Are You There, God? It’s Me, John Marston

Spoiler Warning.

There are those times in games when the thematic or emotional climax of the narrative occurs before the end of the game, a bit like you’ve peaked too early. This is unfortunately a common affliction of open-world sandbox games: the freedom to tackle objectives in an order of your choosing can sometimes mean you hit the stirring, epic core of a game before you’ve tackled what is ostensibly “the end,” inverted commas. This happened to me in the mozzarella ninja epic Assassin’s Creed 2 when I found all the hidden Subject 16 glyphs before tackling the final series of quest missions. The frenetic, half-glimpsed video you unlock quite literally blew my mind. It was one of those moments when my jaw actually hung from mouth round about my pasty, white ankles; it was a truly revelatory moment, one that cut deep to the core of the narrative and said, this is the secret that reveals everything.

The Truth: Eve is a total babe.

After that little mindgasm, the final missions in the Vatican and the muddled, obscure ending of Ezio’s story seemed like an anticlimax. I’m pretty sure the video implied that Adam and Eve were basically prelapsarian cyborgs leaping like superheroes around a futuristic Eden, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how awesome that was when I actually got round to the final boss battle with Fat Pope Mendoza. Way to blow your load early, Ubisoft.

Fat Pope Alexander VI doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

A similar thing happened to me in the free-roaming western epic Red Dead Redemption, during one of the weirdly esoteric side quests that the game had a habit of dispensing out. John Marston has several exchanges with a Strange Man throughout the “I Know You” mission-arc, a man that seems to know John from all over, even though John has never met this man in his life. Marston, becoming increasingly irate at the sudden appearances of this well-dressed dude with his cryptic missives about morality and choice, pulls his pistol out. But the Strange Man is either bullet-proof or a cowboy hologram because the three rounds Marston fires into him go through him like he’s made of thin air.

The true nature of the Strange Man is up for debate: is he indeed a divine presence having a quiet chat with John about his years of killing and thievery? Or is he a spectre purely of Marston’s imagining, a cruel manifestation of his guilt? I think it’s a moot point either way, because however you interpret it, the appearance of the Strange Man is the moment when Red Dead Redemption stops being a fun but frivolous cowboy romp and starts being about something.

And that something is horses. Definitely horses.

The word “redemption” is in the game’s title, so this one should be a no-brainer, but the appearance of the Strange Man throws that word into sharp focus. Red Dead Redemption is, at its core, a game about a man whose sins caught up with him: John Marston’s hands are stained with blood from years of outlawing, and the debt hounds him like a curse. It is only the promise of a clean slate from Uncle Sam to begin a new life as a quiet family man takes Marston for one last dive into his blood-stained past to purge his history of wrongdoing.

Come, faithful steed, I see metaphysics on the horizon!

This symbolic journey for redemption becomes very literal, however, when the Strange Man appears, and it lends the story a spiritual depth that up until then had only been hinted at. It also suggests that Marston’s actions, and indeed your actions as Marston, can be placed in the kind of moral scheme where sin is punished with divine retribution, Old Testament style. Viewed through this lens, Marston’s murder (your murder) at the end of the game can be seen as retribution for his (your) previous bad behavior, and there’s nothing he (you) can do about it. You can’t stop what’s coming. The redemption of the game’s title seems more like a joke at John’s expense; it’s so cruel and inevitable it reads like Greek Tragedy.

For me, that moment is what Red Dead Redemption is about. It’s a shame that you reach this realization before the story proper has concluded, but then again, perhaps that’s the point of sandbox games: to chance across these moments of thematic clarity as you make your way exploring the game world. I’m sure we never come across profound revelations at the “correct” moment in real life either, so it’s fitting that you stumble upon significance almost at random. That seems like quite a somber thought to end on, so in the spirit of the internet, here’s a picture of a cat.

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