I didn’t see the forest for the trees

John Marston.  Outlaw in general.

I really enjoyed my first play though of Red Dead Redemption. I thought it was a beautifully crafted sandbox that was as close to being a time machine to the early 20th century as I would ever see.  It bugged me how John Marston felt incomplete as a character though. He was a broken record that constantly repeated “I used to ride in a gang.” and “Where’s my family?” As far as he was portrayed in the game’s story, Marston was a one-dimensional character in a narrative that hit one note over and over and over again.  None the less, I loved playing RDR in spite of that.

As more time passes I look more and more fondly back on the experience and wonder if I should hold the weak narrative against it. Sure, trudging around Mexico was dull, but I was free to do what I wanted and play through the game’s narrative at will. Perhaps it’s not fair to hold video game narratives to the same standard as for films or novels. After all, in those mediums the characters and narrative are really all you have. If those aren’t crafted well then you better be providing good prose or interesting imagery. However, with games in general, and Red Dead Redemption in particular, characters and narrative can simply serve as a means to encourage the player to engage the game’s world and its verbs.

John Marston could have purposefully been kept vague in his personality. The traits the game offers only have to be detailed enough to evoke the images of cowboys and outlaws in the player’s mind and then letting him or her project the rest of the picture in their mind. The game merely starts telling a story until the player is excited enough about it to finish telling it themselves. There doesn’t need to be a “Citizen Kane” with a story to ties up neatly with a bow. I would have been interested to learn more about John Marston but I’m realizing that it didn’t really matter while reflecting on how much I enjoyed playing the game.  Having a well told story in a game is a great way to make it engaging, but its not the only way.


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