A little while ago I started playing Red Dead Redemption. Initial impressions were that it was a competent third-person shooter in a Western setting. It wasn’t anything mindblowing or groundbreaking (at least, not by my standards today. Then again, I am unfairly comparing it to masterpieces like The Last of Us), but I quickly came to like the protagonist John Marsten. He was an intoxicating mix of courteous, charming and honest-to-his-bones-good. I liked the way he referred to strangers as “friends”, friends as “sirs” and ladies as “ma’ams”. Before long I had adopted his Western drawl, just for the pleasure of it.
But despite a very loveable protagonist and very decent gameplay, an enchanting setting and a wonderful soundtrack, I am still struggling to like the game due to a moral repulsion to it. Perhaps repulsion is too harsh a word, but I frequently encounter ethical issues in the game which are more often than not glossed over. Let me give you some examples.
In the early stages of the game, it is made clear that my goal is to kill a bandit leader in a fortress. The game requires me to enlist the local sheriff’s help through essentially doing his job for him and taking care of gangs he has, for some reason, never gotten around to confronting. Having done this and proven my proficiency in storming bandit hideouts, I am keen to set my sights on the fortress and test my gun against theirs. Instead, for some reason I am not allowed to proceed until I rescue a travelling salesman and help him con villagers into buying his placebos (much like that episode of The Simpsons, when Homer and Abe team up). After cheating several honest settlers out of their money, I am encouraged to help a graverobber track down a man who is being held by the local authorities. This requires me to steal the horses of the lawmen so that he can break into the prison. The game then instructs me to help a drunken Irishman who is receiving a beating from two thugs. I disarm them both, but the game will not proceed until they are both killed. Reluctantly, I shoot the cowering men in the heads. My next mission is to retrieve a gattling gun from a group of strangers, whom I slaughter in cold blood without so much as a “Howd’you-do, can-we-maybe-talk-about-taking-that-gun-off-your-hands?”. It is only after these despicable acts that the game reveals why I enlisted the help of such shady characters (reasons that are shaky at best) rather than storming the fortress with the sheriffs.
What bothers me most is that the game starts by having Marsten shot, so that it can show you how painful and expensive it is to recover. Yet in spite of this, I am encouraged at every turn to shoot people without concern for the consequences. If I see a man running away from other men, I’m expected to assume he’s an outlaw and am rewarded for gunning him down. If a man is slowly jogging away with a tied up woman over his shoulder, rather than chase him down or ask him what he’s doing, I’m directed to shoot him. If I deal him a less-than-mortal-blow, he turns his own gun on me until I finally end his life. If I see a man with a knife about to kill a prostitute, trying to lasso him results in his instant death because the game doesn’t expect me to care about trying to stop him without murdering him.
Long time readers of my blog (haha, just kidding. There are none.) might recall that I place a huge level of importance on moral decision makings in games. Red Dead Redemption creates the illusion that there is a morality system based on honour where you can choose to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. In actuality, the choice is between being “a heartless outlaw” and being “a sociopathic lawman”. I’ve shot and killed plenty of innocent people because I’ve mistaken them for criminals at a distance, and what have the consequences been? Have bounties been placed on me, like those that I regularly take on for people charged with lesser crimes such as assault or kidnapping? Nope. I lose a small amount of honour and no one’s any the wiser. Hell, I was caught cheating during a poker game and was challenged to a duel, and when I shot the unfortunate man in the arm, I was actually awarded honour for sparing his life.
As loveable as the characters are, (and as addictive as poker is), I just can’t stand being forced to make terrible moral decisions if I want the game to proceed. I’m about halfway through it now, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to finish it. Perhaps Undead Nightmare will be a little more satisfying.
Stay tuned for more rambles about my complex moral systems in games that no one cares about. See y’all next time.