Sin and Sympathy in Red Dead Redemption

If Red Dead Redemption has any truth to speak to us, 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 constantly ask the player to consider whether the ends justify the means. This question is asked so often that the answer cannot possibly be “yes,” as the men 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. If anyone truly understands this, it’s Christians—we know that “no one is good, no not one” and “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11). We live under no false 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.” To see that ours is a broken world, we don’t have to watch the news, we need only look in the mirror.

While we must acknowledge the fallenness of our world, we must also recognize the doctrine of sin lends itself to our abuse. Because Christians are able to see the world is not as it should be, we tend to get a little too excited about exposing its flaws. This would be a perfectly fine practice 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. 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, but it constantly asks 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 it’s like to walk a mile in this wicked man’s shoes.

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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—sometimes very bad—but 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. As he gets closer to bringing down his former gang, he develops a sense of justice. He even admits 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.

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