Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Flawed Ballad of John Marston

"In life you have to do a lot of things you don't fucking want to do. Many times, that's what the fuck life is... one vile fucking task after another."
-Al Swearengen, Deadwood

My review of Red Dead Redemption is up over at Paste. I had (and am still having) a hell of a good time with the game; it works well as a shooter and even better as a living, breathing world. But as a story, I think it has some maddening problems. I wanted to use this space to elaborate on them in greater detail.

Despite the emergent possibilities of its open world and the rowdy fun of its multiplayer, Red Dead Redemption is a game with a very specific tale to tell, and so it must be judged accordingly. So it's too bad that despite doing a good number of things right in its opening and closing chapters, the narrative of Red Dead Redemption is ripped down the middle by a dissonance that is all but impossible to ignore.

(Story spoilers abound in both the post and the comments, so proceed with appropriate caution.)

Liberty City, Inverted

Lead writer Dan Houser and the rest of his team at Rockstar deserve credit for greatly improving on the storytelling they did in Grand Theft Auto IV. Interestingly enough, although Red Dead Redemption succeeds where Grand Theft Auto failed, it fails by attempting to co-opt one of Grand Theft Auto IV's great successes.

I thought Grand Theft Auto IV was a hugely successful satire of the modern American way of life. The game provocatively (if a bit broadly) lampooned America's advertising-drenched culture, hypocritical news media and ruthless, shallow view of success.  It helped that the setting was both incredibly realistic and cartoonishly over-the-top, and that those two elements managed to peacefully co-exist. Despite its evocative skyline, Liberty City was a caricature of New York City, a place where every hot dog vendor spouted thickly accented double-entendres and Lady Liberty held a venti mochaccino in place of a torch.

Where GTA IV fell down was in its portrayal of protagonist Niko Bellic. Niko was a well-written and well-acted character who over the course of the game was reduced by his actions to little more than a blood-drenched psychopath, murdering his way through hundreds of police officers and committing grave acts of terrorism throughout Liberty City.

The dissonance in Red Dead Redemption is born of the exact opposite problem. John Marston is similar to Niko in that he is a well-drawn, sympathetic character, but unlike Niko he stays true to his own rough but decent moral code throughout the game's story. The problem, then, begins with the fact that the world John inhabits initially feels as rough and real as he is. The land, the animals, the vast stretch of the horizon... everything feels of a piece. More to the point, New Austin is surprisingly close to our own plane of reality, much moreso than Liberty City was. Unfortunately, Rockstar takes the elegant, realistic world they've built and crams into it a metric shitload of GTA-esque satire, over-the-top characters and thuddingly obvious topical humor, seriously harming the overall experience in the process.

A Promising Start

The opening hours of Red Dead Redemption are very well-done. John arrives via train in Armadillo, attempts a half-hearted raid on Fort Mercer (it could almost be read as an attempted suicide-by-fort), and is subsequently rescued and nursed back to health by rancher Bonnie McFarlaine.  During the game's entire opening sequence, I was transfixed - the world felt so vast, so believable! These characters were behaving with endearing subtlety, speaking as real people would... as I rode around the ranch with Bonnie, looking at the various points of interest, helping her hunt varmints after nightfall, I couldn't quite get my head around what I was seeing. Had Rockstar finally grown up?

Then I returned to Armadillo and the old Rockstar humor machine groaned to life. The newspaper was dotted with humorous stories and ads for imaginary tonics that mocked Americans' gullibility. It elicited a few chuckles, but it also felt out of place, like I was somehow back in a Tw@t cafe in Liberty City surfing Craplist and the Love Meet personal ads.

Inconsistencies and strange tonal choices continued to crop up as I set out into the world. As Michael Abbott points out in his thoughtful post "The Game In The Frame"
Things happen when you ride the range in this game. Sometimes these moments feel meaningful. Other times they feel like jarring inconsistencies. Occasionally it's both.
I think Michael is absolutely right on. Lonely, atmospheric hunts on the prairie are marred by unskippable, blood-spattered sequences in which John skins a dead animal while grunting the same four unfunny lines of dialogue. "This is nasty." "What did you eat?" "You stink."  I head to the Armadillo movie house and sit through a "hilarious" satirical video about the women's suffrage movement that lands on the screen with all the subtlety of a bushel of burning bras. After that, I take in a lovely sunset on the porch of a saloon... as two identical prostitutes laconically inform me that it is a tragedy to see a man like me walkin' around with a dry pecker.

Marshall Leigh Johnston is a really cool dude, written and acted with a dry wit and a seen-it-all kind of weariness. His deputies, on the other hand, are buffoonish jackasses who seem better suited to a Yosemite Sam cartoon than a gritty western. Bonnie and her father are kind people for whom I genuinely feared as the story progressed. Irish, however, is a ridiculously stereotypical drunk who pulls a gun on nuns in his spare time.

The entire opening act is loaded with this sort of duality. On the one hand, an incredible, photo-realistic world populated with many remarkably well-done characters; on the other, cheap stereotypes and hackneyed attempts at satire, topical relevance and humor.  

Crossing the Border... Into the Worst Part of the Game

John's time in Mexico swings hard to the "jarring inconsistencies" side of the spectrum. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that as he crosses the border, an immersion-breaking song begins to play, complete with lyrics that describe his current predicament. I actually liked the tune (José Gonzales's "Far Away") and the moment it conjured, but when I look back on it, it's almost as if Houser and company were giving us a warning - "All pretense at creating an immersive and realistic world is now being put on hold."

For a detailed breakdown of the specific characterization and narrative problems that plague the game's Mexico missions, I recommend checking out Sparky Clarkson's excellent post "The Gringos Who Saved Mexico" at his blog Discount Thoughts. I couldn't agree more with each of his points.  It's not all bad in the early goings - at one point, John finds himself in a standoff with a group of Mexican men, guns out and pointed at one another. "There must be a name for this," says one of the them. "There is," says John. "It's called an impasse." But even beyond the frankly racist Mexican characters, there is still far too much out-of-place satire, broad jokiness and jarring topical humor.

Players are frequently reminded that John is an unwelcome foreigner fighting in a war outside his homeland's borders. I'm surprised there wasn't a "Mission Accomplished" joke in there somewhere. DeSanta, a lieutenant under the reigning despot Colonel Allende, is drawn as a feckless, predatory homosexual for no other reason than it appears to be fashionable to insert a gay character into the game. Each vile mission John undertakes for him is done entirely on DeSanta's vague promise of future aid, and his words were so obviously hollow that I was all but shouting at John not to believe him.

Worse than DeSanta is the rebel leader Reyes, a foolish, drunken Lothario who barely even makes an attempt at convincing his followers of the justness of their cause. He would not have felt out of place in Liberty City, but even among RDR's outrageous Mexican characters, he stands out. After meeting DeSanta, I was so hopeful that the leader of the rebellion would be an interesting character, but Reyes is little more than a lazy embodiment of careless power. He can't even remember the name of Luisa, the brave peasant girl who loves him. This woman has single-handedly raised her own platoon of soldiers and led them into battle, and yet he can't even remember her name? Credulity strains, then snaps. Then Luisa gets killed. Okay, Mr. Houser, I get it - both peasants and patriots suffer at the hands of those who use them to seek power.

But why, exactly, couldn't Reyes have been drawn as a real person? Why couldn't his relationship with Luisa have been interesting or grounded in reality? He could've so easily been a flawed but somewhat sympathetic character, a reluctant, unqualified leader trapped by his own charisma and social standing. Or a complete piece of shit, driven mad by the loss of a loved one or addiction. Or any of a number of other well-worn but relatable character tropes. It ain't impossible - BioWare's writers pull off that kind of characterization in their sleep.

There is just no reason for Reyes to be written like he is. His actions and dialogue serve only to make him into a cartoon, and it was impossible for me to get invested in his story. Wikipedia claims Reyes was based on the real-life Mexican president Francisco I. González. Ooo-kay, Wikipedia, if you say so. In the game, Reyes's nemesis Allende is repeatedly depicted as a serial rapist. I felt like I had no choice but to throw up my hands and remove myself from the story entirely for fear of siding with either of them.

Blackwater - Things Fall Apart

By the time John makes his way north to Blackwater, Red Dead Redemption's narrative has gone utterly off the rails. The story's themes have become a comical clusterfuck and even its strongest characters have been abandoned as abruptly as they were introduced. Marston's time at McFarlaine's Ranch has faded like a week-old dream. Mexico is little more than a dim memory of chest-high walls and gunfights culminating with the execution of a couple of characters I'd never even gotten to know.

Upon arrival in Blackwater, Edgar Ross, the cold-hearted federal man pulling John's strings, seems more interested in giving lengthy, nonsensical lectures than he is in finding John's old boss Dutch. Blackwater's other quest-giver, academic coke-fiend Harold MacDougal, appears written to embody three things at once - a bland, muddled disdain for modern academia, a "gee, weren't we silly" riff on medicinal cocaine use and a heavy-handed commentary on the genocide and displacement of America's indigenous peoples. Any of those three issues could've been interesting if addressed at length, but to smash them together into an incidental third-act character just feels wasteful.

John's time in Blackwater is brief, and its final mission is a fairly easy on-rails machine gun excursion followed by a raid on a mountainside fort. Cornered and wounded on a cliffside, Dutch gives perhaps the most convoluted speech of the entire game and then leaps to his death.

As Dutch hit the ground and Ross sent Marston on his way, I was absolutely crushed with disappointment. I couldn't believe that a story with a setting as grand as this one, a tale that started out so promisingly, could dissolve so thoroughly and end on such a sour, unfulfilling note.

Narrative Redemption

But then. But then. John's story got so good I'm still kinda beside myself about it. Marston's return to his ranch at Beecher's Hope, his reunion with his wife Abigail, the missions taking care of and restoring the family ranch, meeting back up with Bonnie to buy cattle, teaching his son Jack how to hunt... I felt like I was playing a completely different game. Completely different and totally awesome.

As I went about living John's life, I could feel dread building - something was going to happen to Jack, to Abigail. Thieves were going to raid, or perhaps Williamson's people would come for retribution. After young Jack went off to hunt the grizzly alone, I tore through Tall Trees after him, my heart in my throat. And always, at the back of my mind, sat Ross and his soldiers. Surely they wouldn't really let me go?

The themes at which the game had been so clumsily grasping for the past 20 hours started to feel real, to resonate. A man like John could never live a normal life, his past sins were too much to overcome. Dutch's cliffside warning ate at me, haunting me each time I started a new mission. Men never really do change, after all.

And of course, Edgar Ross and his soldiers did finally come to Beecher's Hope. As his wife and son rode to safety, John drew his pistol and made one last, impossible stand against inevitability. And again I felt crushed, but this time for the right reasons.

For the entirety of those final missions, gameplay and story, emergent happenstance and scripted events, the land, the people and the animals, all of it came together in harmony. It was one of the most brilliant closing chapters I've ever seen in a game. The subsequent slight-of-hand, sending me back into the world as Jack to take on his father's unfinished business... it felt nothing short of revelatory, partly just because it came as such a welcome surprise.

Please, Give Us Some Credit

We know by now that Rockstar can build an amazing world. In addition, the quality of Red Dead Redemption's final chapter makes it clear that Dan Houser and his writers are fully capable of creating compelling characters, themes and drama within those worlds.

And yet still, much of the 20 hours leading up to that final hour and a half is spent engaging in pointless quests, "vile fucking tasks" in the service of paper-thin characters, all while being hit over the head with broad satire and crushingly obvious symbolism. The only conclusion I can draw is that Houser is either not confident in his story's ability to stand on its own or that he holds the people who play his games in low regard. Probably some combination of both - either way, the upshot is the same. Houser fears that we won't get it unless he hits us in the face with it.

In a scene late in the game, Ross and his crony take John for a ride in their new automobile. The car is a rickety piece of junk, teetering gracelessly down the road at a snail's pace. Throughout the ride, John sits in the back of the car and players must passively watch the countryside crawl by as Ross prattles on and on about the nature of man.

It's a great moment, a perfect juxtaposition of the fading wilderness and the brave new world, the once-empowered cowboy rendered impotent and irrelevant by technology. The grace and speed of John's horse is replaced by this inferior contraption, and the symbolism is rendered all the more poignant by our own knowledge of the coming age of the automobile.

But as reliably as ever, the writers come stomping into the china shop and wreck it. At the trip's end, John mocks the car, pointing out loudly that he'd take a horse any day of the week. And just in case we still didn't get it, the car later breaks down, leaving its occupants stranded. What was initially a great example of subtle thematic work instead becomes a case study in how to overplay a hand.

I want Dan Houser to trust us, and I want him to trust his writing. I want him to trust that videogames don't have to be entirely goofy, that satire can be hidden in plain sight and that game characters can be funny while also being relatable. I want him to write stories with subtle themes that not everyone will see at first glance.

I acknowledge that it must be very hard to make that leap, particularly when years of work and millions of dollars are on the line. It requires great faith to build a world like this one, to painstakingly craft both the forest and the trees, and then to sit back and hope that players don't miss the one for the other.

But that is exactly what is required. The story of Red Dead Redemption represents a significant step forward, but I don't believe I'm being too demanding when I say that I wanted more. The Ballad of John Marston is very close to being a genuinely magnificent piece of interactive storytelling, so it is all the more frustrating to watch it trip on its own bootstraps, inching toward a goal that it could've easily surpassed.


Sparky said...

It's interesting that in both Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV the missions that contain the least violence produce the most emotional resonance. The early segment of Niko's story, before he started running through the city with an assault rifle gunning down an infinite supply of cops and mafiosi, was my favorite part of that game. Here, the early missions with Bonnie and the late missions at Beecher's hope really make the game. Too bad that went missing in between. The lesson, perhaps, is that games generally (and Rockstar games in particular) might be more compelling if they spent more time exploring modes of action less directly related to mass murder.

Brendan said...

A really interesting post. I do love how Rockstar games like GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption tell their stories, but they still haven't quite got there with the stories they are telling.

It is kind of dissapointing to get so attached to a character (playable or NPC) only to eventually understand that they are merely a flat prop for empty satire.

I still love both these games Houser has written, but I can not disagree that the flaws pointed out in this post do indeed detract from the overall quality of the stories.

I must agree on how incredible the ending of Red Dead Redemption was, also. One thing you do not expect in a videogame is your character's death. I too was grimacing for the moment where Jack and Abagail were killed because that was the only forseeable outcome I could imagine. The fact that I might die did not even cross my mind. Afterwards, I found it really interesting to see how I played Jack differently from his father. When I played John, I always did what "The Law" told me to for my family's sake. As Jack, I am disillusioned and angry, and I don't do the law any favours.

The only criticism I can level at the game's ending is that it would have been nice to have the option to end thegame (ie.get to the credits) without killing Ross. Sure, I was angry and I wanted him dead, but that is not what John would have wanted for Jack. It could have been interesting to see what the player did based on their former character's desires.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Sparky - I'm totally with you on that. As you say, a good deal of what worked so well about the ranch-bookends of RDR's story was that I was exploring the world in ways that didn't involve ultraviolence. Also, those were the two sections where I felt the most like I was playing a western game. I was breaking horses, herding cattle, shooting hats out of the air and helping the local Marshall. WIth the exception of a few good quests, the time from John's arrival in Mexico through to Beecher's Hope all just sort of felt like some action game that didn't take enough advantage of the setting and mechanics.

I would kill to see some nonviolent DLC (Irony!), just like I would've with GTA IV. I doubt we'll get any, but soon, I actually think that Rockstar will release a game that centers on mechanics other than mass murder. And I also think it'll sell like gangbusters. It's one of the reasons I'm very interested to see what LA Noire is all about.

Brendan - Thanks for stopping by. I, too, was surprised by John's death. Throughout the entire story, I was torn between what I thought would happen and what the story demanded. I felt like there was no other possible narrative resolution than for him to die, and yet I knew that the game wouldn't pull a Fallout 3 and just end with all of John's sidequests left unattended. I was floored by the clever way they solved the problem.

Interesting take on Jack's revenge. I felt like it worked with one of the themes of the narrative - nothing changes, and ostensible change is merely a larger cycle repeating itself. So it made sense that Jack needed to carry on for his father, to become him. Then again, another read on it would be that in order for true change to occur, Jack had to put his father's ghost to rest.

What's cool is that both of those reads can work, depending on how you play the game. If you played John as a law-abiding man, Jack could then become a cruel criminal, and John's legacy would be for nothing. Or vice versa, or any combination. A very nifty, open-ended way to resolve the characters.

And this may be a bit of a stretch, but Jack doesn't have to kill Ross, either. He could always just learn Ross's location but leave it at that. By framing the epilogue as a stranger mission instead of a main quest, perhaps Houser means to suggest that we can let the epilogue play out however we choose?

Jay said...

The Deadwood quote is dead-on. Honestly, I didn't have that hard of a time with the excessively violent missions. Let's face it, Marston is an inherently violent character (though he may strive not to be). Regardless of his intentions, it takes little inspiration to get John to go for his gun.

No, what drove me up the wall was the context of those missions. I literally spent half the story completely dumbfounded as to why john would agree to help, let alone slaughter a million fucking people for, some these completely detestable NPCs.

I'm at work right now and wish I had time to get into all the ways John was taken advantage of, being used as a mere means to someone else's ends, almost ALWAYS with zero intention of returning the favor. And that's what bugs me.

Why John, WHY?!

Why the fuck would you do it when you KNOW you're going to get screwed? He just lets himself serve as a tool to these seemingly less intelligent NPCs. It didn't sit right with me- more so than the violence.

Bottom-line: John Marston was at his best when he was fighting for HIS cause, not some else's, and maybe that's where the narrative dissonance lies in a lot of these missions.

Andrew said...

Makes me want to play the game for some of the promising moments but I'd probably end up disappointed overall like you - I'd usually avoid reading about a slightly plot-heavy game but the comparison with GTA4, and since I don't own a console to play it on, intrigued me.

I still actually haven't finished GTA4 yet. It bogged me down with merciless hordes of enemies, with the turning point being a huge bank robbery which came out of no where and simply was a mass slaughter of cops (which I did a bit of twice since amusingly it resets as you drive away!). The gameplay versus story there really is not attached too well since Nico keeps complaining constantly about doing such things (man he's mostly a boring character too, his cousin is much cooler!), and the gameplay gets tiresome - not a great combination.

Red Dead Redemption though seems to solve a few of the pacing and issues with characters and gameplay/narrative dichotomy, which is a good step forwards. Hopefully it'll step up more and more!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Jay - I've been seeing that complaint voiced in several places, how John is both a knowable character and an unknowable one, and how he is at once interesting and confounding. I think it was Michael who pointed out that often writers will interchangably use "I" and "He" when talking about their gameplay experiences... I certainly used both in this post, and it kinda reflects how John is both our avatar and his own occasionally frustrating man.

Andrew - It's interesting, I've been hearing from more and more folks who just never got around to finishing GTA IV. That game certainly suffered from pretty weird pacing and a bloated third act. I think that Red Dead solves a big issue by making its main narrative about ten hours shorter, in addition to fixing a lot of the mechanical issues that GTA IV had. I bet that a substantially larger percentage of people who play RDR will see John's story through to its conclusion than did with GTA IV.

I absolutely recommend checking the game out, if only because it's such a wonderfully ambitious game that even with (and perhaps because of) its flaws sparks all kinds of enjoyable discussion. And it's also just really fun to play. :)

Andrew said...

Will do if it comes out on PC. The Wild West interests me as a setting in any case (despite not picking up any previous titles as such, but there are not many off the top of my head).

If it really is a shorter narrative (although more distractions are always welcome), then yes, I might actually finish it compared to GTAIV, where I am exactly at that third act and so won't be finishing it!

Anonymous said...

This is nan exceptional piece of writing, good work!

Caroline said...

What made the Mexico missions especially upsetting for me was, as it was for Jay, my frustration with John being played for a fool. In that portion of the game, he was often characterized as being downright stupid. I was disgusted. Am I supposed to empathize with a dumb brute? He never catches on to what's going on, he shrugs, he kills who he's told for no good reason.

Nico Bellic is an immigrant; John is a cowboy. Rockstar is clearly going for images of what it means to be American. Is American masculinity supposed to be defined by idiocy and brutishness, rather than canniness and humanity? It's so Bush-era.

And all of the unbelievable characterization, the outlandish scenario that John would go along with all those train robberies and train defenses and massacres on the obviously insubstantial promises of aid, was in the service of what? A prolonged, pointless ridiculously racist characterization of Mexicans as thuggish, cruel, and sexually perverse on both sids of the war. Even Luisa, who could have been an awesome character, was portrayed as blinded by ideological zeal, a chump who was unceremoniously killed off.

I was torn between my love of the game's utter beauty and subtle, complex relationships (Bonnie, Abigail, Jack, even the Marshall) and my disgust with Rockstar's zingless satire and pathetic attempts to keep up it's infant terrible reputation.

Joshua C. Foreman said...

Fantastic criticism. Keep up the good work. We need more intelligent analysis of games.