Even though I know how it all ends for him, walking in the boots of one of Rockstar's finest creations remains a singular thrill the second time.
Rockstar Games has created many a protagonist in its 18 years in business, but few feel quite so relatable, as likeable, and as empathetic as Red Dead Redemption's John Marston. I've been reacquainting myself with the GTA makers' open-world Western for a couple of nights now, around five hours of play adding up to ten in-game days, and I'm surprised by just how excited I am to be doing it over. What was supposed to be filler fare, a cursory reinvestigation brought about by the game's recent backwards compatibility with the Xbox One, bridging the gap between finishing The Witcher 3's Blood and Wine DLC and starting early August's No Man's Sky, is now every bit as compelling as it was the first time around.
And I think that's for two main reasons. Okay, three, factoring in my adoration of Blood and Wine and the stories told by The Witcher 3 before it – Red Dead plays in much the same way as CD Projekt RED's multi-award-winning RPG, albeit without such a heavy emphasis on stats and, naturally, significantly less importance placed on the use of magic (though a little faith and fame can come in handy in the fictional frontier territory of New Austin). You're a man with a folklore-worth past, upright on a horse a lot of the time, travelling the land to perform deeds both honourable and rather less so. Catch the two games in your peripheral vision and your brain could well muddle them up, save for a wyvern swooping down on Geralt.
Aside from the fact that I'm evidently in a mood for men on horseback right now – I suppose that's a sign to get on and finish The Phantom Pain – Red Dead's immediate appeal, second time around, is based in two distinct characters: the landscape that Rockstar has carved out of so much digital dirt, endlessly fascinating as it both lures the player into its beauty and then looses a bunch of cougars and bears at them, and John Marston himself.
The environment immediately embraces the senses, a high-def depiction of a world so far away from our own but equally in the throes of technological change – this is the West alright, but it's not so Wild now, with the railway established, a phone network reaching out from the Eastern cities, and new-fangled carriages without horses coming onto the roads. The game's 1911 setting places its events 30 years after the demise of Billy the Kid, three after the establishment of what would become the FBI, and just another three from the outbreak of the First World War. William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, was still alive, but his famous touring Wild West Show had long ago fallen out of public favour as cinema, with moving-picture Westerns like The Great Train Robbery, grew in popularity. Progress was marching in earnest, and any old dogs were likely to be trampled beneath it.
John Marston is an old dog indeed, and one that quite probably can't learn any new tricks. He wears his scars, reminders of a life lived in opposition to the law, and his demeanour is one of a man who knows his ultimate destiny, and it's not going to be pretty. When we meet him, though, he's in the company of federal agents, charged with the apprehension, or obliteration, of an old buddy of his, Bill Williamson. Bill's been tearing up New Austin and the surrounding area, leaving too many corpses in his wake for the local lawmen to watch idly and hope that a rattlesnake does the right thing as he sleeps. While he's now doing government work, John's way of life is ingrained so deeply that he can't change direction, even when the opportunity seems to be there to do so.
During the game's tutorial-style first couple of hours, John spends a lot of time in the company of ranch manager Bonnie MacFarlane, carrying out helpful duties and odd jobs. He walks the ranch in the company of a trouble-smelling dog, Charlie. He herds cattle alongside Bonnie. He breaks horses to add to the ranch's harras. He learns the ropes – or, rather, the lasso – alongside the kind of strongly independent female character that remains uncommon in video games. A sweet bond develops between the two, and I'm sure it's Rockstar's intention to have the player believing that Bonnie has affection for John that goes deeper than the pleasantries they exchange, and John certainly has a great deal of respect for her, too. "You're worth two of any man I know," he tells her, as Bonnie correspondingly compliments his skills, claiming he could be a fine ranch hand if only he could break out of the outlaw way. But John Marston is an honest man, and he's committed to a wife we don't meet until several hours later. And that's what he's in this mess for, pure and simple: the safety of his family.
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Given that Red Dead Redemption came out in 2010, enough time's passed that any article on it should pass without fear of spoilers. But its backwards compatibility saw sales spike by almost 6,000 percent in a day earlier this month (July 2016), which suggests that there are plenty of people out there playing the game for the first time. I won't delve into the finer details of how John's tale works itself out, then, but I will celebrate the fact that he's a Rockstar leading man acting (almost) entirely altruistically. He states, more than once, that he doesn't want to kill Bill – but his hand is being forced by authorities, men in positions of power preventing him from seeing his wife and son until the job's done.
Plenty of video gaming protagonists are motivated by personal gains – Grand Theft Auto V might line up three very different playable characters, but each one of them is in it for themselves, chasing their own vision of the American Dream by any means possible (yes, Michael has a family, but his love for it is hard fought). Elsewhere in the Rockstar catalogue, we see Max Payne driven by understandable vengeance, and Bully's Jimmy Hopkins smash the bad eggs of Bullworth Academy, but all the while craving popularity for himself. Contrary to such self-satisfying forces, whatever their reasonable catalysts, John Marston just wants his family back, his sole selfishness to be left alone. His outward persona is several shades left from the definition of a good man, that much is as obvious as the deafening thunder that rolls over Hennigan's Stead; but his heart is as pure as any virtual one has been in (not exactly) recent memory.
Which is why it's so hard to do what you should be able to in a game cruelly dubbed "GTA with horses" by just about everyone who never played it: go on a post-save rampage and wipe out as many civilians as you can before the law steps in with no-questions-asked directness and the safety off. Don't pretend like you've never done it, we all have, ever since those late nights in dorm rooms staring at Grand Theft Auto III on a small, second-hand CRT. I've already found myself unable to even do what the game is explicitly telling me to, when it comes to leaving strangers with no fate other than death, or worse.
On encountering the Christian missionary Jenny, alone and extremely unwell, in the wilderness, the game will instruct you to bring her medicine and simply walk away. But do so and she collapses, apparently content to be vulture food. She claims that God will save her, but John Marston's not about to rely on any man upstairs: "nobody made my path but me," are his words to Bonnie when she asks if he's religious. So instead, I raise my Winchester to her, which immediately has her bolt upright and sprinting between the cacti. A short chase and a Y-to-hogtie command later and she's on the back of my horse on the way to Armadillo, the nearest town. Unfortunately, this counts as "abduction", and there's a twenty-dollar bounty on my head. I race into the telegraph office and clear my name (thanks, randomly received pardon letter), and then cut her free. She staggers down the central street – to where, who knows, but she's moving a lot better than she was back there in the badlands.
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I feel that's a good deed done on top of those where individual player agency takes a back seat to linear progression, and one that properly reflects the man that Rockstar paints with Red Dead's first fistful of missions. On saving the bleeding-out travelling salesman Nigel West Dickens, and getting him to the nearest doctor, John tells him to get better before they conduct any kind of compensatory business. "Let's get you fixed up first, when we'll decide what you're my man for," he says, helping the old-timer into the care of Armadillo's resident physician. He, under my command, tries to help a bride-to-be in total denial that her betrothed passed away some years earlier (or, is she a ghost, eh?). He goes out looking for missing children, and willingly rides with the finely hirsute Marshal Leigh Johnson, owner of the neatest mutton chops this side of Blackwater, against the various gangs plaguing the region. He is a rare good guy, sincere and resourceful, amid an ocean of narcissistic gaming world peers.
And he's as much a product of the game's landscape, and of Rockstar's obvious determination to move Red Dead further away from lazy GTA comparisons, as he is a vessel for the player's own free-roaming actions. "I think it's this land that makes the men, rather than the other way around," he says to the Marshal and his deputies. "Men are born, and then they're formed. At least, that's how I see it." He knows he is expendable, in the biggest picture. He knows, deep down, that the West's advancement will be his undoing, and that this earth will someday claim him.
But right now, on day ten of who knows how many more, his mission is simple: do right by those he promised to protect, and who never deserved to be caught up in a mess of his making. And that's wonderfully compelling from the player's perspective, because you know that the intensity will escalate, and the risks taken become all the more fraught; but as they do, he'll never think to quit, because what's at stake means too much. I know so, because I've done this all before. But, as I now realise, and with apologies to newer games that no doubt need attention, that's no reason to stop.
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