Lately, I've been thinking a lot about John Marston. I've also been thinking about his corporate cousin, Niko Bellic. Both men are murdering thieves. Why, I've been wondering, do I care so much about one and so little about the other?
I enjoyed GTA IV for a few exhilarating hours, exploring the city and letting the game slowly unfold its exposition. Niko earned my empathy: an immigrant trying to make a fresh start. The game reinforced this impression by encouraging me to move freely about the city and enabling me to behave like a good guy or a thug. My choice.
Things got ugly fast, however, and before I knew it my well-meaning avatar had become a psychopathic murderer, slaughtering hordes of people mostly for money. It all became too much for me, so I bailed. I haven't picked up the game since.
My decision to exit Liberty City wasn't a moral choice. I've been killing without compunction in video games since Space Invaders. GTA IV drove me away because Rockstar reneged on a contract it forged with me at the beginning of the game. Take control of this immigrant with a troubled past, the game seemed to say, and navigate him through thickets of crime, violence, and corruption.
This was a GTA game, so I wasn't expecting a branching narrative RPG. But I had hoped to face some difficult choices and a few alterable situations. I expected to play at least some role in Niko's journey, even if I couldn't necessarily determine all the outcomes. Instead, I became a mission-trigger vessel, waiting for Niko's cellphone to ring with instructions on whom to rob or murder next. I grew to despise Niko, and his life meant nothing to me.
John Marston is another story. He and his family meant a great deal to me, and I wept when he died. Why? How did that happen?
I can tell you how it didn't happen. It didn't happen because Rockstar gave me more control over Marston and his choices. Just like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption's formal story unfolds linearly with very little room for player input. I walked away from killing De Santa, but the rebels killed him anyway. I roped and hogtied a few horse thieves instead of shooting them, but such actions have no impact on the game's main story arc.
At times, Marston's actions - and especially his inactions - are no less despicable than Niko's. When the Mexican soldiers tell him to burn down the villagers' houses (a senseless act of violence) I have no option to refuse their order. Each house appears on my mini-map, and I cannot proceed until I've torched each one. Why would a man who has risked his life to rescue complete strangers from bandits do this? Similarly, when Marston witnesses women villagers physically abused by Allende's men (and, clearly, raped off-stage), why does he not utter even a word of protest? Is this the same man who shot a stranger in Armadillo for pulling a knife on a prostitute?
And can anyone explain why Marston wastes even a moment of his precious time helping Professor MacDougal?
So my empathy for Marston does not stem from narrative-altering choices or exercising full control of the character. They come from elsewhere, and if you take a closer look at the paragraph above this one, you'll find a hint. Without meaning to, I alternate between 1st and 3rd-person when referring to Marston. "He" does this, and "I" do that...and therein lies a tale.
Red Dead Redemption illustrates how games can create a unique dialectical relationship between player and avatar; one that emerges from a blend of authored narrative and player-driven emergent gameplay. Sometimes, as I've noted in my previous two posts, that 'blend' feels more like a clumsy collision of player autonomy and game constraints. But other times it feels like an experience no other medium can possibly touch.
I love John Marston because Red Dead Redemption enables me to forge a relationship with him that feels like an intimate conversation (and sometimes like an argument). I choose where he goes, when he sleeps, whom he shoots, and which strangers he helps. He chooses how to respond to the other main characters. He makes the big decisions. Niko's decisions drove me away. Marston's often angered or disappointed me, but I was never tempted to abandon him. Maybe I wanted to see his wife and kid just as much as he did.
But it's more than that. Marston is the Western solitary hero society turns to for help until it feels secure enough to reject him. He's a man at the end of the line, and he knows it. When it becomes clear, near the end of the game, that John is preparing for his own death by teaching his son the skills he will need to survive without him, my respect and affection for him deepens. In those moments, helping him on my end feels like a privilege.
No narrative system is the narrative system for video games. I can imagine a completely open-world version of RDR, sans linear narrative, sans cutscenes, with a story purely constructed from the player's experience in the world. Such a game would likely steer clear of the thorny issues raised here (and in your comments) about RDR. Such a game would offer an experience more about "I" and less about "He."
But I say RDR's "He" is a man worth tracking from a distance. Despite its occasional narrative ineptness and dodgy AI, RDR invites us to ride with/as a man who lives in the grey areas we always say games never explore. We cannot fully walk in his shoes, nor can he complete his journey without us. It's an uneasy friendship that offers a certain perspective on a man with a troubled past and no future.