I finally beat Red Dead Redemption this week after about three months. Much of that time was spent on various side-quests. (I probably killed a few hundred birds, bucks, bears, and buffalo. As someone who hates Dances with Wolves, I really got an evil thrill out of killing buffalo.) However, even besides the sideline stuff, Red Dead’s main storyline is massive. And it’s not perfect – I could’ve done without the Mexican Revolution – but the ending of the game is…well, incredible. And it got me thinking: What are the greatest video game endings? Let me know in the comments: more spoiler-y stuff on Red Dead after the jump…
Okay, Heavy Super Mega Spoiler Alert for people who are playing Red Dead or are interested in playing it…The vast majority of the game is about ex-gunfighter John Marston’s quest to hunt down the members of his outlaw gang. Marston would prefer to just work on a farm and put his violent past behind him, but government agents have taken his wife and son hostage, and won’t release them until he kills his old friends. I thought the game was over when I hunted down the last gang member.
Instead, you’re reunited with your family. You teach your son how to hunt and skin animals; you catch wild horses, and take your cattle out to graze in the field; you bicker with the wife. You become a normal, boring man. It feels wrong to call this stuff “fun” in any classic game sense. Rather, it feels important. (It also feels like some of the people who made Grand Theft Auto: Vice City have grown up and had children of their own.)
Then, soldiers attack your farm – sent by the same government agents who hired you before. At a pivotal moment, you’re staring right in the face of a dozen soldiers. I was trying to figure out how I could take out all 12 of them with only six bullets in my gun…when they killed me. Definitively – I looked like William Holden at the end of The Wild Bunch, cut to ribbons like Swiss Cheese.
This isn’t the first time a video game has ended with the death of your character. (The last Call of Duty pulled that trick pretty much every other level. Oh, Call of Duty Astronaut, you were too beautiful to live!) But what happens next really pushes the game into darker, truly sadder territory. You take control of John Marston’s teenaged son, Jack, who rushes back to the farm just in time to bury his father. The game flashes forward a few years, when you’ve become the spitting image of your father (albeit with less scars and more facial hair). In a final mission that forms a quiet coda to the main game, you hunt down the government agent who murdered your father – now just an old man fishing in the stream.
Much of the “Farming” sequence of the game focused on John Marston’s hope that his son wouldn’t have to live a violent life like him. Thus, Red Dead Redemption ends, after at least fifty hours of narrative gameplay, with the ultimate dream of the main character in tatters. His son has become a gunfighter, a man of violence. Life is chaos.
It’s one of the most traumatizing endings in video game history. It’s also my new personal favorite: an effective combination of technical ingenuity with subtle storytelling beats. I tend to like the slightly weirder endings, though. Red Dead’s reminds me of the equally soul-imploding capper to Shadow of the Colossus. And they’re both descendants of the ambiguous, moody ending to the early-’90s Macintosh classic Out Of This World.
Still, not all great video game endings have to tear your heart wide open. Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time ends with a lengthy full-cast dance number (just like Slumdog Millionaire!) followed by a final freeze frame (just like The 400 Blows). The multiple endings of Twisted Metal 2 are like miniature Tales From the Crypt stories – like the Story of Axel, the Man With Wheel Arms. Good endings don’t even have to be stories, at all. Super Mario Brothers 3 has some of the most difficult gameplay ever, and this is your reward.
What’s your favorite video game ending, PopWatchers? And fellow Red Dead players, have you recovered emotionally yet?