Really, it’s true. And it’s a funny thing that Dan Houser wrote one of the absolute worst video game characters in history and also one of the best. I think Rockstar was trying to create a John Marston-type of character when they made GTA IV, but for whatever reason they failed miserably. The 2nd time was a charm, however, because Red Dead: Redemption accomplishes everything narratively that GTA IV tried to.
The first, and most glaring issue with Niko Bellic was his motivation. Namely, he had none. Why did he continue to murder, steal and be an all-out asshole in the face of his repeated lamenting of that lifestyle? Beats me. As far as I can tell, he’s just a poorly-written dick. He came to America with the hope of starting fresh; killing was a part of his past, but he tired of it and wanted to be a better person. That’s what we’re supposed to believe, anyway. But as the story unfolded, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the horrendous dialogue and situations Niko put himself in, and for no reason. The whole game is done a huge disservice by having the main character make absolutely no sense, and it’s one – but not the only – reason I’ll never bring it up as a high or even interesting point in gaming. It’s just a big, sloppy mess.
Fast-forward a couple of years and we have ourselves a near masterpiece in Red Dead: Redemption. Is the game perfect? Not at all. Does it erase all the past mistakes of Houser’s writing? I don’t know about erasing them, but it sure as hell washes the bad taste out of my mouth (interesting fact: epic fail tastes like the ass-end of a chicken). John Marston is basically the same character as Niko Bellic, only with real motivations, a believable moral code, and a surrounding game world with much less disconnect between the player and the “reality” presented. All of those things combined to make a more engrossing experience, and also stop me from puking in my mouth a little once I finished the game. I was pretty grateful for that last part.
But why is Marston more believable? Well, the premise of his single-mindedness is simple: he had to track and kill people or his family would die. In the changing world of the early 20th century, the newly-formed U.S. government was totally fine with resorting to thuggery to get a job done, and Marston was the perfect pawn for their plan. And in a stroke of narrative genius, Houser made sure Marston never got too caught up in other people’s problems. Sure, he helped out a lot of people and even felt bad for some of them, but he constantly reminded the people he was helping exactly why he was doing it. And there were some folks Marston absolutely hated, and it was during those moments that the player became privy to his darker side. Marston, at his own admission, wasn’t a “literary person.” He was, however, someone who tried to start a different life and got savagely pulled back into the one he already left. The difference between him and Bellic, in this regard, couldn’t be any more stark.
There’s a lot more about Red Dead: Redemption to talk about – and I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of Marston’s character – but I’ll save it for future posts. I think I’ll just end by saying I have renewed faith in Rockstar as a developer, and for game writing in general. I think it might have a bright future after all.