Doing the Bad Ending Well: Red Dead Redemption


The second game to fall before the might of The Quest happens to be Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s 2010 mix of Grand Theft Auto gameplay and the Western genre.  This game’s pretty well known, so if you’re looking for an opinion piece on it, that ground’s already covered.  If you want the Aether take in particular, I didn’t like it that much.  Even when I was in the mood for a good rooty tooty point and shooty, I found this wide open sandbox to be full of things to do but very little that was worth doing.  But that’s not why I’m here today.  I want to talk about one of the parts of the game that I did like, the ending.  And I want to talk about why I like it.  Because that’s a weird space for me.  The ending to Red Dead Redemption does a few things that I normally absolutely despise when video game endings do it, but they work for me here.  Let’s explore why that is.

Suffice to say, I am going to spoil the hell out of Red Dead Redemption’s ending.  If you haven’t beaten the game yet and you’d still like to, I wouldn’t click that ‘Read More’ button.

Right, so those guys, those spoiler-sensitive types, they’re gone now, right?  Good.  Let’s all talk crap about them.


Or not.  So just for a refresher, Red Dead Redemption’s plot centers around John Marston, a reformed outlaw, whose family is being held hostage by the proto-FBI until he kills or captures all the members of his old gang.  After 50 or so missions and several thousand dead bodies, he’s completed his job successfully, the FBI releases his wife and son, and he goes back to his ranch with them, seeking to build a normal, average life, something he can be proud of and raise his son well in.  Some time after that, the federal agents return with the army in tow and lay siege to his ranch, seeking his head.  John gets his family out, then, rather than escaping himself, stays behind for one final shootout, ending with his old FBI handlers pulling the trigger on him and leaving his wife a widow.

So, the ending does a couple of things that normally would drive me up the wall.  With one exception, I don’t remember if there’s ever been a time where a game has killed a player character by means of putting together an ending and it hasn’t burned me  You spend the whole game with that character as your avatar into this world, trying your best to identify with them because they’re your means of bringing you will in here, if they’re good you pour yourself into them, and then guaranteed they just cheapkill him or her in a cutscene where they’re underpowered and make stupid decisions because you know if it was in gameplay you’d be able to make it out alive.  To make matters worth, although I’m sure it’s possible to build it into a good story, I’ve not yet seen it happen.  Instead, games always seem to get a cheap pop from it, and have it inevitably lead up to an ending that just doesn’t live up to whatever else was good in this story.

But yeah.  I think Red Dead Redemption comes the closest I’ve seen to working it.  Let’s talk about why.



Red Dead Redemption does another thing that you don’t see very often in games, and actually spends time on its denouement.  Seriously, this is something you almost never see in our chosen medium.  And there’s reason for that.  RDR has another frustrating bad ending problem in place because of it, in that they divorce the emotional climax and the gameplay climax of the work.  But I think here, it largely paid off.  So, after you kill what’s effectively the end boss of the game, your FBI handlers release your family and let you go back to run your ranch and have the normal life you wanted the whole game.  And you know what?  You do that.  There’s about ten or so missions at the end of the game where rather than killing hundreds of gunmen between you and whatever soon-to-be lead basket you’re after, you just… farm.  You go and buy yourself some cattle.  You defend your corn from crows.  You take your son out hunting elk.  You get an intimate picture of the life John earned, which serves to expand the end game and give a little more emotional satisfaction before it all comes crashing down.

Frankly, given the tone of the work, it feels like the most appropriate possible ending.  Red Dead Redemption is the most cynical possible take on the Western setting.  There’s no romance of the old west here.  Everything you do ends horribly.  John backs a rebellion against the corrupt Mexican regime?  Turns out the new guys are just as bad as the old ones.  John tries to buy a prostitutes freedom?  She ends up going back to her pimp and he kills her.  John wants to help a pregnant woman get the financial support from the man that impregnated her?  She’s lying to him, and he ends up fatally shaking down an innocent man.  There are no good endings to be had in this world.  The game had spent its entire runtime leading up to this.  It would be more out of place if John had lived happily ever after.

For that matter, the ending here does avert a lot of the worst baggage games usually pile on when they’re concluding by doing in the main character.  Generally, when an ending sees the player character on ice, the big death moment comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really lead anywhere.  It’s a quick pop, but it doesn’t really add much to the overarching plot.  The hero sacrifices themselves against the overpowering villain to hammer home just how powerful and dire this is, you get the villain just plain winning and robbing the gameplay’s inertia you’ve been building up so long, or they’ll pass away and you’ll see others living on as a means of demonstrating how final this ending is.

Red Dead Redemption has the plot flow through it instead.  John Marston’s death is well foreshadowed in advance, what with his FBI handlers obviously not caring one whit about his life, and multiple members of his family assuring John they’re never going to let him off the chain at several points in the denouement, although they were expecting more orders to come rather than bullets.  It leads to more story beats as well.  After his death, you see the story pick up years later, with John’s wife dead without his care, and his son grown into exactly the type of man John was always trying to prevent him from being.  The kid, Jack, then hunts down the people responsible, and makes sure John’s handlers don’t exactly get away with it.  Again, given the game, you don’t get a happy ending for Jack, but you do get to see John’s death make for a story bit for him, one that progresses things along rather than just being used for a moment of drama itself.

Of course, I have to admit that it helps that I was very unengaged with John himself.  I found his character interesting, but the fact that his writing made him (unintentionally?) dumber than a mime convention wore on me as the game went on.  So I was hoping he’d have a happy story at the end, but he’s not one I’m apt to spend the tears on.

Red Dead Redemption’s ending was a controversial one, with nobody seeming to take neutral ground in this discussion.  Personally, it’s probably the most notable part of the game, and I find it very interesting that after an experience I didn’t particularly enjoy, it managed to try some things I almost always hate in endings and put together something I appreciated with them.  I’ve often said that the moment you try and put rules on how a creative work has to be created, someone will come along and make something beautiful by breaking those rules.  I don’t know if I can call RDR’s ending beautiful, but it does come close to doing pretty much what I described.

5 responses to “Doing the Bad Ending Well: Red Dead Redemption

  1. Despite being fairly popular among the high-minded, I feel the downer ending is much more difficult to pull off than most people give it credit for. I believe you once said that the reason they often fail is because they don’t feel conclusive. Granted, it’s also possible to make a good story with no ending at all, but just like ending things on a sour note, it requires a lot of talent to pull off. I have to say the current generation of fiction writers don’t really have the clout to pull off the dark ending without coming across as them attempting to one-up their predecessors. Many older works with downer endings come across as uplifting compared to the nihilistic fare critics praise these days.

    It’s especially difficult in video games because 99% of non-optional bad endings come across as non-standard game overs with the team having forgotten to program a proper resolution. One of the very few successful examples (if not the only one) I can think of is Metal Gear Solid 3, and even then, one could argue it’s a bittersweet ending with a heavy emphasis on the “bitter” half of the word.

    Despite never playing it, I have to admit I heard of RDR’s ending, and it honestly sounds like one of those “oops, we forgot we weren’t directing a film” moments, given the death occurs in a cutscene but from what you have to say, it sounds like they well and truly earned that moment.

    • Yeah, honestly, the downer ending is something I think I’ve been disappointed by more times than I’ve seen it done right. Good endings are really hard to write in general, and the dark ending, when you have to deliver a satisfying resolution without the satisfaction of seeing those good things you’ve been looking for all this while coming true. There’s things that do it well, but they’re in the minority. Most of the time, the dark endings just make everything you’ve been through earlier seem less worthwhile. But true art is dark and angsty, I guess.

      I know what you mean, video games get weird with the dark endings. It’s been a lot more times than I care to admit that I ran into a negative ending and then looked up to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong or miss out on the good ending.

      RDR’s ending is actually a little more interactive than that. John makes a cutscene decision without your input to walk out of the door with the firing squad in front of it instead of the one that didn’t, but you do actually get a moment of controllability just before he dies. There are way more enemies than you have time to shoot, so there’s no way to get out of it, but I did appreciate that you had a chance to do something as he died. Made it feel more valid than it would have otherwise.

  2. I have no issues with a depressing ending when done well, but the plot really needs to call for it. More often than not, speaking for both books and games, a beloved protagonist dying at the end of a long journey is done because the writers couldn’t come up with a better ending. In RDR’s case, I can’t imagine a different ending because it’s clear from early on that no one anticipates John making it through this. There are other games, however, where it feels like the death was made for ~drama~ and doesn’t really add anything to the overall plot. I hate those endings with a passion.

    • Yeah, you described exactly what I’ve been feeling about a lot of these instances there. A lot of creators use killing a character in the ending to add a cheap pop of drama, but it so rarely ends up meaning anything, which just makes the rest of the story lose some of its impact. After all, if the creator doesn’t seem to care that much in the end, why should I?

  3. Pingback: February 2019 in Summary: Alphabet Soup | Extra Life

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