My most exciting realization while playing Red Dead Redemption was an ostensibly pedestrian one. After my horse was killed in the heat of battle, I was saddled with the malnourished steed of a now-headless Mexican rebel. Galloping slowly through the Mexican wilderness it dawned on me: I can either try to rope and tame a wild stallion, the likes of which might be fast and agile, or I can put on my bandanna to obscure my face and rob a citizen at gunpoint, taking his horse and avoiding the shame of a criminal’s lifestyle.
RDR continuously grapples with morality–you’re a former gang member who’s sent to kill people in order to secure the safe return of his family–but organic moral choices like the above exemplify the greatest decision RPGs can force players to make. The game puts an emphasis on honor and fame, and doing righteous acts for random civilians awards stature and leniency throughout the world. Compromising those benefits for the sake of ease is a legitimate decision gamers have to make.
Red Dead is an action game masquerading as an RPG, which leads to many cringe-worthy actions but also helps streamline the story. Red Dead’s second act–spent south of the border, flipping between both sides of the Mexican revolution to further your own goals–explicitly pits good (Mexican rebels fighting against a corrupt government) versus evil (totalitarian Mexican army) and forces the player to assist both sides. The Mexican army is despicable: killing innocent civilians, raping their women, and oppressing human rights. The rebels are led by a womanizer who, by all accounts, is at least a good soldier who cares about his country.
After a few missions, it becomes clear who you should be fighting for. Unfortunately, in order to progress the story, you have to work for both sides, which means killing many of the people you want to help. During these sequences, I felt genuinely ashamed to be taking part in the slaughters I was carrying out. I thought about my character’s legacy: when he’s gone, what stories will be told? In an effort to hide my shame, my character wore his bandanna across his face any time he was assisting the Mexican army. This didn’t stop the rebel NPCs from taking note of my two-faced approach to the war. I wanted to pledge allegiance to their ranks, but my character remained indignant, “I’m not working for anyone. I’m working for myself.” This is obviously bullshit.
RDR plays out a little bit like Portal in that you think you’re acting autonomously, when in fact the whole game has been spent at the mercy of a more powerful being (in this case, it’s the government officials who have kidnapped your family). Your ability to choose one side or the other is nonexistent. The freedom and morality that the game tries to implement become hollow shells, and there’s a sense of inevitability about the story. It doesn’t matter how morally righteous or evil you were; you had a goal and you eventually achieved it. This is the story of John Marston and your role is simply as spectator. He does despicable things; he does valiant things.
It’s an interesting dynamic to stress fame and honor in what is otherwise a purely cinematic experience. Being a criminal–or at least morally bankrupt–is effectively impossible given your frequent, necessary encounters with lawmen. In order to tell this story properly, you can’t revert to typical Rockstar-game mentalities (I can do anything I want in this open world, so let’s cause some destruction). Asking you to be morally upstanding and showing both the good and the bad of humanity completes your character, and more importantly, his story. If you could spend hours plundering towns and killing everyone you come across, Marston’s eventually reconciliation would feel empty, so the game strongly hints that you should be good, despite giving you other options.
There’s a separation of moral decisions then: the ones you’re forced to participate in–good or bad–and the smaller moments that reinforce your eventual redemption. Since they have no true impact on your legacy or the game’s end, these smaller moral choices feel like the moments between the scenes of a big-budget film, the things that are assumed or taken for granted. You live a life in RDR in the shallowest way possible, your hand being forced to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. The grandest, most important moments are those that you have the least control over and are generally the most morally questionable. It’s the smaller moments, then, the brief bits of true autonomy, that ingrain you in the world. They’re respite for not only a weary frontiersman, but also for the player, forced to do terrible things to innocent people throughout the game.
By the end of the story, despite all of the horrible things you’ve been forced to do, you genuinely want to see a happy ending for Marston. It’s the same motivation that keeps you from robbing every civilian you come across and what forces the action forward. You’ve done good deeds both for strangers and to further your own cause, and you’ve even been pulled into depravity from time to time, all in the name of redemption. By the end of the game, both the player and Marston need it.