In the age of sequels, spin-offs and re-releases we find ourselves in true endings to games are becoming increasingly rare. AAA titles will always have an eye towards a sequel or another instalment, often at the cost of a succinct narrative that ends satisfactorily. Story-first games have gone some way to alleviate this problem, focusing on narrative elements rather than gameplay, however they are still mostly in the minority. More interestingly though are the games which don’t have the Hollywood ending that many have come to expect and are incorrectly labelled as ending poorly. It’s these kinds of games which challenge our preconceived ideas about what it means for something to end well versus it ending nicely.
To illustrate my point I want to show you two examples of games where the ending wasn’t Hollywoodized but one was well executed whilst the other was not (and there will be MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for both). The first being probably one of the most lamented endings in recent gaming history: Mass Effect 3. The second being one of the more sleeper hits of its time, well known as being a standout IP among story-first gamers: Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games share a commonality in that their ending was tragic, leaving you feel like you were done a great injustice by the eventual outcome, however the former did so in a way that was incongruent to the rest of the story whilst the latter was the bitter conclusion that was built up over the entire game.
Mass Effect’s story, and the effect you could have on it, was the selling point that attracted many gamers to the franchise. You could sculpt Shepard, both literally and figuratively, into the character that you wanted them to be. Decisions you made echoed throughout the whole storyline and you had to bear the weight of their outcomes whether they were what you intended or not. The ultimate (and original, I won’t talk about the DLC’s efforts to remedy the issues) ending however threw all of this away, that burden you carried through the entire game cast aside in favour of an endotron 3000 deus ex machina that asked you to choose one of three possible outcomes. Fans of the series weren’t upset at the fact that the Mass Effect trilogy was coming to an end, we all knew what we were in for from the start, we were upset that so much of what we built up meant nothing in the end.
Shepard was also not built up to be a tragic hero. Sure there are many tough decisions you had to make along the way, many of which resulted in dire consequences, however central to this was the fact that Shepard was able to overcome them all. His untimely end (or weirdly lack thereof for one ending which made little sense) was completely out of line with the character that had been built up to that point. There was every chance to start moulding Shepard for such a fate from the first title, heck even the final instalment had ample opportunity to do so, but the Starchild ending fell flat because it was a round hole solution to the square peg of Shepard.
John Marston, on the other hand, is a tragic hero character who’s incredibly sad story was built up from the opening scene. From the very beginning you know that Marston has a past that he’s trying to escape from but it’s catching up to him faster than he can run. There are moments where you think everything is going to work out, small glimmers of hope that this next thing will set him free, but they all come back around eventually. The entire story is one of struggle against himself, his past and the future he’s trying to build for his family and the sacrifices he needs to make in order for this to happen.
The ultimate ending, one which I replayed several times over in the hopes that there was some way I could overcome the odds, is the end the ultimate conclusion that had been built up over the course of the entire game. It’s not the ending I wanted (as the anger I felt at the end will attest) but it was the ending the story needed. Should they have strayed away from it, instead allowing Marston to live on with his past no longer bearing over him, that would be completely ruin him as a character. I might not have felt great after it happened but it was one of those endings that stuck with me long after the console was off and made me question how I felt about the whole story and not just its conclusion.
As you’ve likely picked up on the crux of what makes an ending good or bad, regardless of what emotional state it leaves you in, is whether or not the story has been built up to service its conclusion. This isn’t something that’s unique to video games either but its something that’s been given new light with the medium. As the medium matures we will increasingly see titles that buck the Hollywood happy ending trend and we’ll have to continually ask ourselves what it means for a game to end well. One thing will remain certain though; the conclusion to a story must be supported by all that preceded it.
At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.
The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.
The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.
Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:
Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.
You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.
In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.
In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.
If I’m seriously playing a game I find it hard to take the evil/jerk options if I’m given the choice. Maybe it’s because I like to think of myself as an upstanding member of society and being a total ass in games runs counter to that line but it’s probably because I like being the hero loved by everyone rather than the dark tyrant conquering the world. Still if there’s marked differences between the good and evil choices and the game is good enough to warrant a second playthrough (like Mass Effect 1 did, I haven’t done it with 2) I’ll usually go the other way just to get that experience. However I’ve found that, usually in sandbox type games, once I get bored with certain aspects of the game I have a tendency to switch into what I call Jerk Mode where I start messing with the game and its people in any way possible usually with hilarious results (for me anyway).
I hadn’t really done this in quite a while until I recently began trying to play through Red Dead Redemption. I had fully expected the game to be done in about 15 hours but after spending that long on primarily slogging through the story line missions I started to get a little bored with the world I had been in for so long. What followed was a classic example of Jerk Mode engaging as I began hog tying the entire town of Blackwater, punching up horses and eventually letting off hundreds of rounds in the middle of town just so I could find where the last free roaming citizens were hiding only to add them to my pile of hog tied comrades. Why the in game police take offense when I look at them the wrong way when holding a knife but barely give me a second look when I have a pile of 20 hostages tied up is beyond me, but it was quite comical when they’d walk past saying “Good day Mr Marsten”.
I’ve also found myself in Jerk Mode whenever I’m watching someone play a game that allows you to break things in extremely funny ways. I remember watching one of my housemates play Fallout 3 just after it was released and he remarked on how he could kill anyone in the game, even the core story NPCs. What ensued was an hour of me watching him over the shoulder and telling him to beat up everyone he came across, just because it would be funny. To his credit he never relented although what followed was me installing the game afterwards and acting out my twisted sense of humour on the poor citizens of the Fallout world, much to his dismay.
Looking back at all the games that were privvy to my jerky behaviour I come to realise how much it endeared the games to me. Once I had got to that point of boredom in any other game I would have simply stopped playing them and found something else to fill my time. With the ability to change my playstyle completely and fool around for a while I’d end up spending quite a lot more time with the games than I usually would and, most interestingly, enjoy them quite a lot more. It could be that I’m just supressing my inner jerk and these few times are the moments when he comes out to play but there’s something to be said for a game that allows the player who has lost interest in the game to immediately rekindle it, even if that means toturing the poor NPCs of the game’s virtual world.
My gut feeling about where this behaviour stems from is that open worlds with emergent properties really didn’t exist up until about 5 years or so ago and now that I have the opportunity I’m reveling in a new found freedom. As someone who’s been a gamer for as long as he was able to muster the hand eye co-ordination required to play them I lived through the days when the games were barely able to stray from the linear formula. Today however it seems odd when games don’t incorporate real world physics, meaningful choices and at least the feeling of a big wide world that you can bend to your whim. Sure there’s still great experiences to be had with strictly linear games but I’ll always have a soft spot for games that keep me hanging around for a little while after I’m done with them, unleashing my inner jerk on the world.