Red Dead Redemption has the best ending I’ve ever seen in a game. I’ve been playing them for 18 years now, so I don’t make that mega definitive statement lightly. Not only does its savagely sobering finale have no peer, it’s the first title I’ve seen that makes me believe the medium might actually be progressing as a narrative force. And here's why...
Oh, and naturally, game-ruining spoilers below. You have been warned.
It puts character before spectacle
Traditional logic dictates that games get progressively harder for the player as they continue. Most usually end in a swelling crescendo of bastard hard missions, where every snappily-dressed Nazi, chainsaw-handed mutant and Johnny Foreigner you’ve encountered over the course of your journey is thrown at you. Thank Clint Eastwood’s manly, stoic stubble that Red Dead hogties traditional logic and leaves it to rot in the desert sun.
Above: The attack on a former buddy's camp is the game's most epic mission, but far from its last
Redemption’s finale spits in the face of convention and puts its narrative before epic set pieces or gamer rage. The climax to John Marston’s journey as an outlaw (the main meat of the tale) takes place a good two hours before the final credits hit.
After Dutch, Marston's former hombre turned backstabbing sociopath, throws himself off a cliff, the government cronies who have been holding Marston’s family allow the outlaw to return home. Cue a beautiful piece of scoring where our antihero rides back to his ranch to a gentle Western melody.
Above: Dutchfalling off a mountain is only a small part of the story
When you return home, the game’s difficulty suddenly takes a huge nosedive. You’re not fighting armies of demented cowboys in the wilderness anymore. No, instead you’re just trying to lead a simple life, as you slowly reacclimatise to family life. You deliver corn to the MacFarlane ranch with your wife, teach your son Jack how to hunt and catch horses with your missus’ crotchety brother.
Above: When you return to the ranch, it's all about sedate family life
These six or seven missions represent a beautiful bit of pacing from Rockstar San Diego. They’re not about throwing increasingly impossible challenges at you. They’re about building Marston’s character and showing you there was actually a decent family man in there, after you’ve just spent the previous 20 hours tying hookers to railroad tracks and shooting raccoons in the face.
Above: The final actfocuses onJohn trying to repair his relationship with his son
So when Marston’s ranch suddenly gets attacked by traitorous lawmen, after two hours of gentle adventuring and rebuilding family ties, the impact cuts deep.
Rather than trying to explain what happens in John Marston’s brutal, disquieting final mission, I’ll just let the images do the job for me.
Don't stick your head in a gas oven just yet, though...