‘Red Dead Redemption’ and the Cycle of Violence

With Curtain Call, we asked our team what some of their most memorable and satisfactory finales were in the realm of gaming, and these entries are the result. Please note that they may include a bevy of spoilers concerning the endings in question and the plots they pertain to. You’ve been warned!

It’s rare when I see something so thoroughly misinterpreted by just about everyone. Maybe it’s because games don’t cover easily misinterpreted themes that often, or maybe it’s because the way games tackle certain subjects lends to one interpretation, even if the polar opposite was supposed to be read into it.

The latter is what I think happened to Red Dead Redemption. This game explores a number of themes. It’s a story of redemption, it’s a story of change, it’s a story about a clash of ideals, it deconstructs the western outlaw, and so on. There is so much meat to this game that I’m sure there are themes and concepts put forth that I haven’t seen.

But we’re not here to talk about those, we’re here to talk about the most widely misinterpreted part of the game, as well as one my favorite parts of the game: The ending.

At this point, while I know the intro already says it, but I must emphasize that there are major spoilers from this point. This game is absolutely amazing and deserves to go down as one of the best games of all time, so I must encourage everyone to play it before reading further.RDR screenshot 1

I don’t want to dwell too much on how every time I see someone talking about this ending, they always focus on how much they hate playing as Jack Marston or how happy they were that they got to avenge John Marston by killing Edgar Ross. I just think this common misinterpretation is important to point out.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves though. Throughout the game, we see everything through the eyes of former outlaw turned farmer John Marston. We watch him through his journey to hunt down Bill Williamson. We follow him as he makes his way into Mexico. And we finally see him reunited with his wife and son after such a long ordeal that took place over tens of hours of gameplay (or more, if you sank in the giant sandbox).

At this point, the story slows down and covers Marston’s efforts to rebuild his farm and settle down with his family. But throughout this entire sequence of the game, there’s something off.

The strange thing about this part of the game is that it exists. The story should be over. Marston has apprehended or killed the men he was sent after, Edgar Ross finally went through with his end of the bargain and released Marston’s family and all of the loose ends were seemingly tied.

But then, as John is having a moment with his son, Jack, Uncle (who’s not actually John’s uncle. I don’t think we ever learn his real name) calls him over and shows him something in the distance through a telescope. John tells Jack to go inside and lock the doors. He gives his son one last hug before soldiers ride into the farm with weapons drawn.

Uncle is shot and killed, then John and his family retreat to the barn, where John puts them on a horse and promises he’ll catch up. He walks to the barn door where the soldiers are waiting on the other side. Resigning himself to his fate, he takes his pistol and shoots down as many as he can.

Edgar Ross puts away his gun and lights a cigar before wordlessly signaling his men to ride off, leaving John’s body to rot. His family buries him in a modest grave on the farm.

The game could have ended here. The credits could have rolled and it still would have been seen as a great, tragic ending.

This is the culmination in the defining themes of the game. John Marston represents the old ideals of the lawless west, where free men fight to get ahead. Edgar Ross represents the changing world and the ideal of a just law. In Ross’s eyes, Marston is a criminal until the day he receives his punishment. This clash of ideals leads to Marston’s death. In the eyes of his son, John was murdered by a petty man for a petty reason, but in the eyes of Edgar Ross, John was simply being punished for his long list of crimes.

Marston’s death represents the end of the old west. But this isn’t where the game ends.

RDR screenshot 3Three years later, Jack is seen standing over his parents’ graves, with the implication that he had just finished burying his mother based on how new her grave’s cross is, before he rides off the farm one last time in search of Edgar Ross.

In his search, Jack encounters three people, a young federal agent who sees Ross as a hero, Ross’s wife, who angrily assumes that Jack is there to call him back into service and Ross’s brother, who warns Jack to avoid Ross’s temper.

When Jack meets Ross, they exchange words. Jack accuses him of killing his father, while Ross rebuts by saying that John had it coming for the life he lived. While Ross does threaten to kill Jack as well, this shows Ross’s motivation. He saw John as an outlaw who had escaped justice for too long. When he lead the charge on the Marston farm, he wasn’t there to murder a man he hated, he was there to punish a criminal.

This doesn’t change the tragedy of Ross going back on his word of leaving John and his family be, leading to John being murdered, but it does explain why Ross did it.

It is at this point that Jack and Ross duel. At the end, Ross’s corpse falls into a river and Jack silently walks away, at which point the credits roll.

There is no glorification of what Jack just did. The game makes no effort to show that all of John’s efforts to protect Jack from his lifestyle have failed. Ultimately, Jack’s revenge was the final step to Jack entering the outlaw lifestyle that his father fought so hard to escape.

Jack could have been the opposite of his father. John was an orphan. He was raised into a life of committing crime to survive. When he saw where that life would lead him, he left. John wanted nothing more for Jack than for him to follow his heart and grow up into a better man than his father.

Jack wanted to get an education and become a writer. He wanted to make something of his life that his father never could. He throws this away after John’s death. He throws it away in favor of revenge, ignoring that John’s final sacrifice was meant to make sure that Edgar Ross would finally leave his family alone.

By chasing after and murdering Edgar Ross, Jack simply perpetuates the cycle of violence, reflecting our own society, where many children with great potential to lead great lives end up dead or in prison because their circumstances cause them to throw away their futures.

Beyond that, this ending is a warning about refusing to adapt to changing times, as well as trying to force your ideals on the world.RDR screenshot 2

Jack has no future. The year is 1914. The first World War is starting to tear Europe apart and it’s only a few years until America joins. The Mexican Revolution is causing constant unrest south of the border. The west is dead and America is quickly modernizing. Jack adopted the lifestyle of a western gunman who has no place in the modern world.

When I first played through the game and got to the ending, I felt dirty for going through with the murder of Edgar Ross. It sounds strange after spending tens of hours shooting my way through Texas and Mexico on what is essentially an assassination mission, but this is the only time the player is forced to kill anyone who isn’t actively trying to kill you.

This is the only time I’ve ever felt genuine disgust at a game’s ending. I don’t mean disgusted in hyperbole. I mean this ending made me felt like I just committed a horrible crime. While I initially intended to hop into the multiplayer after finishing the story, the ending killed all motivation I had to have these fun wild west adventures by just being the most depressing video game ending I had experienced at that point.

All I could do was turn off the Xbox, put down the controller and just try to process what just happened. I guess John Marston’s dream of living a peaceful life with his family really was so far away.

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