, is hiding out down there too, Marston pursues Williamson via a ferry, because in keeping with Rockstar tradition, all the bridges are blocked. After a few confusing words of introduction from the drunk, John sets off to find two guys in a very large country. His initial contacts in Mexico are a Captain DeSanta and a man named Landon Ricketts.

DeSanta is a homosexual in the employ of the region’s tyrannical, perverse ruler Coronel Allende. The game doesn’t treat him favorably; he’s shown to be a fawning coward, despised by his associates, ultimately devoid of honor or dignity. Ricketts, on the other hand, is a retired American gunslinger, gambling away his waning years in Nuevo Paraiso. Although he doesn’t adopt a particular side in the country’s growing conflict, he’s more sympathetic to the Revolution than to the ruling regime. As you might expect, the result is that John will have to serve both sides of the conflict in order to find his targets, carrying out herculean tasks on little more than the vague promise that information will be forthcoming someday.

This setup reminded me of Far Cry 2 in a number of ways. On the surface the resemblance is obvious: the protagonist of that game also had to assist both sides of a civil war in faint hopes of finding a trace of an elusive outlaw. In that game, contracting himself out to both sides of the conflict allowed the player to see clearly that neither side was good or right, and the war was just a meaningless explosion of violence. Rockstar more or less pulls off a similar trick here. While the game shows that the revolution needs to occur, it doesn’t choose sides among the leaders. Allende is depicted as a remorseless, sexually depraved drunk, but the Rebel leader Abraham Reyes is shown to have essentially similar attitudes towards women, seeing them (especially the peasant women) as disposable playthings. In almost every instance, Reyes is shown to be full of himself and deceitful, far more interested in becoming powerful than in effecting any actual change for the people. In that regard, at least, the game succeeds.

You would think, after Far Cry 2 received criticism on the implausibility of having one guy play both sides of a war, that the Rockstar guys would devote some time to making this plot seem a bit more grounded. No such luck. Despite occasionally grumbling that he’s going to get real mad if somebody doesn’t help him find his targets, John pretty much goes along with everything DeSanta and Allende tell him to do, no matter how odious. Though they double-cross him, he keeps going back to them, so they double-cross him again, in one of those insulting plot-over-character cutscenes where Marston gets caught off guard by DeSanta’s cronies well after he should have shot everyone twice already. Given what the game had told me about John, and the way I had played him to that point, there was no way he would have done anything for DeSanta without a concrete lead. But, there was no way to advance the game unless I grovelled for Allende’s toady.

The Rebel missions pose their own set of sticky problems. The first is the character of Luisa Fortuna, who left me feeling a bit conflicted. In comparison to the women of GTA IV she’s a very strong character. She appears to be the leader of a group of Rebels, and organizes daring raids on the enemy and rescues of her allies. However, her dedication to her cause seems to be tied up with a rather pathetic dedication to its leader — pathetic because Abraham Reyes is such a lecherous worm of a man. He can’t even remember her name, yet Luisa never seems to waver in her devotion to him or the Revolution. Her naïve sloganeering at times makes it seem like she has been caught up in the Revolution because she loves Reyes, which would just be sad, because without that she would be quite a stirring and tragic character. As it is, her end comes with more pathos than heroism.

What an unattractive set of people we have giving us missions! John can work for DeSanta, who’s a coward serving a degenerate. He can work for Reyes, who’s a puffed-up degenerate himself. Or he can work for Luisa, who seems to be a foolish, love-blinded girl. Surely there’s at least one admirable person in the country that John can help! It turns out there is: it’s that gringo Landon Ricketts. In his first appearance Ricketts criticizes John for his violence and indicates his soft feelings for the Mexican people. He knows that Allende is a devil and that Reyes is an empty poncho. The people of the village where he hangs out come to him for help when they need to fend off bandits or free unfortunate victims imprisoned by the corrupt ruling regime. Yes, Landon Ricketts is a great hero, just like that other gringo, John Marston.

That’s what makes the Mexican episode leave a bad taste in my mouth. The principal white characters in this segment of the story are the heroes. Ricketts selflessly defends the people of his town, and Marston (eventually) takes down the evil Allende. The prime native movers on both sides of that conflict are disgusting people who cannot be admired. Marston, an outlaw and murderer, always gets to feel superior to these men, to the point where he repeatedly lectures Reyes about women and responsibility. And why not? Allende and Reyes are arguably the two most despicable characters in the game. While Luisa has worthy skills and spirit, she’s presented as a pathetic dupe of Reyes’. It’s not the Mexicans who save Mexico from the predations of the evil Colonel Allende, it’s the gringos.

The gringo defending the Mexicans has a long history in Westerns, both of the classic style (The Magnificent Seven) and the revisionist (A Fistful of Dollars). It doesn’t necessarily disturb me that a storyline like this found its way into Red Dead Redemption, especially given Rockstar’s aim of recreating cinema in games. What does bother me is that the native Mexicans are all compromised in some way, while the white man is allowed to look heroic with little complication. Red Dead Redemption‘s Mexican episode feels like a lecture on American superiority, and for that reason I wasn’t sad to leave Nuevo Paraiso behind.

  6 Responses to “The Gringos Who Saved Mexico”

  1. Whelp, yes – pretty much this exactly.

    I liked the game, too, but thought it was just such a shame that Houser and company didn't just go ahead and make all of their characters act like real people. And particularly problematic that many of the most ridiculous caricatures were Mexican.

    Like, I got that Reyes loved peasants just like Allende loved patriots, nothing changes, two sides of the same coin, etc. But what an odious, unlikeable, and ultimately pointless and unhelpful coin. Would a little subtlety have killed the writers? At least they pulled it together for the finale.

    Looking forward to reading your review.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Sparky. The Mexican section of the game is a mess for the very reasons you describe (they actually use the word 'savior' without even a tinge of irony), and things don't get much better when you hit Blackwater and must deal with the nutty, scatter-brained, detached-from-reality professor – hey, there's a new take on academics! :-(

    I'm struck by the separation we allow ourselves between the formal narrative and the experiences we gain by ourselves inside RDR's extraordinary world. Most games can't survive the storytelling problems so evident in RDR, but we (me included) feel inclined to overlook them because they really aren't why we're there.

    I do think the storytelling improves in the final act. It may even come close to redeeming the game from its many narrative issues. I honestly grew to love John Marston, despite feeling earlier in the game that I was beginning to despise his choices.

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

  3. Thanks, Michael and Kirk.

    Like you guys, I thought the third act was a dramatic improvement over the rest of the game, despite the coke addict. West Elizabeth contains the mission I despised the most ("And you will know the truth") unfortunately, but the game really puts it together in the end. The ranch missions and the last stranger task are great stuff.

    I think we're substantially in agreement about the way the game works, Michael. Despite its limitations, Red Dead Redemption allows us to inhabit our Wild West dreams in a way I don't think any other game has yet matched. I have a feeling we're willing to forgive quite a lot because of that. I have some thoughts on John Marston, and why you grow to love him, but the review has to hit the web before I share them because they are built on it.

  4. You took the words right out of my mouth, exactly right.

  5. I agree with your premise, but I forgave it for a different (or maybe an additional) reason – the fact that the express purpose of the game is to embrace these genre tropes – the half-crazed treasure hunter, the hard-working but lonely ranch mistress, the too-slick-for-his-own-good snakeoil salesman, the drunken irishman… to all of the sudden break that mold just because the main character ventures south of the border would have seemed a bit off to me.

  6. In response to Mersmann, I think the key difference is that all of the characters you list as examples of genre tropes are white characters from US-Western European/"First World" cultures.

    I also don't think there's any rule about using all of a genre. The part of RDR that's so beloved by so many players – the open-world isolated feeling of being an actual cowboy – is something that doesn't require racism or xenophobia to be successful.

    To say that those things "belong" in the game just because they were a part of older western films implies that in order to make media in a genre, you have to use all of the genre, even the outdated and oppressive parts.

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