Friday, May 15, 2009

Grinding My Gears of War

by C.T. Hutt

I’m not holding back on this one folks. Fair warning, thar be spoilers ahead.

When Castle Wolfenstein 3D first reared its inflexible, muscle bound head onto the scene in 1992, the first person shooter took off. Along with this new platform came a new kind of protagonist, the first-person-shooter über-male. From Doom to Duke Nukem to Halo 3, this discount Hercules hasn’t changed much. He is mostly silent, nigh unkillable, comically large, and capable of displaying an emotional range that falls between enraged and severely enraged. While there have been some excellent exceptions to these stereotypes (I’m looking your way, Gordon Freeman), the implicit limitations of such an oafish character have resulted in some less than stellar story lines. In some cases (I’m looking your way, Quake series), there has been no discernible story at all.

After playing through both the Gears of War games with Daniel, I’ve had some trouble assigning the series to either category. There seems to be a plot in there somewhere, but I have no idea what it is.

Here’s what we know. Humankind has put all, or at least the majority of its eggs in one basket in the form of the scenic planet Serra. With the exception of razor hail falling from the sky every once in a while and some kind of explosive goop coming out of the planet’s crust, everything seems just ducky about this new terra until the neighbors show up and make things awkward for everyone by killing lots of folk and wrecking up the place. It seems that, while building the various soon-to-be-charred ruins of cities on Serra, none of humanity’s engineers noticed that the planet is a honeycomb of tunnels filled with antisocial goblins. The protagonists are COGs, an elite squad of hideously gargantuan ape men who get their jollies blasting away at any of the subterranean bad boys that poke up their heads like so many evil gophers. Something is also going down with an evil government plot, a kind of killer robot/A.I. thing, and the standard medical experiment gone wrong riff we’ve heard in nearly every shooter ever made. We are never given enough information to understand or really care about these subplots but they are in there. Bon appétit!

The main character, or at least the fellow controlled by player 1, is Marcus Fenix. Unable to decide which persona was tougher, a prisoner or a space marine, the writers opted to have Mr. Fenix be both. The series opens with him being busted out of a prison facility made entirely of skulls and dead bodies, just lovely. We never learn why he was incarcerated; I assume it was due to some kind of moving violation; the man is the size of a diesel truck and has a personality to match. Marcus is the type of person you might expect to see in the darkest corner of a biker bar, yet we later learn that he was raised by a well to do scientist on a palatial estate. Man, those must have been some awkward teenage years. Over time we discover that Marcus’s father may have been making time with the troll queen, leader of the underground baddies; this may explain why he felt less inclined to academic pursuits.

Player 2 is at the joystick of Dominic Santiago (“Dom” to his friends) who is basically a slightly smaller version of Marcus Fenix. We know nothing about Dom until the second game. Apparently, on top of being a kill-crazy badass, Dom is a family man. While we never run into his kids, we do eventually catch up with his wife who has been on the worst vacation ever for the last ten years in a modern oubliette. Apparently, Dom is also a doctor, and promptly euthanizes her like a lame horse. The scene I’ve just described is the biggest emotional hook in the entire series. While the effect on the players is more awkward then traumatic, it causes both protagonists to display their most colorful emotional state, i.e. severe rage.

That’s who you are working with, Gorilla-man Marcus and Dom “The Veterinarian” Santiago. Not exactly compelling characters, but they shine next to the parade of quarter-dimensional weirdos in the background of these games. Your military support is a Burt and Ernie duo that appears periodically to provide suppressing fire and comedic relief. There is Cole, who is aggressive and crazy, and Baird who seems to find the entire “fight for survival” thing completely boring. The antagonists, called the locusts, are evil in all the standard ways and look like larger, uglier versions of the heroes. There are a couple indistinct female characters that were probably flying the transport ship and giving you orders but they don’t even really register to the players.

That, as they say, is that. We don’t know why people settled on the planet; we don’t know much of anything about the characters; we don’t know how long this war has been waged or even if we are fighting on the right side of it. In short, we don’t know a damn thing.

In most cases, I would simply go with it. The Gears series looks fantastic and is fun to play. However, there is a limit to the number of alien heads I can explode before I need a reason why. Granted, that is a very high number, but come on, a little back-story here fellahs. I’m not asking for Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia from a game that features an assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet, but in order to make this series a real winner in my book they need to give me a reason for fighting the good fight.

There is a wealth of moral and philosophical issues the writers could have sunk their teeth into but, sadly, they haven’t. It could be a story about the trials of the common soldier, but it lacks any actual internal conflict found in developed characters. It could be a story about revenge, but how are we to empathize with such a motivation without a solid beginning? Gears would make an excellent metaphor for the futility of fighting for a cause in which you no longer believe, or about humankind’s undying tenacity, yet it only touches the surface of such themes. In a time when society should be asking questions about the nature of war, even fictional war, the Gears series doesn’t even lift an inquisitive eyebrow. The end effect is like eating a bowl of very realistic wax fruit; it looks amazing, but really doesn’t sit well.

I’m very satisfied with the controls and aesthetics of this series, but without commitment to a proper story arc I’m afraid it will be nothing but another shoot ’em up, certain to be forgotten in the annals of video game history.


  1. Allow me to posit a question. Do we, assuming we are relatively thoughtful gamers, need to have war games with good characterization and and a good scope of morality and plot? Already on this blog you guys have brought up that argument in relation to both Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War. Both are well liked by the gaming populace and are hugely successful, but are definitely lacking overall in the character and story department. Is gameplay ever enough to make up for what these games lack? Has there ever been an FPS that does the job right or is every game destined to end up like Halo or Killzone? What do you think?

  2. Ollecram,

    Thanks for the comment. Given the massive revenue generated by games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty 4. and so on, I think there can be no question that the medium is here to stay. While these games lack any scope of morality or plot, as you point out, they are certainly marketable entertainment for the masses, just like horseshoes. Can we as thoughtful gamers enjoy a game of horseshoes now and then? Of course. Does doing so detract from or cheapen the medium? Meh.

    Gameplay is an essential aspect of any great game, video or otherwise, but I don’t believe that it is ever enough to make up for massive failings in other areas. If the only way to view the Venus De Milo was by standing on a trash barge no one would call it a masterpiece.

    I do believe that FPS has shown glimmers of promise. The Half-Life Series especially the later additions have struck an excellent balance between story and playability. I genuinely care about the characters involved and am eager to see how it plays out. Portal, another Valve gem, also kept us at our consoles with a great mix of clever mechanics and good writing. I also really enjoyed the immersive world of the Thief Series when it was under the wing of Looking Glass Studios though I haven’t had a chance to play the newer titles. I believe there are great things in store for the genre so long as developers take the time to make them well. As for when they don’t, at least we might be treated to a new version of horseshoes.

  3. BioShock was a pretty great FPS, as well. I'd hold that and Half-Life 2 up as examples of the best writing and character development to be found in the crowded first-person shooter genre.

    I can't think of any war games (fictional or otherwise) with interesting plots and well-developed characters, though. Then again, most of the war games on the market are about World War 2, so there isn't much room for creative, surprising plotlines there.


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