Jun 112010

Trying to discuss the real nature of the Wild West is a bit like trying to discuss the real nature of Arthurian Britain. We believe, perhaps we even know, that the relevant historical period exists, but its true character has been almost completely obscured by myth. The early view of the West was fairly simplistic; the dime novels and Hollywood Westerns were characterized by the easy heroism of the gunslinger taking on bandits or the settler fighting savage Indians. Since the 1970s a revisionist attitude has produced a grittier and dirtier take on the West that frequently inverts the stereotypes. It would be a mistake to view these recent films as a more “realistic” vision, however. The changes in the Western reflect an increasing sophistication in cinema’s moral attitude, not an increasing dedication to fact. Red Dead Redemption is fully aware that our view of the Old West is more social construction than historical knowledge. I happen to think its main character is also intended to be a construct, a man who is a fiction in the world of the game. That is, the John Marston we play is the man as imagined by his son, Jack.

Rejecting John Marston as any kind of real person, much less a real person inhabiting the game’s supposed setting, is quite easy. As I discussed in my GameCritics.com review of the game, John is a bundle of contradictory messages. He’s brutally violent, yet becomes compliant and almost passive at the merest hint that someone will aid his cause. He’s supposedly an outlaw raised by another outlaw, in a time where women were widely viewed as property, but he’s courtly towards prostitutes and expresses relatively modern views on women’s rights. Given John’s background and social norms of his group, it seems quite likely that he’d accept the services of a prostitute. He certainly has ample opportunity, and his wife Abigail clearly believes he is capable of infidelity. Nonetheless, John constantly expresses his desire to be faithful to his wife.

Beyond the personal matters, John is even less believable. Here’s a man who takes down every major gang in New Austin, leaving behind hundreds of bodies. Then he crosses the river into Mexico, where he decimates the Revolutionary forces, then switches sides and kills half the army. Back across the border in West Elizabeth, he eliminates an Indian insurrection almost single-handedly, then guns down dozens of US soldiers in his last stand. John’s kill count piles up so high because the people he’s with, even the trained soldiers, can’t shoot worth a damn. It’s not a matter of hitting a barn; these guys are so bad they’d miss the whole farm.

The standard interpretation of facts like these is to take the game world at face value and attribute the apparent deficiencies to the designers. John Marston behaves as he does because the men who wrote him into existence were lazy. He achieves what he does because this is the kind of game where the player is specifically empowered by the mechanics to accomplish improbable things. His allies are weak because the agency and abilities of other characters are intentionally limited in order to make the player’s empowerment more complete. For a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, that feels like a solid approach. Red Dead Redemption, however, gives us license to interpret things a little more freely.

One key difference between the two games is that Red Dead Redemption hands off control after its last main mission. It’s not John who continues the story, but Jack. This opens up the question of just who or what the player represents. It’s clearly not just John, but was it ever John?

In an earlier scene, Jack is reading one of those dime novels, a tale set “in the Old West” about a “brave man” hunting down his father’s killer. In one sense, this is ham-fisted foreshadowing. The other side of this coin, however, is that it implies that Jack defines his view of the world through fiction. In choosing to follow in the footsteps of the story, rather than the destiny his parents wanted for him, Jack chooses the legend of the West over reality. Could he have imagined his father to be one of those legends?

Consider that as the game begins John seems to be rather ordinary. He gets shot down at the gates of Fort Mercer in disgraceful fashion, and most of the things he does for Bonnie at her ranch are ordinary tasks requiring no great skill with the gun — interesting because Bonnie is the only person from the main story whom we know Jack met. Of course, John does come to Bonnie’s rescue at Tumbleweed, but in that instance he’s accompanied by Marshal Johnson and all his men. In the game, John takes the lead and saves the day, but the West has always inflated the legends of its heroes. Maybe the reality of the incident is that he was one man among many who saved Bonnie that day, and Jack (or even Bonnie, in the retelling) magnified his role. Besides this incident, there’s no way for Jack to know precisely what his father did during his time away. The principals are all dead or gone.

Of course, there are the newspapers to consider. They record the history of the game, detailing many of the missions that John carries out. They almost never mention him by name, however, even though just about every single person in the West seems to know who he is. If Marston really is so widely recognized, is it plausible that the papers would constantly record him as a mysterious man? Not really — newspapers love local heroes, after all. But Jack has access to those papers, idolizes his father, and has a huge chunk of missing time to fill. Why not imagine that his dad was behind all those disparate events?

It makes no sense for John to actually be involved in everything that happens in the West, but if Jack can manufacture a flimsy excuse for it, then why not imagine it to be so? If your dad was in Mexico at the same time as another of your idols, Landon Ricketts, why not imagine that they met up and rode together? Why not take these imaginings to be the truth?

Maybe the “real” John Marston was a low down dirty dog of a man who shot his way through his mission as fast as he could, only pausing long enough to bed every whore in Armadillo,. That would certainly make more sense given what we know of the game’s society and Marston’s background. John never spent weeks helping out a grave-robber and a fraud, never fought on both sides of a Mexican civil war, never killed a thousand unlucky bandits in a country that couldn’t support more than ten. No actual person would have done any of that, and especially not a man like John Marston. The strange, super-powered man we control during the game is just the creation of an imaginative guy who too early lost a father he idolized but never really understood.

Red Dead Redemption tells the story of a legendary character of the West. Marston’s out-of-place nobility and absurd martial prowess can’t be explained in any other way. It’s no disaster to assume that this represents the actual reality of the game as shaped through the limitations of its creators, but why take that approach if we don’t have to? The West is so layered with fiction anyway, it’s no stretch to believe that Jack, already taken in by the myth of the Old West, would create his own personal legend. It’s reasonable, and most likely correct, to assume that the game is meant to be taken at face value, and that when the game fades in on Jack squatting beside the graves we’ve simply moved on to a new character. But it’s more intriguing, and in a way more satisfying, to imagine that we have been there at the graves all along. It was never 1911, and the West was never dying. It was always 1914, and the West was already dead and buried. Its legend, however, was just beginning.

  31 Responses to “The "real" John Marston”

  1. Some really interesting thoughts. I was eating when I began reading this article, but the final sentence of the first paragraph made me stop mid-chew. I had not even considered the possibility of this before now. This is a really interesting read on the game.

    "The West" has already found its place in myth before the game starts, as can be seen in the dime novels Jack reads, as well as the writer from Manhattan, in New Austin to capture "the spirit of the West". It strengthens this interpretation even more to note how almost the entirey world of Red Dead Redemption is a patchwork of nods to Western films (most of which I will admit to never having seen). Sure, these films didn't exist in Jack's lifetime, but it goes further to highlight that this is a mythological West, not an actual one.

    I think it is clear that New Austin was always meant to be The West as mythologised (Is that a word? It is now!), not The West as existed, but thinking of it as The West as mythologised by one specific individual is really interesting.

  2. Enjoyed your review, and I really like the idea of Marston-as-legend. A very interesting lens through which to view the man and his story.

  3. While I'm intrigued by this perspective on Marston, I can't help but be troubled by the fact there seems so little in the game itself to hang it off. This is certainly an interesting way to view the character and the experience of the game, but it's a choice one has to make. And it's not a choice well-supported by the game, or the game's context. I guess I'd see this 'lensing' of the game as a form of detournement, one which must essentially form a criticism of the game's design. You're recontextualising the conventions of game design one must accept in order to take the game at face value, but doing so seems necessarily to be a critique of those conventions.

  4. I agree, Adrian. The only reason to look for a view like this (aside from the layeredness of our perceptions of the West) is that despite its earnest presentation, the game can't be taken seriously as a story of a real world. It can't even be taken seriously on the level of the film Western. It took Yul Brynner six pals and a village full of peasants to kill off a mere 40 bandits, a number Marston alone might murder in the space of ten minutes.

    The standard explanation, the one I go over in the middle of the piece, is probably the correct one. The Rockstar team probably didn't write the game with this interpretation in mind, and the ideas I draw on for this piece really are just the sloppiness of their world-building and writing.

    But, I don't think it's always necessary to assume that our experience of the game world is the actual reality of the game world. We might have a more interesting and richer view of a game if we interpret the story being told as a representation from an unreliable narrator.

  5. I guess the thing about proposing an unreliable narrator as the explanation for game conventions is that it is a little like having a little laugh at the game's expense. Not that that's objectionable, and nor would I suggest that a game so laden with game conventions as RDR should ever be taken at face value.

    But it does make me wonder what a video game that does support an unreliable narrator interpretation might look like, and the example that springs to mind is Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Primarily, I guess, because it makes its narration explicit, and uses the conventions of narration – and more importantly, storytelling – to explain game conventions (most prominently character death) in a similar fashion as you're suggesting with your take on Marston's story.

  6. Huh.


    Although the extent you can adopt this reading does depend on how you view the whole dead-author thing, in that I think it seems unlikely to be a deliberate choice on Rockstar's part.

    But yeah… huh.

    Oh, and as for unreliable narrators in games, what about Manhunt? I've never played the game, and it's not really my cup of tea, but the old Totilo/Croal Vs Mode on it strongly suggests that's what they were going for.

  7. Great thoughts, to the point that I actually wish that they were true. There are simply too many instances where the past (as represented in the game) intercedes with the current (as what you are playing in the game) to make it true… But the idea is strong enough that I wish that Rockstar had taken your perceived storyline over how they actually did it.

    To have John Marston become a larger than life Western myth, based on somebody much more mundane, would be a more compelling twist… And something that you sort of expect out of Rockstar.

    Great theory.

  8. This ties up quite a few of my inconsistencies actually – why Marston suddenly can't fight his way out of the barn, why not killing the old man hunting ducks to prove that you have honour isn't an option, why everything three years into the future is identical as it was when John saw it, and most importantly why John keeps getting killed/kidnapped/killed in situations that are out of the players control.

    Only the fact that you get to clear up the strangers tasks (especially I Know You where you meet death himself) really contradicts the theory.

    I like that game stories are getting interesting enough that they are open to interpretation.

  9. I understand this is your interpretation, but believing this was the intended goal of the story now makes the game a lot better in my mind. Thank you.

  10. NLi10 – One interesting thing about the stranger tasks is that "I know you" is the only one that cannot be completed by Jack. It's not clear to me what the fellow at the core of that little story represents: Death is clearly an option. However, given the nature of the tasks he sets for John he might conceivably be an angel of judgment, or even the devil. At any rate, it doesn't seem all that absurd that Jack's personal narrative about his father's heroism might include an episode that seems to be about settling his debts with God.

  11. I really like your view on the game. It could explain why John got shot so easely at the end. I got somewhat emotional at the end of the game :p

  12. Its a game like grand theft auto for gods sake. You'd expect to be a one man army. If i pay fourty quid for a game like this I want to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. I dont just want to bed a few hookers, shoot a few bar tenders and then complete it. Its not supposed to seem real its supposed to be fun!

  13. I know its been months, but I just finished RDR yesterday and I wanted to say I really like this perspective. Though I agree that believing Rockstar had that in mind might be a stretch, I don't think that matters. There is definitely a tension in the game between the story they want to tell and the expectation of free-roaming mayhem that comes with an open-world GTA-style structure. Given that, I think your interpretation, turning on the characterization of Jack as an aspiring writer with an envious/fantasy view of the Old West contextualizes that tension in a really interesting way.

    The only limitation I see is that the "real" 1914 inhabited by mature Jack is not markedly different than the "mythic" 1911 of his father. Had the game changed to be more "realistic" or limited in some way the player's ability to play Jack as the same "mythic" figure, your reading would be pretty bulletproof.

  14. I think this is what happens when you try to apply reality and rational thought to something that like a video game, that is by nature not supposed to be realistic. You might as well ask how he can carry 12 guns and hundreds of rounds of ammo at all times. Or how he can go for months straight without eating, drinking, sleeping, or going to the bathroom. The game is this way because first and foremost, it's a game. A certain level of reality can be a good thing, but if you take it too far you deter from the fun of the experience. Yeah, nobody can kill 500 people, get shot dozens of times, and live to tell about it. But who cares, it's just a game.

  15. i disagree with you

  16. I just wanted to ask, HAVE ANY OF YOU PEOPLE EVER CARRIED A GUN, LET ALONE FIRED ONE?! I mean seriously, I've carried well over 18 (real) firearms on my person, Plus ammo(I was even still able to shoot accuratly at my target!) Sure he isn't represented as wearing all his guns but it's a game, live with it. the reality is games aren't perfect, deal with it. Also that western legends are like fish stories, everytime you tell it the fish gets bigger and harder to believe.

  17. wow that was way deeper than I have ever thought about it, great job A+ man.

  18. This would all be a very interesting take on the story if it wasn't for the fact that Jack can do the same things his father could. If you want, you can make Jack slaughter whole towns or whole gangs depending what you want to do with Jack once he's playable. Who imagines those deeds? Is he fake as well? On top of that you talk about social norms when it's obvious in the game John is not a part of them. John was an outlaw who believed his gang was helping the less fortunate. If I recall that is not a norm for bandits last time i checked. This analysis of the story just butchers John Marston as a character.

  19. Perhaps after John's heroic death, Jack does not grow up but simply imagines himself growing up? Where his mind takes over the role of John, and adds plausibility by setting it 3 years in the future? He grows up too quickly to be plausible – and his mother dies naturally at an age too young to. Perhaps his mind just does this and fakes her death in order to see himself as the hero with no major responsibility (no mother to look after)

    that would explain why Jack has the same abilities and equipment as his father and how the quests you left unfinished are still unfinished and completable and why so little changes in an age where change (urbanisation of cities and towns etc) was very rapid.

  20. Those ARE very interesting thoughts and I can completely understand how you could reach those thoughts, but I believe you have severely over-analyzed the game. I could be wrong though.

  21. I'm not inclined to agree with this interpretation, but it is interesting. And it is sort of backed up by the 'I Know You' stranger quest. That quest foreshadows John's death, which could be explained if it were a tale in Jack's head. He'd imagine some sort of symbolic character like that, forsure.

  22. Interesting but i seriously doubt this was Rockstar's intentions, nor do i think rockstar was being lazy or sloppy. In games, the protagonist is almost always overpowered. In call of duty and war games, you play an overpowered soldier, or a very lucky soldier. Games are centered around being the strongest guy around, and you have a human mind to your advantage as opposed to AI. If you only killed a dozen men during the course of the entire game, it would be a very boring game.

  23. Great read, I like that games are getting to some sort of narrative uncanny valley where by our brains are going 'hang on that doesn't seem right' and then we still liek to try and make up a story to justify the fiction.

    I would curious to know if you even liked the game.

  24. Interesting perspective, to be sure, but I believe your over-analyzing it. For example, you speak of John's unrealistic ability to gun down hundreds, amid incompetent companions. But this is most likely just a gameplay mechanic, for the entertainment of the player. In the "Call of Duty" series, you control a "normal" soldier with the omnipotence of a minor deity. These video games are for entertainment only, not meant to be direct transistions from fiction to reality.

  25. I agree with some of the other posters. Although it can be entertaining to try to rationalize what we view as inconsistencies within a games structure, and we may draw some intriguing conclusions, there is still nothing explicit or implicit within the game to really support your theories and there are inconsistencies in the conclusions as well.

    Firstly the analysis of John's moral character, you reference his past as an outlaw and his earlier youth being raised by outlaws, however you disregard his more recent past, where he is wounded and left for dead by his gang and attempting to construct a more socially acceptable occupation as a rancher before being assigned his mission in the game. These opinions are not speculation on Jack's part or the player's, but plain facts within the game. John is buried outside of his ranch, so how could it be that Jack fantasized his father with an evolved mentality and desire to be a relatively tranquil rancher? This could also explain both his developed women's rights opinions and his aversion to prostitutes, Rockstar wanted the character to appear more reformed, although, and this is speculation on my part, they could have desired to make a game that could stand alone and not simply be labeled Wild West GTA so John is kept a little bit more in check.

    You also mention the stand against the army at the farm, and John's unrealistic ability to eliminate a multitude of enemies. But Jack was present at the final battle and would have been an eyewitness to his fathers performance. So imagining it as an exaggerated slaughter a few years later would be almost a bit delusional on Jack's part when he was right beside John.

    Then John's involvement in all the occurrences across the country is simply rockstar creating an expansive and immersive environment that provides the player with a vast variety of experiences. You can get involved in every happening because you choose to do so and that's the same case in, say, Fallout or Oblivion. I feel as if the newspapers are intended to make the player feel as if the world is truly being affected by their actions, and they are an incognito contributor. I feel like the anonymity in the papers gives John the mystique of a quasi- Clint Eastwood , man with no name, character, which enhances the classic Western atmosphere. Though everyone does seem to know John's name as you said, but everyone knows Jack too, so that's really no basis for John being a fantasy.

    Your assessment is rather thought provoking, and if adhering to it makes you appreciate the content of the game more, then believe it. But the flaws in either opinion are about equivalent. Rockstar made this game intending for it to be an overblown WILD west simulation. Attempting to depict the West as it actually was would probably be rather dull, so with that in mind, I believe the John we control is supposed to be the "real" John. It's just that the real John is exaggerated by Rockstar to make him the more ideal Western Hero.

  26. Wow, i never thought about it that way. they should have started off the game with the mission where marston dies; but not show the actual scene where he gets killed until the end. Jack can then try to imagine what his dad was doing in the time he was gone. obviously being influenced by the dime novel( which is the plot of red dead revolver). i think if this was how they wanted to make it, it would make it way deeper. it would now be a story of a boy without a father, and how he visualizes him to be a great man.

  27. Well, I see some interesting points here, but I don't see people looking this deeply into CoD. Look at how many people you kill in that series, as a "one man army". There's a reason for this. It's a game. It wouldn't be any fun taking on 3-4 people at a time and barely squeaking by. There are people that remember John fondly, such as Bonnie McFarlene, who Jack probably hasn't met. Under those circumstances how can he tell the perspective someone has of his father, if he doesn't even know who the person is. I do think you have interesting thoughts to the story, but honestly he's a pulp hero. Looking any further into the games plot is a little too, well, nitpicky…

  28. Whenever I enjoy a game and really get absorbed in it, my brain starts whirring away and i come up with ideas just like this article. I feel like most games, if not all of them, are nothing short of analogy, full of symbolism and metaphor. For example, in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skryim, where your character has a big red health bar which gets shortened with each ball o’ fire, hammer strike, and arrow to the knee, one assumes (I assume) that this is a manifestation of the physical abuse your character has experienced. But I’ve always wondered about the plausibility of such a thing.

    There are several points I could probably babble about, but one of the main things I think portray the way i think about health bars is the fact that they regenerate. Apparently in most video games, the characters we play are closely related to Wolverine from X-Men.

    No, I think it something far more intriguing, and, as this article put it, satisfying, in a way. When I play Skyrim, I don’t think of my health bar as physical health so much as personal morale. Dragonborn’s morale, that is. Imagine a duel, two men in heavy armor with matching swords. The fight will not be won by whomever bashes through his opponents armor first with repeated swings and pokes, the fight will be won by whomever keeps up his guard, stays focused, and doesn’t exhaust his energy.

    The killing blow is the last wound inflicted, but I would imagine it is in fact perhaps the only wound, following dozens of parries and misses. But when the loser perhaps hesitates a moment from fatigue or lapse in judgement, the victor takes his chance and strikes. I think that this lapse in judgement is the emptying of the health bar, reaching 0%. The same would apply to gunfights. Jack Marston never imagined his father taking several thousand gunshots to the chest on a weekly basis. Instead he perhaps imagined that there were several thousand instances in which Marston’s adversaries didn’t move quick enough to take him down.

    When one plays a video game, one is not playing a normal person. The individual usually has experience, if he or she is not a complete master in the ways of his or her trade. What I’m getting at is that if I the gamer had to be an expert gunslinger with supernatural reflexes to win gunfights, I wouldn’t play the game, and neither would you. The point is ultimately to have fun, though rich content and beautiful landscapes are nice.

    In the land of Skyrim, it is probably really really cold. If everything around you isn’t frozen, you are in the tundra, which is characteristically cold. You can roam around in nothing but a diaper thing and suffer zero negative attributes from the presumably sub-zero temperatures. Yes, you are Dragonborn in the game, this is true. But why does no one complain of the cold, no matter how high in the mountains we get?

    I’m rambling. When I get cold, I can get over it. I live in North Dakota, it gets really cold. But if I decide “Meh, it ain’t that cold.” in my head, I can mind over matter in up and I’m fine. Until brain syncing happens, it’ll be hard to simulate your dude fighting the cold merely by sucking it up, so why not have him literally fight it’s manifestation? Enter ice wraith.

    I think this kind of thinking explains spells too, both offensive and supportive. A healing spell could maybe be perceived as bolstering one’s resolve, essentially yelling “FOR FREEDOM!!!”, and an offensive spell could be a manifestation of insults and berating your opponent. After all, bragging your way out of a fight is sort of like a win isn’t it?

    It’s a matter of practicality as well as for the sake of having fun. Giant spiders instead of tiny, imperceptible, venomous insects paralyzing your character, with no way of you knowing other than perhaps on screen alerts which would be tacky and out of place. Zombies/Draugr instead of suddenly contracting the plague and dying in bed, covered in festering blisters. Etcetera.

  29. and i totally agree with the article on John’s story as a fabrication of jack’s imagination. Makes total sense, and actually made me appreciate the game even more. To look back on John’s story as seen through the hopeful, admiring eyes of a kid gives the story a great depth to it, a real touching, close to the heart kinda feel.

  30. […] Then I found this blog, which needs to be read by every player of the game. […]

  31. […] Then I found this blog, which needs to be read by every player of the game. […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.