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Opinion: How Faith Is Treated In  Red Dead Redemption
Opinion: How Faith Is Treated In Red Dead Redemption Exclusive
September 15, 2010 | By Richard Clark

September 15, 2010 | By Richard Clark
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Richard Clark analyzes religion, spirituality, and morality in Red Dead Redemption for Gamasutra, examining how Rockstar's latest opus addresses the themes -- and where it perhaps falls short.]

Though it wasn't apparent from the media blitz for Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's latest opus was just as much about religion and religious people as it was about rustling cattle and bringing outlaws to justice.

We all know the tendency of video game hype: play up the superficial plot points and the various groundbreaking game play features. We also know that religion is the one subject that PR departments know better than to acknowledge.

And yet, the subject is front and center in Red Dead Redemption, as both subject and subtext.

Throughout John Marstonís journey, not only are we confronted with a number of religious points of view and beliefs, but we are also given clues about Marstonís own religious journey. Itís this pilgrimage that is most masterfully crafted.

Because our main character is relatively understated and enigmatic, we are given plenty of opportunities to project our own thoughts and assumptions into Marstonís head.

Though we are provided with a small amount of guidance, at least for the first part of the game, we are left to make our own judgments about the various types of belief we are confronted with in Marstonís world.

People in the Way or on the Periphery

In the Wild West, other people are just rare enough to be noteworthy. If Marston finds himself crossing paths with a stranger in the middle of nowhere, it stands to reason that this person has something to say about their experience and outlook. Of course, in this fictional world these people serve a purpose: to help Marston reflect on where heís been, where he is, and where heís going. They are there for Marston, not the other way around.

In fact, itís Marstonís conversations, cooperation, and collisions with other folk that put his own life in stark contrast with the rest of the world. He takes part in Bonnieís hard-working life on the ranch and finds a life of quiet fulfillment and contentment. For the rest of the game, we sense Marston struggling not just to find this life, but to earn it in light of all the mistakes heís made in the past.

When Marston is confronted with truly bad men, he becomes irritated. Itís more likely that heís irritated because he sees himself in them, rather than out of some sense of moral justice. After all, time and time again we are reminded of Johnís desire to stay out of other peopleís business. Johnís tantrums exhibit a real desire to leave the bad life behind, though, as well as a frustration that it doesnít seem to be something he can escape.

Whenever Marston runs across explicitly religious characters, both the player and Marston judge them immediately. They are foolish, misguided, and pitiable. One poor girl finds herself stranded in the middle of the desert, waiting for God to save her. A group of nuns seems to take an unfeeling, apathetic stance when it comes to saving the life of a reformed prostitute. A tee-totaling pastor turns out to be a compromising coward.

The Classic Cowboy/The Classic Gamer

And so, we have Marston, alone in a vast world with his thoughts. The classic cowboy, the epitome of western manliness, he takes no prisoners and heeds no advice or wisdom. He offers heroism but refuses real involvement. Just like the player, heís often so focused on the task at hand and the ultimate goal that he forgets the philosophical and spiritual questions that haunt him.

When weíre given the choice to off our former gang-mates, we want to because theyíve wronged us. The moral line is crossed not with the rape of innocent women, not with pillaging towns of innocents, not with robbing graves, but with stepping on Marstonís toes. Itís classic video game morality epitomized: stand passively on the edges of my life and maybe weíll talk, but intrude, get in my way, or threaten me and weíre going to fight.

Why then would Marston expect anything different when he settles down? Just because his video game goal has been accomplished doesnít mean those federal agents donít have their own incomplete quest. Marstonís tried to talk them out of it before, but there is no dialogue tree imaginable that provides an opportunity for John to put himself in a different category than his former friends. As far as those agents are concerned, outlaws are indeed outlaws till the end.

Redemption Out of Reach

This isnít a game about escaping punishment, though. Itís about redemption. Throughout the game, Marston is haunted by the apparent specter of a man who claims to be an accountant. To Marstonís horror, this man doesnít keep count of money so much as he does Marstonís own misdeeds and shortcomings. The message this man seems to be giving John is simple: your redemption is out of reach.

This is pretty much where Marstonís spiritual journey ends, in spite of his desperate attempts to find some alternate ending. In a brilliant meeting of player and character motive, Marstonís last moments are spent in ďdead-eyeĒ searching for some way to dodge his fate. Maybe, just maybe if we kill the right guy theyíll call off the squad. But Johnís fate is sealed.

Rockstar has accomplished a fascinating and moving picture of a man running from his past, but itís also a cynical and overly simple statement about the nature of redemption and spiritual concerns. By granting John and many of his acquaintances a three-dimensional personality but refusing to offer the same treatment for those who would seek to speak to Marstonís spiritual questions, they do their character and the player a disservice. The game is both less interesting and more oppressive as a result.

Red Dead Redemption tips its hand in its opening cut-scene, demonstrating its disregard for traditional religion. As John Marston is sent to begin his journey, we are treated to two overheard conversations. These conversations exist to serve as a contrast to the more substantial Marston and Bonnie, both of whom listen in with visible disdain. As the two ladies explain away the savage treatment of the natives with a religious justification, a holy man patronizingly explains theology to his daughter, Jenny.

How does the priest justify the unjust and unfair treatment of ďinnocentĒ victims? ďThere is a great deal of difference between an innocent and a savage.Ē

Stunningly, the daughter is grateful and replies: ďI never thought of it that way.Ē

Yes, Jenny. In fact, there are quite a few religious people who have never thought that way, but they exist in reality, far removed from Rockstarís world.

[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).]

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Jonathan Jennings
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I think rockstar did an excellent job at displaying marston and his beliefs within his reality without offending or preaching to anyone. At its core john marston was a man looking for redemption whether it was personal or form a higher power he just wanted to earn his way back to a point where his past was erased and as you so elegantly put it numerous themes within the game claim he couldn't.

I really enjoyed the " mysterious man" quest line though, even though I picked the " good" choices it was definitely something new to have a character that didn't praise you as a hero and a saint at all times. I definitely enjoyed the dialogue marston had with the many characters in the game based on their beliefs and just how radical and different each persons beliefs were .

Gamin Geek
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One thing that I would have liked to have seen in RDR is having your morality affecting the outcome of the story. Sure people on the street will react to you differently based on your good/evil level but the moral choices presented in the game did absolutely nothing in terms of actually changing the narrative of the story. The conversations in the cutscenes remain unchanged in response to your actions throughout the game. The main characters will treat you exactly the same whether you are an outlaw or a good summaritan.

Kyle Hodges
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It seems to me the themes and dialogue you're reading as attacks on religion are in fact suggesting that going into a dangerous situation with a headful of faith and no common sense is liable to get you killed. And as far as any overarching moral or religious themes go, the only one I saw was that John considers himself irrevocably damned to hell for all eternity for the things he's done. Yes, his redemption is out of reach - and he still tries to do the right thing, whatever it costs him.

Mark Harris
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That point would come across better if they included people of faith WITH common sense so you could draw a contrast. Instead it comes across as one can either have faith or common sense, but not both.

Joshua King
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It does come across like that doesn't it? The characters of faith are burdened with a lack of common sense passed down over centuries, leaving the term "common sense" a tad neutered as we all know. I know these characters are fictional but you want them to at least be a little believable. People of faith with common sense? They may as well have included chicken with teeth. Remember where and when this game is set.

Richard Clark
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Mark's right. My complaint wasn't that religion was being attacked or oppressed, but that it was being treated in a less thoughtful way than other things. This understandable, but still I think a valid criticism and something that should be addressed.

Thom Denick
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Unless the point Rockstar was making was that people with Faith are fools?

John knows he's damned, the priest on the train doesn't; in fact he thinks his actions against the "savages" are ordained by god.

I'm curious Richard; what specific brand of nonsense would you have seen Rockstar mar their near-perfect story with? A Buddhist wandering monk? A nun trying to save her orphanage? What tired cliche would we have?

This is a godless piece of fiction, and I'm perfectly happy with it the way it is. Why insist some nonsensical brand of spiritualism be pushed on the player by proxy of Marsten?

By looking at your analysis a slightly different way, you can see it as an overarching statement against faith: Marsten's end finally comes when he succumbs to his faith in the American dream.

Jonathan Jennings
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you sound kind of offended by the notion that intelligent people can have faith Thom. it is not an attempt to push spirituality on anyone in a game where multiple beliefs are presented by a large cast of diverse individuals the thought of one person being both faithful and sensible isn't asking too much is it ? the game isn't about religion at all but it is a social commentary something rockstar is very good at presenting in their games, Richard is just questioning why in such a large collection of personalities and beliefs expressed it seemed like one view point conjoining both common sense and spirituality wasn't presented.

I think it's a fair question personally. Not that i had any problem with rockstars presentation on spirituality and beliefs, it's just an opinion and a personal concern . you make it seem like the man is asking for the game to preach to us when that's clearly not his intention.

If anything John's greatest faith or hope really in himself , his family and ability to be a good or at least decent father/ husband prevailed .As cliche as it sounds his love did prevail, he would do anything for those he loved and he did . However the circumstances wouldn't allow him to continue on his path to redemption.

Joshua King
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Well said Thom. I agree that the game gives a fair treatment to the pervasive superstitious nature of the time and place from the perspective of an outlier who has to contend with all manner of frustrating nonsense.

Josh Foreman
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Just as in the vast majority of stories our culture is currently generating, characters of traditional faith are presented as two-dimensional fools. You may or may not agree with the implicit message this sends, but you've got to admit that it is a detriment to art when any particular interpretation of life is uniformly dismissed or vilified. Most of us agree that the mustache-twirling villain makes for bad art. We appreciate the investigation of motives and sympathetic examinations of even the worst people in stories. Yet we fail to do this service for our religious characters. I suppose every zeitgeist has its irrational boogymen, and right now they are the traditionally religious. It's always easy to succumb to the zeitgeist and ignore the caricatures it produces. But it takes bravery to call it out and critique it, knowing that most will vilify you for it.