A complete recap of Red Dead Redemption, just in time for Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption is probably the greatest game Rockstar have ever made, and for a developer that makes Grand Theft Auto, that’s ridiculously high praise. There’s a lot that makes Red Dead Redemption a landmark achievement not just for the developer, or even for the genre, but for the industry in general, but the thing that perhaps makes it stand out more than any other is its narrative. In the backdrop of the receding Old West, Red Dead Redemption’s story succeeds on multiple levels. From a macro point of view, it serves as an excellent commentary on the civilization of what was called the Wild West, while on a more personal note, it chronicles the story of John Marston, one of the best written and developed characters you’ll ever see in a video game, in thrilling fashion.
As Red Dead Redemption 2 draws closer to launch, this seems like a great time to look back on the 2010 masterpiece. Usually in our Story So Far features, we like to be as detailed and thorough as possible, and obviously, that’s what we’re going for here as well. That said, given just how incredible vast Red Dead Redemption is and how many excellent smaller side stories it has to tell, exploring every nook and cranny for this game will be hard. If there’s anything relevant or noteworthy in the game that you feel we may have missed, please remind us of it in your comments.
Without further ado then, this is the story of Red Dead Redemption. (Obviously, there are spoilers ahead).
John Marston is synonymous with Red Dead, so in order to truly understand what lies at the heart of this game’s story, we first need to dive deep into Marston’s character and his own past. Though the narrative of Red Dead Redemption kicks off in the year 1911, the seeds for our story are sown years earlier. When Marston was a child, he lost both his parents to early and unfortunate deaths, and it wasn’t long after that that he found himself falling into a life of crime. How? Well, he was taken in by a notorious outlaw named Dutch Van Der Linde, who, in many ways, became something of a father figure for Marston.
Dutch is an interesting character, to say the least. He saw himself as something of a Robin Hood figure, except much more violent and harsh. He killed and stole from the rich freely, and to be fair, he did give much of what he stole from the rich to the poor. He did all this to facilitate his unique and strong ideals of what kind of a world he wants to live in. By the time Red Dead Redemption’s story kicks off, the American Frontier, or the Wild West, is coming to an end, being swept away by a wave of civilization and the migration of some of the nation’s more “civilized” and “advanced” population over into this relatively untamed and lawless land.
Dutch sees this, and has always seen this, as an attack on his own vision for the world. The advent of technology, the modernization of civilization, and the extensive settlement of the west don’t sit too well with him. His vision for the world is one of what he describes as a savage utopia, and he feels things such as greater control by the government, advancing technology, and everything else that brings with it are in direct conflict with that savage utopia. Such things, he believes, lead to corruption and inequalities, where the rich and the powerful exert unnecessary control and power over those not on their level.
Even if you do, at some level, see where he’s coming from, though, his actions are hard to digest. Dutch is a man who puts his thoughts into action, which means that to uphold his vision for a savage utopia and to fight back against the fading away of the wild west, he often resorts to cruel and violent measures, making him a dangerous and notorious figure. His gang of bandits and outlaws, in turn, are quite similar, at least in their actions, if not their beliefs. And sadly, Marston, who fell in with Dutch and his gang early on in his life, quickly adopted that way of life as well.
While he travelled with Dutch and his gang, he met his future wife, Abigail, who also used to travel with Dutch’s gang frequently. Soon, the two got married, and had a young son named Jack- eventually, they had a daughter as well, but around 1911, not long before the game’s proper story begins, she dies at a very young age due to reasons the game doesn’t go into (we’re never even told what her name was). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. About five years before that, Dutch’s gang tries to rob a bank, with Marston very much being part of the proceedings- the robbery, however, goes badly.
Marston is shot and left for dead, while his companions, other members of the gang, leave him behind and flee from the scene. This is, obviously, not something that goes down well with Marston, but more than that, the incident also serves as a wake up call to him. Marston decides that he needs to leave behind his life as an outlaw. In search of a more peaceful existence with his wife Abigail and their children, who’re both alive and well at that point, Marston buys a farm and settles down with his family, with the aim of building a ranch.
You’re tasked with building a ranch, managing its daily workings, and making sure it is always in good repair and maintained properly. In early development, the team at Rockstar had internally given Red Dead Redemption the tentative title Ranch Life.
No, that sounds terrible and thanks to the Bureau of Investigation, without whom this game would not exist. Why do we say that? Because around 1911, the year the game’s story begins, the Bureau of Investigation is formed, as part of the modernization and greater government control we mentioned earlier. And they have plans- oh, they have elaborate plans, most of which are put into place by a man named Edgar Ross. Ross is an agent of the Bureau, and he’s been put in charge of tracking down bandits and outlaws in the west and bringing their criminal activities to an end by any mans possible. Though Ross is, at least on paper, a government employee, he’s no less of a crook himself, and exhibits all the tendencies of corruption that men like Dutch Van Der Linde despise.
First task on the docket for Ross, and his right hand man and fellow agent Archer Fordham, is to bring to justice a man named Bill Williamson. Who is Bill Williamson? Bill was, back in the day, also a member of the Van Der Linde gang, one of Dutch’s top lieutenants, for the lack of a better word. After Dutch’s gang became inactive and more or less faded away, Bill started his own gang, and one that was vastly different and yet quite similar to Dutch’s at the same time. It was similar in that Bill and his men proved to be cruel, violent, and ruthless as well, outlaws to their core, only much more dangerous than even Dutch’s gang. And it was different because where Dutch was, at least on some level, driven by his strong ideals, Bill was just driven by, well, being a flat-out bad person.
Bill and Marston, though, used to be thick as thieves back in the day, when they were both members of Dutch’s gangs, and Edgar Ross sees this as his way in, and Marston as his trump card. He knows he needs Marston to work for him, but getting him to do so would be easier said than done- and so, he kidnaps Abigail and Jack Marston, telling John that if he wants his and wife back, he needs to track down Bill, his old comrade, and bring him to justice on behalf of Ross, and in turn, the Bureau of Investigation. And so, Marston is left with little choice but to acquiesce to this. He sets off from his farm, and travels to the town of Armadillo- which is where our game begins, and where things truly start off.
Upon arriving in Armadillo, Marston immediately heads to Fort Mercer, which is where Bill and his gang are holed up. And true to its name, Fort Mercer is pretty much impregnable and heavily defended from inside. Bill appears on the walls, and Marston tries to talk him into surrendering- but he wouldn’t be much of a vile outlaw if he listened to reason, would he? Things turn nasty, and John gets shot in the gut, and left bleeding on the side of the road. Help arrives not after, in the shape of a woman named Bonny MacFarlane, who’s a local rancher. She pulls Marston off the side of the road, takes him to her ranch, and pays for his recovery.
Over the next few days, Marston helps Bonny with work around the ranch as a way to pay her back for her kindness, and in this duration, he makes a few other friends as well. These include US Marshal Leigh Johnson and his deputies, a gentlemanly con artist named Nigel West Dickens, the drunkard arms dealer Irish who seems to have plenty of useful contacts in useful places, and the weird robber known as Seth Briars. For about a couple of hours of gameplay (or more, depending on how you play and how much time you waste in the game’s admittedly excellent open world), not much else of note happens, but things change pretty soon.
Bill Williamson finds out that Marston didn’t die, and that he’s currently in Armadillo. To smoke him out and finish what he started by finally killing him, a posse of Bill’s gang members raids the dusty town, where the lives of several people, including Bonny, are put at an immediate risk. With the help of the Marshal and his deputies, Marston kills the outlaws. At this point, he and Marshal Leigh Johnson decide to put an end to Bill and his gang for good, and they formulate a strategy for the same, one that doesn’t involve an all-out assault on the fort with large numbers, but might prove to be just as effective.
Which basically amounts to using the old Trojan Horse technique. Nigel drives up a large carriage to Fort Mercer, claiming to sell herbal medicine, and is able to drive his coach inside the Fort. But as you may have guessed, there’s no medicine in the coach. No, inside is Marston, armed with a huge gatling gun. The plan works perfectly, and the criminals inside the fort are mowed down within seconds, with the help of backup from the US Marshal and some of Marston’s other newer allies. But though the plan works in terms of its successful infiltration of the fort and killing every member of Bill’s gang, Marston’s unable to achieve his true goal- killing Bill Williamson.
He discovers that Bill managed to escape the Fort, and that he’d fled across the border to Mexico, where he’s seeking the aid of a man named Javier Escuella, who also used to be a member of Dutch’s gang, along with Marston and Bill. And so, that’s where Marston heads. Irish steers a raft across the river and takes Marston to Mexico, and upon crossing, he heads up to Nuevo Paraiso. There, Marston meets up with Colonel Agustin Allende of the Mexican army, who’s also the governor of this region. Marston learns that the region is currently caught in the grips of a budding revolution- rebel leader Abraham Reyes has his revolutionary army up in arms, and Allende and his right hand man, Captain Vincente de Santa, are fighting to quash it before it can grow larger.
Allende, though, seems to know about the whereabouts of both Bill and Escuella, and he tells Marston that he will help him track them both down if he helps him bring the rebellion to an end. Marston agrees, but the agreement between the two isn’t as much a formal alliance as it is an uneasy one. Over the next few missions in the game, Marston ends up meeting several important and interesting characters. One such character is Landon Rickets, a legendary and veteran gunslinger who teaches Marston some important stuff. More importantly, though, Marston also crosses paths Abraham Reyes, the leader of the Mexican rebellion, as well as one of his lovers, a woman named Luisa, and- well, there’s a lot more to it, but to cut a long story short, before you know it, Marston is basically intermittently working with both sides. Eventually, though, things become less complicated on that front, and de Santa, Allende’s henchman de Santa ends up betraying Marston, and then attempts to have him killed.
That doesn’t happen, obviously. Marston is rescued by Reyes, and the informal alliance between the two turns into more of a partnership. Marston agrees to join the rebels in their efforts- not that he cares about the rebellion or anything, all he wants to do is track down Bill and Escuella, so helping the rebellion is more of a means to an end. The first thing (of note, anyway) he does after joining with Reyes is tracking down Captain de Santa, with every intention of settling the score. He catches up with de Santa pretty soon, beats the hell out of him, and then kills him.
With the help of the rebels, Marston learns that Javier Escuella is holed up in a fortress called El Presidio. Marston enlists the help of Reyes, who quickly gathers a formidable force of rebellion soldiers- with them in tow the two march on the fortress, leading an all-out assault. The assault culminates in Marston finally meeting Escuella, who attempts to run, but is soon chased down. Escuella begs Marston for his life, offering information on Bill Williamson in exchange for his life- and as it turns out, Bill has been under the protection of none other than Colonel Allende.
At this point, the game presents the player with a choice- Marston can either kill Escuella, or he can turn him over to Agent Ross. No matter what he does, though, it doesn’t really have much of a bearing on how the story plays out, but it does play into one of the game’s central themes- how far is Marston willing to go to earn his redemption? Living the life of an outlaw and doing all the things he did in that time is something that will always be in Marston’s past. Sure, he wants to make sure that his son Jack doesn’t fall into the same life of senseless violence and crime, but as for himself, just because he made the decision one day to abandon the life of crime and attempt to lead the more peaceful life of a rancher doesn’t mean all his history was just wiped away.
As far as the decision with Escuella goes, it’s a fairly small-scale thing, one that subtly enforces Marston’s conflict without ever banking on it in a heavy-handed manner. Either way, this internal conflict is something that casts a much deeper shadow over later events in the game, especially the way it closes, but that’s something we’ll get to in a bit. For now, let’s just stick with here and now.
Things come to a head as Marston, Allende, and the rebel forces rally for an all-out assault on Allende’s villa. It is, as you can imagine, a suitably thrilling segment of the game, with dramatic action and thrilling gunfights. There are multiple casualties on both sides, including Luisa (who, as we mentioned, was one of Reyes’ lovers), but the rebels manage to gain the upper hand. Seeing that the skirmish is a lost cause, Allende and Bill Williamson flee from the scene- but of course, Marston can’t have that. He and Allende give chase, and eventually, they catch up, and Marston finally executes both the Colonel and his old friend, Bill Williamson.
The Mexican segment of Red Dead Redemption’s storyline ends there. Reyes tells Marston that he plans on leading his rebel forces for an large-scale assault on the Mexican capital, and though this is the last time we see him in the game, we do find out right at the very end what became of him- essentially, there are no good people (or very little of them) in the world of Red Dead Redemption. Reyes becomes consumed by power and turns into a tyrannical leader, turning into the very thing he was fighting against. But that’s far into the future, so let’s not concern ourselves with that.
Marston, obviously, has no plans of continuing his alliance with the rebels- his job here is done. Bill Williamson is dead. As such, he heads back to the town of Blackwater in the United States, where he meets with Agents Ross and Fordham, and finds out that things, predictably enough, are far from over.
Bill Williamson may be dead, but there is one final task Marston needs to help the Bureau with before he can go back to his life as a rancher- or his attempts at one, at the very least. That task, Ross tells him, is to kill Dutch Van Der Linde, as part of their focused efforts of putting an end to outlaws and banditry in the West. The complications of the task set before him are inherently clear to us as players- Dutch took Marston in when he was a child and both his parents were dead, and in many ways, was a father figure to him. But that’s a life he has left behind, and the life he wants, one with his wife and son, hinges on him acquiescing to this task. And so, Marston agrees.
Dutch, it turns out, has been forming a new gang entirely, recruiting young Native Americans to his cause as he seeks to continue his fight. As Marston begins his efforts to track down his old gang leader, he enlists the help of new friends. Among them is Nastas, an older Native American informant who sees that younger Natives are being led astray by Dutch’s vision, and also has the added incentive of wanting to protect his own tribesmen from inner destruction thanks to this ongoing conflict. Another person who Marston works with for a while as he tracks down Dutch is the bafflingly ignorant and small-minded Harold MacDougal, a man whose almost typically East Coast persona is in direct contrast to the surroundings he currently finds himself in as a result of being pushed out of his job as a professor at Yale due to an addiction to cocaine.
Nastas and MacDougal, in spite of their vastly different backgrounds and personalities, seem to be pretty close to each other, and see each other as friends. Not at first, of course- but their interactions slowly but surely turn into tolerance, which then turns into a friendship of sorts. That friendship comes to a bitter end not long after, though. As Marston continues to close in on Dutch with their help, things continue to heat up, and the tension continues to ramp up. Several conflicts and confrontations follow each other one after the other, until one of them results in a tragic loss, with Nastas being shot in the head. An enraged Marston, who had grown to have a deep respect for Nastas, kills Nastas’ murderers immediately.
Marston and MacDougal escape from the scene, with both of them visibly shaken and saddened by the abrupt death of Nastas. MacDougal, who’s realized how desperately out of place he is in his current surroundings, decides to flee back Yale, but his escape attempt is cut short. Dutch arrives outside his house while he and Marston are still inside, backed up by several Native American soldiers of his gang, with every intention to kill the two of them. In an intense sequence, Marston and MacDougal attempt to make their escape through the rooftops, while constantly having to contend with several snipers that Dutch has placed all over the town.
Somehow, though, they manage to escape intact. The two of them get on their horses, and though Dutch’s men give pursuit, Marston holds them off and manages to kill all pursuers. Marston and MacDougal arrive at the nearest train station safely, where they bid each other farewell, and MacDougal finally leaves.
By this time, though, the conflict has heated up considerably, and things are finally coming to a head. Marston and Bureau agents Ross and Fordham join forces with the US Army, and head to Dutch’s hideout for a final confrontation. Marston fights his way through Dutch’s forces, and eventually, the two come face to face once again on top of a cliff, where Dutch stands at the precipice and Marston stands with his gun pointed right at him. As the moment of truth arrives, Dutch realizes that the battle is lost- but he’s a man of strong beliefs, and he’s not going to Marston kill him, or the government catch him. He tells that he’s realized that there is no place in the world anymore for people like them, that the world has moved on, and with that, he throws himself off the cliff.
And with that, John Marston’s mission finally comes to an end. Bill Williamson is dead. Dutch Van Der Linde is dead. The Bureau tells him that he’s completed his deal, and that’s he’s free now, and so is his family. Abigail and Jack are waiting for him back at their ranch, and John Marston finally goes back home. The end. Game over.
… Wait, we’re skipping over some tiny, slightly important details. It’s not over yet.
For a time, Marston spends a blissfully quiet and uneventful time at the ranch with his family. He tends to his land and he works about on his ranch along with an old friend of his and his family’s an old man known only as Uncle. While Marston was away tracking down Bill and Dutch, he had left Uncle in charge of his ranch, and after his return, he stays on with the Marston family. In many ways, he’s part of the family. Marston also begins reconnecting with his now teenage son, and by all accounts, he lives a normal, mundane life, and it starts looking like the thing he had been after for so long is finally within his reach. But of course, that can’t happen.
Red Dead Redemption is a game of many themes and messages, and one of the most prominent of these themes is that your past catches up with you. The Bureau, led by Agent Ross, was hellbent on eradicating all traces of the biggest criminals of the Old West in order to bring about “civilization”, and with the likes of Williamson, Escuella, and Dutch, out of the picture, they’ve achieved that goal- almost. Because John Marston was also once a notorious criminal outlaw, right up there with his former brothers in arms, and Ross won’t rest until he’s finished his mission entirely.
The agent arrives at the ranch of the Marstons with a formidable posse in tow, a fact that Uncle brings to John’s attention, having spotted them fronma distance, and John realizes that things don’t look good. The odds are heavily stacked against him- as shots are fired from both sides with the posse getting ever closer, Uncle gets shot and dies, and soon Marston sees only one way to let his wife and son escape unharmed. He tells Abigail and Jack to get on a horse and run, telling them that he will stay behind to create a distraction and will then meet up with them later. Seeing no other option, they say their goodbyes, tell him to be careful, and do as he’s asked. All the while, a palpable sense of dread continues to build up, not just within the game, but within us as players as well.
After his wife and son leave, Marston peeps out from the door of the barn he’s in, to see that right outside the door stands Ross’ entire posse, ready with their weapons in hand and primed for combat. Marston takes a deep breath, opens the barn doors, and steps outside.
Within seconds, he’s mowed down, as dozens upon dozens of people fire countless times at him. Though he manages to take out a handful of the gunmen, bullets tear through practically every inch of his body. Marston stumbles, bloodied and battered, breathes a final, painful, rattling breath, and falls to the ground, dead. With his mission complete, Ross turns around silently, and walks away with his posse.
The game picks back up again three years later, as Jack Marston, now no longer a teen, stands on the hill overlooking his old family ranch, where his father died. In the intervening years, Abigail Marston has passed away as well due to unknown reasons, and both she and John, along with Uncle as well, rest under the ground on the hill overlooking the ranch. Jack Marston, though, has a mission of his own, one not of redemption like that of his father’s but rather, of revenge. He tracks down Edgar Ross, who it turns out has now retired, and when Jack confronts him about his father’s death, he is predictably dismissive, telling Jack that it was Marston’s own fault that he died- he was, after all, an outlaw.
Jack challenges Ross to a duel, and with lightning quick reflexes, draws his weapon, and guns down the man who killed his father. In a quiet, sombre moment, he looks down at his weapon. The implication here is clear, and heartbreaking- Jack is dangerously close to falling into exactly the sort of life John fought so hard to keep him away from. Jack holsters his weapon, turns around, and walks away.
And that’s the story of Red Dead Redemption, from start to finish. For real this time. Red Dead Redemption 2 arrives not long for now- the wait for this highly anticipated game is almost over, and the excitement surrounding its launch is through the roof. Red Dead Redemption 2 will take place in the year 1899, more than a decade before the 2010 title, and will serve as a prequel to it. As its protagonist, it will feature Arthur Morgan, who was also part of Dutch’s gang, and was quite high in the ranks too. Figures such as Dutch, Uncle, and of course, Marston himself will all be appearing in the game. What’s interesting, though, is that Arthur Morgan is being described by Rockstar as a pretty high ranking member of Dutch’s gang, and yet his was a name that was never even mentioned once in the entirety of Red Dead Redemption. It’s going to be very interesting to see how his story plays out, then, since we know nothing about him whatsoever, other than the fact that he’s a very different man from Marston. And who knows, maybe we’re not done playing as John Marston yet either… one can always hope.