Chainsaw Savant

Somewhere in Gears of War's mass of entrails, there's a heartbeat.

By: Joseph Leray

Filed Under: Editor's Pick Editorial Shooters Story-driven


These fragments I’ve shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih


I play Gears of War because it makes me feel smart.

This is, I understand, not true for most people, but Gears of War has always hit a sweet spot for me. At its best, COG soldiers and Locust brutes alike circle around each other like bodies in orbit, moving through large arenas taking and breaking cover, flanking, sniping, gaining and giving ground fluidly. Slamming a new clip into the iconic Lancer isn’t only a matter of reloading, but of learning the precise timing necessary to gain a temporary damage boost, and then popping out of cover — quickly, but not haphazardly — to take advantage it.

Despite the heaviness of it all — the thick armor, the chromed jackboots, the human-sized Gatling Guns — Gears of War can be a delicate, dynamic game. Gears makes me feel smart in the way that it neatly lays out an explorable space, lets me analyze it, and then allows me to use my squad to exploit it.

I don’t have any pretense about the complexity of more arcane tactical shooters, but Gears works for me. The newest game, subtitled Judgment, strikes a particularly nice balance between best laid plans and gooey, gory chaos: each mission promising calculated precision but eventually collapsing — or crescendoing, depending on who you ask — into desperate blasting.

Gears of War makes me feel smart because it’s a streamlined action game masquerading as an exercise in tactics, and also because so much of it is so goddamned dumb.

The crux of Gears of War 2, for example, is that a giant worm is literally eating entire cities. One of the best ways to kill enemies is to chainsaw them in half. The most popular sport on Sera is called “Thrashball.”

Enemy Locust are divided in Huxleyan castes, the biggest and strongest of which are Diggers, Boomers, and Grinders — when they take the field, they announce themselves by saying, “Dig!” “Boom!” and “Grind!” respectively.

As Michael Thomsen points out, Gears of War also gives me a strawman to lord over: the dudebro.

It’s true that Gears of War is largely concerned with male power fantasy, but I’d argue that it’s as much a reflection as a celebration. I also think, though, that the series’ juvenile bombast threatens to (and often succeeds in) subsuming its more delicate concerns. For example, the players and characters of Gears of War actually spend most of their time failing.

Players see soldiers commit suicide after being brutally tortured. Dom is forced to mercy-kill his wife. The military bureaucracy constantly constrains, frustrates, and otherwise undermines Marcus’ autonomy.

Gears of War exists post-9/11, an attempted treatise on the fear and uncertainty of the unknown and the futility and senselessness of an unjust war. The series’ lore describes a human civil war over natural resources (namely Immulsion, the world’s version of oil) that ends when the hitherto unknown Locus come up from underground (literally) to slaughter millions. Ex-Thrashball star Cole is Sera’s Pat Tillman, and Gears of War 3 introduces the idea that the humans, not the Locust, are the occupying force. The end of the series is ghastly and despairing instead of triumphant, and the victories of each skirmish are pyrrhic.

The fallibility of men is built into the game’s DNA. The series’ foundational mechanic is called Down but Not Out: if a player takes too much damage, he’ll be knocked out and, if not rescued by a teammate, will eventually bleed to death. Gears of War is an implicit, systematic critique of male invincibility.

That Marcus Fenix’ Delta Squad is multi-ethnic and (eventually) multi-gender is an indication of how far removed Gears’ politics are from those that spawned, for example, John Rambo and John McClane.

The forced march of linear narrative is a common tool used by this type of game, but it takes on something akin to meaning when considered against Marcus Fenix’ long-frustrated agency. Gears is about male power, yes, to the exclusion of anything else, but it’s hardly a fantasy. Gears of War is often clumsy and sophomoric, but it’s not brainless or cynical.

Still, if there’s any thematic depth to be gleaned from Gears of War, the onus is very much on the player to sift through gooey corpses to find it. Gears of War makes me feel smart because I notice these things when no one else seems to. I notice these things, but I’m also ready to stand trial, accused, like Judgment’s Kilo Squad, of making mountains out of molehills.

The most recent game in the series is Gears of War: Judgment, the first since erstwhile lead designer Clifford Bleszinski’s departure from Epic Games, and the first to be shunted off to a subsidiary development: People Can Fly, of Bulletstorm fame. Judgment is a streamlined and principled permutation on the series’ basic structure, but it is hamstrung by an intrusive scoring system. Its richest contribution, though, is the narrative frame: Kilo Squad, led by the newly-minted Lieutenant Baird, is testifying before an ad-hoc military tribunal after stealing, and detonating, a missile in the early days of the Locust War.

Playable flashbacks comprise the bulk of Judgment — each character gets a chapter to tell the tribunal what happened and why, to explain their motivations and justify their transgressions. The player-controlled character changes along with these shifts in perspective: the player will control Sophia during her testimony, but Paduk during his.

Each section of the game also includes a Declassified Mission, an optional modifier that makes each level harder by spawning more enemies,limiting the amount of ammunition available to the player, limiting the players visibility, and so on.

The narrative work-around that legitimizes this option is that the official record of Kilo’s testimony has been somehow censored or whitewashed, and that the Declassified Missions are “true.” Selecting the Declassified option always prompts some sort of dialogue to explain it, to tell the court and the audience that there should be a record of the resulting action.

The Declassified Missions establish an iron-clad link between the game’s action and its narrative frame. Everything that Kilo Squad does — every kill, every flanking maneuver — is supposed to be taken seriously. It establishes that the storyteller and the story-actor are the same.

One of my favorite experiences in Gears of War was during a one-on-one multiplayer game, on a map called Blood Drive. My girlfriend had trapped me in one of the map’s southern towers, and the match had devolved into a standoff: we were both stuck behind cover, afraid to take the initiative for fear of the Gnasher shotgun’s overpowered reprisal. Desperate, I lobbed my last grenade and watched in delight as it bounced off a wall and around a corner, blowing her to bits.

This moment stands out to me because it illustrates the great promise of video games: that they can provide teaching moments, that we can learn little pieces about how these worlds work. It had, for example, never occurred to me to use a grenade to bank around a corner. It was revelatory.

But for the larger discussion about Gears of War: Judgment, my digression is important for the distinctions it draws: it is a story about Gears of War, but it is not the story.

Judgment — all games, really — are full of these small, meaningful happenings. The granular account of what happened is full of shooting, dodging, thinking, and learning. The best videogames try to situate and contextualize these micro-stories into a whole. The wrinkle here is that the plot of Judgment isn’t something that happens to the characters: it’s a testimonial, a retelling.

Baird and Paduk are defiant during their testimony, while Sophia comes closer to toeing the line. During his interrogation, Cole oscillates between the exuberance displayed in the first Gears of War and the fear of experiencing war for the first time. It’s not that these are unreliable narrators — Gears of War is too structurally rigid for that — but it suggests some empirically true version of events that don’t necessarily match what the audience has been told.

The Declassified Missions give the narrative a bit of wiggle room, then — whether or not toxic gas actually leaks out of the Halvo Bay Military Academy is up for debate and affects some larger, hypothetical, externally true version of whatever story Judgment offers. The game also introduces into Gears of War other new mechanics that further destabilize its plot.

Gears of War: Judgment uses what People Can Fly called a “Smart Spawn System.” It’s billed as a procedural system that purports to govern item and enemy spawns — the first time you play a level, you’ll fight Tickers and Boomers, the next time Wretches and Grenadiers — but it’s more like a rotating set of pre-packaged groups. The game similarly randomizes the conversations and exposition that punctuate the shoot outs and firefights.

Both systems are concessions to the larger idea that People Can Fly want players to run through the game multiple times in search of high scores. Everything about Judgment eventually feeds into this idea: the levels are short, so as to be easily replayable right away, and everything is pseudo-randomized to keep players engaged. Opting to play the Declassified version of a mission makes it easier to earn stars, which unlock character and weapon skins in the game’s multiplayer modes.

Ironically, it’s the replaying that exposes the limits of both system, but the larger concern is the extent to which Gears of War: Judgment is, at every level, variable. The granular, moment-to-moment, which-Locust-do-I-shoot decision-making process changes every time I load it up, as does the dialogue, as does the mission structure — the building blocks of the game are always remixing and reconfiguring themselves. Because the Declassified Missions establish a link between these building blocks and the higher-level narrative, that fluidity washes over the whole game, plot and game alike.

Even compared to games that feature extensive player choice, the minutiae of Judgment aren’t clear. Though other players may not have, I know that my Commander Shepard, for example, saved the Rachni Queen on Novaria because I did it. The details aren’t muddled in the re-telling. Within the context of Gears of War: Judgment, I only know that Kilo Squad killed four Berserkers in a mansion in the Seahorse Hills because Sophia Hendrik’s testimony says so. Testimony that — if we take the game’s narrative frame and mechanics seriously — is subject to possibly hundreds of configurations.

Gears of War: Judgment is a palimpsest, a sort of multiversal collection of its systems’ possibilities, all ostensibly accounted for by Kilo Squad’s testimony. If there is some externally true version of Judgment, it’s hard to discern: all of our information is colored not only by the characters’ testimony, but also by the game’s acknowledgment that it has to account for the player’s actions through Declassified information.

This is all hypothetical, though: even if the details change, Judgment’s plot points and conclusion are set in stone, and all of the game’s variability bottlenecks toward the same fight against an unnaturally smart spider-thing.

Still, Gears of War has a history of struggling to reconcile its more harrowing themes and its Big Dumb Game-ness, relying on people like me suggest that the whole series is actually kind of subversive and sad, albeit limited in focus. High-minded players have always had to search for Gears of War’s meaning between its shooting and its bloodletting, a concession perhaps — as Tom Bissell posits meekly in the comments section of Tom Chick’s review and Maddy Myers’ critique — to the realities of game development.

Judgment — lampooned as its been for being unnecessary and irrelevant because it’s a prequel and not part of the original trilogy — seems like a good faith effort to grapple with a story that takes its chainsaw-bayonet into account, even if only superficially. Everyone has a story about Gears of War that’s not the story, and Judgment tried to record them all.

Filed Under: Editor's Pick Editorial Shooters Story-driven

About the Author:
Joseph Leray is an associate editor at Destructoid. His work can also be found at Touch Arcade and MTV Multiplayer.

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