Before I even started writing this article I had already written approximately 10,290 words about Red Dead Redemption (this taken off my Microsoft Word drafts, not the pieces themselves that are often longer still). To put that into perspective that is over 200 words more than my final year dissertation at University, which I wrote in a much larger time frame than the several months Red Dead Redemption has been with us. In fact, all those words I wrote on Red Dead Redemption were written within two weeks of the game’s release in a feverish wave of enthusiasm. I’ve spoken for around an hour on a podcast devoted to it too.
You’d think I would have run of things to say by now. By god I wish I would. This is my attempt, now we’re a few months down the line and have some perspective, to finally end my Red Dead Redemption career. If this doesn’t work I’ll have to destroy the disc or something.
I think the roots of my addiction are twofold – partially my love of the western genre, and also the notion that Red Dead is only just out of the grasp of true greatness. My previous articles can reveal most of my thoughts on the latter, and also my general point in how Red Dead Redemption fails as western fiction as it has little (though not without some) cultural significance to us in its themes, unlike many western novels and movies which were astute commentaries of the time in which they were published, as well as set. I also state quite confidently that the narrative of Red Dead Redemption is fractured because it draws from too many conflicting sources and eras of the western to be either an effective deconstruction of those, or a coherent narrative of its own. What I’ve been itching to do ever since is tell you what I’d do, if given the opportunity to draw from the same sources, and resources, Rockstar did.
My contention is thus: Red Dead Redemption, if modded into separate total conversions, could be made into at least four separate, coherent, games by tweaking the mechanics, and writing new stories for each one. Each campaign is devised by going off evidence already present in the game that references the source material each campaign is to be based upon. To do this I’ll state my proposed adaptations, explain how RDR misjudged them (besides the obvious fact that you can’t make a western with all westerns in it), and then go about explaining the principles upon which I’d make the appropriate adaptation. This isn’t because I dislike RDR, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is because I think Red Dead Redemption isn’t one slightly janky game – it’s four brilliant ones jostling for our attention, its failing is trying to be too clever.
This is all theoretical designer talk, not technical discussion of how you’d actually implement anything, unfortunately, but the day Rockstar release an SDK for the game (and presumably hell freezes over) I’ll be on it like stink on cheese making these things.
The revision of the classic western
The term “Revisionist Western” refers broadly to a work of western fiction (generally published/released from the 1960s onwards) that reassesses the values upon which most westerns up to that point were written, generally with a more cynical eye. General features of a Revisionist Western include a more damning view of colonialism, a more sympathetic view of ethnic minorities, moral ambiguity, and the rise of the anti-hero and the powerful portrayal of women. Authority is often examined and judged, as are the values that create the “civilized” world. As you can already see Red Dead Redemption is a revisionist western. But I don’t feel it’s a particularly good one as it is.
For me the term is too broad, as many different approaches to the western can be lumped in as revisionist under the above criteria. For this article to continue I will need to break it down into sub-divisions. This first one will be The Peckinpah Western, principally named after the director Sam Peckinpah, because Red Dead Redemption riffs heavily on The Wild Bunch but also to include Peckinpah’s other westerns (all of them tonally similar, with the exception of the markedly less violent The Ballad of Cable Hogue) to the conversation.
The Wild Bunch is the 1969 film that cemented Peckinpah’s reputation for using the medium to tell a dramatic story as well as make insightful social commentary. The film is set in 1913, the era of the “wild west” is truly coming to a close – social attitudes changing, and technological advancement is tightening the grip of federal government and big business on the little man. It is no longer a world fit for outlaws and gunfighters, the romanticism of the west already falling into legend like a crumbling ice shelf falls to the ocean. The story concerns the leader of a gang of aging outlaws, Pike Bishop. He and his gang are attempting to make “one final score” so they can go their separate ways and retire. This is complicated by the fact that Pike’s former comrade Deke Thornton (who was caught and jailed in an encounter Pike escaped from) is leading a gang of bounty hunters (under duress of the law) that are funded by a rail company Pike’s gang have robbed repeatedly over the years.
All throughout the film violence, and people’s approach to it, is examined and used to make a point not only about the era it concerns, but in which it was made (Note that in the era of the film’s release, there was a Bishop named James Pike, an Episcopal bishop who very publicly opposed the Vietnam War and was featured in mass media as such). The film is peppered with instances of violence being perpetrated or relished by children. The defining characteristic of these instances is the impersonal and casual approach they have to it. The film opens with the striking image of a group of children torturing a scorpion by trapping it on an anthill and eventually setting fire to it. We see the gleeful expressions of the children then, and it is echoed later when a group of children harass and attack Angel, (one of the gang who had shot his former lover, the girlfriend of Mapaché, a Mexican would-be dictator, and stolen a case of rifles to give to his village) who is being dragged by Mapachés car as torture (a clear visual metaphor for technology killing the west if I’ve ever seen one). These scenes (and a couple more like it) are sending a message that the advance in technology (the car, the machine gun that features as a clear progression from rifles and pistols, the fire the children set on the anthill) results in increasingly easy, cold, and callous ways in which to perpetrate violence. This is worth noting, because this is a key part in The Wild Bunch’s “death of the west” theme, and it’s something Red Dead Redemption misses the point with in my opinion, for reasons I will explain later.
Before I do, I must explain the conclusion to the film, as I see it, and the motivations of the characters involved. The reason is that RDR’s conclusion is similar in some ways, but the motivations and circumstances steering John Marston are different enough that almost negate all the work they put into referencing The Wild Bunch to begin with. This is a problem, as the ending they did come up with makes little sense to me, and is conflicting in its nature with many of the game’s themes (even outside of The Wild Bunch references).
Throughout the film Pike is thinking about his past. The memories seem to be from the decline of his place in the world onwards, and they are guilt-ridden. He carries a physical wound that accentuates his age, and the missed opportunity it represents when the woman he loved (a married woman, he says he wanted to marry – and curses himself for not killing her husband) was killed, and he was shot. He is racked with guilt over the man he abandoned at the railway office at the start of the film (Syke, a member of the gang’s grandson), and he is most of all guilty for the arrogance and pride that caused Deke to be caught, and his lack of moral standing that allowed him to escape. Similarly, he and Dutch (his best friend) are guilty for abandoning Angel when he is captured and tortured by Mapaché. The reason this guilt is so piercing is because in the here-and-now Pike is incensed with the idea that any member of the gang should betray another, once your word has been given. Dutch is incensed with Deke for working for the railroad, unable to appreciate the predicament as Pike does;
“Damn that Deke Thornton to hell!”
“What would you do in his place? He gave his word.”
“Gave his word to a rail-road.”
“It’s his word!”
“That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”
It becomes apparent that the only authority Pike values is not the government, not God, but the anachronistic moral code that has only one rule: stick together. What Pike feels, that Dutch does not, is that Deke’s working for the rail-road is Pike’s own fault and it is his digressions from this code, these moments of sin, that torture him.
It is implied many times that The Bunch shared a hey-day, a time where their bonds were stronger and money less important. There is a fondness and camaraderie they share that even now in their bleakest of situations still rises. We are shown The Bunch laughing and joking around not long before Angel is captured and they abandon him. This is to show that, like before, the code is sometimes optional to the Bunch in these dark days. For Pike redemption for these sins is one of his key motivations for deciding to go out in the famous blaze of glory at the end of the film. What Red Dead Redemption misses is the other reason Pike takes this path: he had nowhere else to go.
Pike finished his last job. He got paid. But then what? This question is asked by Dutch earlier in the film, “Back off to what?” he says, and Pike simply suggests another job that’ll get them killed by Deke or the army. He hints there and then that he wants to go out literally against an army. He has no further plans, realistically. Once they all have their gold, they don’t even know what to do with it. They bury most of it, and spend one or two pieces on prostitutes. And this is where Red Dead Redemption comes in…
Red Dead Redemption is set in 1911, an insignificant distinction of two years from The Wild Bunch. The opening, while taking place on a train (as opposed to riding along a train line on the way to a robbery) almost quotes The Wild Bunch in reference to the automobile (which is revealed at the very beginning being crane lifted off a steam boat). A preacher and a young woman discuss the motorcar and the fact that someone “out in Kansas got a car to fly” (similar to Sykes’ remarks about “a car up north that could fly”). In the film Pike mentions “They’ll use them in the war” – implying the one of the least personal warfare tactics possible – bombing from above. The remark is dropped in the game, and the automobile is not seen again until Marston himself is required to board one. This is indicative of the level of care Rockstar take with referencing these works.
The next reference to The Wild Bunch is arguably in the nature of John’s predicament. He, like Deke, is being forced to hunt his former allies by an authority he does not respect, but must obey. The leader of the gang is named Dutch, potentially after Ernest Borgnine’s character in the film – Pike’s second in command. This, the automobile, and the setting are not just aesthetic references you can throw about like the pop-culture references in a Monkey Island™ game. These affect the interpretation of everything at a core thematic level in the narrative. Add to that a growing list of other references; A corrupt Mexican general vying for power; the use of machine guns and other new technology; Marston’s death in a suicidal stand-off with an army (and other not-so suicidal ones previously); and finally the attempt to demonstrate the passing on of violence to the next generation; and you can see that, while other sources do feature and there is definite crossover, The Wild Bunch had to be a prime source of inspiration when making the game. All of its key themes are addressed in Red Dead Redemption – but unfortunately they are, sadly, lost in translation and nothing really steps up to the plate to replace them.
The end of the western era is upon us. That meant the end for Pike and his gang. They had literally nothing but each other, and the fond memories (and a ghosts) of their past. The civilized world was coming to “clean up” people like Pike from the nation, and much the same is said at the beginning of RDR (by two old, racist, ladies). The first thing that struck me as problematic with RDR (and was never resolved) was that John Marston looks too young. He is simply too young to be unable to adapt to civilization (going off appearances), and it is never really addressed as to what crimes he actually committed that were so heinous. We can assume his crimes were murder or armed robbery but, as a small-fry in the gang, I can’t see why his days are numbered so low (especially so low that an army would come to his house to count them down for him). These are minor niggles, however, the real issue is all wrapped up in Marston’s death. The point is simply this: Marston had something to live for.
The nature of Marston’s death bares similarities to Pike’s in that it comes with a thundering inevitability that has been foreshadowed throughout, but Marston doesn’t stoically end his days with a revenge-fuelled shooting spree (at which point in the film Pike is seeking to rescue Angel, knowing full well he will probably die and at least attain some form of redemption). He is instead killed by the army who invade his farm one random day seemingly on the whim of the law. While they force him into a Butch and Sundance style run & gun, it is merely tragic and unfortunate, more than it is a moment of realisation and of declared action on the part of Marston. Unlike Pike, Marston completely rejects his gang-related past throughout the whole game. He disassociates himself with these actions of his younger self, and in doing this he is rejecting the only world in which he belonged leaving us wondering exactly where he wants to be. He seems to be building a life for his family knowing he won’t be a part of it, making his actions difficult to understand. There is believing the world has no place for you, but then there is accepting that belief lying down – which I feel his character would not do by the simple virtue that he actually has something to lose. He has too much to live for in his family (and almost foolishly decides to die for), and he’s not actually at the sharp end of his so-called dying world (that he loathes). There are folk older than him that have it worse. Just look at Uncle, not even Marston had time for him. It ultimately marks out his death as one entrenched in the relevant futility, inevitability, and meaningless mercenary violence as its source, but not in the same way as The Bunch. Their story is one of the futility in attempting to attain that something to lose in a world that has no place for their kind any more.
Taking into account Marston’s role in relation to the gang as Deke to The Bunch, that balance of equally grey morality is lost as Marston and Dutch Van Der Linde are not equals (in stature or moral standing). Dutch, the gang-leader Marston is sent to kill, is nothing like Pike, and more similar to Heart of Darkness’ Kurtz, or The Proposition’s Arthur Burns. This does frame the federal agent’s actions as being particularly sadistic, as Marston – a man getting on with his life, who has been a faithful husband, and who he has been used by the supposed just and honourable law, is being treated like dirt. This could be for the political reasons mentioned at the start, which would support the death of the west theme further as well as directly perpetuating the violence down to Jack Marston. The latter is key in The Wild Bunch, but flawed somewhat in Red Dead Redemption.
What would I do?
How would I make a Red Dead Redemption mod that accentuated The Wild Bunch’s themes more explicitly, and thus create a more consistent narrative in that vein? I would remove Pike-Marston’s blood-relatives (for the sake of distinction I’ve appended Pike, though I’m not simply retrofitting the story so it’s the same as The Wild Bunch). His family should be one of surrogates – these don’t have to be fellow gang members (though there is the solidarity of the men facing the same fate together in The Wild Bunch), but they should at least be people with whom Pike-Marston cannot realistically entertain hope of building a real future with (people like Louisa the Mexican freedom fighter in the main game – as she is spoken for, and escaping persecution).
In doing this we are removing what regular Marston is fighting for (this wouldn’t have affected the main game much beyond a plot detail, since I never once felt motivated by my family in any way). Pike-Marston is still at square one. He is not motivated by his family to change his ways (and then forced by the authority to live by his old ways), he is motivated by his age in relation to the social change at the time. The authority (hunting him with a former friend – more or less reversing the drive in the regular game back to the dynamic in The Wild Bunch) is holding him back from doing this, as well as his desperate situation financially. He is struggling against everything to change, but cannot as a relic. It is not that he is simply under the cosh from a Federal agent as regular-Marston is (an agent whose potential symbolism is ruined, by the way, due to a Seraphim Falls aping side-quest that introduces you to a biblically sinister character).
Pike-Marston is defiant of this change in the sense that it is not a theoretical moral change from within, as such, but an attempt to find peace. To live out his days waiting for death, ruminating on his wicked past. Pike-Marston is already aware that his life has failed. He should have a moral code that is clear to us (unlike regular Marston) that is Pike’s own “stick together – loyalty is everything”. The rest is up to the player. This moral code is all that Pike-Marston has at the end of the day. He has committed many sins throughout his life (as the player will), and eventually when he decides his time has come, he will spare his friend, the hunter, the burden of violating this code, and will die enforcing it for one of his surrogate family.
What I would then do immediately afterwards is demonstrate how those values are rendered meaningless in the modern age, and how futile his death really was. Similarly to Red Dead, this could take the form of a character seeking revenge for your death – what I would change is how it is accomplished. The player would not be forced to be involved in an archaic pistol duel, as it is the modern age. You should be afforded the opportunity to engage in the impersonal, soulless, violence the in which the small boy who shot Pike engaged. You may snipe your mark from a mile away, if you so choose. That’s progress. The feeling I get from Red Dead Redemption was more one of the inevitability that the son would follow the father’s footsteps despite his better efforts. In my mind that betrays the whole notion of the end of the west. To carry that forward Jack should have turned out more like the federal agents, more ruthless, less honourable, than his father. He appears to be more educated and less crude than his father (and The Bunch) which supports the theme, but his morals, despite in-game choices, make him seem essentially good (and, like his father, he won’t use a prostitute – that wouldn’t last long in a Peckinpah western!) as does his need to face his father’s killer face to face.
Another slight issue is the way the bounty system works in RDR. The driving force for Pike and The Bunch is the bounty on their heads. Cleverly, RDR can mitigate this issue. In the film The Bunch appear wearing army uniforms, a ploy that fools the general populace and local law enforcement, but not the gang of bounty-hunters led by Deke. The concept of the disguise that is only partially effective can be used in RDR with the bandit-mask that allows you to perpetrate crimes without affecting your stats, and only causes you to be noticed for actions perpetrated while wearing the mask. Therefore, despite your bounty you should be able to don the mask and move freely, only being noticed by the main antagonists. This, theoretically, should allow you to take part in the emergent activities the RDR engine affords without straying off the narrative.
In this vein I would also remove “Deadeye”, as it gives the player a super-human advantage, and perpetuates the myth that being the quicker draw is more important than keeping cool and aiming. This is a slight departure from The Wild Bunch into Unforgiven territory, but if anything that is a more astute deconstruction of the west, but one that RDR isn’t really cut out to homage (as it probably wouldn’t make an engaging experience in an open world game, and the story is slow-paced, and essentially one of a moral breakdown, which arrests control off the player – and dictates too many of your actions. For example: your access to booze would be unrealistically withheld).
It genuinely saddens me that Red Dead Redemption’s narrative is as indeterminate as it is (this article doesn’t make a great case for it, but look at mine and Chris Green’s previous work on it here – note The Wild Bunch quote as the title of my last piece), and my keenest disappointment came from watching it squander the treatment of the themes of The Wild Bunch by trying to capture the “vibe” of the film instead of actually getting to the point of it. In the subsequent posts in this run I will go through four other adaptations Red Dead Redemption could produce simply if it had trimmed its narrative fat one way or the other, but my personal favourite of the lot would have been this, my favourite western film, The Wild Bunch.