Look. We’ve all played Red Dead Redemption. We all know its strengths (almost everything), its weaknesses (the second act in Mexico, the third act in Blackwater, John’s passivity throughout) and what made it so special (the world, the laid back opening, the excellent ending). I want to talk about RDR‘s masterstroke, the best bit of storytelling Rockstar has accomplished, and something almost no one talked about at the time: Jack Marston.
The funny thing is, whenever anyone talked about Jack, it seemed to always be about how much they hated Jack. This is understandable, since they spent 25-40 hours with John, only for him to be ripped away in a terrible, heartbreaking moment. But hear me out: that’s the point.
I could nitpick RDR‘s story to hell and back. I almost checked out during the long, flabby, directionless storytelling in Mexico. I kept with it though, and yes, the ending got to me, real bad. What Rockstar understood was that in order for John’s death to mean something, he had to get his family back and heal his relationship with Jack. As soon as Jack lets him in, as soon as he accepts him as his father, the US Army rides in and guns him down.
As the player, the moment is so sudden. The way it’s set up, when John walks out of that barn to a firing squad and the game snaps into Dead Eye Mode, you almost feel hope. John may get out of this! Sadly, that’s not the case. John could never have enough bullets in his gun. He dies, and he dies gruesomely.
As a quick aside, I love that your behavior throughout the game sets this moment up. If you played virtuously, then this is a great injustice. The government used a redeemed man then killed him to save face. But if you played like an outlaw? Then they had to put down a mad dog who couldn’t be trusted to live a good life. Same ending, either way, but different meanings based on your actions. Brilliant.
After John died, I sat in complete shock as the rest of the cutscene played out. When the camera swung over Jack’s shoulder, dressed in his father’s clothes, with a gun on his hip and a mean look in his eye, I realized that I was in control. And I was angry.
I wasn’t angry that I was Jack, like most players seemed to be. I was angry that John was killed (injustly, because I played like a saint), that my father was taken from me. I wanted to ride straight to Blackwater and start shooting everyone in sight. My anger was so great that I was almost grateful Rockstar let me be Jack, in order to take out my rage. Then a single thought hit me like a clap of thunder, “Dad wouldn’t want it that way.”
In that moment, I knew exactly how Jack felt. I’ve said it before, but this is the rare moment that makes games so great: when gameplay allows you to actually feel what it’s like to be someone else. The 30+ hours I spent with John were solely so I could have that one angry, directionless moment in Jack’s shoes, feeling what it’s like to have my father ripped away from me.
A common storytelling phrase is, “The ending is the conceit,” meaning that the ending should convey everything that the story was trying to tell up to that moment. Rockstar pulled this off in spades with Jack. Beyond feeling Jack’s anger at the loss of his father, Jack also embodies the theme, “You can’t escape the past.” John makes clear in the game that he wants his son to grow up to be nothing like him though Jack grows up to be exactly like John, even wearing his dead father’s clothes and using his weapons. Moreover, Jack underlines the theme when he kills a retired Ross, seemingly safe but unable to escape his past deeds. On top of that, Jack embodies the underlying theme that the old west is dying by idolizing his dead father so much that he acts like even more of a cowboy than John ever did, which makes Jack seem out of place. It’s astounding how well a job Rockstar did tying up the messy story of Red Dead Redemption with Jack Marston, placing layer upon layer of meaning behind his character until the theme was a glistening gem.
Yet most players hated him simply because he wasn’t John…