You can probably remember your favourite character from Red Dead Redemption. Most likely, it’s good ‘ol straight-talking, gun-slinging John Marston. Or maybe its Nigel West Dickens, the eccentric, greedy travelling salesman that flogs ‘miracle’ cures along the Mexican border. Or maybe even Seth Briars, the grave-robbing prospector with more than a touch of psychosis. The American Frontier is packed with personalities.
But the one that sticks in my mind is less obvious. I don’t know his name. I don’t even know if he’s a ghost, the devil or God. And, a full seven years on from the game’s release, neither does anyone else (apart from Rockstar, and they’ve kept schtum).
Known only as the Strange Man, he’s involved in a single three-part quest called ‘I Know You’, the only quest in the game that you don’t need to finish to reach 100% completion. The man – who Marston can’t help but feel is familiar – sets John two moral dilemmas. First, either stop a man from cheating on his wife with a prostitute or pay him to make sure he goes through with it, and second, donate some money to a nun raising money for the church or rob her blind.
Simple enough, but the context sets it apart. It’s superbly written, with lots of discussion of John’s ethics, of the afterlife, and of judgement in this world and the next. “I’ll let the appropriate authorities judge my morality friend,” Marston says at one point, to which the man replies: “Yes you will. And they shall”.
But the real mystery comes in the final scene. Marston, frustrated at the stranger for not revealing his identity, pulls a gun on the man as he walks away for the final time, and fires three shots. But the bullets have no effect. The man just keeps on walking.
So, we know he’s not human. But what, and who, is he? Several theories have done the rounds since the game's release, and nobody can agree which is correct.
Some say the man is a figment of Marston’s imagination. A projection of his conscience that he’s unwittingly designed as a true test of the man he’s become. It would explain the man’s apparently intimate knowledge of Marston’s mind (“I know you from Mexico, I know you from back out west, I know you from all over”) and his need to test our hero’s character.
However, the stranger knows things that John simply couldn’t – he knows about the man who’s about to cheat on his wife in Thieves’ Landing, and of the travelling nun, both a long horse ride away. He also appears to know *SPOILER ALERT* John’s tragic fate. Our final encounter with him is on a hill overlooking Beecher’s Hope, almost exactly on the spot that Marston will later be buried. “This is a fine spot,” he says, with more than a touch of knowing.
That apparent omnipotence has led many to believe that the man is God The biggest support for this theory comes in the last scene of the quest, when Marston is about to pull the trigger on the man. “Damn you,” Marston shouts. “Yes, many have,” the man replies.
But other turns of phrase don’t fit. “I admire you John,” the man says after Marston returns from Thieves’ Landing. “I hope my boy turns out just like you.” Considering he says this even if John has just paid the would-be cheat to sleep with a lady of the night, I don’t think he’s referring to Jesus, unless he’s being ironic. And earlier on the man says: “Sometimes I wish I’d known more about life. I wish I’d had better guidance.” Which is a silly way for the omnipotent creator of the universe to talk.
Similar objections apply to the theory that the man is the devil. When telling him about the nun he says John could protect her – “either that or rob her yourself”, which some interpret as a temptation. But I don’t think his presentation of two options has any malice behind it, and the Strange Man remains neutral whatever John does. And while the devil does have a son, he wouldn’t want him to turn out like John Marston. After all, in one scenario you've just donated money to the church and stopped a man committing adultery. It doesn’t fit.
Some see the man as a Saint Peter figure. A guardian of heaven, deciding whether you go into the pearly gates or, sorry friend, burn in the eternal fire. His tasks could be seen as a final test for John. “You’ve forgotten far more important people than me,” the man says, which could reference John’s apparent abandonment of God. It’s a possibility, anyway, although it can't explain why he’s testing John now – shouldn’t he be doing that after death, after the sum of Marston’s actions can be fully totted up?
Which leads us nicely to the most popular theory: the man is death himself, the Grim Reaper. It explains his ambivalence, and why he describes himself as “an accountant…in a way.” It also explains his knowledge of, and focus on, Marston’s demise, and of his final resting place. “Tell me your name or I won’t be responsible for my actions,” Marston says. “Oh but you will, you will be responsible,” the Strange Man replies.
But why would death be setting Marston tasks? Just to screw with him? It could be a chance to offer Marston a chance at redemption, I suppose. But it would make him more than a mere “accountant” of dead souls. And does death even have a son? Why would he want him to be like Marston?
Maybe these theories are trying to be too clever. Maybe it’s as obvious, as some have said, as the man is a ghost: either of one of the many men Marston has killed or a dead relative. If it’s a previous victim it would explain why the man is so obsessed with John and yet Marston doesn’t recognise him — just one of a hundred anonymous men he’s put to rest. It would also explain the man’s knowledge of divine judgement, because he has already been judged.
The reason people think he could be a family member is that there’s various pictures of a man in a top hat in the safehouses both in Beecher's Hope and Blackwater. However, the photo (see above) is inconclusive. Besides, if the man was a relative of Marston – his father, say – wouldn’t John recognise him? And if the man is a ghost, why is he omnipotent? How does he know John’s final resting place? The theory doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of what the Strange Man says, in my opinion.
It all leads me to one conclusion: that there can be no conclusions. Rockstar put him in the game purely to flesh out a theme and spark debate. They succeeded on both of those fronts. The inconsistencies and obscurities lead people like me on wild goose chases, but the man also stands alone, above all of that, distinct from other spiritual or cultural figures.
That’s not to say that the mystery of the Strange Man is over. I’m excited for Red Dead Redemption 2. To be back in Rockstar’s vision of the wild west, to duel, to tame horses, to hogtie criminals. But above all, I’m excited about the prospect — however distant — of putting to bed a mystery that has bugged me for the last seven years.
Credit for images: Red Dead Wiki