John Marston isn't just one of my favourite video game characters; He's one of my favourite characters in literature, period.
So what makes him so great a character? Why do we have such an attachment to Mr. Marston, a fictitious figment of Rockstar's imagination? I believe it's because in addition to being a badass cowboy, he is also human.
Marston the Man
The key to creating a cool character isn't over-the-top shenanigans and showcases of badassery (i.e. everything that Dante does), though there isn't anything inherently wrong with those moments. No, what truly makes a good character is how relatable and human they are. It's easy to identify with John Marston, because, like us, he has flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. He has buttons that are oft pressed, and he isn't always right. This is someone that we can connect with; he is the common Man, struggling against his fellow Man as well as the implacable tide of technology and government. He isn't perfect, which is what makes him, at least for me, the perfect kind of character.
When it came to dialogue, it's the little morsels about Marston that always intrigued me the most. This is when you know you have an interesting character; I want to know every minute detail about his life (that sounded less creepy in my head), every titbit of trivia. Marston is a man shrouded in mystery when we meet him. The set-up for the prologue is fairly simple: he is a cowboy on a mission. As we spend more time with John, we want to know more about the person behind it all, and not just the avatar we're controlling. As the plot unravels itself, his motivations become clearer, and we instantly begin to sympathise with him, because despite being a well-rounded and imperfect individual, he is still good at heart.
A Diamond in the Rough
Before I say anything more about Red Dead Redemption's tragic hero, I want to talk a little about another game. Say what you will about Heavy Rain and its faux-American accent-touting protagonist, Ethan Mars was at least relatable and sympathetic on some level, because his goals were identifiable, especially to any of those who actually have children. I won't go too deep into segue territory here, but I will say that part of what I like about Ethan is how average he is. He isn't a super soldier or a secret agent; he's an architect. His main motivation is saving his son, spurred on by the loss of his other child. He's guilt-ridden, depressed, and not all that strong physically. However, he presses on through his trials (unless you decide to wuss out instead), not because it's easy for him, but because he's well-motivated. His willpower is what keeps him going, not sheer badassery. That's admirable in any Man.
Sound familiar? This is an apt description of the setup for John's quest: he's a family man. Reluctantly, John must face down his former gang members and apprehend him. His moral objections to this are made clear, but it's a moot point. John Marston is a man with values. His integrity may not be entirely intact, but more than anything, he is trying to do the right thing, and I can respect him for that. He's selflessly putting his family above himself and his core beliefs. This hint of goodness in him is what keeps me connected. With the knowledge that his intentions are noble, I can better appreciate what a bastard he is, because all of Marston's flaws aren't damning-they're interesting.
A Myriad of Moral Imperfections
John's a very "normal" person. He's not very smart, but he's practical; he has what we nowadays might refer to as having "street smarts". He has a very clear view of what is "right" and what is "wrong", even though he isn't always right.
Through dialogue with the game's eclectic cast of colourful characters, we get the impression that John is a very simple kind of man. He'll steal from the living, but condemns Seth Briars for stealing for the dead. This highlights their different points of view, and how limited John's is, thus making him more believable. Yes, despite his many faults, he isn't afraid of taking the moral high ground, even if it is at times hypocritical. Marston has robbed many people, but takes offence to Irish robbing nuns at gunpoint. In the subsequent conversation, he scolds the drunken ne'er-do-well for committing the same kind of crime he is guilty of himself many times over. However, he dismisses Irish's claim that his acts are no different, because his crime had "standards" and "morals" attached to them; Marston has deluded himself into believing his old gang was a quasi-Robin Hood band of merry men, stealing only from those who had too little. Of course, when Irish points out that the Church has more money that anybody, he doesn't really have a response.
Another sterling example of John's flawed characterisation is through a conversation with his son during the "Homestead" chapter of the game. On one horse ride, John asserts that he always believed there was a difference between killing and murdering a Man, to which his son replies, "Not to the person who's dead!". Again, this shows us Marston's flaws, and how he isn't always right. He's a Man just like us; he puts his chaps on one leg at a time.
Through this, we get sense of John Marston's internal struggle to find resolution and redemption.
Compare Marston to the Cole Phelps, the hero of Rockstar's more recent title, L.A. Noire. Who do you prefer?
Well, since I'm writing this, you can probably guess who I voted for. In addition to all the other reasons I've written, there is one difference betwixt them that stands out: Cole is a humourless robot. Sure, motivation makes the character, but then again, Phelps's motivation, solving crime and redeeming his past sins, is his entire character. There's nothing else to appreciate about him, and whilst I did enjoy learning more about his back story, I was left wanting more, and not in a good way. I felt like not enough about him and his family life was fleshed out for me to truly appreciate the plot twist toward the final act.
Keep in mind that we only see Cole's wife twice, briefly, and never once see his daughters. I want to identify with Phelps, but it's hard to when he never lets down his armour to just be, well, human. I think L.A. Noire showed us too much of Cole the Cop, and not enough of Cole the Man.
This, I think, is where Red Dead Redemption succeeded. In the begining, we don't necessarily understand what John is fighting for, since we don't even meet the family until the final act. However, once we start to understand Marston, we identify with his plight, and we feel obliged to aid him. At this point, Marston is a character, more a friend than an avatar. It's his motivation more than it is the player's, and that's fine. Having a main character whose motivations aren't shared entirely with the player is perfectly acceptable; this can make them seem more like a living, breathing person instead of a vessel onto which we can project ourselves.
Yes, I've praised Marston for being well-motivated, but motivation alone isn't enough. If there isn't a person behind it all, we start to feel like the protagonist is just there to keep the plot going. Some characters, Cole Phelps included, feel like they have no life outside the events of the narrative. Of course, they're not real, but that's not the point.
Marston on the other hand, felt like he had a life outside of Redemption. His sole purpose in life wasn't simply to find his family; we're given the impression that he's an actual person with goals, ideals, wants, and needs.
Disillusionment and Doubt
The thing I liked the most about Marston was that he doubted himself. As I've said, his weaknesses are what make him a stronger character. This is evident through his denial that his gang was just as bad as the reprobates he hates. As the game moves forward, we see him evolve dynamically as he deals with internal conflict. John is at a crossroads in life; he's being forced to understand that his life isn't what he thought it was, and in reality, his views in life are quite limited. This is both interesting and relatable, and it helps to strengthen him as a character.
Not only does he develop with the narrative, we also see multiple sides of him, showing just how well-rounded he is. We see him laugh, see him get mad (a lot), and see him get serious. He's an older man, and as such, he's a deeply complex and interesting individual. He's the kind of person who has lived a long, hard life, and he's someone we all want to know more about. That's what makes him so damn fun to play as; he's an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, a reluctant hero taking up arms for a cause he doesn't necessarily believe in. He's the average joe, the forgotten man, the churned child; he's everything that makes an interesting, morally ambiguous hero.
Reflection, Resolution, and Redemption
|Hold it right there, outlaw!|
This article is littered with spoilers, so I reckon you might ought'a mosey on down the road if you don't want to read any plot details.
In addition to having one of my all-time favourite characters, Red Dead Redemption also has one of, if not the best endings I've ever experienced in a story. Obviously, we're going much deeper into spoiler territory here, so if you haven't completed the story for this game, you'd best mosey on down the road and do so.
The twist ending of Red Dead Redemption didn't resonate with me simply because it surprised me, but because I was emotionally attached to the game's characters, Marston especially. I've been on many adventures with Johnny Marston, and after all he's been through, it's not unreasonable to say he's earned his redemption. The "Homestead" section of the game, in spite of many calling it "boring", is actually very necessary. This portion of the game fleshes out John even further by showing us his family life, and everything we worked to achieve throughout the story. It was a nice reprieve from the wild shootouts and horse chases, as well as a good chance to get to know the Marston family.
The Homestead chapter gave us a chance to become attached to these characters, just before ripping them away. The ending does the game justice by resonating its theme that no man can escape his past, and that, in the end, everyone gets what they deserve. Of course, John did do a lot of bad things, but did he deserve the death he got? I think not. Redemption for Marston came only in death, even if it wasn't fair. In fact, it not being fair was a very part of why it was so emotionally moving. John more than proved his worth, and knowing what a good person he was on the inside makes it hurt all the more. An ending with Marston riding off into the sunset just wouldn't be the same; The world is progressing, and Mr. Marston is a thing of the past. This tragic ending was not only great because it was an emotional roller-coaster ride, it was also great because it did everything an ending should do, and that includes strengthening the main themes. Sure, we could have parted with him knowing he'd live on and have a happy life, but instead we got a sense of real closure knowing he achieved redemption; for us, he will live on as a martyr of the gaming world.
The Marston Effect
–John Marston, unaware of the irony about to besiege them.
The life and death of John Marston Sr. had a pretty big emotional impact on me, for a story anyway. Hell, I've had actual relatives of mine die, and I still cried more when John Marston died (Yes, the Milkman shed a few manly tears). After completing it, I simply turned the game off and went to sleep. I couldn't keep playing, not after that. I thought the ending over in my head, and after a while, I returned to Redemption with open arms, ready to murder the bastard who had Marston killed.
This is where Red Dead Redemption got even better for me: after I was done playing it. This is what marks a truly good narrative. You see, many claim that the ending to Mass Effect 3 (I'll try avoiding a segue here) doesn't matter, because most of the stuff before it was so good. However, that's all in the past. That game got worse in retrospect. I think story's worth is measured by how you remember it, and for Red Dead Redemption, I enjoyed more as time wore on and I continued to think about it. Thus, here I am, writing a retrospective analysis on it.
In a bit of clever game design, players don't pick right back up and start playing as John Marston again. Being able to simply wind the clock back and pretend nothing had changed would retroactively cause the ending to have less impact than it did. So, instead of simply booting us to the start screen, we get to play as his only son, John Marston Jr.
Not everyone liked Jack. In fact, some even downright hated him. To be fair, we don't have nearly enough time to get to know him, and he's a far cry from his father, even if they are a lot alike. Jack is young, brash, and impetuous, whilst John is calmer, older, and wiser albeit still troubled and flawed. I think this stark contrast in character is part of why some didn't really like Jack. He simply wasn't his father. It's like adopting a new puppy the same day as watching your old one get run over. I think Jack has a lot of potential though, and I would like to see him in future instalments, in which he can hopefully develop to be as interesting a character as his father.
What Makes the Man
–John Marston's final words.
In a nutshell, I'd say that John Marston is cool, not only because he's a badass who smokes, but also because he's down to earth. He's simple and complex at the same time, easy to understand yet deep and dynamic. He's everything a character should be, and then some. Of course, Red Dead Redemption is great for many reasons, but characters are the cornerstone of any story, and John Marston is one of the best. He's strong, yet he has vulnerabilities. He's not always in the right morally, but he's relatable. He's a perfect fit for Rockstar's western world. Marston has the perfect amount of imperfections. That is what makes the cowboy so cool; he's no different than any of us. He is a Man.