GEARS OF WAR 3 is out this week, the conclusion of one of the defining game trilogies of the Xbox 360 console. Being the game that established the third-person cover-based shooter, but the key to its popularity has been its atmosphere, the multiplayer and the mythology of its dystopian future world at war.
It takes more than well-designed game mechanics and levels to capture the imagination of gamers everywhere. You need a story and mythology the same way any popular TV show, movie series or comic series do to keep fans coming back for more. The main identifying element of GEARS has always been the bromance between player character hero Marcus Fenix and his best friend Dominic Santiago, the latter an AI-controlled partner in the story campaign. Marcus and Dom back each other up in combat, laying cover-fire, reviving each other when they're down. It's very TOP GUN, Crockett & Tubbs with the macho anguish that blokes like. In chick-lit, the gals shop and do lunch together, weeping at weddings. In Bloke Lit, the guys fight together and weep manfully when someone dies. Marcus and Dom are often joined by other members of their squad like the creatively-whiny Tech Specialist Baird, whom everyone finds irritating but tolerates because he's supremely competent at his job, and former sports star Cole "the Cole Train" and his enthusiastically loud battlecries. There is, of course, the token female character, Anya Stroud, who mainly worked providing intel backup back at headquarters so as not to get in the way of all the male-bonding, even though she seems to have the hots for Marcus. In GEARS 3, Anya finally gets to fight alongside the guys, as are some other female soldiers in what looks like Epic Games' acknowledgement that the series has a female fanbase as well.
For an on-rails shooting game where the objective is to kill, chainsaw and blow up everything, the series has been accused of being puerile, adolescent and lunkheaded, but let's face it, we don't come to shooting games looking for Dostoyevski-levels of depth and subtlety. We're here to blow shit up, the shit mainly being pixels. Yet under the gleeful gore and carnage, there are layers of emotion and nuance at its heart.
The story may lack the merciless political satire and commentary of 2000AD (which is more a British sensibility, really), but it doesn't feature the rah-rah pro-military stance of a lot of American Science Fiction. Of course, it can't help but be a product of its times, and so fits in with the post-9/11 mood of doom and military escapism, but there's a deep ambivalence in its future end-of-humanity war that's so hopeless that only a fascistic – and, often hinted, corrupt – military government with highly questionable judgment can what's left of civilization together, and the main characters have a beaten-down, blue collar reluctance about them rather than the stoical professional soldiers you find in Baen Science Fiction novels. The heroes are often greeted with suspicion and contempt by civilians, which feels like it was inspired by the treatment of returning Vietnam Vets in the 1970s and the only false note in the series. Ordinary people are often portrayed as ungrateful and spoiled in the writing but there are hints in the background that they might actually have reason to hate the military, but this is never really explored. Marcus & co are frequently undermanned, outnumbered and outgunned, with only practical cunning to get through their fights. Granted, this practical cunning usually involves blowing up everything in sight, which (SPOILERS) might turn out to be a big mistake by the end of the second game. Marcus Fenix has more than a hint of self-loathing – his introduction in the first game has him being released from military prison after going AWOL to search for his father and he's being reinstated because they're running out of experienced soldiers in the war. Dom is so earnest and emo that he's equally liked and mocked by fans, especially for the scene where he (SPOILERS) has to euthanize the wife he spent the second game desperately searching for, and in the third game looks like he's lapsing into a deep depression as the world comes closer to ending for Humanity. Yes, once again, the function of women in the macho action stories are mainly there to be the excuse for men to get sad over and kill more bad guys. Or be the supportive girlfriend. It took three games before they're finally allowed to be soldiers too. Still, it's telling that the TV promotion trailer ends with the camera moving away from Anya to end on Marcus and Dom together in a bromance to the end.
Tom Bissell, who has effectively become the Samuel Johnson of the video game world, writes eloquently about the thinking behind the design and creation of the GEARS series in the artbook that comes in the Collector's Edition of GEARS OF WAR 3, reported a lot of the autobiographical details that went into the making of the games. In an excerpt from THE ART AND DESIGN OF GEARS OF WAR, Bissell details how the hulking physique of Marcus Fenix and the other soldiers was inspired by one of the team developing the game. It's been widely reported that Marcus Fenix' series-long arc of searching for his lost father who may yet be alive was informed by designer Cliff Brezinsky's grief over his father's passing when he was a teenager. Much of the crumbling European-style cityscapes in the games was inspired by Brezinsky's visits to London and his fondness for the architecture.
The makers of the GEARS games clearly take their story seriously, having drawn up a detailed bible and backstory. For all the bang-bang-shooty-shooty of the gameplay, the plots of each game follow the principles of action movie beats and characterisation religiously so the stories are as coherent as any Hollywood blockbuster. GEARS OF WAR has followed the current – and very lucrative – modern of transmedia publishing, with comics spinoffs published formerly by Wildstorm (which reportedly outsold Marvel and DC's top-selling comics when they were published) and novels written by respected British military Science Fiction author Karen Traviss, who has since been drafted to write the story of the third game as well. Yes, there are gamers who can't be bothered with a game's story, usually skipping the cutscenes to get right to the slaughter, but the fact that the books were New York Times Bestsellers, as are HALO novels, speaks volumes about the appeal of a good genre franchise, especially those in touch, consciously or not, with the times, and why they're worth paying attention to as pop culture touchstones as escapism and a means to make sense of the world in mediated form.
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