Why Does Rockstar Keep Doing This?

It’s fairly obvious, if you have followed video games and their reviews, that Rockstar makes some great games. For the past week, I have been playing (and loving) Red Dead Redemption, but I am beginning to have a problem with the attention these games are getting. By the way, I should issue a minor spoiler alert for Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption.

In my opinion, Rockstar makes open world games better than anyone else has ever done, and they have finally begun to master gun combat, which had eluded them since Grand Theft Auto 3. But the one area that they struggle is one of the areas where they get the most praise. The main character.

Upon release of GTA IV, the Rockstar writing crew received an excessive amount of praise for the creation of Niko Bellic. Two years later, many people have realized that there was a huge disconnect between the game play and the character of Niko. How can this man, who wants to have a different life in America, kill hundreds of cops and even some men that he has called his friends? Subsequent releases of The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony did little to correct the problem.

This year, Red Dead Redemption looked as if it might buck this trend. The first few hours made me extremely hopeful. John Marston is a family man, and the only people that the game forces you to kill are bandits and crooks. A couple of murderous threats aside, I was completely behind him as a semi-hero. But then I got to Mexico. Suddenly, I found myself supporting some men who murdered innocent people, and playing both sides of a revolution. No longer, did Marston feel like a sympathetic man, he was now a socio-path who would kill anyone to save his family. I was having flashbacks to Niko, and I didn’t like it at all.

Why can’t Rockstar give us a character that we can really get behind? Why must I help someone one minute, and then shoot his men the next? Obviously, Rockstar loves making crazy characters, but they are sacrificing the protagonist’s appeal in order to keep them involved. One of the best characters in Red Dead Redemption, Abraham Reyes, makes Marston less sympathetic by association. He sees everything that is wrong with Reyes, but he does nothing about it.

Honestly, I have never had a game draw me into the world in the way that Red Dead Redemption has. The environment is so rich and alive, it is unlike anything I have ever played before. Rockstar nailed almost everything in the game, but by choosing to make John Marston a remorseless killer, they missed the opportunity to create one of the best games ever made.

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  • Tweeder



      Every been to a foreign country and felt like you could be someone totally different. When you return home, you can continue the life you originally lead. I feel like Mexico is a place where John doesn’t seem his home… Like he can act and be a different person in mexico.. I felt like that in Mexico.. Like I could do dirty and bad things, and come back home like I never left… John follows his old ways, like someone falling off the wagon, because he is obsessed with revenge. John thought he could just go back to the life he wanted when all was said and done… we all know how it turned out.. but to say it is not a human and natural progression is silly.. You have obviously never had an addiction, or tried to change the way you lived ect… You may not simpithise with John.. but there are many out there who can…


        sorry.. Im not sure how to edit..


          Maybe I should state it like this:
          What better place to fall off the wagon then in Mexico… I think you should put a little more thought into the alagory of being someone else in Mexico… Yeee Hawww..

  • Sean

    Srsly, if you want sympathetic lead characters, go play Final Fantasy or some shit. Playing R* open-world games just for the main character is like saying you only read Penthouse for the articles.

    • plmko

      With the logic of not perfecting every aspect of the game, we’d be stuck with the same old crap for the next century.


  • Red

    Playing a Rockstar game for its characters is exactly how they want you to play them. Do you think they would put such an emphasis on developing something just so it could take a back seat to anything else? Give me a break.

    I think it is the disconnect between gameplay and narrative that creates these conflicts. Games typically try to create more and more wild missions as the game progresses, starting you off on a few “go here, kill him” and “follow him here” missions, and usually throwing more complex and sociopathic missions later on to keep everything feeling fresh.

    However, it clashes with characters that do not follow the same trend. It works okay for Kratos, considering he is already about as psychopathic as they come, or Mario who doesn’t say much outside of the occasion groan or yell. These characters are both about as deep and complex as a ball pit at MsDonald’s.

    Characters like Niko Belic and John Marston do not follow this trend. The game becomes more and more flamboyant and murderous in its design, as to keep people wanting to progress from a gameplay standpoint, but the characters either do not themselves become equally as murderous as the gameplay, or actually become less murderous as they deal with the scope of what they’ve done.

    The question becomes, how do you keep a game fresh as it progresses without compromising your narrative? Most games, especially Grand Theft Auto IV and Red dead Redemption, choose to simply ignore the matter altogether, allowing the disconnect to exist as the lesser of the evils. Red Dead seems to try a little to curb this at the end of the game (which makes for one of the better game endings in a long time), but by then it is too little too late.

    Maybe we, as gamers, should come to terms with the fact that we can’t seem to have fun in a game if we are not living out some murderous fantasy. Developers are fully capable of creating interesting and cohesive narratives, but narrative will always give way to appeal when you realize that most gamers just want to “blow shit up”. The products we buy mirror the people who buy them, when there is a demand for narratives that match the gameplay, we will get them. For now, we are stuck playing out sociopathic murder sprees while the characters we play as show more restraint and compassion than we do while as playing them.

  • Kian

    Yeah I totally agree. Absolutely.

    I’ve made these exact same arguments to people about how much this sort of thing bothers me.

    When it gives you the choice of whether or not to kill the guy who killed your squad at the end of GTA IV, why the hell wouldn’t you? You slaughtered hundreds of cops to steal money that wasn’t even necessary to have, amongst all the other mass murdering you’ve been doing for petty cash. It’s patronizing to give us this lame illusion of moral choice.

    I was telling people how much I was loving RDR when I started playing because John was a good guy. But then he watches women about to get raped and helps murder rebels that he later tries to save. I honestly reconsidered if I wanted to play. Sadly (not sadly?) the game was so fun I continued it.

    However, I guess you can say that it fits with the theme of the game’s ending. He was trying to win back his family and was a complete sociopath while doing it and got what was coming to him – and his son went down the exact same path he was trying to steer him clear of.

    It works thematically, but I’d have also loved to play a game like this where the character was through and through good – or it at least gave you options to do things your own way.

  • ***SPOILER****

    I hate to say it, but John M. realized he wasn’t doing the right thing. He saved the girl, and the revel leader. Then he helped the agents, so in all..he WAS the hero. Even though he got fucked in the end.

  • Luke

    Excellent article. I don’t like being forced into being a murderous criminal. Justifying it as a revenge motive or to save one’s family is B.S.

  • Shayne

    Sulphury, Games are art works, and like all art works deserve critical apraisal.

    If it was Mario Bros, then yes, it would be retarded, but the game actually has artistic and narrative intent (although admitedly theres a touch of “the princess is in the next castle!”) and thus can be appraised as art or literature.

    And frankly, coming crom a country that refuses to acknowledge games as art and thus censors tem with impunity (australia) , I can tell you its critical us gamers learn to fight for games-as-art.



    In some sense I forgive RDRs’ characterization flaws, because they do in some way remind me of some of the more grittier old westerns, like “Hang em high” where the main character would seem to have noble intents , or at least in some sort of psychotic way noble, but often becomes an agent of disguised evil on the way.

    Marston is often refered to in the game as having some sort of messed up honor code, and the interactions seem to imply that both he and those around him are aware that this code is somewhat flawed. The monologue at the top of the mountain (You’ll know it) with an ex companion brings that into focus as well as pointing out that the code had noble intents but ultimately was as brutal and screwed up as anything that its been deployed against.

    With that said I was somewhat uncomfortable with being complicit with the anthropologist whom I *really* wanted to behead for being a racist sack of shit, instead of being a (somewhat unwillling admitedly) agent of genocide, and the seemingly self-unawareness of the fine line between moral hypocrisy and “redemption” implicit in the mexican situation with the fascist generals and the slightly crazy rebels (was the rebel leader supposed to be analogous for Zapata? I wonder what hispanic folk think about portraying zapata as a sleazo if thats what its supposed to be. Perhaps giving the leader another name was wise)

    But I guess the take away from it all might be something like “A man will go to any length to fight for his wife and son”, even if I’m left with a lingering sense of doubt.

  • This is a fair enough analysis, though I don’t necessarily agree, but I really don’t agree with some of the comments. Video games have become more than just games; they are stories, and plot should no longer take a backseat to game-play. If anything, they should be equal partners in a game.

    Back to the main point. I think that they’ve created a character that is willing to do anything to save his family, and although he’s usually a pretty good guy, the situation has driven him to do things he never would’ve done. I look at it as a story about the descent of a good man into the depths of depravity.

    Don’t get me wrong, you make a great point. The problem is that this is an open world game, and players can take it in any direction they choose to take it. If Rockstar forced the player to do generally good actions, it would no longer be an open world game.

  • Nate

    I agree with your article, but to an extent. Partly, I DID get behind Niko and John. I felt like I was stuck in their shoes. I guess everyone is different.

  • xD

    seriously the only character i ever felt was….whatever its called…was kratos xD haha
    i love FF but its kinda cheesy “13”

    and the difference between a game and a movie is that in game..gameply comes first,if u focus on story aand dumb gameplay,like shitty rain it’ll only get gay

    • plmko

      No wonder you thought “shitty rain” was bad, you can’t even begin to describe how bad it was without “dumbing” yourself with the word “gay” to describe it.

      • xD

        well it IS gay….lol no gameplay? seriously ? just make it a movie
        oh and they focused on the story? what story?
        a psychopath who keeps killing…u dont know him,turns out he’s one of the main characters and he has GAY problems from the past,yep that sounds original

  • plmko

    Can you not read you retard.

    The article simply points out that the game is great but the main character received too much praise when it clearly stuck out as inappropriate.


  • valleyshrew

    Why are you picking on rockstar? Every game does this. Uncharted 2 you are a nice friendly joking guy who kills 300 poor guards. It’s a damn video game you don’t criticise mario’s character because he kills all the goombas.

    GTAIV had the best characters in any video game. Playing as niko, johny or louis made me approach the game in a different way. Niko I tried to kill as few people as possible, louis I casually ran over pedestrians and johny was in between. The dialogue quality, and different vernacular idiosyncracies between different characters were so beyond any other games generic dialogue characters with a few exceptions like mass effect that it makes listening to dialogue in any other game (e.g. ffxiii) soporific.

    GTAIV is a cultural adventure, the gameplay is just there so people who get bored by that shut up but it didn’t work very well as lots of people seemed to not like the game. Who do you say is a better protagonist than niko? I’ve played hundreds of ps3/360 games so far, and have yet to find another that comes anywhere close.

    What is it you offer as a solution? Either they only make psycho characters who don’t care to kill anyone, or they make it so as you kill hardly anyone ala heavy rain. I’d quite like to try the latter, but I guarantee almost everyone else would find it boring so they have to create a game with meaningless characters to please you? I’m glad you aren’t a game designer.

    Games need enemies, but they need to have meaningful interesting characters too, and if that means sacrificing some narrative consistency then we have to accept it. Also, it’s your choice to define the character in a lot of ways, if you’re going around killing lots then you’re just playing it “wrong” for fun and not trying to stick to the character. That’s what really great games do, and over-rated (for their story/characters) games like half-life or fallout3 can never dream of doing: making me make a decision based on the characters personality rather than my own. That’s what makes GTAIV, Heavy Rain and mass effect the 3 best character designed games so far.


  • Captain Spacker

    This is why I love Tommy Vercetti so much. He was sympathetic but it made total sense for him to be mowing people down

  • Meaty

    I agree with the article. As games like RDR and GTA’s of the world force one down a morally slick slope. Not everyone enjoys being in such a situation. What open world game designers should be trying to do is allow people to play their game the way they want to ie choice. RDR was advertised as a sandbox/open world game. NOT an RPG where a player is forced to play a killer bleeding out his morality over the course of the game. Seriously, I feel like my opinion represents a significant view point. The minute a game forces me to be the bad guy is the minute I start to not have fun because I can no longer relate to the character.

    • VTO

      Then just stop playing video games now church boy.

  • sklorbit

    john took both sides in hopes that one would have information on the whereabouts of bill williamson. he was clearly more simpathetic towards the rebels anyways.

  • Chris

    I’ve never heard of your website before today, and this article will make sure that I forget it forever.

    It’s R*, and if you were a legit games website, you would know that R* games are like this.


    I’m sorry I got you $$ for the page hit, can I have it back?


  • Kian

    What’s with the anger from this douche above?


    It’s not an open ended game if you’re forced to do bad things. I want the ability to do missions (like MGS2 and above) without having to murder random innocents like guards or angry citizens.

    There should always be a good option, even if its way harder.

    • Chris

      What bad things? The only crimes you are FORCED to commit in this game are stealing horses…

      I finished the game with full honor and fame with NO crimes other than stealing the horses in the Seth mission…

      I didn’t kill anyone that didn’t deserve it (aka… the BAD GUYS…)

      Looks like you need to stick with Mario.

  • Kian

    This feeling started from GTA3 for me. I had to kill a valet boy to take his clothes. I couldn’t knock him out, buy the clothes off him, hold him up or anything. He had to die for just being a valet boy wearing the wrong clothes.

    It’s juvenile, B-Movie garbage.

  • VTO

    If you noticed, this game was set in the early 1900’s, where things were alot different. If i had to kill you or anyone to get my family back i would, because unlike you, family is important to me. Marston Did everything he could to get his family back. Thats a REAL man. Maybe you could learn something from him. Funny how these guys dont like playing as bad guys, when im sure they play all kinds of games where you kill other people. Seriously, its damn video game, not a religion. Stop crying about morals and what not and just have fun jeez.

  • Xander

    Hmmm… I understand where the author of the article is coming from, but it seems that your totally forgetting the back story behind John Marston. He WAS a murderer, a true outlaw. He grew up and learned all his morals from his gang and Dutch van der Linde in particular. They tought him what was worth fighting and dying for, and that he should do whatever it takes, especially to protect his family. Also, If you need information fast you don’t just ask one person, and hope they do it for you alone, you’ll want as much help as you can get, and if two seperate factions promise you that they can give you what you want, youll work for both. I dont know, it seems more logical to me too play both sides of the rebellion, because he doesnt care about the rebellion, as he states numerous times, and isn’t taking sides, and as expected from somebody who played both sides, Marston ends up getting screwed over. And playing both sides made me, personally, feel as though the story had more depth, and more gong on, than just Marston’s problems, and playing both sides of the rebellion shows much more how YOU want Marston to be. It makes the whole Honor and Dishonor system onto a much grander scheme of things than just killing random people on the road. You also have to take into acount that the entire premise of the story is about John trying to escape his past, not just what he did, but who he was, and this is where YOU come into play behind making the character your own. Thats just my two-cents about Mr. Marston, and I think RDR is one of the best games I’ve played in a while, and is an excellent turn around from the typical, mostly satirical, approach that Rockstar Games usually presents and is an excellent step in the right direction for Rockstar Games, and any open world game.

  • Kian

    No you don’t make the character your own, whatsoever.

    There is a very strict, pre-determined path, and there’s no way out of it.


    Don’t contradict yourself. If we are to apply literary and thematic elements to games then we have to hold them responsible to be congruent with the gameplay and action.

    You are killing random women who are fighting for their freedom. Hundreds of random people are slaughtered so you can save your wife and kid.

    But then it gives you the option to save some random person on the side of the road.

    Why should I save one and kill the other? That Honor system is COMPLETELY independent of the story.

    RDR is still one of the best games I’ve ever played.

    • Xander

      I’d have to disagree with not having any impact on the character, I understand that the storyline doesn’t change, the cutscenes aren’t different, but there should always be a connection with the player and the main character, and I think that is what is affected by how you play the game. If you play the game just killing everything that walks, and thats totally out of the character of the protaganist, there won’t be a connection, youll just be playing a video game. And I wouldn’t consider someone trying to kill me a random person, I’d consider it someone who is completely unthreatning to the character. If someone is shooting at me, I am going to shoot them back.