Sometimes inaction has its virtues.
For so many reasons that I can’t fully count (but which include sheer laziness, a frugal heart, and a fear of branching out beyond pro wrestling titles), I only came to Red Dead Redemption circa 2015. That’s a full five years after its release, which is almost 100 years in gaming. (Luckily, I won’t wait as long for the sequel.) By the time I picked up my controller, everyone had already moved on, and I was forced to explore New Austin and West Elizabeth all on my own.
But from that solitude, I found a truly memorable journey, one all but removed from the hype of other gaming events. (I played Fallout 76 almost on day one, and I’m sure my own “meh”-tastic experiences mirror that of many others.) Without the feedback or comments or even general interest of a crowd, I was treated to this wildly exciting process, where all the discoveries and bloody fighting felt as real to me as if I was actually John Marston blazing a trail of revenge and redemption. I’d inadvertently forged this bubble to engage with the game as I saw fit.
As such, I noticed things not many others had in my travels. And I don’t just mean the NPC suicides.
For one, God is actually in the game. I’ll say that again: God’s presence is felt in the game in a truly significant manner. Some of you might assume that I mean in terms of the game’s larger thematic motifs, like the exploration of morality/ethics that are so essential to the game it’s an actual mechanic. Or even the side mission “I Know You,” in which Marston comes into contact with God/Satan/the Grim Reaper, a surreal segment driving home those same pillars of spirituality, human decency, and our role as pawns in some celestial chess game.
But even those elements feel slightly hokey, and they don’t offer much beyond a very minimal, slightly lacking exploration of G-O-D and those massive existential ideas of right and wrong and the power of the human spirit. They are teasers, meant to poke people squarely in the nose into some kind of surface-level religious engagement.
No, I mean God appears in a far more “understated” manner, in a video game moment I will think about even as my grandkids are playing holographic GTA VIII.
It’s the moment, still relatively early in the game, when Marston first crosses into Mexico. As you’re plugging away across this huge, sweeping valley, a song starts up: José González’s “Far Away.” The sun overtakes the road as you’re trotting along, the earnest ballad sauntering right alongside your horse. And by the time you reach Mexico, the next big chunk of action for the game, the song fades away. It’s the only time a proper song takes over the game’s soundtrack (which is generally a great recreation of era-specific folk music), and the only instance where there’s clearly some deliberate level of curation. And why is that? It’s God playing a song for Marston knowing what awaits him (death, destruction, possibly more side missions with Seth Briars).
It’s the Almighty casting a gentle gaze upon the grizzled Marston, to offer him one final moment of beauty before the world opens up and swallows him whole. It’s one one of the most perfect and poignant experiences I’ve ever had in any form of media, and the majesty of such an instance brought me to actual tears. Marston may not have been a perfect man, but even his creator knew enough to give this fella a small taste of comfort and beauty before he ripped him out of this world in the most cruel and violent manner possible. Does Marston deserve such a moment? You could make an argument either way. But this is his supreme deity offering the only consolation prize possible: a single iota of serenity, the last bastion away from blood and violence that Marston brought solely upon himself. It may be the closest thing Marston has to experiencing actual absolution and not whatever twisted forgiveness he seeks.
Need more proof? Let’s long at the song specifically. There’s a few really telling lines that fit with Marston and the larger religious message/scope. Like, “Step in front of a runaway train just to feel alive again,” which may be an analogy for his own reckless cowboy behavior as a means to get back to the simple act of living a live with actual meaning. Or, “Who are you trying to impress, steadily creating a mess,” a direct message for Marston about the chaos and destruction he’s brought forth, and how he is clearly trying to draw out God’s attention via this bloodshed. It’s even in the simple refrain of “It’s so far, so far away,” which may hint that Marston’s own penance may be further along than even he believed, and no amount of violence could ever make it more real or tangible. John Marston is a man seeking pure, biblical redemption, and his God is at least willing to listen.
But even without those messages, the music itself speaks volumes. More than it’s era-specific vibes, the tune is also one of the more somber and melancholy in the game’s soundtrack, which makes it feel all the more perfect and deliberate. As an extension of that, there’s an otherworldly quality to González’s voice, and while I think God might have more bass-heavy authority, perhaps this slightly fuzzy, emotionally complex croon just might be the Lord’s voice beaming down on the heart of an imperfect man.
So, then, what’s the actual point of God’s “presence” in RDR? As I’d said earlier, it’s the only time this really happens in the game. Even with that, it’s an especially plotted, borderline artificial moment — to the point I swear that even on my busted-up Xbox 360 the graphics suddenly and momentarily improved by leaps and bounds, creating this perfectly gorgeous moment. It also seems very on brand for Rockstar to have an instance like this occur, some perfect level of catering and curation that fits in line with the larger themes of the respective game. I’m thinking something like the “Rampage” missions for Trevor in GTA V, which are basically an excuse to cut out the in-game mechanics and structure and let players go a little bonkers. Rockstar is really great about letting games unfold somewhat organically (see the entirety of GTA V‘s online world), but having moments where things feel focused to the point of constriction are powerful metaphors for game design and its connections with religion and free will.
Some of those same game moments appear in Bully and other GTA entries, and they’re the hallmark of a savvy design team trying to actively broadcast a message about game mechanics and life while actively stifling that same message under layers of context and mechanical trickery. That’s how so much of the other spiritual elements in RDR work: nebulous to the point that the gamer has to decide for themselves what’s actually going down. In turn, that feels in line with an age-old quandary about just how much God is involved in our lives, an argument perfectly encapsulated when Bender met God in Futurama. The whole point is to play with the gamer’s sensibilities, and leave them to decide the profundity of the moment. Is it God stepping in, or just a great moment that feels that way? We can never truly know, and it makes the designers/creators seem all the more brilliant for the decision. Plus, it keeps players connected to the title in an endless pursuit of answers. Sort of why I kept attending a church youth group as a tween even after I hated all the singing and hand-holding.
I get the idea that religious discussions in video games might make some folks feel uneasy. To an extent, that may be the point, as Rockstar loves to push buttons and boundaries whenever possible. At the same time, though, it’s such a simple and unassuming moment in a giant, sprawling game that you can ignore it or pretend it’s something else and still take so much away from this classic title. Those of us who choose to see God, however, and then contextualize that moment however we see fit, are merely extending the scope and narrative of this piece of media.
It’s a chance to find something more, to wring out even more value out Red Dead Redemption. Whether God is there or not, it’s a powerful demonstration of what happens when people wander — away from narrative structures or the murmurs of crowds, walking through these properties with little more than curiosity and an open mind. Sometimes that takes waiting five years to play a game, but maybe then that was just destiny all along?