Recently I have been playing Red Dead Redemption but I’ve only been playing the postgame, where you play as the protagonist John Marston’s son, Jack Marston, after John’s death at the hands of the Bureau and Edgar Ross. In this save I deliberately avoided all the side activities: the Strangers & Freaks missions, the various skill challenges and collecting all the outfits. My reasoning was to give me things to do in the postgame. I got the itch to play this 2010 Xbox 360 game again because of the recent trailer for the sequel, Red Dead Redemption II. What I have discovered is that Red Dead Redemption is an excellent depression simulator.
The only mission tailored for Jack is where you hunt down and kill Edgar Ross, the man who killed your father. But by murdering a former federal agent Jack is doomed to the life of an outlaw his father explicitly did not want for his son. And Jack is clearly not well. He is only 19 years old and lost his entire family through tragedy. His father was murdered by federal agents with the help of the Army. The outlaws who helped raise, his “uncles,” are all dead, killed by the law, his father or themselves. You begin your time playing as Jack right after he buries his mother next to his father. One of his audio barks in combat is “Go ahead! I got nothin’ to live for anyway!” It’s clear Jack is an unhappy young man.
I’ve been an unhappy young man as of late as well. Trying to find work with little success and only keeping afloat through luck, some savings and a spartan existence. One of the things I’ve been doing in Red Dead Redemption is to go on foot into the Tall Trees area, which is the Colorado Rockies analogue in game, armed with a Buffalo Rifle and seeing how many grizzly bears I can kill before one finally gets me. The chance of a grizzly bear spawning seems to be increased by the number of carcasses in the area so by hunting bears you cause more bears to appear in the area. That fact leads to bizarre moments where three bears are charging you from three directions at once. My current best is 32 bears before the would-be 33rd got me. The whole exercise is fruitless. I do not gain anything by fighting these bears and I can never win: a bear will always get me in the end because I will make a mistake. Or as what happened last time the bear shrugged off three shots to the face before it closed the distance and mauled me. It a bleak, futile and self-destructive exercise.
The sequel, Red Dead Redemption II is due to be released this fall. I have no doubt that it will be fun and the production values will be high; it is a Rockstar game they always are. But it is a game set eleven years before Red Dead Redemption and the main character is a member of the same gang John Marston was in and features several of the same characters. What I fear is that the story will miss the point of the first game: is it possible to change a life? Can someone who has done horrible things in their life be redeemed and who gets to pass that judgement? John Marston is a former outlaw trying to save his family by hunting down his former gang members. He succeeds but despite a promise of forgiveness, the federal agents who promised John a pardon betrayed him and shot him dead on his farm. His family tried to manage but his widow, Abigail died two years later; and his son sets out to avenge his father by murdering the men who betrayed him. Jack’s actions doom him to the same outlaw life of his father, something his father made clear he never wanted for his son. From what I’ve seen and read it appears the sequel is more about exalting in the myth of the American West; a bloody freedom for those willing to inflict the greatest violence. If true that misses the point of the previous game. Making a direct sequel seems like a mistake: I do not care about seeing a young Dutch van der Linde or the rest of his gang. Rather I want see another Western; which is a style that does not require it to be set in the American West (the movie Zulu is a Western). Even keep the alliterative titles: Red Dead Revolution, Red Dead Retribution, Red Dead Revelation, et cetera. Red Dead Redemption was the most “grown up” or “serious” Rockstar game I have played. The GTA series is too madcap, juvenile and overwrought to be serious. But Red Dead Redemption was a great blend of tragedy and comedy, seriousness and silliness; and I hoped the series would try to do similar things in different locales and time periods. But we are getting a sequel/prequel that may miss the point.