Red Dead Redemption’s Greatest Triumphs Are Its Tragedies
10 years later, Red Dead Redemption remains one of Rockstar's best games yet by crafting a world drenched in the cycle of revenge.
When I think back on the first time that I played through Red Dead Redemption, the two things that usually come to mind for me are the beginning and closing scenes of John Marston’s story. When we first meet John in the opening of Red Dead, he embarks by train to enact revenge against the gang members that betrayed him in his outlaw life, coerced by the law in exchange for the safety of his family. From the start, John’s hands are tied not just by government agents, but also by a life that he has never been able to fully escape. It’s fitting that by the final scene of his story, John winds up caught between these two forces and meets his infamous demise in a one-sided shootout against a squad of government agents, or to an extent, agents of fate that are acting out the consequences of his former life.
What has stood out to me about these two scenes in Red Dead is how they act as bookends not only to John’s search for redemption, but to its core theme of the cycle of revenge. Even without its roots in the Western genre, there is the immediate sense in Red Dead Redemption that John’s story will almost certainly have a tragic end. It’s safe to say that it might be one that John may have deserved, and that he got what was coming to him. But by Red Dead Redemption‘s conclusion, it becomes even clearer that revenge is a cycle that few can ever escape out of, and that it merely changes hands from those looking to carry it out.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Red Dead Redemption, a fact that I definitely had to come to terms with while writing this. I can more or less remember when I was playing Red Dead for the first time while I was in college, and that feels like a lifetime ago now in our current pandemic sense of time. But to me, that only speaks to how Red Dead has left a lasting legacy not only as one of my personal favorite games ever, but to a story and world that has only continued to resonate with me ten years later. Red Dead‘s story is certainly far from a happy one, but it is by far a meaningful and important one.
Released on May 18, 2010 for the PS3 and Xbox 360, Red Dead Redemption came just two years after Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto IV, its sprawling and (at the time) most extensive open-world experience yet. While Red Dead Redemption was the spiritual “sequel” to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, ultimately it shared much more in common with the Grand Theft Auto series by translating its deep open-world systems to the vast plains of the Wild West. The hallmarks of GTA definitely made their way into Red Dead in terms of how its open-world was designed, and you can feel how Rockstar managed to tune its combat mechanics to better suit horses and revolvers rather than sports cars and automatic weapons.
What truly set Red Dead Redemption apart from Rockstar’s flagship series was storytelling, which provided an interesting parallel to its predecessor. Where GTAIV focused on Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant chasing the American Dream in Liberty City, Red Dead‘s story acted almost in opposition to it through John’s struggle to escape the outlaw life that he once knew. GTAIV was viewing American life and its love of capitalism through a satirical lens, while Red Dead Redemption stripped away the satire and exposed those elements of American callousness in its raw form.
Red Dead Redemption to me felt like the game that Rockstar really “grew up” with. As much as I’ve appreciated the Grand Theft Auto games over the years, by design their worlds are meant to be playgrounds where players can test the limits of how much anarchy and chaos they can create. Though GTAIV (and later GTAV) would begin moving the series in a more serious direction, to me Red Dead Redemption lent itself to a heightened storytelling experience for Rockstar that was able to get its point across without being hinged on satire and cynicism.
The story of John Marston and his search for the remaining members of the van der Linde gang took on much more personal and emotional stakes than what we’ve seen in Rockstar’s past games. While we wouldn’t know what really happened between John and the gang until Red Dead Redemption 2 arrived in 2018, Red Dead Redemption‘s story of revenge was one that had me invested in seeing John’s journey through to the very end. However, what I didn’t expect to see was how John would be the only character that would become such an engaging, tragic figure.
Nearly all of the characters in Red Dead Redemption are bound by tragedies from their past, which would only become clearer once Red Dead Redemption 2 showed us the other side of how these characters came to be. Both of these games provided the full circle of these characters’ tragic pasts and futures, and in doing so made them far more human and relatable than I could have expected. Seeing how John wound up on the path towards righteousness and a decent life only made his eventual fate that much more heartbreaking, especially with the involvement of Arthur Morgan. Dutch van der Linde, the true “villain” of Red Dead Redemption, becomes someone far more sympathetic in Red Dead Redemption 2 once you understand his rationale and how he started out. Bonnie and Sadie especially find themselves on a path towards vengeance after the loss of their loved ones, but not without having to make sacrifices to survive and lose parts of themselves in the process.
All of these characters wind up having their lives inexorably changed by the events of their past, even if they chased the outlaw life with the best intentions behind them. Whether it was for family, for love, or for freedom, what Red Dead Redemption achieved was creating a world where actions did have consequences, and where the past would eventually catch up with those trying to escape from it. Even in the epilogue section of Red Dead, where an older Jack Marston avenges his father by killing Edgar Ross, there is the feeling that this cycle of revenge has yet to be undone.
Red Dead Redemption has and always will be a game that is special to me. Even ten years later, its rich world and visuals continue to be one of the defining open-world experiences that I have ever played, and Red Dead Redemption 2 only elevated its sense of a world for players to get immersed in. I can’t listen to Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” without being transported to when John rides out to Mexico, still one of those few musical moments in games that is virtually perfect. Like the Spaghetti Western films that it was so heavily influenced by, Red Dead showed us a world that was bloody and ruthless, where the law and outlaws were sometimes one in the same, and where the good guy in this story was very much one with a questionable past.
But more importantly, Red Dead Redemption continues to stand out to me for the boldness of its storytelling, and for creating a world and characters bound by tragedy that had me hooked from the moment that John first stepped into Blackwater. Though a lot has changed in open-world games in the ten years since it released, Red Dead Redemption gave us a world that by Rockstar’s standards had never felt more alive and human, as tragic as it is.