You watch the world blur past you from a train car window. This is not the world you had been promised. The world you had been promised—the one your brothers and fathers before them had prepared you for—at least could be trusted to be harsh and unforgiving. It had been defined by clear cut rules: 1) Winning meant having the fastest trigger, and 2) Losing meant getting your eyes eaten out by vultures under a baking sun. In this new world, people sat civilly beside you in an expensive suit and government-issued badge while they threatened to kill your family. At the very least, you had understood the world you were promised. At the very worst, surviving it had been the only thing you were ever really any good at.
An ill-defined moving target, the world that broke your promise didn’t just forget about you. It forgot about the rules, replacing them with new ones that never made a lick of sense. The world that broke your promise forgot the sound of hooves hitting the desert floor, the smell of your own sweat as you tested the limits of an inhospitable terrain. The world that replaced it shuttles row after row of bowler hats and pin-striped pinafores in train cars, the desolate wasteland of brittle skulls and rotting carcasses flying by them like a harmless flea. In the world you had been promised, a man could rely on simple, straightforward (if primitive) solutions. Whether a land dispute, a lack of money, or miscommunication, every problem had a bullet-shaped answer.
In the world you had been promised, there was a place for a man and his gun—hell, more than a place. There was a mantle. A mantle to display the accomplishments of masculinity, the decapitated heads of your opponents forced to watch for an eternity, their faces frozen in terror and awe at you.
For as long as they’ve been around, shooters have served as a poster child for everything “wrong” with videogames. Whether through the lens of a feminist critic like Anita Sarkeesian or a New York Times journalist like Tom Bissell, the shooter are synonymous with the violent, hypermasculine, immature power fantasy that made games so hard to defend to the outside world. Rockstar, the developer/publisher behind everything from Manhunt to Grand Theft Auto, shouldered the brunt of the stigma in the public’s eye.
Released in April 2010, Red Dead Redemption emerged at a time when “can videogames be art?” still seemed like a reasonably valid or controversial question to most people. Two months later, an answer seemed to arrive in the form of Limbo, the indie game that launched a thousand Kickstarters. That same year, Tom Bissell also released Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter, setting a new bar for games writing that was equal parts validation and criticism. A simultaneous sense of hope and restlessness permeated the industry’s elite circles as they reached for something beyond the predictable pleasantries of the blockbuster shooter. Hot on the heels of Grand Theft Auto IV and its many acclaimed boundary-pushing expansions, Rockstar seemed hotter and hungrier than ever to push the genre into excellence. This is the stage of expectation Red Dead Redemption walked onto—a demand for both thoughtful commentary and action.
Weeks before the game’s release, Tom Bissell summarized the divide by explaining to the LA Times that, “Rockstar has a very odd place in the industry because there’s an audience who appreciates the way its games criticize our culture and there’s an audience who just love running around and blowing things up. I think the first group will love to see Rockstar explore the mythology of the Old West, but it’s hard to know if the second will find that as interesting.”
The incredible part is that Bissell ended up being wrong: Red Dead Redemption did manage to speak to both audiences. In fact, juggling the expectations of consumers and critic alike lead the game to have a tense sort of duality and existentialism. Many people point to Red Dead as one of the first mature gaming narratives—while, in the same breath, also using it as the stock photo example of “ludonarrative dissonance.” One of the first of many flawed but valiant attempts to imbue morality into the shooter genre, Red Dead Redemption did the most un-GTA thing imaginable: it attached a system of ethics to the depravity of its open Western world. So you can’t hire a prostitute, because John Marston is a family man. But you can hogtie a prostitute, put her on the back of your horse, and set her down on a train track as she screams for mercy before exploding under its wheels—unlocking a Trophy and awarding you some notoriety (while subtracting a handful of “honor points”).
Perceptively, Rockstar San Diego understood that it could not release a shooter game about redemption without at least attempting to justify the genre’s primary mechanic (that is, to murder). Whether or not Red Dead’s narrative and mechanics did so successfully is somewhat irrelevant. Because its very attempt to justify its own existence cleared the path for Tom Bissell (and Tom Bissell-types) to later publish anguished defenses and vitriolic condemnations of the shooter’s violent masculinity. Joining a long line of gruff male protagonists gripping guns on gritty box art covers, Marston’s ability to meet a male ideal (in this case, a family man) is inextricably tied to his violent prowess—though he at least seems unhappy about it, unlike most other male shooter protagonists.
Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just portray a revisionist western story. The game itself plays like it’s a revisionist western cowboy on a quest to erase the past misdeeds of its genre—only to perpetuate those same misdeeds under the guise of revisionism or redemption. Like Marston, Rockstar watched the shooting game landscape change before its eyes. Both a critic and bastion of the shooter genre, both an ode to and cautionary tale against the ideals of the Wild West, Red Dead Redemption embodies the anxieties of an entire century of men who suddenly stopped to wonder what made them so trigger happy.
You moonlight as a rancher. It isn’t the world you were promised either, but at least there aren’t any bowler hats and the work keeps your hands dirty. Instead of guns, you try gripping lassos and capturing wild horses. You herd cows, ride into town, hunt, eat, sleep, do it again. At first it feels odd, like you’re an actor in a poorly cast role. Other times—like when the wolves go after the chickens and you reach for your pistol, always waiting on your hip—you catch glimpses of your abandoned world, where the rules you mastered still apply. But if you’re honest with yourself, most of the time you know it isn’t enough. Even as you tell yourself this bloody mission has a higher purpose: that fabled ranch for your family to grow old and die on. You wonder when the excuse stopped being true.
On the road one day, you come across a strange fellow with a black bowler hat and no name. You don’t know why, but his measured manner makes you uneasy. You can tell by the way he says your name that he’s not buying the performance. The ranch, the family man—he lets you keep pretending, but only because he knows that hurts more.
He stands on the plot of land where you hope your ranch will flourish when all of this is over. He keeps saying what a beautiful, perfect spot it is, but for some reason, these words make your bones shiver.
Inexplicably, you taste blood in your mouth.
“You will be responsible,” he says, without explanation. “This is a fine spot.”
Looking down, you see hints of red speckled across the grass.
Red Dead Redemption’s most redeeming qualities have nothing to do with its underwhelming morality system. The boldest statement the game makes on violence, both real and virtual, lies in the fact that you can’t win Red Dead Redemption. From the moment you start the game—and long before even that—John Marston is a man destined for an untimely grave. In a game where shooting is almost always the solution to every problem or puzzle, it only seems fair that John Marston’s journey ends in a wave of bullets that tear through him limb from limb.
But dying isn’t John Marston’s ultimate failure because, if anything, it’s the most heroic finale he could have hoped for. By the end, John Marston isn’t even really the focus of the story. The true hero and villain of Red Dead Redemption becomes apparent after John’s son Jack shoots the man that killed his father, setting Jack on the path to becoming the violent criminal his father died to keep him from becoming. But, even then, the story does not appear to blame Jack for this failure either. From John to Jack to Dutch to Landon Ricketts to Vincente De Santa, the blame rests squarely on the false promises of a world built on hypermasculine ideals.
In pursuit of dominance, power, women, and money, each one of these men meets a violent end made worse by the decades of dissatisfaction that lead up to it. In search of a solution to that growing sense of disquiet and destruction, John seeks to replace his gunslinger masculinity with a different kind of ideal. If he can’t be a cowboy, he’ll settle for being the rancher, breadwinner, and patriarch of the family.
From the first moment John returns to the ranch, Jack vies for his father’s attention by attempting (and failing) to prove his masculinity. He makes impulsive, life-threatening choices like trying to kill a grizzly bear by himself, all to live up to his father’s gunslinging legacy. “I was trying to prove myself. You’re always telling me that I read too many books. That I’m not a real man.”
John denies ever saying this, but he doesn’t have to. Whether he actually says it or not, the shadow of the father looms over this small, sensitive boy, the ideals of masculinity being fed to him through the adventure books he loves. Throughout John’s portion of the game, he makes fun of his son for his bad aim, while Jack makes fun of his father’s one track mind.
“Is there anything you don’t enjoy shooting, Pa?”
“I ain’t met the thing yet, but as soon as I do I’ll let you know.”
Later, burdened by his new role as the protagonist of a shooting game—and perhaps in response to the trauma of witnessing his father’s murder—Jack’s not such a pacifist anymore. His inferiority complex comes through in his painfully defensive and masculine dialogue.
“You call yourself a man?” he shouts before putting a bullet through a person’s skull. “I don’t know whether to call you mister or missus.”
Like the father before him, and the father before him, Jack’s ill-fated pursuit of an aggressive masculine ideal only perpetuates a never-ending cycle of violence and broken promises.
They’re coming. Deep down, you always knew they would. Deeper down, you wanted them to.
No matter how hard you tried to find your place in this new world, you failed. If only the smell of hay and tilled soil had been enough. If only you had been promised a world where a man could be measured by his backbone and not the speed of his draw. But you were not.
Standing behind the barn door, your family cowering behind you, your hand reaches for the revolver one last time. Finding its cold, hard metal with your fingertips feels like cupping the face of a familiar lover. Knowing what the gesture means, your wife stifles a cry, remaining silent to spare the son she prays will meet a different end.
Hand still lovingly pressed against the trigger, you swing the doors open. You lived by this land, and you will die on this land. But old habits die hard, so you quick draw on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 men. You watch them all fall to the ground, relishing the victory just as the wave of bullets crashes over you. Everything goes black. The revolver falls from your grip.
Jess is an editor at Kill Screen who writes about sex and gender in the digital age. She is also part Brazilian, part Swiss, part American, and part lion. Her twitter is @liongirl528