[Richard Clark analyzes religion, spirituality, and morality in Red Dead Redemption for Gamasutra, examining how Rockstar's latest opus addresses the themes -- and where it perhaps falls short.]
Though it wasn't apparent from the media blitz for Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's latest opus was just as much about religion and religious people as it was about rustling cattle and bringing outlaws to justice.
We all know the tendency of video game hype: play up the superficial plot points and the various groundbreaking game play features. We also know that religion is the one subject that PR departments know better than to acknowledge.
And yet, the subject is front and center in Red Dead Redemption, as both subject and subtext.
Throughout John Marston's journey, not only are we confronted with a number of religious points of view and beliefs, but we are also given clues about Marston's own religious journey. It's this pilgrimage that is most masterfully crafted.
Because our main character is relatively understated and enigmatic, we are given plenty of opportunities to project our own thoughts and assumptions into Marston's head.
Though we are provided with a small amount of guidance, at least for the first part of the game, we are left to make our own judgments about the various types of belief we are confronted with in Marston's world.
People in the Way or on the Periphery
In the Wild West, other people are just rare enough to be noteworthy. If Marston finds himself crossing paths with a stranger in the middle of nowhere, it stands to reason that this person has something to say about their experience and outlook. Of course, in this fictional world these people serve a purpose: to help Marston reflect on where he's been, where he is, and where he's going. They are there for Marston, not the other way around.
In fact, it's Marston's conversations, cooperation, and collisions with other folk that put his own life in stark contrast with the rest of the world. He takes part in Bonnie's hard-working life on the ranch and finds a life of quiet fulfillment and contentment. For the rest of the game, we sense Marston struggling not just to find this life, but to earn it in light of all the mistakes he's made in the past.
When Marston is confronted with truly bad men, he becomes irritated. It's more likely that he's irritated because he sees himself in them, rather than out of some sense of moral justice. After all, time and time again we are reminded of John's desire to stay out of other people's business. John's tantrums exhibit a real desire to leave the bad life behind, though, as well as a frustration that it doesn't seem to be something he can escape.
Whenever Marston runs across explicitly religious characters, both the player and Marston judge them immediately. They are foolish, misguided, and pitiable. One poor girl finds herself stranded in the middle of the desert, waiting for God to save her. A group of nuns seems to take an unfeeling, apathetic stance when it comes to saving the life of a reformed prostitute. A tee-totaling pastor turns out to be a compromising coward.
The Classic Cowboy/The Classic Gamer
And so, we have Marston, alone in a vast world with his thoughts. The classic cowboy, the epitome of western manliness, he takes no prisoners and heeds no advice or wisdom. He offers heroism but refuses real involvement. Just like the player, he's often so focused on the task at hand and the ultimate goal that he forgets the philosophical and spiritual questions that haunt him.
When we're given the choice to off our former gang-mates, we want to because they've wronged us. The moral line is crossed not with the rape of innocent women, not with pillaging towns of innocents, not with robbing graves, but with stepping on Marston's toes. It's classic video game morality epitomized: stand passively on the edges of my life and maybe we'll talk, but intrude, get in my way, or threaten me and we're going to fight.
Why then would Marston expect anything different when he settles down? Just because his video game goal has been accomplished doesn't mean those federal agents don't have their own incomplete quest. Marston's tried to talk them out of it before, but there is no dialogue tree imaginable that provides an opportunity for John to put himself in a different category than his former friends. As far as those agents are concerned, outlaws are indeed outlaws till the end.
Redemption Out of Reach
This isn't a game about escaping punishment, though. It's about redemption. Throughout the game, Marston is haunted by the apparent specter of a man who claims to be an accountant. To Marston's horror, this man doesn't keep count of money so much as he does Marston's own misdeeds and shortcomings. The message this man seems to be giving John is simple: your redemption is out of reach.
This is pretty much where Marston's spiritual journey ends, in spite of his desperate attempts to find some alternate ending. In a brilliant meeting of player and character motive, Marston's last moments are spent in "dead-eye" searching for some way to dodge his fate. Maybe, just maybe if we kill the right guy they'll call off the squad. But John's fate is sealed.
Rockstar has accomplished a fascinating and moving picture of a man running from his past, but it's also a cynical and overly simple statement about the nature of redemption and spiritual concerns. By granting John and many of his acquaintances a three-dimensional personality but refusing to offer the same treatment for those who would seek to speak to Marston's spiritual questions, they do their character and the player a disservice. The game is both less interesting and more oppressive as a result.
Red Dead Redemption tips its hand in its opening cut-scene, demonstrating its disregard for traditional religion. As John Marston is sent to begin his journey, we are treated to two overheard conversations. These conversations exist to serve as a contrast to the more substantial Marston and Bonnie, both of whom listen in with visible disdain. As the two ladies explain away the savage treatment of the natives with a religious justification, a holy man patronizingly explains theology to his daughter, Jenny.
How does the priest justify the unjust and unfair treatment of "innocent" victims? "There is a great deal of difference between an innocent and a savage."
Stunningly, the daughter is grateful and replies: "I never thought of it that way."
Yes, Jenny. In fact, there are quite a few religious people who have never thought that way, but they exist in reality, far removed from Rockstar's world.
[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).]