Red Dead Redemption: A Murder that Means Something

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Editor’s Note: As you’ve probably already guessed, this essay contains extensive discussion of end-game spoilers for Red Dead Redemption.

In fiction and art, violence has always existed. Think of Diomedes, duelling with Aeneas, or the traveller, beaten and robbed in the story of The Good Samaritan.

The rectification of videogaming’s public-facing image doesn’t hinge on the eradication or sanitation of violent subject matter. Some of the greatest and most broadly appreciated works of art are intensely violent. The New Hollywood films of the 70s for example, like Taxi Driver, The Exorcist and Apocalypse Now, remain favourites not just of critics but the public at large. If thousands of years of novels, paintings, theatre, and cinema have proven one thing, it’s that no media—videogames included—need be without violence to win approval. In fact, quite the opposite. If games and game-makers seek validation, if they wish to be protected under the rubrics of artistic expression and freedom of speech, then they should not compromise. They should refuse to be singled out for special censorship.

At the same time, when compared to other media, videogames treat violence carelessly. Rather than dramatic impact, mainstream games appropriate killing for fun, for mere “gameplay”. Violence must never be taken away from videogames wholesale but it cannot continue to be mishandled. So, its representation needs to change.

In a blog post from 2010, Steve Gaynor, co-creator of Gone Home, argues a new metric for how violence and violent acts in games ought to be measured: “violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.” The purpose is to remove not violence from games, but the quantities of anonymous violence that players typically enact. In a game designed using Gaynor’s metric, instead of generic “bad guys”, violence would be committed against characters with names, specific roles in the narrative. The violence would “matter”, in the sense that Claudius’s murder, at the hands of Hamlet, matters.

Gaynor continues: “If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game.”

Red Dead Redemption exemplifies Gaynor’s refined approach to violence, specifically the final part, wherein Jack Martson avenges his father by murdering Edgar Ross.

The player, as Jack, is dispatched to locate Ross and kill him. His first objective is to visit Ross’s house, located on a riverbank, overlooking the northern border of Mexico. Ross isn’t there. Instead, Jack  meets his wife, Emily, who explains that Edgar has gone on a fishing trip on the other side of the border.

Jack locates Ross’s campsite, but he isn’t there either. A man revealed to be his brother, Philip, says Edgar has left the camp to travel further down river to his favourite duck hunting spot.

It’s at that spot that Jack confronts Ross. After a brief argument, where Ross tells Jack that if he doesn’t leave, he will have to kill him, the two characters face off in a duel. Jack draws first and shoots Ross dead. This is the ending of Red Dead RedemptionRdr_edgar_ross_square

Edgar Ross has a family: his wife Emily and his brother Philip. He has a home, on the southern tip of the United States and, previously, a job, in law enforcement. Though they only share a few words, his relationship with Jack is tangible, important. These characters have affected one another. Because of Ross, Jack is without a father; because of the plaudits he received from the federal government for killing Jack’s dad, Ross has been able to retire into luxury. Everything Gaynor describes as properties of an individual, Ross has: family, home, job, friends, relationships with other characters.

The player of is afforded insight into the life of a specific individual. The dramatic death of that individual is accordingly melancholic, lacking what Tom Bissell euphemistically calls “gameisms.” Though he appears at the very end of Red Dead Redemption, as the final opponent  (or victim) players encounter, Edgar Ross is by no means a “last boss”, arch, powerful, surrounded by minions. On the contrary, he cuts a pathetic figure—grey, old, ragged. In the sense of being flawed and frail, he is human. When the player takes Ross’s life, he has a measure of what he is taking. A red blip does not simply disappear from a mini-map. A man dies.

This violence is legitimate, not only because Ross is characterised, but because his death affects other characters, the narrative. Aside from Ross himself, Emily and Philip are also victims of the violence committed. So is Jack. In earlier scenes, shared with his father, mother and uncle, a younger Jack was seen reading, struggling to operate a gun, failing to hunt animals. Canonically, Ross is the first person Jack kills. His murder represents, also, the death of a young, naïve, pacifistic Jack, a Jack who was warned not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Like Ross, players see Jack’s family, his home, hints of a life outside of Red Dead Redemption. He is another specific individual. Through him, the game legitimises violence as dramatically plausible—as empathic recourse for motivated characters—but also as tragedy, as the culmination of human weaknesses.

Of course, as in any other media, there is justification for lighter treatments of violence, games that depict violence for spectacle, comedy or excitement. The problem is not that these games exist, it’s that, with only a few, specific exceptions, they’re the only ones that exist at all. “Videogame violence” is practically a collocation. What this indicates is that a certain type, a certain style of violence, has permeated games. Homogeny, particularly an homogeny of gore and pulp cannot form the basis of an important, diverse form of art and so, led by examples such as Red Dead Redemption, the representation of violence in games has to be rethought.