Whenever gamers feel compelled to argue that yes, video games are art, there is a fairly stable list of games that tend to be cited in support. Red Dead Redemption leapt into a seemingly permanent spot on that short list virtually overnight, an instant critical and commercial darling that now seems a perennially relevant touchstone in the gaming industry. Why else would it be receiving one of the most anticipated sequels in the industry, eight years after its release?
Between the game’s canonical status and its upcoming sequel, I felt compelled to finally play through it (I had not completed the game even after owning it for several years), and I encountered more or less exactly what you would expect from a Western from the same developers as the Grand Theft Auto franchise. RDR amounts to a heartfelt, sincere paean for the kind of right-libertarian politics glibly embodied by GTA. Where GTA encourages players to revel in an endless carnival of prurient fantasy, unrestrained by ethics or politics, RDR‘s plot earnestly laments the fact that such unrestrained actions do incur lasting consequences, while simultaneously relying on a historical context of white supremacy to indulge in a Wild West fantasy just as puerile as GTA.
White People Problems
Red Dead Redemption begins with a “going west” montage, showcasing RDR‘s cutting-edge-at-the-time graphics and its apparent, but ultimately shallow, awareness of the overt racism that shaped the economy and the imperial aspirations of the U.S. in the early twentieth century. John Marston, in the game’s opener, rides a train westward, silently listening to other passengers–all white–spout virulent racism about native “savages.” Marston’s silence here is replicated throughout the game; he never really takes sides in disputes between other characters. It’s a stance surely intended to set him above base politics, but aloof amorality is the most principled stance the game’s hero can muster vis a vis race.
Marston, after all, has enough of his own problems. The next scene clues players into the fact that Marston is being blackmailed by a federal task force led by Edgar Ross, with the lives of his wife and son as collateral, into hunting down and killing the surviving members of his own former gang. The story is quite explicit that its major themes revolve around whether or not Marston can escape the predictable consequences of his “past life” as a gangster and a thief in order to live a quiet life with his family.
Yet the gameplay is less concerned with American family values than with the consequences of Marston’s past that unfold across the digital Wild West theme park that is the combined square mileage of New Austin, Nuevo Paraíso, and West Elizabeth. Marston, our protagonist, ruminates on his past life as a killer and longs for a quiet, idyllic life with his family. Marston, the avatar of the player’s cowboy adventure power fantasy, gets in duels with strangers, kidnaps random passersby, accepts bounties on the heads of various criminals, gambles away his earnings, and involves himself in all manner of unsavory activities for the entertainment of the player, all without derailing the redemptive moral journey Marston is meant to enact over the course of the story.
This is, in part, because Marston’s wanton violence and general recklessness as an avatar of the player’s Wild West fantasy is heavily related to his moral journey. When Marston first arrives in New Austin, he quickly becomes embroiled in various manhunting operations, spearheaded by Leigh Johnson, the District Marshall of the town of Armadillo. These missions indulge the narrative’s need for Wild West action, but they also illuminate a central contradiction in Marston’s journey: while Marston chafes under the direction of federal authorities, he also happily rides in the posses of local law enforcement, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people every time they ride.
“Without laws, we’re nothing more than animals,” Marshall Johnson says, “Man has worked hard at civilization. Your boy steps out of line, you whack him. He does it again, whack him harder,” Marston does not question (or, apparently, even realize) how Johnson’s language about civilization and legal authority mirrors that of the federal agents holding his family. When the federal agent leading the effort to hunt down Marston’s old gang, Edgar Ross, tells Marston, “You see we–me and [my partner,] Archer–we’re the bad guys. We enforce the rules,” he both validates the narrative’s stance towards his authority and echoes Johnson’s authoritarian rhetoric.
This contradictory ethical stance is maintained in part by an extremely selective recognition of the history of people of color in the region, particularly of indigenous people. There are no named Black characters in the entire story, but a bit of dialogue from Marshall Johnson tells us that the town of Tumbleweed is an “Old popular spot for lynchin’s, too.” Johnson never mentions exactly who got lynched at Tumbleweed, but the game is set in the early 1910s, the era of the Second Ku Klux Klan and of D. W. Griffith’s epic treatment of American white supremacy, The Birth of a Nation.
Even more egregious, when Drew MacFarlane, a rancher whose daughter saves Marston’s life very early in the story, recounts his family’s travails in New Austin, he tells the story in a very peculiar way, “Ah ya know we’ve lived here for thirty years now. Came here from the East. The land had never been settled. For ten years we fought the Indians” (emphasis mine). MacFarlane reminisces about his time fighting native peoples literally one sentence after saying that nobody had lived on the land before his family, an extremely blunt disavowal of the humanity, even the existence, of native peoples.
It is this disavowal that also enables Leigh Johnson to tell Marston, without any irony whatsoever, “I ain’t for all this government interference… All this Manifest Destiny hogwash, taming of wild lands.” It is hard to interpret this in any way other than that Johnson genuinely believes that the victims of Manifest Destiny are white settlers, restrained and menaced by distant institutions. Completely absent is the understanding that Manifest Destiny is a racist, imperialist ideology that motivated the settlement of the West by exactly such people as Drew MacFarlane. When MacFarlane claims that “the land had never been settled,” even as Indians were clearly living on that land, he is echoing the very ideology that Johnson says is victimizing white people like him and MacFarlane.
So when MacFarlane tells Marston, “When I hear about this so-called Federal Government, sending out agents to covertly murder and control people, then I start to worry,” he’s lamenting, specifically, that any American institution would bring its authority to bear on a white man, even when that white man is a mass murderer like Bill Williamson, or for that matter, John Marston. After all, in the century prior to 1910, the federal government dedicated massive manpower, in the form of newly created Army regiments, to enabling the settlement of the west by ranchers and homesteaders like MacFarlane.
As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States, “large numbers of settlers could not reach the Northern California gold fields or the fertile Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest without army regiments accompanying them” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 118). As early as 1832, “President Andrew Jackson began using US troops to protect caravans of merchandise on the Santa Fe Trail going to Northern Mexico from possible interference by Indigenous peoples whose territories they crossed without permission” (ibid., 122). This is to say, the MacFarlane ranch is a logistical impossibility, fantasy or no, without a century’s investment of manpower and resources on the part of the federal government, a fact MacFarlane, Marston, and RDR in general, conveniently ignore.
South of the Border, Beneath Marston
The game’s first act ends with a failed attempt to catch Bill Williamson, who flees to Mexico to rendezvous with, and seek asylum from, the second member of Marston’s old gang, Javier Escuella. This is where Red Dead Redemption‘s contempt for non-white people becomes blatantly apparent, rather than simply implied by their collective omission from the plot thus far. Marston’s adventures in Mexico are set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, or at least a Mexican Revolution. Actual Mexican history is barely mentioned or acknowledged. The year of the game’s setting might coincide with the Revolution, but none of the Mexican characters are directly based on real-world historical figures. At best, the characters of RDR‘s Mexican Revolution are simply stereotypes that more closely reference Orientalist assertions and assumptions about Mexico than actual Mexican history.
This is mostly because RDR in general and John Marston in particular don’t give a damn what happens in Mexico, a sentiment explicitly reiterated at multiple points throughout this segment of the story. Marston takes a mercenary approach to his hunt for Escuella, doing odd jobs and favors for anybody who tells him they have information about Escuella’s whereabouts. The first person to tell him so is Vincente de Santa, a low-ranking official in the cruel and totalitarian Mexican army. Marston tags along on several missions with de Santa to suppress the rebellion, a quid pro quo he resolutely refuses to give any thought to. When de Santa spouts flippantly cruel authoritarian platitudes (“What is better, to put your arm around a hungry man, or to beat him until he grows some food to eat?”), Marston’s only response is, “I think you need to answer that question yourself.”
Even after witnessing the casual, totalitarian cruelty of the army repeatedly and at length, Marston refuses to take any ethical stance on the events he is taking part in in Mexico. When Colonel Augustín Allende, the leader of the military in Nuevo Paraíso, accuses John Marston of being an American government agent, Marston’s response is, “Your politics or ideas of entertainment are not my concern.” Those “ideas of entertainment” include at least one case in which Allende’s troops deliver two peasant women, kicking and screaming, to his villa, where he drags them to his bedroom against their will. Marston witnesses the tail end of this kidnapping, holding a conversation with Allende about Escuella and the local rebels without so much as changing his expression or tone of voice. In another instance, Marston helps the military take a rebel stronghold and stands callously by while rebel prisoners are executed and thrown from a cliffside.
Marston eventually stops working with the army, not because they are horrifying authoritarian war criminals, but because they are wasting his time and betray him the moment they can’t string him along anymore. At the moment Marston is about to be summarily executed by the army (presumably to prevent potential retaliation for leading him on), he is rescued by the rebels led by Abraham Reyes, with whom he spends the remainder of his time in Mexico. But this alliance is even more bizarre and strained than Marston’s cooperation with the army. Before this turn of events, Marston spent the vast majority of his time killing rebels alongside the army. Inexplicably, Reyes and his rebel army don’t seem to mind.
The explanation given in the game is that Marston’s actions in three prior instances endeared him to Reyes. First, he rescued Luisa Fortuna, Reyes’ betrothed, from captivity by the army, but only at the behest of a white American bandit named Landon Ricketts, the first person he meets in Mexico. Second, he transports Luisa Fortuna’s younger sister to a ferry out of the region, where she may live in safety while the revolution reaches fruition. Third, at Luisa’s request, he rescues Abraham Reyes from execution by the army (almost entirely because he believes Reyes can give information about Escuella). For these actions, Reyes openly calls Marston “brother” (there are no other Mexican characters he uses this term with) and involves him in the Revolution’s operations with the understanding that Reyes will deliver Escuella and Williamson once the revolution has succeeded.
Despite Reyes’ apparent goodwill, neither Marston nor the narrative in general ever abate their cynicism about the efficacy of the revolution. In a discussion about Reyes and the revolution with Luisa Fortuna, Marston repeatedly says that the revolution is just an exercise in pointless violence (as opposed to his own adventures, which ultimately result in the deaths of hundreds of people for Marston’s personal grievances). Soon after being rescued by Reyes, Marston walks in on him having sex with an unnamed peasant woman in spite of his betrothal to Luisa. The following conversation reveals that Reyes is a classist philanderer who expects to become President at the revolution’s conclusion. Reyes’ pomposity and Luisa’s devotion (the latter of which is seen as unfortunate and naive) are treated as convincing reasons for Marston to shake his head knowingly about the revolution, as if it is nothing but silliness, even in the face of the brutal authoritarianism he witnessed and took part in.
The game anticipates the critique that Marston’s reaction might have more to do with racial animosity than cynical knowledge, and fends off that criticism poorly. When discussing Mexico’s relationship with America, Reyes cajoles Marston lightly about Americans’ animosity towards his people, to a predictable and ineffectual response:
Reyes: Come, my brother. I know what you Americans call us. Greasers, sun-grinners, pepper-guts…For a land of immigrants you don’t like foreigners very much.
Marston: I don’t care who a man is, what he does or where he’s from. If he treats me right, I’ll do the same.
Reyes: It’s that simple for you, isn’t it? You would make a fine socialist.
Marston: What about the Chinese workers here? I heard you ain’t exactly made them very welcome.
Reyes: That is different. They are an inferior race.
The implication is that Marston “doesn’t see color”, and that Mexicans are the real racists for supposed animosity against Chinese people, but this is a manipulative sleight of hand for two reasons. Firstly, the US actually did, at the time, have a recent and vicious history of xenophobia against Chinese people; the largest work stoppage in American history before 1911 was staged by Chinese workers on the Central Pacific railroad, and was brutally suppressed by, “cutting off all food and supplies to the Chinese laborers, hoping that starvation would force them back to work.” Marston’s words distance himself from this history without reckoning with it at all, effectively erasing it.
Secondly, and more importantly, despite the massive Chinese labor that helped construct American railways in the late 19th century, RDR‘s period setting has no named Chinese characters anywhere in the stateside portion of its setting. The only named Chinese character in the game is in Mexico, a Chinese laborer named Zhou. Marston meets him during a side mission, where Marston learns that Zhou wishes to return to his betrothed in China, if only he could escape a draconian work contract under a Mexican boss. Marston offers to buy Zhou’s contract to free him, agreeing to capture a rare white stallion for the boss as payment on the contract. Zhou goes free, only for Marston to find him at the train station later, lethargic from opium use and without a train ticket. Instead of offering any further help, Marston simply shakes his head and abandons Zhou to his opioid use, with the implication that Marston’s goodwill was sadly wasted on an Oriental who was disingenuous in his desire to return to his lover.
Ignored in this final moment is the fact that Marston bears great responsibility for Zhou’s drug use. The side mission where Zhou is freed only becomes available after another side mission where Marston agrees to deliver an unidentified package for a British expatriate who spouts racial slurs and eugenicist platitudes about Mexicans. In order to deliver the package, Marston first has to help the Mexican army “secure” the port where the package arrived by eradicating a group of rebels. After doing so and delivering the package to the Brit (whose defining personality trait is virulent, condescending racism), the man tells Marston that the package is a massive amount of smuggled opium. Marston, disgusted by what he was “tricked” into doing despite his naive eagerness to help a stranger kill a dozen or more rebels without first determining what he was involving himself in, indignantly shakes his head and walks away. The game does technically give you the option, through regular gameplay, to kill the racist Brit and take his money, but the canonical result is that Marston has ignorantly aided an opium trafficker. The fact that the mission to free Zhou only becomes available after Marston does this is all but proof that the opium Zhou partook in was the same opium Marston aided the army in order to smuggle. Nonetheless, the game sees Zhou’s predicament as his own fault, even rewarding the player with a positive impact on Marston’s in-game reputation should he leave the opium trafficker to his business.
The game signals its contempt for Mexican people in a number of more widespread and subdued ways as well. When Marston finally helps the rebels storm Colonel Allende’s fortress, the mission includes a number of scenes where Marston calmly walks through the streets of the surrounding town while rebels are captured by the army forces and summarily executed on the spot. When it looks like the same will happen to Reyes, Luisa jumps into the scene in an effort to rescue him, only to be unceremoniously shot dead and swiftly forgotten, never to be mentioned again.
On an even more basic level, no character in the game ever pronounces Javier Escuella’s name correctly; Javier’s surname is properly pronounced “es-KWAY-ya”, but even native Spanish-speaking characters pronounce the name “es-KWAY-la”, with an ele instead of an elle. On top of all of this, even though you spend the first third of the game hunting Bill Williamson, Marston catches up to and kills Williamson in an anticlimactic chase scene only after he finds Escuella. The narrative seems to go out of its way to kill the brown guy first.
Apocalypse Now in West Elizabeth
Unfortunately, the problem goes a bit beyond contempt; the experience of slaughtering, for its own sake as much as for the sake of defeating a particular adversary, is central to the Wild West power fantasy that RDR is presenting. You might expect that an empowerment fantasy might have to put some more narrative work into setting up a villain to which it’s ok to do egregious violence, but RDR (and it is hardly alone in doing this) is able to bypass this storytelling requirement by making easy reference to racist tropes established through several hundred years of violence and propaganda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the game’s third act, the first place in which any North American Indians appear.
The last name on Marston’s federally-mandated hit list is Dutch Van Der Linde, the former boss of Marston’s old gang. Upon arriving in the game’s third region, West Elizabeth, the player discovers that Dutch has somehow amassed a militant following of exclusively Native American men. Marston spends much of the rest of the game fighting Indians, even though none have been present for the prior two-thirds of the game.
In spite of the massive number of indigenous people who technically make it on screen in this portion of the game, only one of them is ever named, a paid informant for the feds who are strong-arming Marston, who goes by the name Nastas. Nastas fulfills the stock role of the Native Guide: he exposits on the immediate surroundings and his own people, as well as helpfully leading Marston to his objectives despite the fact that Marston inevitably kills dozens of indigenous men whenever he rides through the wilderness. To hear Nastas speak is the closest the player will ever get, over the course of RDR‘s story, to genuinely apprehending the magnitude of the catastrophe wrought on indigenous peoples. Nastas exposits at length about the overhunting of the buffalo and industrial deforestation, “My people have already endured many disasters. Before, this was all our land.” One such disaster, albeit one distant in time from the game’s period setting, was the genocide of Northern California Indians. Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “In a true reign of terror, US occupation and settlement exterminated more than one hundred thousand California Native people in twenty-five years, reducing the population to thirty thousand by 1870” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 129).
Lest this make the player a bit uncomfortable with his fantasy of massacring Van Der Linde’s gang of Indians, the game provides a diversion by the name of Isaac MacDougal. MacDougal is supposed to be an advisor to Edgar Ross’ federal task force, but he is mainly a mouthpiece for the most ignorant, vicious, absurd racism imaginable. When he meets Nastas for the first time, he immediately and obviously patronizes, “These savages must be spoken to simply in metaphors.” When Nastas bemoans the tragedies that have befallen his tribe, MacDougal callously harrumphs, “And now we have brought you civilization.” MacDougal follows that line by recounting, with ghoulish pride and to Nastas’ face, how his father once shot 18 Indians in a single day. After all of this, he explicitly says that he thinks Indians are less human than whites.
The reason MacDougal isn’t a villain is that he is supposed to be laughable. His racism is ridiculous precisely because it seems so atavistically blunt. MacDougal expresses genuine shock that, when examined through a microscope, the blood cells of white and indigenous men of similar height, weight, and age, look identical. At another point he lets slip that his eugenic theories got him thrown out of Yale, an admission that certifies him as a quack. His statements to Nastas are clueless to the point of cruelty, but he is also depicted as genuinely naive, such as when he says, “You know, I dreamt of documenting the last days of the Old West. The romance, the honor, the nobility! But it turns out it’s just people killing each other.” Even more simply, MacDougal is a cocaine addict, spending most of his scenes high and jittery. In sum, he’s a clueless, naive, scrawny coke fiend and quack, maximally worthy of ridicule and scorn.
There are two problems with the presentation of MacDougal, the first and obvious problem being that eugenics was not a fringe interest at all during the 1910s. In a retrospective on the role of eugenics in early 20th-century American science, Steven Farber writes, “It is important to appreciate that within the U.S. and European scientific communities [eugenicist] ideas were not fringe but widely held and taught in universities.” Dunbar-Ortiz provides further context, “For Indigenous peoples, [the influence of eugenics] was manifest in US government policy measuring “blood quantum” in order to qualify for Indigenousness, replacing culture (especially language) and self-identification” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 170). Presenting MacDougal’s scientific theories as fringe quackery is not just inaccurate, it’s mendacious. Eugenics of the sort that MacDougal espouses was both academically popular and enshrined in government policy.
The second problem has to do with why RDR misrepresents the history of scientific discourse in this way; MacDougal is ultimately a prop, both a straw man and a red herring, intended to minimize Marston’s own complicity in the violence he helps to wreak on indigenous people. Laughing at and scorning MacDougal provides a supreme cathartic opportunity for the player, who can in the process convince himself that Marston (and thus the player him or herself) is not racist, because the real racist is over there, and you can see me laughing at him, right?
Of course, Marston’s actions place his politics closer to MacDougal than to Nastas; Marston spends most of his time in West Elizabeth actively cooperating with the army to exterminate Van Der Linde’s gang, including a mission in which Marston mans a Gatling gun in an army encampment, mowing down dozens of oncoming indigenous fighters. This is no doubt meant to be an entertaining spectacle, but it is quite grisly, especially considering that, as per Dunbar-Ortiz, “The army would make effective use after 1865 of innovations made during the Civil War. The rapid-fire Gatling gun, first used in battle in 1862, would be employed during the rest of the century against Indigenous civilians.” That is, the segment where Marston kills Indians with the machine gun is a reenactment, through the video game medium, of the historical particulars of indigenous genocide. The mission is no doubt meant to be a fun and empowering moment in the Wild West fantasy, but it produces that fun by accurately representing the industrial-scale slaughter of Indians.
The fact that Marston cooperates with the US Army betrays that Marston’s adventures in this segment of the narrative constitute a blunt reenactment of the taking of America’s frontier from its inhabitants through systematic murder. Dunbar-Ortiz tells us:
The US Army on the eve of the Civil War was divided into seven departments – a structure designed by John C. Calhoun during the Monroe administration. By 1860, six of the seven departments, comprising 183 companies, were stationed west of the Mississippi, a colonial army fighting the indigenous occupants of the land. In much of the western lands, the army was the primary US government institution; the military roots to institutional development run deep. (Dunbar-Ortiz, 133)
For over a century, the vast majority of the US Army was strategically dedicated to killing Indians and taking their land. A fantasy, in a period setting no less, of joining the Army to kill Indian resisters is a fantasy of taking part in genocide, especially when its major direct mechanism is the use of mechanized weaponry to perform the slaughter at breakneck pace. Besides outright shooting Indians, the Army also pursued slightly more circumspect tactics to kill or drive off indigenous peoples:
In an effort to create Indigenous economic dependency and compliance in land transfers, the US policy directed the army to destroy the basic economic base of the Plains Nations – the buffalo. The buffalo were killed to near extinction, tens of millions dead within a few decades and only a few hundred left by the 1880s. Commercial hunters wanted only the skins, so left the rest of the animal to rot. Bones would be gathered and shipped to the East for various uses. Mainly it was the army that helped realize the slaughter of the herds. (Dunbar-Ortiz, 142)
For Marston’s part, the game allows (even encourages) you to capture enemies alive and scalp them throughout the game. And, as if the fantasy of genocide were not comprehensive enough, there is a herd of buffalo wandering the plains in West Elizabeth; the game gives you a special achievement for killing all of them and finalizing the slaughter of the buffalo, a strategic goal pursued by the army as a way of destroying the food supply of Indigenous Plains Indians and starving them into submission.
Who Weeps for John Marston?
After finally killing Dutch Van Der Linde, Marston is given the location of his wife and son by Edgar Ross, and goes to find them on a ranch owned in Marston’s name. What follows is a series of touching missions where Marston makes amends for being gone so long, reconnects with his wife, and tries to be a good father to his now-teenage son. It would be an anticlimactic ending if the game did not culminate in Marston’s death, after Edgar Ross leads a massive army contingent in storming Marston’s ranch and cornering him.
The game’s most emotional moment is when Marston is shot, seemingly over a dozen times by an impromptu firing squad, when he confronts Ross in order to allow time for his wife and son to escape. However, it’s worth asking, why and how are we expected to weep for this man’s death? He is, after all, a mass murderer; the in-game statistics that track the number of enemies you have killed tell me that my latest play-through saw me kill ~850 people. At least 500 of those were killed during story missions or canonical side missions, and the game’s story takes place over no more than three months, as the season never changes.
Perhaps the reason we are expected to feel grief for Marston is that the lives of the people he kills aren’t supposed to count. After all, the vast majority of the people he kills are Mexican, Indigenous resisters, or are white men who specifically collaborate with people of color (Like Williamson and Van Der Linde), often specifically to kill large numbers of white people. Marston can safely pump these targets full of bullets because the overwhelming majority don’t matter enough to the narrative to even be named, let alone grieved.
Ultimately, the Wild West adventurism that Marston embodies depends on both the devaluation of non-white life and a massively inflated will to power, however masked it may be under sentimental family attachments. The freedom Marston enjoys to waylay, steal, and murder as he sees fit is at the core of the reason this game and story are supposed to be fun, while his supposedly upright moral character absolves the player for essentially masturbating to a fantasy of mass murder. The thing that is supposed to enable the player to see no evil in Marston, and that allows the player to enjoy the mass murder he perpetrates, is white supremacy, specifically the fact that non-white life is valued so little and that white agency is presumed to be morally upright regardless of the agent’s actions.
In that silent, dramatic moment when Marston, bleeding from a dozen bullet wounds, falls to his knees, you can almost hear Drew MacFarlane and Marshall Johnson paradoxically bitching about the government and Manifest Destiny. The tragedy that motivates RDR‘s plot, and that Marston’s son Jack avenges after Marston’s death scene, is that the Wild West no longer represents a space where white men can exercise completely unfettered agency, that their power to gamble, drink, steal, kidnap, and kill without any consequence whatsoever might finally be thwarted by the arrival, not of liberation, but of industry and civil society.