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.