Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Other Side of the Sunset: The Ending of Red Dead Redemption

(Major details of the ending to a two year old video game are discussed below. Read at your own risk if you care about spoilers)

Continuing the theme of being late to the party, I only just played through the ending to Rockstar Games’ 2010 open-world western Red Dead Redemption, which is a hell of a thing.

In the game you play as John Marston, a Man With No Name/Unforgiven style ex-outlaw who has been pulled out of retirement by sinister federal agents and sent on a mission to hunt down the other members of his old gang, one by one. To ensure his cooperation the Feds are holding his wife and child hostage until the job is done. It’s a nicely dark and morally grey setup, but still- so far so videogame.

The main body of the game is a satisfying Spaghetti Western pastiche with plenty of high noon pistol duels, train robberies, and Mexican banditos Wilhelm-screaming off of trestle bridges. All throughout, the (excellently written) dialogue is constantly reminding you about how much John misses his family, pushing you to finish the mission so that they can be together again. There is an early series of missions where he befriends and helps out a spinster cattle rancher that gives plenty of opportunity for John to ruminate on his own ranch that he longs to get back to, once he finishes his grim task and re-unites with his family.

So when you finally finish that last outlaw, and the objective “RIDE BACK HOME” pops up, you feel a great sense of closure. You pilot John back to his ranch (which is right there in the game world, though I hadn’t noticed it before) and expect to be rewarded with a heartwarming family reunion cutscene followed by some end credits. That's when things get awesome.

Turns out your drunken uncle who was watching the ranch for you let all the cows get stolen by rustlers, and now you need to find more or your family will starve. Turns out your moody teenage son isn’t thrilled to see his absentee dad again. Turns out there’s another solid hour of game AFTER you ride into the sunset. Turns out its fucking brilliant.

All of the domestic ranch stuff that was always hanging around in optional mini games before is now your sole concern. You need to scare the crows away from the corn so your family doesn’t starve. You need to capture and break some wild horses in order to make enough money selling them to keep the ranch, You need to take your son hunting in order to prove to him that his old man isn’t going to run off on another adventure, leaving him fatherless.

The stakes in this part are so real-life high that it makes all that bandito shooting you did earlier look adolescent and almost shameful. As if to underline this at one point during a mission where you and your uncle are taking the cows out to pasture a train thunders by under attack by masked bandits. All the shooting causes the cows to stampede. You can run off and save the train by shooting up the robbers (behavior the game was actively encouraging only an hour ago), but if you do you that you may lose some of your herd and Uncle will give you a stern talking to about putting family first. It’s brilliant.

Eventually the world of the rest of the game intrudes on your domestic bliss once again, as the Feds decide they don’t want to let John have a happy ending after all and send the army after him. It’s back to shooting and derring do from then on (though this time in defense of your family and property), but it’s the ranching section that sticks in my mind. I’m sure many people playing the game were happy to go back to the shooty part, but I wouldn’t have minded taking the herd out to pasture one more time.

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