The moral compass and where it leads (or doesn’t)

Image by Colony of Gamers:
Image by Colony of Gamers:

If you follow my personal blog, you might have noticed that I recently finished Red Dead Redemption. If you don’t follow my blog, well…OMG go follow it now!  Haha…just kidding (mostly). Anyway, Red Dead Redemption. Simply put, Red Dead is a brilliant game. It’s wonderfully designed, beautiful to look at, and thrilling to play. And even as my mind fills with all the fantastic things that make Red Dead a fantastic game, I can’t stop obsessing over the one thing, the one, little thing that still bothers me about the game. It has to do with morals.


First off, Red Dead is not a moral game. Unlike GTA IV, Mass Effect, and similar games, making moral choices isn’t part of the gameplay. But that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t convey values. In fact, protagonist John Marston’s moral dilemmas form the crux of the entire story. He had a rough past that he’s trying to escape for the sake of his family. He makes choices throughout the game that deeply affect his psyche. By the time he saves his family, were led to believe that he’s changed for the better. Yet, Marston is a man stuck between times – the rough and tumble frontier era and the new-fangled, contraption-driven modern era. He’s a hunter, a fighter, a killer, and cares little about what the future holds (outside of his family’s farm); and that’s all well and good. John is not amoral, but, in the end, it turns out that he’s not exactly the most dimensional figure either.

Enter Jack Marston, John’s teenage son. Jack is also caught between the past and the future. But Red Dead’s writers make him out to be an idealist, almost a romantic. He loves reading and storytelling. He’s interested in what the modern world has to offer. He like animals and dislikes hunting. Or, at least, these are the things he says in a few of the game’s later cut scenes. But his actions tell a completely different story. And this is what continues to bug me. In the few father-son scenes, there’s no moral tension or transfer between them. And I think there were some really great missed opportunities for discussions of values and character growth.

Take hunting. In a mission titled “John Marston and Son,” John decides that Jack’s spent enough time with his head in books and it’s time for him to learn how to hunt elk. Just prior, John and Jack talk about hunting, and it’s clear that Jack doesn’t like it all that much, but he agrees to go. Call me too involved, but what I hoped for was more reluctance on Jack’s part to participate in the hunt and the chance for John to really become a mentor. I hoped that Jack would refuse to fire at the animals, refuse to skin them, maybe stand up for what he thought he believed in, and maybe fight a little with his father over the issue. Make it interesting! Instead, I got a nominally unpleasant hunt-kill-sell scene just like all the other unpleasant hunt-kill-sell scenes. Jack didn’t say a word of protest and he seemed just as happy to be killing things as his father.

Really? I was just plain angry after that. Marston’s incredible story of decision and survival had disintegrated into a pile of dead elk. The game had kinda, sorta experienced a few moral twists before that point, so what happened? Why not explore the moral issues between father and son at that point? Why even provide an epilogue about Marston and his family if there wasn’t going to be any real character development? Just end the #$!&% game and quit with the ^&$#@ busy work then!


Why do so many stories in games fizzle out when it comes to morals? And I’m thinking beyond what we get to do in many Bioware games. It’s fun to choose between “good” and “bad” and see how those choices affect our characters and the other characters and the environment. But we instill our own values into those characters, and those values are not necessarily written into the game itself. I realize that it can be difficult to convey emotional complexity in games — even L. A. Noire with its “advanced” facial features didn’t get it right all the time — but why not take the extra step to display emotional and moral moments that might go against the “grain.” (Okay, actually L. A. Noire did get it right here, in my eyes anyway.) We see it all the time in novels, movies, TV shows…why not in video games? As video games have progressed, our characters have gone from being one-dimensional to two-dimensional to  three-dimensional in looks only. What is preventing game writers and developers from crossing this seemingly invisible chasm of storytelling?

I’m ready for some multi-dimensionality in character development as well. Bring on the morals and values and complexity you game people, you! Yeah, sometimes I just like to shoot things and collect stuff in games; but sometimes I want a game that makes me think. Challenge me with something that I may not believe in! Go ahead…I dare you.


  1. duckofindeed says:

    I agree. They should certainly do more with morals and all that in games. It does seem very strange that Jack apparently didn’t like hunting, but he had no trouble actually doing it. The people who made the game didn’t think that was contradictory? Why not make video games more deep? It doesn’t work in many of them, but it certainly can work in some. I like games that are more complex, and it sounds like your game almost did, and then they decided not to. Let’s just take the easy way out of this situation and have the guy who’s against hunting kill a bunch of animals. That just makes the game no different from any other game out there, when they could have done more.


    1. cary says:

      Exactly. And I don’t think there needed to be any long, drawn-out discussion about morals and hunting, but just some indication in the mission that Jack didn’t want to participate and a chance for his father to really be a father. It was such a missed opportunity in storytelling – and the whole ending was like that. It was disappointing after such a brilliant main game; and you’re right, it made the game just as ordinary as any other. However, I think the main game gives signs of hope that deeper storytelling will play a role in similar, future games.


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