As two of the most successful Xbox 360 exclusive titles to date (with a Metacritic average 93.5%), millions of people have played the Gears of War games, and even those who haven’t know what to expect: muscle bound soldiers in enough body armour to make a tank jealous shouting macho insults while chain-sawing aliens into bloody chunks. But there must be more to it than that?
Now, several months after the release of the second game in the series, it seems like an apt time to ask the obvious, but often over looked question: What is Gears of War?
For Andrew Smale it’s a game, and a series, that “encourages hooting and hollering and much chest-thumping after each challenging firefight”, a game that “revels in the act of shooting a weapon so much that it becomes the only reason you come back to [it]“. IGN’s Michael Thomsen calls it “pornographic in the best sense of the word”, a game where every action is destructive; that “like a great horror film, is a psychic acknowledgement of fear and mortality without having to endure any of the painful consequences”. Despite this Michael describes his overall experience with Gears of War 2 as “a hollow one”. It’s this dichotomy between the tugging of heartstrings and the exploding of brain pans that is one of the most interesting aspects of the Gears of War series.
Denis Farr sees this dichotomy, this dissonance, as being reflective of the developers themselves and “the culture that influenced [them]“. This is a culture still struggling with traditional notions of masculinity, and the role of women in the military, while fighting a war of ambiguous morality. It comes as little surprise that the soldiers of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) are known as ‘Gears’, those simple naming conventions revealing a “pretty sardonic view of involvement in war”.
In a number of ways Gears of War can be seen to be struggling between tradition and innovation. In the words of Slate’s Chris Suellentrop, “Gears of War also employs a couple of nifty gameplay innovations”, but it is not “getting critical acclaim because it’s unique or revolutionary”.
L.B. Jeffries highlights how steeped in traditional and potentially clichéd staples Gears of War can be when he examines how it “relies on the characters of The Iliad as stereotypes” for its own cast. He also calls the COGs “an interesting take on the epic hero”, noting how they are depicted as “enormous muscles and armor”. This is an interesting comparison to how David Houghton sees them. In his article Why you’re actually playing as the bad guys in Gears of War he risks Godwin’s Law by reminding us of the oft overlooked back story of the Gears of War universe and the planet Sera. The COGs “only really rose to dominance when the catastrophic Locust attack of Emergence Day made the human population desperate for radical leadership”. The comparison is an obvious one, as these are the same tactics used by “such luminaries as Emperor Palpatine and Adolf Hitler”.
However Gears of War’s characters are viewed it’s noteworthy that an underlying foundation of the story of the series, especially in the second game, is the concept of relationships. But which relationship is the central one? Is it the overtly stated and played upon relationship between Dom and his missing wife Maria, or the less explicit but potentially much more relevant relationship between the two playable characters themselves — Dom and the default player character Marcus? As Denis Farr asks and answers in Two Cogs in a Gear, what is the “relationship that really matters? The one for which you can earn achievements”. The term “bromance” has been somewhat liberally applied to the relationship between the two primary characters, even extending to the implication that there is some degree of homosexual frisson. The conceit that Gears of War is homoerotic is a common one, but how much weight does it really hold? Denis, an openly gay gamer and critic, states that “At no point while I was playing this supposedly homoerotic game did I ever have that knowing eyebrow raise that denotes I found something scintillating”. He goes on to point out that “There wasn’t even anyone in a state of undress” throughout the whole game. He concludes that “the game seems to push its homoeroticism in a seeming wink at the social aspects of our gaming culture”.
As well as their possibly homoerotic overtones, there has been a lot of discussion of the portrayal of race and gender roles in the Gears of War games. In Gears of War and Gender/Race Simon Ferrari points out that with a white actor providing the voice for the one character of obviously Asian descent Lieutenant Minh Young Kim, Epic Games have succumbed to the “long tradition of using whites for Fu Man Chus and Charlie Chans”. Looking at the few female characters in the series Denis Farr finds that “females in this game mainly existed to have violence or the threat of violence visited upon them”. Alex Raymond was similarly unimpressed with the manner in which the game “utilizes the tired and sexist Women in Refrigerators trope”, where “female characters are killed off in order to develop or provide motivation for a male character”. It’s a portrayal of female characters familiar from decades of film and television, which makes it somewhat surprising that this anachronistic treatment of women as perpetual victims can still be directly affecting.
Returning to the relationship between Dom and Maria, there is a specific scene near the conclusion of Gears of War 2 that reunites Dom and Maria, for however brief a moment. It is a scene that seems out of place amid the machismo and joyous blood letting of the game at large, but the very fact that it is out of place might be why it has been able to affect some people. Rachael Webster talks about how this part literally made her “sick to her stomach” and how the scene “horrified” her. This is a sentiment shared by Brandon Erickson who considered the scene depicting the fate of Maria “a punch in the gut”. For PopMatters’ Nick Dinicola the strength of that scene comes not from the fact that it is an event that directly affects the player character, but that it affects the true lead of Gears of War’s story, Dominic Santiago. Dom is a much more interesting character than Marcus because “he’s personally involved in the conflict”. Marcus might be a cliché, “but he’s the very cliché that we want to play”. Of course not everybody felt Gears Of War 2 was successful in its attempts at an emotional connection. Jorge Albor felt that it consistently failed to evoke an emotional response because “we are never shown what makes this planet worth saving, so there can be no sense of loss”. Variety’s Chris Morris ponders if Gears of War 2 might be a better game with a simple New Super Mario Brothers-esque “10 second introduction”, feeling as he does that the game’s writing was “clichéd, mawkish, and bombastic” to the point where he “could never get through a cutscene without cringing in embarrassment”.
Such a scene is bound to evoke a variety of reactions. Some wondered if is ever possible for a game like Gears of War to have any kind of emotional impact. Clint Hocking certainly believes it is; in his Tears of War post he looks at how players “feel a powerful psychosomatic connection to Marcus”. He also considers a possible way in which the reload mechanic of Gears could have been used in a different manner to evoke emotion. Though such a mechanic is ultimately not present in either game it is an interesting take on how emotional responses can be created in an action game. Even if Gears of War doesn’t reach the level of emotionally engaging mechanics that Clint might have desired, for Rob LeFebvre both the mechanics and the characterisation were able to immerse him because “the gameplay mechanics fully mesh with the way I would act in a similar situation”: they led him to act in ways he felt were entirely consistent with the context of the narrative.
Though not directly dealing with such issues, Ben Abraham’s musing on the The superfluity of sound in Gears of War 2 suggest an interesting correspondence between the design of the sound effects and the game mechanics. The mainstream music industry puts a lot of effort into making everything as loud and noticeable as possible and Gears of War seem to be taking a similar approach. The sound effects have likely been “compressed extremely harshly” so that they are as “clear and loud” as they can be, and this idea seems to have carried over into the entire aesthetic environment and gameplay of the series. Though it is paced to provide moments of calm in counter-point to the bombast of its action sequences, even these calmer periods are overlaid with heavy-handed dialogue and attempts at stirring emotions. Everything about Gears of War feels loud and noticeable — even the moments when it’s trying to be subtle and reflective.
If Gears of War is a series built around a dichotomy then nowhere is that more apparent than in the divide between the singleplayer/co-operative campaign and the multiplayer — especially the sequel’s Horde mode. Stripped of any narrative beyond ‘kill or be killed’, Horde mode is almost survival horror-like in its focus on the pure concept of staying alive in the face of overwhelming odds. It is Space Invaders for the Xbox generation; controller in hand and a near endless waves of enemies in front of you. Free of any narrative pretensions, Gears of War 2’s Horde mode is almost universally praised. As Andrew Smale puts it “Horde lets the player experience the best parts”of the game “over and over again”. Mitch Krpata describes it as “genius”, Gears of War “stripped to its most elemental”.
In the end, despite attempts to evoke an emotional response that only sometimes work, as well as some troublesome uses of clichéd and stereotypical characters, Gears of War is a successful series. As Kieron Gillen puts it “Felix and Dom probably have testosterone-producing glands the size of grapefruits” but “that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate its adolescent charm”. After all, “man does not live on Proust alone”. And in any case, it’s worth remembering that sometimes popular things are popular for a reason.