It’s tempting to want to see our favourite characters in fiction again, maybe in a sequel or prequel. But sometimes I wonder if it’s best if they’re left alone.
According to everything that Rockstar Games has shown, the upcoming game Red Dead Redemption 2 will take an extensive look at the Van der Linde gang, a cadre of outlaws, during their wildest days. In the process, the game will bring back one very familiar face in the process: Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston. While it might be nice to see him once again, bringing him back for a prequel threatens to rob the first game’s conclusion of the impact that made it so memorable.
At the end of Red Dead Redemption, John Marston has finished hunting down the old members of his gang as part of a deal with Federal Agent Edgar Ross. In exchange for eliminating his old compatriots or turning them over to the government, John’s wife, Abigail, and son, Jack, are freed from incarceration. John retires back to his ranch. He enjoys only a temporary peace, as Ross and his goons descend upon the ranch hellbent on killing John. Surrounded and unable to run, John walks out to confront the lawman in order to give his family time to escape. He draws his gun, taking down as many foes as he can before being shot to death.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in 1899, twelve years before the first game, and, as best we know from what little Rockstar has shown of the game so far, follows Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang during the crew’s most notorious years. It will reunite us with characters like Dutch Van der Linde and, of course, John Marston, who has appeared in trailers and featured in promotional images. I’m not convinced this is a good decision, because losing John in the previous game was so powerful. When asked by Kotaku for comment on the decision to bring back Marston and if there was concern it might take away from the first game’s conclusion, Rockstar declined to comment.
— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) May 4, 2018
Rockstar wants players to feel connections across its westerns. The new game began as a “direct companion piece to Red Dead Redemption,” Rockstar North co-studio head Rob Nelson told The Telegraph in a recent article. “We wanted to tell the story of the gang that John alludes to in the first game.”
It is entirely possible that spending more time with John Marston will provide a more complete picture of who he was, for good and for ill. But that contact and continued exposure comes at the cost of rolling back an important concept from the first game: all things end. At its core Red Dead Redemption is a story of failure: The failure of an outlaw to survive against authority. The failure of a father to prevent his son going down a similar path. The failure of society to preserve the natural world around them. Most importantly, it is about the failure of the player to assert their own dominance over John. It doesn’t matter how many side quests you completed, weapons you gathered, or time you spent controlling Marston, in the end he decides to take a last stand. No matter how good a shot you are, you can’t save him from dying at the hands of Agent Ross and his posse. John cannot survive the end of an American era; all he can do is decide how he will exit the stage.
After John dies, his son, Jack, becomes the new player character. Some players lament the change from John to his son Jack, seeing the latter as a pale imitation of his father but that’s largely the point. Jack is an intellectual dreamer, not as taciturn as his father, whose behaviour and dialogue belie a suicidal streak. Jack is an awkward fit for an open world protagonist, forced to step into the role in John’s absence. Robbing the player of John and offering a hasty substitute is bitter but that bitterness is essential to Red Dead Redemption’s tale of failure and disappointment. John’s death is an end to the normalcy we’d grown comfortable with, and nothing can ever be the same afterwards. To see him alive and well during Red Dead Redemption 2, in any context, repairs the damage of his death. Our loss isn’t really a loss at all if we can just boot up the prequel and sit down with John Marston by the fire.
Fleshing out John’s backstory also risks robbing key moments of their mystery. In one memorable side mission, John encounters an unnamed man in a black suit who seems to know him. The figure, loosely representative of God or the Devil, asks John about his past:
John: I’m pretty good at remembering faces.
Strange Man: Are you? Do you remember Heidi McCourt’s face?
Strange Man: She was a girl Dutch van der Linde shot in the head on that raid on the ferry a few years back. Same one you got shot on. Pretty girl... until her eye was hanging out by a thread of tendon, and her brain was plastered over a wall.
John: Not really.
Strange Man: Then why would you remember me, friend? You’ve forgotten far more important people than me.
Part of what makes John’s journey so compelling in the first game is the fact that we only ever have allusions and references made to cold-blooded, violent actions he participated in. The spectre of the past hovered in the background, never knowable but still undeniable. The story of John’s past and the failing therein work as set dressing for his choices in the earlier game. The more explicit it gets, the more difficult it becomes for players to project their own faults and disappointments onto it. I have no doubt that we will see Dutch shoot Heidi McCourt in Red Dead Redemption 2 and while it might end up being a horrible moment of sudden violence, it makes John’s past tangible and knowable in a way that fundamentally undermines the first game. Just as John can’t remember Heidi McCourt’s face, it is important that we never know her either.
Of course, it is entirely possible that things work out. That seeing John once again only increases our attachment to him and makes it easier to trace his growth throughout the years. Red Dead Redemption’s writing portrayed a wounded and complicated man and that portrayal resonated. Maybe all of my worries are misplaced and I will walk away from the sequel with a greater appreciation of John than ever before.
But for now, I am convinced that ghosts should remain ghosts. John Marston is dead and it is important that he and his past stay buried. Bringing him back could provide a reunion that undercuts the original game’s emphasis that loss is inevitable and irreversible. It might feel nice to see our old friend again but in the end, it might do more harm than good.