History, Death, Masculinity, and the Sandbox: Four Pieces on Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption was released in May 2010, and has enjoyed a new resurgence in popularity and critical discussion when it unexpectedly appeared on Xbox One’s backwards compatibility program. Bullet Points Monthly, a publication connected to the Bullet Points Podcast, dedicated the month of August to a multi-part series about the game.

In “Red Dead Redemption Never Escapes The Past,” Reid McCarter (@ReidMcCarter) traces the history of the Cowboy much further into the past than America’s “untamed West,” outlining how both John Marston and the narrative itself are held hostage to the history that they combat.

This idea—that the West was a blank canvas for Americans to assume as a new home—falls apart under any decent scrutiny. The West was already inhabited. It was no unspoiled wilderness, but a place with a rich history of its own. In order to pretend that the land was new, white settlers had to forget the indigenous nations being swept from their ancestral homes. They had to ignore the dispossessed Mexicans who found themselves second-class citizens in a California and a Texas they previously controlled. And, of course, they would have to refuse to accept immigrant Chinese labourers and Black communities seeking their own fresh start away from the South as fully accepted counterparts. The Dream was conditional from the very beginning.

In “Ain’t This A Beautiful Spot?” Ed Smith (@mostsincerelyed) argues that death in all its forms is the main concern of the Western genre, and of Red Dead Redemption in particular, dooming all of their characters to a tragic, and often ironic, end.

Because they were killers, the former members of Marston’s gang are killed. In Mexico, the mass-murdering Allende is overthrown by the equally mass-murdering Reyes, who himself turns out to be a bloodthirsty despot. Most notably, Marston’s death incites his son, Jack, to take revenge. Searching for the whereabouts of Edgar Ross, Jack questions first Ross’s wife, then his brother—meeting face-to-face these members of his family, it becomes easy to imagine that somewhere, Ross has a son, who upon learning of his father’s murder, will take revenge upon Jack in kind. Marston allows himself to be killed so Abigail and Jack may live peacefully. But the cycle of murder and death continues unabated. The tragedy of Red Dead Redemption is that, despite his most sacrificial efforts, Marston’s son will grow up—and likely die—just like him.

In “Where To Now?” McCarter and Smith, engaged in an extended correspondence, challenge each other’s views about sandbox games and how Red Dead Redemption—and Rockstar games more broadly—does or does not address their criticisms,

I may have said this before, but the conception behind sandbox games, right now, seems to me based on creating a huge map first and then straining to fill it up, with as much Whatever as can be mustered. I’d prefer the ideas, the story, the levels come first and the world be built around them.

Lastly, in “The Failure of Masculinity in Red Dead Redemption,” Jess Joho (@liongirl528) examines the violent state of Red Dead Redemption’s world. In contrast to Smith’s claim that the tragic fates of the characters is a result of the Western genre’s preoccupation with death, Joho accuses the characters of dying in a self-destructive pursuit of masculine ideals.

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.

Unsubstantiated rumors currently abound of a sequel to Red Dead Redemption being announced soon. We can only hope that such a hypothetical sequel leads to the same level of discourse that its predecessor has.

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