Moral Ambiguity and the Zombie Scapegoat in Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    Red Dead Redemption celebrates the White male hero of the Western in a classical twist of anti-heroism, as the protagonist John Marston becomes our bad-guy-gone-good-but-still-badass. The story allows the character to occupy various positions on the spectrum between outlaw and government-hired protagonist. The player of RDR therefore has more ambiguity in the classic choice of good vs. evil, creating instead a “tentative moralism” in Marston .1 In this chapter I explore this theme of morality in RDR’s downloadable content (DLC) expansion, Undead Nightmare (UN), which operates as a separate story from the main RDR game and can therefore be played in isolation. UN is tentatively positioned within the timeline of the main story – encompassing events that supposedly took place during the few months that Marston is at home tending to his farm and teaching his son Jack, before Marston’s inevitable (and inevitably heroic) demise at the end of the main RDR game.

    The UN story starts with a cutscene of Marston returning home on what would appear to be an average day, to have dinner with his family. In the night, Marston’s Uncle returns home and barges into Marston and his wife Abigail’s bedroom. As Marston retrieves his gun, Abigail gets bitten by the zombified Uncle. After Marston shoots Uncle, Abigail turns on Jack. With his wife and son now zombies, Marston hogties them and dumps them in the master bedroom with some food, telling them he is going for help: “Both of you, stop biting chunks out of people. Be back soon as I can.” The rest of the story tasks the player-as-Marston with a variety of challenges that involve different searches for cures, or carrying out tasks in exchange for information or assistance in Marston’s quest to cure his family.

    In this chapter I explore the moral ambiguity that the character of John Marston embodies, exploring the messiness of his subjectivity that is rife with complexities surrounding “good” and “bad”. Exploring Marston’s position as both savior and outlaw allows us to consider the complexity evident within the player-as-Marston subjectivity. However, this also allows us to consider how Marston’s status puts him in a specific position in relation to the zombies. Rockstar draws on a number of zombie tropes to explore the zombie as metaphor for the “other” – be that animal, unholy, racialized or any other ostracized group. Marston, as a different kind of “other” – the outlaw – often encounters a variety of these discourses in the game, and acts as something of an enlightened mediator. However, as I will demonstrate, he still draws his own binaries and categorizations between the hierarchy of zombies; in particular, which of them are deemed to be worth saving. Furthermore, through these new zombie “others”, Marston’s otherliness is augmented to a higher status. Marston’s subjectivity is therefore intrinsically linked with that of the zombies.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRed Dead Redemption
    Subtitle of host publicationHistory, Myth, and Violence in the Video Game West
    EditorsJohn Wills, Esther Wright
    PublisherUniversity of Oklahoma Press
    Number of pages19
    ISBN (Electronic)9780806192604
    ISBN (Print)9780806191850, 9780806191928
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - Mar 2023


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