This is not new, edited, or polished. It IS ridiculously long. It’s also not terrible, looking back. So it gets thrown up here, spoilers and all. One of the better quests of the last generation…
I have never been to the West.
I have been to the West Coast. This is something different. That is the place that, for me, a prodigal New Englander, an émigré New Yorker, was a place where suddenly the sunlight itself looked like the light in 80s sitcoms, and wine was local and delicious, and everyone’s just a bit less…pragmatic than us weather-tested Yankees.
Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been to Austin. Almost bought a cowboy hat and everything.
So why do I feel like I’ve never seen the desert? I haven’t. It’s not there in my memories, as it should be—I know what tumbleweeds and armadillos look like. I’ve felt the freakish terror of warm rain, which is as much a sign of a stranger-in-a-strange-land as anything else. But the open sky and ocean-less land is not in my heart. Probably because when I went, I stayed inside city limits and went to bars every night. I woke up and stared at the state capital from my hotel window, and not the endless expanse that I was told, was just there, outside, under the stars and away from the bright glass everything that made up that city.
And I’m told the West—the open West, the Wild West—or at least, what’s left of it, is transformative. Arresting. That you can hear your soul, or your god, or your bliss. (This by an agnostic!) But I hate relentless sun, and the absence of water even more. And then, there are the ghosts.
We have those up here. There are ghosts by the ghostload here in the Northeast, where the oldest, creakiest buildings and Halloweeniest burying grounds in the country are situated. We have Hawthorne, and Salem, and Lizzie Borden. Tarrytown and Amityville. We have accounts of…strange happenings.
It’s a place where a few short centuries past, god was shoehorned into every choice, and the earliest outsiders saw the devil in every dark hollow. And even if you’re not really religious, to grow up here means that, at some point, maybe in school, maybe in scouts, maybe in sports, there was the implicit threat of a moral tote board, one that no one really could read, much less completely understand.
I like being John Marston, even though I’m not very good at it. Sometimes I have to take the “shame” option, the one that disqualifies me from achievements but at least gets me to the next location, despite the fact that I keep crashing a stagecoach, or losing a race. It’s not cool. My partner leaves the room to spare me the embarrassment as I press the ‘skip challenge’ option.
I don’t really mind. I go to sleep to preserve my game, and whistle for my horse in the bright of the morning, and ride through some of the most beautiful lands I’ve ever seen—game world or otherwise. Canyons and gullies and prairies: the landscapes of my childhood reading too many books and comics. This is where the Little House was, or someplace very like. The Lone Ranger ranged lone all through this, at least as it appeared in my mind.
It’s a place where John doesn’t even have to do anything, save for riding, and hunting, and looking for medicinal herbs. He can camp under the stars and patrol a ranch or town. Play cards. Have a drink. It’s a good life for a man who hasn’t always been so.
Of course, there are other things to do. Round up varmints. Help peddle snake oil. Join a shootout. Win a duel. Rob someone. Capture an outlaw. Probably whittle, though I haven’t figured out how yet. Ditto for chawin’ tobackee. Horseshoes is fun, when I’m not tipsy, which is often.
Sometimes, when Marston rides quietly under the fat moon and slate blue sky, he and I get a sense of being watched. We stop, and sometimes a wolf or a coyote, or a mess of them charge the horse, and we shoot them and sell the skins for decent money at the nearest general goods store. Sometimes.
But there are times when no wolf comes, and the feeling persists. So Marston spurs his mount and gets the hell back home, shuddering a bit in that way. The shudder your grandmother said was someone walking over the site of your future grave.
I don’t know why morality has emerged as the definitive spindle of branching storylines and reputation in games. I mean, it’s fun to be the hero, and it’s fun to be bad. And maybe it’s just an extension of the ‘Cowboys and Injuns’, ‘Darth vs. Luke’ games we played as kids. But I guess I thought that the digital playground would have even more building blocks (bit blocks?) to create opportunities for weirder, more interesting choices.
I want a game where you can be crazy or sane, the Lethal Weapon of interactive IPs. I want a series where you can be either Han Solo or C-3P0, or you can fuck off. I want the game where you can be a rich merchant and buy your way to victory, which hasn’t been a legitimate choice since Oregon Trail. And I want these things because, objectively, the goal in games doesn’t always need to be To Save Or Destroy The World.
To that end, the goal in Red Dead Redemption is…not clear. On the surface, it’s laid out well in the first third of the game. John Marston, a gone-straight former outlaw, is being blackmailed to take care of one of his ex-colleagues, in order that an incumbent candidate for public office ends up looking tough on crime. If he fails, the unspecified threat is that he’ll never see his wife and son again. Whether that is to be done through Marston’s incarceration or death, or the death of his wife and son, is unclear. Implications are made, but it’s all very nebulous.
So Marston wants to get back to his family. This is not a World-Saving goal, which is a good start. And the implied menace on the part of the federal government lets me know that this isn’t some black and white cinema serial, but the conflicted world of the True West, where people’s motives are the only cloudy things in the land of the Big Clear Sky.
But my Marston sure doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to get back to the missus. If I check my journal, he and I have spent a month, maybe more, as a nighttime guard at a ranch several miles from our quarry, ropin’, huntin’ and ranchin’. The goal point’s there, on the map. He and I could head out right now, but nope. Instead, Marston and I visit the ranch house, and have tea with the owner’s daughter. When that’s done, he unfurls the map again, and we scrutinize the points of interest in the expanse of New Austin, which is kind a part of Texas, except not. It’s like we’re fucking tourists at a dude ranch, instead of a desperate man fighting for his family. So maybe this isn’t the real goal of the game.
We stand, hot in the late day sun and trace a finger down the map.
Just there, southeast of Armadillo, south of Mescalero. In an area, mostly pasture, to the east of an abandoned chapel. A question mark indicates there’s a point of interest. Marston’s ridden through that area; it’s mostly rocky and dry, overlooking the river. He rolls up the map and whistles for his horse.
Originally, the horse was supposed to have a name. Now, it doesn’t. Either Marston or I are uncomfortable with naming a mount. Perhaps because he’s on his second of what will be many horses in this adventure, or perhaps, like Capote, he doesn’t believe he has the right to give him one.
I think Capote should have written westerns. The arms-length that he kept everything at fits in very well with an Old West sensibility. Anyway, the horse shows up and Marston and I head off.
When we get near the spot, which is near—well, nothing, we can see a dark figure at the edge of the cliff. He’s in black, with a top hat. Only two types of people wear top hats in this area: undertakers, and people who hail from somewhere else. As we ride up, he calls Marston by name and says he’s been waiting for him.
Marston could pass this person by. He does this often, especially on his errands out to Armadillo, where the road is busy and he needs to get back to the ranch before nightfall. But for some reason, he feels…compelled…to dismount and walk up to the Strange Man and the view overlooking the river.
(He feels compelled; I want the quest we saw on the map.)
Marston is compelled again when he says, “Do I know you?”
“I hope so. I seem to know you.”
“I’m pretty good at rememberin’ faces.”
We both get a look at the Strange Man. Everything about him is either jet-black or white: his clothes, hair, mustache are darker-than-dark, bone-black matte in the late-morning sun. His skin is pale, like his shirt, but for the terrifying circles around his eyes. If he were thinner, Marston and I would suppose him to be sick, maybe with the consumption or fever n’ ague. But he’s sturdy and barrel-chested. Maybe gout? He looks rich enough for gout.
He asks if Marston remembers the face of a woman who was on a ferry he raided back when he ran with that gang he’s now supposed to bring down. The act that will buy passage back to his family. Marston doesn’t. Nor does he remember that her face was blown off by his former boss, the man he needs to kill.
“Then why would you remember me, friend? You’ve forgotten far more important people than me.”
Marston asks what he’s angling at. The Strange Man assures him there’s no flim-flam, just that he occasionally wishes that he’d “known more about life.” He wished for guidance. This is not an old man, but we’re not sure what his age is. So why is he lamenting his life? It’s not like it’s over or anything, right?
The Strange Man then says a bit more. What Marston and I hear clearly are “I think” and “I know”.
He thinks a friend of his is planning to sleep around “on his dear wife.” Also, he knows what Marston is, and can Marston ride out and provide a bit of that lamented absent guidance to his tempted buddy? Of course, only if he’s “got the time. Friend.” So we’re all friends, like. Nice and easy for everyone, yaknowwhudImean? Why do I feel like Whitey Bulger just asked me to pick up calzones for him and the rest of the Winter Hill Gang?
It’s weird how the rhythms of life take over gameplay in Red Dead Redemption. Normally, I’d get Marston right back on his horse and make a beeline for this friend. But the sun will be setting in an hour, and Marston’s made a promise to Bonnie, the rancher’s daughter, to patrol the fences every night. So we ride back, stable the horse, and set out with one of the dogs to check out the corrals.
Is…is living the goal of this game? Completely disappearing into this place, taking on daily challenges in order to have a bit more money in my pocket and fame to my name, in order to…what? Get a better horse, better gun, fancier suit? My Marston wears the same clothes he showed up in. He looks damn good in them. I love it all: the grizzled face, dirty hair, haunted eyes. And the boots. Oh, the boots! Can’t be a cowboy—heck, can’t even be a varmint without ‘em. Marston even sleeps in them, although that might have to do with the whiskey.
At any rate, they’re still on his feet when he wakes up after a long night of patrolling. He puts on his hat and heads out to the horse.
Thieves’ Landing is located in a rank, pulpy swampland in the far east of New Austin. It’s established enough that you’d think a man with Marston’s mottled past would have reason to visit regularly, maybe catch up with old friends and acquaintances. But we’ve never been. He has a scrap of paper somewhere in his saddlebag that gives him the address of a tailor who’ll make him a fancy suit, but almost everyone in Thieves’ Landing seems to dress pretty much like the residents of Armadillo, only instead of the muted landscape colors found in calico, denim and suede, these citizens seem to only wear shades of “muck” and “olive green.” Way to blend, folks.
Even though it’s early afternoon when we arrive, the daylight seems to evaporate under the town’s atmosphere. Sunbeams are replaced with mist, along with a sad greenish funk that hangs over everything, so we see less and hear more. Mostly johns trying to beat up prostitutes. When he can find them, Marston breaks them up, but mostly, he just wants to get this over with and the fuck out.
My Marston is always like this. I mean in multiple playthroughs of multiple games; good or bad; famous or infamous. No matter how mustache-twirling he gets, no matter how many women he (in a different playthrough) kidnaps, hogties, and sticks on railroad tracks for engines to decapitate, he can’t stand the sound of women getting roughed up. It’s becoming a tradition to write this, but the issue of sexual violence in games is for another chapter. We’re here to…what was it again?
…patrol the outskirts? Nope.
…see my wife and kids? Erm…
…kill my old boss? He’s not here.
Goldangit, what was the goal?
Oh, right. Weirdo. Top hat. Friend, adultery. Marston begins walking up and down Main Street, vainly looking for a cutscene to ease into.
*A hooker giggles in front of her tavern and some drunk idiot.*
Thar ‘tis! Here we go.
The friend is bent over the hooker’s cleavage. She’s playing as coy as a hooker can while standing outside in her underwear. (Okay, fine—she’s got something like a skirt on. But the shirt is off and the corset is out. Along with most of her boobs.)
Let’s freeze the screen for a bit, okay?
Okay. Get yourself a drink, maybe some pretzels. Jerky if you’re feeling authentic. Settle in!
When people think of “Westerns” as an entertainment genre (films, tv, books, etc.) they’re actually thinking about two separate narratives. The first is the classic “white hat”, “black hat” story, the one where the Calvary always comes to the rescue in the nick of time, where all the women have hearts of gold under their prairie dresses or saloon gowns; and people always listen to the town doctor or sheriff as they dispense nuggets of wisdom. It’s the rosy, folksy world that The Three Amigos was happy to skewer, the world of Rawhide and Gunsmoke. If Westerns were sci-fi, these would be “soft.”
Then there’s the other type.
The kind where women aren’t “kidnapped”; they’re euphemistically “ruined.” The kind where robbing a stagecoach means a bloodbath. The kind where you’re not watching the adventures of a real hero, but an anti-hero. The kind where you watch justifiably-wronged folks lay down penalties far worse and more permanent than any rustlin’ or chicanery might require. This is the Western of “a life for an eye.” You know the type: Unforgiven. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. These are “hard” Westerns.
Which side does Red Dead Redemption fall on?
Let’s return to the action.
Marston interrupts. “Excuse me, mister?”
“Well, what the hell do you want?”
No matter what decision my Marston makes, he says he knows what the friend is planning to do. And shit—but my Marston, on this playthrough, goes white hat and all evangelical on him.
“…you don’t want to do this…your wife? She loves you.”
“Shit, mister. I don’t know who or what you are but…I guess I’m grateful. I guess you’re right—I was raised better ‘n this.”
The hooker takes her boobs and sashays off, either back to the saloon or for a pleasant troll—I mean, stroll—through the center of town.
Marston, also, prepares to take his leave. “Don’ mention it…go on, now.” The friend stays where he is, perhaps pondering his close brush with damnation and the weird circumstances that brought Marston to him in the nick of time. (Incidentally, it’s a presumptive fallacy—and a delicious hallmark in gaming—that Marston happened to catch this guy “in the nick of time,” as if a mere fifteen seconds later he’d be on his way upstairs with his hooker, popping silver dollars down her cleavage like she’s a penny arcade machine. I know that no matter how many patrols I did at the ranch, how many runs to Armadillo, however many nights I spent camping under the stars, that guy and his prostitute would still be waiting, in that spot, to start running their lines as soon as my Marston appeared. A year could have passed, but it would seem like a day since the Strange Man suggested that he mosey on over to that shitty saloon in Thieves’ Landing. Sometimes, gaming is like being both the star and director of the Truman Show, and that control over what is usually uncontrollable is one of the reasons I love to game.)
At any rate, once can almost imagine him calling out to Marston’s retreating silhouette, “Hey…thanks, Mysterious Stranger! But I didn’t get your name!”
So let’s pause the action again, because that unsaid sentence is pretty important. Have some jerky!
What just happened to this bumfuck is pretty similar to what Marston went through to even show up at Thieves’ Landing in the first place. Going about, minding his business, contemplating an act that might or might not end up being the best thing for him. For the friend, it’s adultery. For Marston, it’s ultimately going after Dutch, his old boss-or-colleague from his days in the gang. And the friend has to deal with this (strange-and-unnamed-to-him) person before he can proceed.
Now, Marston could have passed that question mark on the map on by. The flag that told him (and me) there was a side quest that wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. But it told me-the-player that there was more game to be had, and to my Marston, it provided a tantalizing distraction that, in his rationale, has to be dealt with before he’s ever ready to move on with dispatching Dutch.
Just for shits and giggles—I mean, just for spits and whittles—let’s look at what happens when Marston opts to advise the friend to go for it: “Excuse me, mister?”
“Yeah? And what do you want?”
“Look—don’t ask me how, but I know what you’re about to do, and you need this.” *hands him fifteen dollars, which the hooker then pockets*
“What? Oh…uh…thank you!”
“You don’t need to thank me—it’s obvious you need this.”
“You’re damn right I do—I deserve a good woman! You’re right!”
“Don’ mention it. Go on now.”
And like that, he’s gone.
The first part of the quest ends at this point. No rewards; no arrow towards another location. If Marston rides back to the cliff where he first found the Strange Man, there’s nothing there but grass. Indeed, I’ve un-paused the game again, and Marston and I are riding back towards the ranch. It’s a pretty road, and he and I have some time to think.
Whatever Marston’s thinking of, I don’t know. Remember, we’re back in the playthrough where he just nobly dissuaded the friend from doing anything that would break his marriage vows. Is Marston thinking about his own wife and kid? Is he thinking about the Strange Man? The hooker’s boobs? Damned if I know. He could be watching that hawk in the distance take flight and just be thinking “Heh. BIRD,” while the horse clops through the early evening.
I’m thinking about Marlowe. Not Philip, but Christopher. Faustus, to be exact. [Insert monocle and raised-pinky jokes about lit majors here.] So for those who don’t know, Faustus (aka Faust, Dr. Faust, Dr. Faustus, or MC SellSoul, but never Feist) is a longstanding character famous for making a pact with the devil in exchange for power and knowledge. Marlowe wrote about this legend, in a piece that reads like an esoteric morality play.
That’s sticking in my mind because, as I mentioned before, I grew up in New England where there are three churches for every churchgoer, and because Marlowe’s version of Faust ends up not doing a whole lot with the opportunities the devil gives him. He’s perpetually haunted by an angel and a devil, both imploring him to move fully over to one side or the other. Instead, at least by the latter part of the play, he just drifts around, moaning about the fact that he’s damned, and how stupid it was that he chose to make the deal with the devil which would end up damning him, which he is, and he feels bad about it. Ugh. This guy was proto-emo.
There’s clearly no deal being made here. The Strange Man isn’t offering anything. Outside of ‘more game’, there’s little reason for Marston and I to have stopped at that cliff. But we did.
Back in the Middle Ages, morality plays were used, usually alongside sermons and festival performances, as a kind of picture book for an illiterate congregation. These were the Goofus and Gallants of their time, where stock characters dressed in outfits that would have immediately been recognized by viewers as ideals or vices like ‘Mercy’ or ‘Sloth’. The main character was always some version of an innocent rube, thrown into events where he would be tempted to steal or drink or kick chickens or something. Then a dude dressed as an angel might show up and show him some beautiful future via a dude, dressed in a gown, acting as ‘Forgiveness’ or something similar. Either the rube would repent, and go to heaven, and everyone in the congregation would rejoice and throw things, or the rube would reject the angel, and get dragged off to hell, and everyone in the congregation would rejoice and throw things. Either way, something was going to get thrown—that was a big part of the point of going to plays back then if you were poor and bored.
I’m yammering on about this because despite the constant framing of game choices through the view of morality—murky or otherwise—I don’t believe that games are this generation’s version of morality plays. Years from now, I’m sure historians will make an argument in favor of the idea, but I still think it’s bullshit.
I think morality’s one of the dominant paradigms in contemporary narrative game design because it’s easy. It fits well into the purpose of questing, and it’s one of the strongest and simplest ways to provoke a positive emotional reaction from the player. It feels great being Dirk DoGood, and also Tommy Troublemaker. It empowers us in a way that isn’t really present in everyday life, so we keep chasing that triumphant high that indicates decent expectations for profitable sequels.
Marston coughs, quietly. The horse has stopped. In my ramblings, I’ve forgotten to push the joystick, and now we’re all just there, looking down the road toward the West. We head back to the ranch to pack up. Tomorrow, we’ll head out to get Dutch.
Ok, so the bastard escaped.
And now we’re in Mexico, in a place called Nuevo Paraiso, doing the usual chain of favors necessary in plot padding to gain access to Dutch’s new hideout. So far, I’ve played very nice to both a group of rebels and the presidential guard so that both don’t shoot me on sight. Marston’s on his third horse, and lives in a shack down by the river. Sick of fish for every meal, he sometimes heads up to the tiny village of Chuparosa, for a couple tamales and a shooting lesson from Landon.
Marston met Landon Ricketts when the latter watched us fend off a group of idiotas who tried to go after our boots, los tontos. He’s taciturn…
…see what I did there? Dammit, nadie entiende mis chistes.
Anyway, Landon thought Marston had gumption, and offered to teach him a thing or two about gun fightin’ and card playin’ and a tiny bit more about moralizin’. Also how to hit a spittoon at 15 feet.
Like Marston, Landon’s trying to do right by his past, trying to balance out the lives he took then for lives he wants to save now. Of course, doing so means taking more lives.
Good or bad, Marston doesn’t have a problem with this. There’s a curious warp of cognitive dissonance throughout the game. Back in New Austin, my Marston regularly went bounty hunting, both for the income and the chance to see some of the backcountry surrounding Armadillo. To get to the guy with the price on his head, we had to fight through the rest of his gang, who immediately started shooting the minute they got a whiff of bacon on the wind. Down they went, every last one, losing their own lives for trying to take mine.
But the bounty? Who’s shooting at me as well, and even more viciously once he realizes he’s the only one left? Well, Marston won’t get the money and honor promised unless he brings him in alive. In the months that Marston spent in New Austin, he got real good at hog-tying. Damn good. Rodeo-competition good. (When did rodeos start, anyway? That could be the goal: to run away from everything and join the cowboy circus, or at least Wild Bill Hickok.)
But it all makes scant difference to Marston. Either way, the fool was trying to kill him. He’d be justified in knocking him off. But the game doesn’t see it that way. In doing so, it fails to jibe with the tenor set not only by Marston, but also by the majority of other characters, who are fully aware that it’s a kill-or-be-killed world on the frontiers.
Well, at least some innocents get saved.
One afternoon, after a short lesson and a long bottle of whiskey, my Marston nods to Landon, heads to his horse and unfolds our map. He whistles, and swears under his breath.
The Strange Man is back. Here. In Nuevo Paraiso. Far east, and south of El Matadero. What the heck does that fucker want? We decide to ask him in person, saddling up and heading through the dusty-rose and rusty-iron colored canyons to the small plateau where the quest marker is.
The wind is hot, like the air from a campfire on your face. Whoops—that’s an actual fire. The Strange Man has set up a camp, and is busy stirring the flames under an empty spit with a long stick.
The whole setup looks kind of seedy. The tent is faded and full of holes, flapping lamely in the slight breeze. A burro or donkey—I can never remember the difference and Marston’s not about to tell me—stands to the side. This isn’t the gear of a man who would wear a fancy getup like the person before us. Speaking of which, he looks exactly the same. And he’s started a fire, in the middle of the afternoon, in the Mexican desert, and he’s not sweating at all. Marston looks around for the food the Man might be getting ready to cook, but he sees none.
He doesn’t even turn around as Marston approaches, but still calls him by name. “Welcome to Nuevo Paraiso, John.”
This is infuriating. “Where…do I know you from?”
He says Marston’s famous. He talks about that time we cleared out a crop of banditos who were trying to keep us from crossing over into Mexico. He talks about Marston deciding for others what’s Right or Wrong, and applying those decisions both to killing and, somewhat anticlimactically, to marriage. Marston and I both are getting annoyed, and a little creeped out. He asks the Strange Man who he is, to moralize on Marston’s moralizing.
“You, know…I admire you, John. I hope my boy turns out just like you.”
Marston disagrees. But the Strange Man presses his argument.
“You kill people so easily! Yet you respect the vows of marriage. Very curious.”
Marston feels comfortable leaving his moral estimation up to “the appropriate authorities.” He then calls the Strange Man friend. And stares hard. The camera misses it, but it’s a glorious, Clint Eastwood moment. The desert seems suspended in that moment, until, in the background, a hawk takes flight. The Strange Man doesn’t seem to care.
“Yes, you will. And they shall.”
The Strange Man changes tack. “Anyway, I hear that an old nun is traveling from the monastery, taking the money that she raised to the bank…why don’t you head up there and see if you can lend her a hand. Road’s full of thieves. Either that or…rob her yourself. I’ll see you around, John.”
Marston hopes otherwise. The Strange Man goes back to poking the fire. From my angle, it doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing. He stabs idly at the log and embers, as if that will make them burst into flames. This is no local. My Marston clenches his jaw and mounts up. We head out to the “monastery” over in the Perdido territory.
Still got that jerky? Let’s take a brief interlude to see how the Strange Man treats Marston if he gave the friend fifteen dollars:
“You, know…I admire you, John. I hope my boy turns out just like you…But why are you faithful to your wife, if you pay a man…to sleep with whores?”
This time around, the Strange Man’s not so stuck on Marston’s killing, but just on the whole “you need to cheat” thing. It’s the hypocrisy, rather than the loss of life, that he wants to needle Marston over. And…fair enough. Honor, infamy, Good vs. Bad—I keep repeating myself, but I think that morality of the West was nebulous in many regards. In my ‘bad’ Marston playthrough, I could theorize that the friend is stuck in an awful, unsalvageable marriage, in a time when divorce was unheard of, where he hasn’t been laid by his shrew of a wife in years, and his job as a stagecoach guard means he never really knows when the end’s coming. So a short round of “hide the pommel” isn’t that unreasonable.
Or maybe he’s a drunken asshole who just likes hookers. That’s a theory too.
Las Hermanas means “The Sisters”. I’ll assume that they’re “The Sisters of [insert random saint name here]” and Las Hermanas is the shorthand that everyone in the region uses, not all of whom are catholic or really give a fig. (“Fig leaf?” Geddit? Religion? *sigh* I need help.) The “monastery” (convent) is an adobe fortress with red clay roofing that looks pretty standard for the area. What is unusual is that the world seems to have pulled right up to the cloister’s front gate, in the form of a train stop about twenty feet away, made of the same adobe. I can’t decide if this is weird. On the one hand, don’t nuns generally try to shun major contact with technology and the secular world? But on the other, if you’re a bunch of nuns out by yourself in the middle of the desert, and you’ve devoted your life to helping the less-fortunate that are close by, a train stop would be a decent source of supplies without having to send the sisters away for days at a time to towns like Escalera. I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking it.
The Mother Superior is hawking for donations to…basically no one, except what looks like the convent gardener. She stands outside the front gate, a few yards back from the train stop, asking the aloe plants and the tumbleweeds for money to help the poor.
She’s still calling for alms from no one when my Marston dismounts and walks up to her.
“Ah-oh, sir! Could you find it in your heart to donate some money for the poor?”
Wait—why is she asking me in English? Could she tell he wasn’t a native Mexican? Does my Marston look that much like a gringo? I assess: boots, pants, shirt, vest, hat. I mean, it’s lacking a poncho, but Marston feels like he could decently pass for a caballero. Also, wasn’t I supposed to escort her to the bank? She makes no mention of this, makes no move to saddle up her…donkey? Burro? Mule? Crap.
Well, now I’m even more confused. And I just found out that ‘Exploding Donkey’, ‘Donkey Basketball’, and ‘Onolatry’ which means, I-shit-you-not, the worship of donkeys, are all actual entries in Wikipedia.
She makes no move to saddle up her beast of burden, all right? Let’s get back on the horse, here! (I really need help. Like a ‘Shitty Jokes Anonymous’ or something.)
She continues to stare pleadingly at Marston and ask him for alms in accented English. Marston responds. “Well, maybe, but—ain’t it the Lord’s responsibility to look over his flock? Not mine?”
“Yes, but the Lord has brought you to me, so you could help me! They’re at their wits end, and their faith has been cast aside. All it would take is a few dollars to get them started on the right path, so they could see that there are those who care.”
Marston remains skeptical. “A few dollars to completely restore someone’s faith? I never knew life was so…simple.”
And he and I opt to drop some money in the bucket in front of her.
The Mother Superior looks grateful—and grave. “Yes. Life is much simpler than we make it.”
She thanks Marston, and says, “God bless you,” as we turn to leave. The trip to the bank forgotten, she continues to beg the sky for money.
Neither Marston nor I know what to feel. As I said, all that’s around here is the “monastery” (convent) and a train platform. For lack of anything better to do, and to clear his head, Marston gets back on his horse and heads east.
If, in this playthrough, my Marston were more devious, I could hogtie the Mother Superior, shoot any witnesses, blast her in the head while apologizing, and take the donations, which are several hundred dollars. It’s almost an afterthought. There doesn’t appear to be any way to rob her at gunpoint right off the bat, so this Oh-just-one-more-thing act after listening patiently to her spiel and donating some of Marston’s (possibly stolen) money seems particularly villainous. Not that it should make much difference, but she’s also a pretty feeble old lady, which is sometimes hard to depict in gaming. (Much of the time, “old” in games just means slapping some age lines and liver spot textures on a face, presenting ‘gray’ as a hair color option, and you’re done. The same bodies, same facial muscles, same animations as any healthy person in that desired 18-50 range that could be described as ‘strapping’. Makes all the old people look like college kids playing ‘Gramps’ in the Spring term sophomore musical. Although, to be fair, you can disguise this by slapping a lot of clothes on them and making them walk slower.)
No matter what, it’s bad-as-bad can be, and unlike the cheating back in Thieves’ Landing, much harder for me to rationalize. (“Uh, ok, so the nun is like, into genocide, and she’s using the donations to ‘help’ the poor by buying cyanide to poison their grain supply! Yeah! Score another for Marston!”) In the ‘bad’ playthough, I didn’t have the heart or stomach to do this, despite being quite capable of watching kidnap victims get hanged without rescuing them, stealing anything that isn’t nailed down, shooting cows just to watch them die, and shoving pedestrians. Nun-killing, for me, crossed some Socratic line, despite knowing this place, like all games, was a land of illusion.
Back to the other playthrough. Marston’s gone hunting. Tonight, he’ll camp under the stars, on a playa without too many coyotes, and look over the map. If he ever wants to get to Dutch, there are some tricky politics between the presidential army and the rebels which he’ll have to negotiate.
If he ever wants to get to Dutch.
Something about all of this doesn’t feel right. Ah, well, I’m sure it’s nothing. Look—a bobcat! ¡Vamos!
I’m conflicted about this quest. These chapters, like all fictional and real universes, have rules. And though I spend plenty of time mugging and snarking through the fourth wall about the weird dual world that we players get to experience, half in our heads, half in the bitlands, I try to fully live in my avatar’s world, and abide by its natural laws. If something in that world seems stupid or not functional, I mention it. If something is clearly cooler than real life, I mention that, too.
But it’s always of that world. The gears and watchworks that go into the meta-structure shouldn’t interrupt the illusion.
And this time, it’s just not possible.
Back in 2010, a letter was published on Gamasutra that described a culture of exploitation, overwork, and insufficient resources for the Red Dead Redemption development team. When the game was released, it was hailed as a masterwork, and it is. But as I played it, I also saw tiny pockets of incomplete or underdeveloped gameplay, little empty beats where I got the strong sense there was supposed to be “more game.”
The story of The Strange Man is one of them. That interlude in Nuevo Paraiso? That was weird, right? The fact that good or bad, you march through an identical cutscene with the Mother Superior, with no further flags, rewards or other indications except the fleeting HUD-feed that you might see the Strange Man again? Only after this message can you kill her, if you choose. And doing so has the same repercussions as killing a random schoolmarm or fur trapper you might come across on the road.
And wasn’t Marston supposed to either escort her to the bank or rob her? Instead, it all just…ended. I just get the overwhelming sense that time simply ran out for the team at Rockstar. Which is a shame, because the implications of I Know You are haunting. Literally.
The next time we see the Strange Man, two things should be noted:
- he’s on Marston’s land, near his home, and
- what he says to Marston does not change, regardless of Marston’s behavior at Las Hermanas.
I believe that the first was always planned; the second was not. But The Strange Man’s singular, final message to Marston—one that cannot be changed by Marston’s actions—actually makes the whole encounter even more intriguing and a source of ongoing speculation by a jaded and often-easily-distracted group of players.
So what does this unchanging encounter between the Strange Man and Marston consist of? Well, let’s see what my Marston is up to. Dutch is dead. Marston’s allowed to return to his family. He’s back home on his ranch, on a late summer afternoon, when he notices that pesky question mark, once again, popped up on his map. Marston knows who it is, and what’s more, the bastard’s trespassing. He heads up to a small pasture, where the Strange Man is strolling about, his clothing unchanged from the previous two encounters.
I won’t paraphrase. Here, thanks to the Red Dead Redemption wiki, is the encounter in its entirety:
Strange Man: Ain’t this a beautiful spot?
John: Sure. What are you doing here?
Strange Man: My accounts. I’m an accountant.
John: Is that so?
Strange Man: In a way.
John: What’s your name?
Strange Man: You know, it’s the darndest thing, but I can’t remember.
John: Tell me your damn name and where you know me from!
Strange Man: Well, I know you from Mexico, and I know you from back out West. I know you from all over.
John: Tell me your name, or I won’t be responsible for my actions.
Strange Man: Oh, but you will. You will be responsible. This is a fine spot. See you around, cowboy.
John: Damn you!
Strange Man: Yes, many have.
At this point, Marston takes his gun and shoots the Strange Man in his back, as he walks off towards the horizon. In a cutscene. Over which there is no control.
And I could argue that this wouldn’t be the act of the ‘good’ Marston, and they ran out of time, and went with what they’d already got done, and now it’s canon. And so it is. So I guess I do.
The quest, at this point, is over. The Strange Man, miraculously unhurt, is gone and Marston is left staring at both his gun and the Man’s retreating figure in confusion. No further reward or information is given either to Marston or me. So what the fuck, right?
Well, there are a few things to look at. There’s the player response in-game. This entire quest doesn’t feel like a polished series of events. But even saying that feels too much like I’m breaking the rules again, like turning on the lights in the middle of a horror movie. So I’ll leave it at that.
Then there’s this idea of a haunting in the wide, shadowless lands of the West. Of ghosts in the fields and on the plateaus. Marston is spooked, and rightly so, so much that he tries (uncharacteristically) to commit an act of cowardice by shooting a man in the back. So much of life in the old West and indeed, in the game, for all the dueling and brawling and roping and hijacking, was also benign, routine, mundane. The everyday actions of survival in an untamed world. So this encounter sticks out, to Marston and me.
El Muerte, Silver Heels, Black Jack Ketchum…stories born of campfires and maybe attempts to lighten up dull letters back home.
Dear Eustacia, it’s two more days ‘til I reach the Fort. All is well, except the coffee, which is awful. Sure is hot and bright out here. Please send me the news from out East and oh yes, I met a strange man dressed all in black when I wandered the along the ridge after dinner. Knew me by name and mentioned that one time I was “ungentleman-like” to Sarah Jane Tompkins. I pissed myself in fear and yelled those words the pastor always warned against and ran like heck back to camp. Hope all is well, send my love to Mother.
Or maybe they were real. In the end, that’s not what really matters.
This entire chapter has rambled about quite a bit, and I apologize for that. I wonder if people traveling West, from steamboat to station to town to ranch also let their minds wander, out and around and back again over one big thing that weighed down their minds.
Here’s what online speculation offers regarding the identity of the Strange Man:
Maybe he’s not that last one, but they both sure come from the same country. Oh, you never heard of it? Obfuscatia.
These are all reasonable, logical best guesses. And I just can’t go with any of them.
The Strange Man is a strange element in a masterpiece of a game. It both belongs in the story and befuddles it. And, in an epic that requires dozens of hours to finish, the dialogue between Marston and the Strange Man takes about five minutes total. Yet theories and fan films abound, trying to understand the nature of these unnatural encounters.
Here’s my take.
I keep mentioning the Northeastern, post-Puritan ghostworld mentality that if you lived here at all, you’ll never quite forget, no matter how agnostic you become. Those black and white ideals stick around. Back then, as people from here moved out West, they took those concepts with them. And while both the real old West and Red Dead Redemption both kind of became examples of the ‘hard’ Western I discussed in Part 1, the mythology they kept and nurtured about themselves and the land and the challenges they faced was that of the simpler, ‘soft’ Western. They told these white lies and fairy tales and fables to their children and themselves. After a while, those stories made their way back East again, where they became morality tales wrought new, warning against foolishness (naïve people don’t survive out here) drunkenness, (ditto lushes) gambling (drop a card and they cut you, amigo) and thievery (they shoot horse thieves, don’t they?)
Some of it got wrapped up with the legends that were already here, making this well-trodden brand of morality seem more exotic. But the appearance of the Strange Man is that of a straight-up bigshot from back East.
My partner says Old Testament. And there’s a good argument that, indeed, the Man is nothing more or less than the “Lord-YOUR-GOD” from the first half of the bible. You know, the part that had tests of morality and faith and his son wasn’t born yet; the part that emphatically reminded readers that they would be judged according to their actions. The part where God was…well, kind of a dick. Sound familiar?
I’ll agree that the Strange Man is old. Ancient, even. And that he looks like he does because he can look like anything. So what is he?
I don’t think the Strange Man is in our pantheon. I think that he’s not God nor the Devil, not Good nor Evil. I think he is some kind of fulcrum on which all options balance. I don’t think we have much in our cultural heritage that’s similar, because we need heroes and villains, or at the very least, entities that appear to be concerned with our salvation or ruination.
Look at how precise his words are:
“I think he’s going to be unfaithful to his dear wife. Why don’t you head over there, and see if you can advise him on how best to proceed.”
“Anyway, I hear that an old nun is traveling from the monastery, taking the money that she raised to the bank…why don’t you head up there and see if you can lend her a hand. Road’s full of thieves. Either that or…rob her yourself. I’ll see you around John.”
No advice, encouragement or dissuasion. For someone who talks about morality, the Strange Man doesn’t moralize. He’s there to check the books. Red or black, he doesn’t seem much to care, as long as it’s accounted for. And that need to account for everything makes me think he’s no trickster god, either.
So…what is he?
Back in West Elizabeth, on his ranch, Marston holsters his gun. Soon, the ‘fine spot’ that was mentioned will become the site of his grave. If Marston realized this, I don’t think he’d much care. It’s not that he’s suicidal. It’s that he’s a passionately pragmatic man. No matter what, Marston will keep on doing that which is right to him. And maybe that’s the goal of the game, and the goal of the Strange Man, as well.
So what is he?
Marston calls for his horse and prepares to ride to Bonnie’s ranch. As we head out, I think about Capote, and rights. “Rights” meaning liberties, and also meaning “not wrongs.” The horse has no name, and neither, really, does the Strange Man.
Hi-ho, amigos. Fair riding, friends.