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Sin and Sympathy in Red Dead Redemption

If Red Dead Redemption has any moral or philosophical message for players it is this: you are not a good person and the world is not a good place.

The game places you in the shoes of John Marston, a former gang leader given the opportunity at a fresh start with his wife and son in exchange for aiding lawmen in bringing down his former gang. In order to accomplish this mission, John must work for a variety of seedy individuals. These various quests quickly have players asking themselves whether the ends justify the means. This happens so often that the answer cannot possibly be yes as those you aid reveal themselves to be thieves, murderers, and rapists.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. The redemption Marston seeks is cheap at best. He appears irredeemably self-seeking. At first glance this isn’t all that different from Paul’s vision of humanity in Romans 3, “no one is good, no not one” and “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11). Paul seemed to leave no room for any notion that man is inherently good. In a letter to The London Times in response to the question, “what is wrong with the world?’, G.K. Chesterton supposedly answered with two words, “I am.” In Chesterton’s mind, to see that ours is a broken world, we don’t have to watch the news, we need only look in the mirror. Theologians call this total depravity–it doesn’t mean that there is no good in human beings or that they are as bad as they can possibly be, but rather that the whole person of every human being is morally broken.

While the fallen nature of our world is impossible to ignore, we must also recognize that such doctrines lend themselves to our abuse. In our rush to illumine the reality that the world is not as it should be, we can get a little too excited about exposing its flaws. This would be less problematic if it were merely our own flaws we were exposing. Instead we use the sober reality of sin to point out the sins of others and decry how ill the world has fallen by our own estimation. We do this in the name of acknowledging truth but in the process we deny a higher calling—our calling to empathy.

What makes RDR a brilliant game is that it never tries to convince you that John Marston is a good person while constantly asking you to care about him. You are not John Marston, but accomplishing seedy mission after mission in hopes of restoring him to his family opens your eyes to see what its like to walk a mile in this broken man’s shoes.

Games have a unique power to teach us sympathy because of the part we play in them. Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, expresses it this way, “the games I am most interested in allow me a way out of myself …. [they] allow me to observe and control fictional characters, and when I am at the helm, I try to make these characters behave not as how I would but how I feel they would want to—a strange sympathetic process for which there is, as of now, no good name.” I am not Marston; if I thought I was I would have quit playing early on. I am merely playing as him and as I get to know him, I begin to want redemption for him even though he doesn’t deserve it.

Marston does bad things. Truthfully, by almost anyone’s standards, Marston does many very bad things. He also speaks endearingly about his wife and son. He spurns advances from women because he is happily married. He mourns his past sins and even begins to think perhaps he can change and be the man his family wants him to be. He makes time for his son, teaching him to hunt and pleading with him to become a better man than he is. As he gets closer to bringing down his former gang he develops a sense of justice and even admits that he doesn’t deserve a second chance at life.

John Marston is not a good man, but I wanted him to be. RDR presents us with a world full of sinners and asks us whether we want redemption for the worst of them.

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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