The Politics of the Wild West

June 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Warning – Minor spoilers: If you’re the kind of person that got annoyed at Nintendo for telling you Luigi would be playable in Galaxy 2, then this article will likewise ‘spoil’ Red Dead Redemption.

Warning – Pretension within: I like writing that over-analyses games. If you don’t I suggest you hit backspace, because this article is one of those.

Red Dead Redemption’s main star is the Wild West. Sure, there may be this guy named John Marston gallivanting around looking to put a bullet between the eyes of some former ‘comrades’, but the story of the demise of the ‘Old West’ – as it’s referred to in the game – is a much more potent one. The ideals of the setting, of the freedom to do exactly as you please, is something that Marston collides with head on, and eventually becomes converted by; He sidesteps left politically, as a direct result of the events he witnesses within the game.

By the time the events of the game start John is already on his way to the political right, having been quite the socialist in the past. Whilst riding with his old gang, he sought to redistribute wealth more equally by  “[stealing] from the rich, and …[giving] the money to the people who needed it more.” Marston’s views directly equal that of left wing politics; the idea that a more equal distribution of income is beneficial to all. Modern day income redistribution takes the form of a progressive tax system, a century ago it was the task of outlaws – at least in the eyes of Red Dead’s protagonist.

Even during the game’s first half he still holds some of these ideals dear. When tracking members of the Ballard Gang back to their hideout Marston asks the sheriff why they don’t just arrest them then and there if they’re known gang members, but the sheriff disagrees. Marston believes they should prevent the crime in the first place, Leigh Johnson that they should punish it when it happens.

Later on John has a similar disagreement with the rebel leader. “Whilst there are guns and money,” he says, “there won’t be any freedom.” Again this highlights another crucial difference between the politics of the left and the right, where the left will favour greater state intervention at the expense of personal liberty with a view to giving people the ‘freedom from’ at the expense of the ‘freedom to’.

Why do his views change though? An obvious reason is the actions of the Mexican rebels in the game’s middle third. These rebels have support from followers who truly believe they’re working towards a fairer, more equal Mexico. They hope to achieve this through a socialist government, which Reyes even tries to convert Marston to at one point (“You would make a fine socialist.”). To a certain extent the rebel leaders believe their cause is noble as well, though as with any politician it’s hard to tell their beliefs from their rhetoric.

The problem Marston discovers, is that of the

corrupting influence of power. It’s a problem all extreme left wing governments struggle to deal with, and in Red Dead Redemption this problem is portrayed by the Rebels turning into a mirror image of the previous government even before they get into power. Reyes sleeps with whores, he makes false marital promises, and he even boasts at one point about matching the government’s propaganda with their own. Once they get into power the similarities get even more pronounced as can be seen in newspaper reports published after the final mission.

Although this may have pushed him over the edge, it’s undoubtedly the government’s control over his own life that he resents the most. Characters he comes across within the game often assume he’s working for the government, which is only really half true. To claim someone’s working for someone implies they have a choice, when in actual fact he’s being blackmailed to do so. In this way John sees the flip-side of increased government intervention, its negative impact. 

Here we have the crux of his belief system, in that essentially he believes in the right of government to control, up until the point that they’re controlling him. As soon as that steps up in the latter half of the game, John starts preaching the importance of freedom and individual liberty. Some might call this selfish, when really it’s just naïve. It’s hard to imagine Marston gave any thought at all to the people’s money he was taking when he robbed banks.

Coming face to face with his old gang members reveals how much his beliefs have changed. A key concept often used in the political broadcasting of the left is that of ‘fairness’, but Marston gives up on this utopian view, “Ain’t nothing fair” he says, and also “It was just an excuse and we all knew.”

John Marston’s time during the game changes him. He started out with a firmly held belief that a government (or in his case: outlaws) should intervene to restore fairness and equality, but drops this belief when he sees the dangers of too much governmental control in Mexico. By the game’s end Marston wants one thing: freedom, and he’s willing to put up with all of life’s hardships to enjoy it. This is in my view the game’s biggest achievement. It doesn’t just take the Wild West as a convenient setting, it makes the central ideal of the West, that of freedom, its central theme.


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