I love westerns.
Whether gravitating towards realism or a more romantic, mythical take on the realities of the time, the western is a genre of powerful imagery and archetypes, from the vast, sweeping vistas of untamed landscape to the mysterious and deadly gunslinger. It’s a genre that has permeated popular culture over the past century, as seen in the western novels of authors such as J. T. Edson and Zane Grey; television shows such as Deadwood; video games such as Gun (the less said about Custer’s Revenge, the better); the modern-day western comic series Preacher; and of course the countless brilliant movies: High Noon, The Man From Laramie, The Shootist, A Fistful of Dollars, Unforgiven, etc.
Give me Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and I am a happy man.
So it should come as no surprise that one of my favourite games of the PlayStation 3 console generation is Rockstar’s western epic Red Dead Redemption (2010), which tells the tale of former outlaw John Marston, whose attempt at living a quiet life as a family man is scuppered when his criminal past catches up to him.
But Red Dead Redemption isn’t just a favourite of mine because the game is a western. It’s because it’s a fantastic western that is also an unabashed love letter to the genre as a whole.
When I initially played through the game, I essentially played as the good guy, my own John Marston being the reformed outlaw that the story paints him as. But for the purposes of this article, I thought I’d try something different. Using a save from near the end of the game (so that all areas and almost all weapons have been unlocked), I’d play the game as an outlaw, ignoring the remainder of the story and simply roaming the game world as a thieving, cheating, murdering, cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch, and generally seeing what shenanigans I could get up to living life as a bad man. No doubt hilarity / carnage would ensue.
And thus began my life as an outlaw in the world of Red Dead Redemption.
Starting in the northeast territory of Tall Trees, with the sun high in a clear sky, I put on my duster coat and decided to head southwest into New Austin and the town of Armadillo. Along the way, I entertained myself by shooting some buffalo (there’s plenty more where they came from, right? …Right?) and then decided to complete one of the in-game challenges I had remaining on my save file – beat a man at arm-wrestling in the Pacific Union Railroad Camp. But when I approached my sitting opponent, he suddenly stood up and the option to arm-wrestle him disappeared. Annoyed, I fired my Schofield revolver at a nearby stack of TNT boxes, blowing up the man and two others standing nearby. It wasn’t subtle, no, but I had a reputation to make.
On my way to Armadillo, I decided to stop at the muggy, swampy town of Thieves’ Landing for some drinking and gambling, so I hit the town’s saloon. And just like in real life, wallowing in sin in a den of iniquity worked out great, because it was then I saw one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen while playing Red Dead Redemption.
As I sat down to a game of Liar’s Dice, in the background I could see a game of poker being played at another table. Suddenly, one of the poker players stood up, accused the player opposite him of cheating, and then drew a revolver and shot him dead. This caused a full-blown shootout to erupt, with civilians running for their lives as a number of men pulled their guns and started shooting at each other – even men standing outside the front of the saloon joined in, firing in through the windows as some of the men inside returned fire. I stood off to one side of the room, out of the line of fire and enjoying the show. It was a shame I couldn’t get a drink but the bartender had fled. Eventually the shooting died down and I of course looted all of the corpses both inside and outside the saloon before resuming my journey.
As I rode along, I saw a man being chased by a pack of coyotes, so I gave the hungry animals a hand by shooting the running man in the leg. However, a man on horseback in the distance witnessed my crime and managed to alert the authorities before I could silence him, leading to the first bounty being placed on my head: $30. This amount would increase as time went on, oh yes.
Just outside MacFarlane’s Ranch, a man tried to steal my horse. This was a mistake. I lassoed and hogtied him, put him on the back of my horse, rode to the nearest river and threw him into the water, drowning him.
Riding through MacFarlane’s Ranch, I decided to make an impression by lassoing a passing man and dragging him along behind my horse, and then I followed that up by blowing up a cow with a stick of dynamite. Impression made, I feel.
After a brief visit to Coot’s Chapel – the cemetery of which held a tombstone informing me that Owen MacFarlane had died of chronic diarrhoea, the poor bastard – I finally arrived in Armadillo. I hitched my horse and entered the saloon, walking past the body of a recently murdered prostitute laying outside. Nice place.
Inside the saloon, I had a few drinks at the bar and then decided to join the poker game going on in the back room. I first changed into my elegant suit, granting me the ability to cheat at poker, something I was relying on due to the fact that I have no idea how to play poker.
Soon after joining the game, dumb luck won me $50, although my luck didn’t last long – I was caught cheating and challenged to a duel. Out on the street, my accuser and I faced each other down, and in the following duel he gunned me down. I blame the booze. And the fact that I never properly learned the game’s duelling mechanics.
I woke up inside the saloon with revenge on my mind and no intention of messing around with any of that “honourable duel” bullshit. I walked into the back room, where another game of poker was now in session, shotgunned the man who had beat me in the duel, and then blasted another player who foolishly pulled a pistol on me. I rushed out of the saloon, whistled for my horse, and sped out of town. So long for now, Armadillo.
After changing back into my duster coat, I visited the area named Solomon’s Folly, where I found a sheriff shooting it out with a group of outlaws. The sheriff asked me to help him kill the outlaws and secure the safe they had stolen, which was sitting on the back of a nearby wagon. I agreed to help, and so I wiped out the outlaws via the use of my trusty Winchester rifle.
Of course, I had agreed to help not because I was a dutiful citizen but because of the money, so I shot the sheriff (but I did not shoot the deputy… because there wasn’t one present) then cracked the safe and took for myself the $98 it contained.
I rode northwest into wilder lands, at one point passing a man who had gotten off his horse to take a piss against a boulder. As I rode past I couldn’t resist shooting him in the back of the head as he was peeing. Low-down, scum-like behaviour? Yep. Amusing? Yep.
I came across a man running through the wilderness while being pursued by two lawmen. He warned them not to “mess with Hank Bellamy”, and even though he kept running after being shot three times by the lawmen, the fourth bullet brought him down. The lawmen inspected Hank’s body before walking away. I then did the same, although by “inspected” I mean “looted”. Thanks for the $7 donation to the liquor-and-gambling fund, Hank.
I headed east, eventually ending up in Thieves’ Landing again. I returned to the saloon where the amazing shootout had taken place but nothing so eventful happened this time, although I did shoot and kill a man named Lomax Brewton after he challenged me to a duel. Then, after winning nearly $200 playing Liar’s Dice – a game that, unlike poker, I actually know how to play – I decided to head for warmer climes and so I rode south, crossing the border into Mexico.
I quickly got a taste of Mexican hospitality when a man tried to steal my horse, a crime for which he received a bullet that relieved him of his hat and his brains. To be fair, I soon received a much warmer welcome from a group of three people who invited me to sit with them at their campfire. They should have been more wary of strangers, however. Being a nefarious, cold-hearted outlaw, after listening to them talk about legendary gunslinger Landon Ricketts for a while, I proceeded to kill and rob them all.
My visit to the small settlement of Casa Madrugada surely only heightened my reputation, seeing as I got drunk at the saloon and then shot the preacher standing outside as he quoted from his Bible. Unsurprisingly, God didn’t strike me down, and frankly the people of Casa Madrugada didn’t seem that bothered either, since no one alerted the authorities or tried to shoot me themselves. Not a religious community, I guess. Later, as I was leaving, I pushed over a limping man who happened to walk across my path. Just for good measure.
In the town of Chuparosa, a shady fellow hired me to steal a wagon filled with goods and then deliver it to him elsewhere. I tied my bandana over my face, stole the wagon, evaded the pursuing lawmen and finally met my employer at the specified location. He paid me $82 for the job. I shot him and claimed another $7 from his corpse.
Next I travelled to the large town of Escalera, where I was approached by a nun asking me to make a donation to her church, for which she received a shove into the dirt. Don’t you hate it when pushy charity-workers bother you in the street?
I eventually had to make a hasty exit from Escalera after I tried to rob the local gun store. I held up the storeowner, but rather than hand over his money he ran out of the front door, so I shot him in the back. Suddenly, a number of local lawmen and other armed men opened fire on me. I ducked into the town church and took cover behind a pew as men surrounded the building. I shot those who entered and then whistled for my horse, which came running up to the church. I blasted my way out through the front doors, leapt onto my horse and rode off, bullets flying after me as I went. I managed to escape my pursuers, the messy business having led to a $230 bounty being placed on my head.
This was a bounty that some were quick in attempting to claim, as I soon learned when a gang of four bounty hunters came after me. I gunned them all down and decided I had probably worn out my welcome in Mexico, so I rode north, back into the USA.
It occurred to me that I’d overlooked a classic piece of dastardly, western-themed villainy: tying a woman to a railroad track. Despite having no moustache to twirl in an evil manner, I lassoed the first woman I found, hogtied her and then left her on a stretch of railroad track. I stood nearby and waited. Eventually I heard the sound of an approaching train and then watched as the thundering vehicle hit the bound woman, who literally exploded with the impact. They never showed that in those old silent movies.
Another attempted robbery ended in failure when I held up the owner of the general store at Manzanita Post. Like the storeowner in Escalera, this man preferred to try making a run for it rather than hand over his money, and he too received a bullet in the back for his trouble.
I met another nun, one more friendly and less annoying than the nun I had encountered in Mexico. Unfortunately for this American nun, I met her just moments after unlocking a new weapon in the form of the buffalo rifle, and I wanted to test it. The rifle worked. The nun… well, she’s with God now.
I returned to Armadillo and headed for the saloon. Outside, an armed man asked me what I was looking at, so I did the only mature thing and followed him into the saloon, into the toilet, and then pushed him over as he was taking a piss. He got to his feet and came at me swinging – uh, swinging his fists, that is – and we traded punches for a while, our fight moving out onto the street. After knocking down my opponent, I lassoed him and mounted my horse, riding out of town while dragging him behind me. After a few dozens yards I stopped and apparently the man had had enough – he drew his pistol, so I drew mine and shot him dead.
Given that my storeowner stickups hadn’t gone to plan, I thought I’d try my hand at bank robbery instead. The Armadillo bank, to be precise. Leaving my horse just outside for a quick getaway, I entered through the back door of the bank and began cracking the safe in the back room. Although I eventually retrieved the cash from the safe, in the process I was spotted and the bank was quickly surrounded by lawmen, one of whom apparently killed my horse, turning the robbery into a siege as I held my ground, shooting any lawman who entered the building. Eventually I was able to whistle for a fresh horse, so I ran out of the back door, shot an approaching lawman, mounted my new horse and fled.
I rode northeast, back into Tall Trees, where two bears started chasing me simultaneously as I rode along on my horse. I turned this situation to my own amusement by leading Yogi and Boo-Boo into the path of a passing rider, and one of the bears obviously preferred the look of the other man, first killing his horse and then the rider himself.
While in Tall Trees, I remembered another particular crime I’d had in mind but hadn’t gotten around to yet: robbing a train. I chose a specific spot on a hill north of the Pacific Union Railroad Camp, a section of railroad track that would be tricky for any lawmen to reach should they be alerted to the robbery as I carried it out.
I rode some distance along the track, stopped and then waited for the train, placing my bandana over my face. As the train passed by, I rode alongside it for a few seconds before leaping from my horse and onto a carriage near the rear of the train. I made my way forward with my revolver in hand, the few people sitting in the passenger car cowering as I passed them, heading for the engineer.
I timed my shooting of the engineer so that the train slowed to a stop on the hillside section of track I had picked out earlier. However, the gunshot also caused most of the passengers to panic and flee, running and leaping from the train. Annoyed, I remained on the train and shot one of the fleeing men, the others managing to escape. One man hadn’t run, instead choosing to remain cowering in his seat. I shot him and looted his corpse.
I stood there in the silence and reflected that the train robbery had been a hollow, messy, bloody affair, and I figured maybe this was representative of the majority of my outlaw career to date, as well as a sign that it was time to bring things to a close the only way I knew how.
There’d be no hanging up of my guns. No redemption.
I headed for the place that felt most fitting: Armadillo, the site of a number of my crimes and the place that would bear witness to my final ones.
Even more fittingly, the sun was beginning to set as I rode into Armadillo. I entered the saloon and drank a shot of liquor at the bar. Then I stood at the far end of the room, drew my revolver and shot several gang members sitting together at one of the tables. The piano player, bartender, prostitutes and other civilians present screamed and ran from the saloon as I waited for the lawmen I knew would come.
I moved up to the second-floor landing that overlooked the main room, giving me a view of the two front doors, several windows and the bar itself. As lawmen surrounded the exterior of the saloon, I swapped my revolver for my Winchester and then shot the first man stupid enough to rush in through the front of the building. More followed, some entering the same way and some through the back door. All of them died.
Others fired at me through windows but they met the same fate as I fired my rifle again and again while using my cover to my advantage. I went through dozens of bullets as the lawmen kept on coming, the bodies piling up, my last stand turning into a massacre.
When the bounty on my head passed $1000, I decided it was Butch & Sundance time. I walked downstairs to the ground floor then ran through the saloon doors and out onto the street, firing my Schofield as I went. There were lawmen dotted about everywhere and I stood outside the saloon firing at them and taking their bullets until finally I fell to the dirt, dead.
And so ends the bloody ballad of a no-good, son-of-a-bitch outlaw who roamed the Old West of Red Dead Redemption.
Like Johnny Ringo, Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James and many other outlaws before him, he led an eventful career and died a violent death.
And although I’ll again play the good guy if Rockstar ever release a follow-up to Red Dead Redemption, you can bet that at some point after my first playthrough I’ll channel that outlaw’s spirit and he’ll pick up his guns once again.
When that day comes, get three coffins ready.
My mistake. A lot of coffins.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and video games. His upcoming comic book projects include the graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises and the 8-issue comic series The Fallen from Monkeybrain, while his upcoming video game projects include action/strategy title Crystal Arena and sci-fi roguelike The Traveler. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy