I finished LA Noire recently, Rockstar and Team Bondi’s 1940’s detective ‘thriller’ (I use ” as its a game that’s very very hard to properly describe). Around the same time last year I finished Rockstar’s western themed Red Dead Redemption. In between that, Alan Wake, a supernatural horror from Remedy.
All three rank among the best written and directed games I’ve ever played. They play out like serial TV shows, LA Noire and Alan Wake especially, given their fairly episodic structure (each ‘level’ is totally self contained, but all lead to a greater, bigger finale). I think this is why the endings to all three were so very effective.
But, I don’t really want to talk about the whole line-blurring between TV and video games, and the importance of narrative and all that other stuff that real serious games blogs talk about. I just want to gush over two of my favourite gaming moments of the last year, and how utterly surprising they were, and how utterly surprised I was by not only those moments, but all the one’s preceding them. And, a surprising amount of common themes that LA Noire and RDR share (I’m gonna ignore Alan Wake, because its a different kind of beast I dont have the concentration to think about right now).
(EDIT: Given the length of this, this one is all about RDR. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle LA Noire.)
FAIR WARNING! If you haven’t played either or both of these games to their finales, and want to, let it be known that the rest of this post will probably contain a large amount of spoilers. Tread carefully.
Red Dead. The story of a cowboy and happily married family man, John Marston, forced by the government to hunt down his former gang members, under threat of never seeing his wife and son again. Marston is one of the most complex video game characters I’ve ever come across. No doubt he’d done some despicable things during his time riding with the Williamson gang, killed many many people, and indeed, he, or more accurately, you, kill a lot more people on his path to what is very clearly alluded to in the title, Redemption. Marston wants to be absolved of his sins, and get on with life with his family. He wants peace, to put the past very firmly behind him, but there are forces that wont let him. So despite all of the despicable and horrible things he did and does (in fact, you can play the game less bloodthirstily, saving innocents, capturing bounties alive rather than killing them. I did, because I’m a soppy git, and cant ever play the immoral villain) you cant help warming to him, and wishing that he eventually succeeds. He was a bad man, but he’s not evil, and he’s trying to do good. Its this path to redemption, this quest to see his family again, who he frequently talks about through the game, that gets you behind him more strongly than any other character. Its not some galactic quest to save the universe that Marston finds himself on, its a very personal quest, and one that I imagine most people could relate to. Indeed, what lengths would you go to to see your loved ones again?
So follows several hours of riding around the Old West, shooting, brawling and getting closer and closer to Redemption.
And then, endgame.
After fighting through hordes of his cohorts, you finally confront your old gang leader, Bill Williamson. There isn’t a feeling of hate in the air, just the sense of two old friends who know everything about one another, and know exactly whats going to happen. Bill say’s that the powers that be will always be a villain, that even when all the monsters of the Old West are eliminated, they will create monsters of new people, and nothing is ever truly finished. Then he jumps to his death. The last monster of the Old West is gone. Marston’s employ by the government over, and he’s free to go. Free to see his family.
You regain control of Marston, on horseback, as an ‘A’ (for Abigail, Marston’s wife) appears on the radar, ‘Compass’ by Jamie Lidell starts to play, and a single objective appears, “Reunite with your family”.
Usually in this game, I’d ride fairly slowly to any objective, I wanted to take in all the scenery and the feel of the environment. But not now. This one time, I rode as fast as I could. I wanted, more than anything at that moment, to see Marston finally achieve the peace I helped him earn. I wanted his redemption, for him, and for me. So I rode and finally approached the homestead.
Now, I half expected the game to pull me into a cutscene, here’s his wife, his son, all hugs and kisses, credits roll, and done. Or, maybe they’d pull the rug out from under me, and they turn up dead or something. But no.
Instead, there’s no great fanfare, no great rapturous entrance, no ‘event’. The homestead is quiet, peaceful, a contrast to the violence and gunfighting that preceded it. Abigail walks up, slaps him across the face then hugs him. Now, credits roll, surely?
No. You now spend the next hour or so playing as John the Family Man, the Farmer.Instead of chasing bandits, you’re herding cows, instead of gunfights, you’re teaching your son to hunt. Pedestrian chores for the man who finally has found his redemption, finally put his old life, the gangs, the government and the guns behind him, and is more content just shooing crows from his fields.
Then. This is where it got me. Finally, he’s put his violent life behind him, and I’m just getting used to peaceful John Marston, thinking that the game will end here, John being where he should be. Closure.
Then, over the horizon, a dozen horses with government soldiers come over the hill. John sends his wife and son away.
John is confronted by Edgar Ross, the man who forced him into hunting down his gang members, and a dozen armed men.
And there, after fighting so long for the peace he wanted, after finally finding his redemption, outside his family barn, where he wanted to be all along, he is shot dead, a new kind of monster.
I cant really describe how that made me feel. Sad. I welled up. He’d fought so long, through so much hardship, killed so many people for the one person that then puts a bullet in him. All the work, the fighting and the violence, with me behind him, pushing him the entire way, for nothing. But not quite. He did get the redemption he wanted. He can say he died at peace.
After all this, about 10 minutes of cutscene where you’re very much not in control of what happens, the camera pulls back on a shot of the graves of John and Abigail Marston, and a young man, Marstons son, Jack, tips his hat and mounts his horse. You know control Jack, off on a search for Edgar Ross, a search for vengeance.
You find him by a river bed, and shoot him dead. Only then, after all the struggle, all the violence, after The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed, does the game end and the credits roll.
And it made me think. Aside from the obvious, the game, in the end, all comes down to Love.
Throughout the entire game, you reunite kidnapped wives with their husbands, you provide closure for mothers with murdered sons. Love.
John fought through Hell and high water to be with his family. For love.
Jack found and killed the man who killed his father. For love.
And thats what makes the game, and the endgame, so special, and something I cant think of any real equal to in the videogame world. Love is a specifically human emotion. People know what love feels like, what the lack of it feels like, and what it feels like to be separated from the things we love, against our will. The stakes are real and familiar. In gmes that deal with some fictional intergalatic war, or fight against some alien swarm, or supernatural threat, the stakes are superfluous and ultimately unimportant. You do them, you fight for them just because you’re told you have to to proceed to the next set of inconsequential tasks. This isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining, but that’s an entirely different point.
In Read Dead, everything you do is done to eventually reunite you with the things you love. And then you actually get to experience what John Marston loves. I don’t think any other game has made such a point of menial and pedestrian tasks as herding cows and breaking horses, let alone filled them with so much meaning. You aren’t herding cows with your son because you have to, you’re doing it because its what you, as John, want to do. Its what you love. And when that’s all taken away, its not just taken away from some unimportant, generic space marine or soldier. Its taken away from an imperfect, flawed man. A man who made some bad choice’s but wants, above all to do good by himself and his family.
And that’s why it works so well and nearly made me cry and makes is one of my favourite hours of gameplay I’ve ever experienced, and why John Marston is one of my favourite fictional characters. Because he is just like all of us.
Done. Sorry for gushing quite as much as I did, I just bloody love this game, and as you can tell, I get into it.
Right. Tomorrow, or as soon as possible, LA Noire.