Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beyond Good and Evil: How Gears of War 3 Should Have Ended

Please note that this post is teeming with Gears of War 2 and Gears of War 3 campaign spoilers.  They have NOT been hidden for your convenience, as they were in my Alice 2 review.  If you want to avoid spoilers, please stop reading here.

No, this isn't about Nietzsche's book or Michel Ancel's 2003 action-adventure game.

A couple of months ago, one of my university classes got into a discussion of the very prevalent trend of militarization--that is, the glorification of the military, soldiers, guns, and violence.  Particularly in America, it's widely assumed that unrelenting support for our own military and everything they do, and the rash dehumanization of any foreign group straying from our narrow set of "American" ideals, are the very pillars of patriotism and of a "good" citizen.  It didn't take long for my classmates to bring up the violent video games that their brothers, cousins, and friends play on a regular basis.  The obvious target was the Call of Duty, with Modern Warfare 2's sensationally controversial "No Russian" mission and the premise of gaining perks in multiplayer for killing a set number of people.

While this conversation went on, I turned my own attention to a lesser known, but still wildly popular military shooter series:  Gears of War.  While it lacks the grounded, "realistic" settings of Call of Duty and Battlefield which make those games' glorification of the military blatant, Gears still portrays a long, bloody war:  one in which the enemy is quite literally depicted a race of ugly, inhuman monsters.  Diplomacy is not even a distant priority for either party by the time we get to pick up the controller, and from what I can tell, it never was.  Of course, there wouldn't be much of a war game to play if there was no war at all, so let's get that flawed rebuttal out of the way now.  It's not the mere existence of war in a game that I find problematic, but rather its starkly unambiguous "black and white," "good guy/bad guy" portrayal.  Nowhere was this problem more apparent to me than in the last hours of Gears of War 3, which hit stores last September.

The final acts of Gears 3 begin with Marcus suddenly reuniting with his father, Adam Fenix, a scientist and researcher for the COG who was formerly presumed dead.  It turns out the Locust Queen Myrrah has been holding him captive on the island of Azura while Adam has worked feverishly to find a cure for the Locust's exposure to infectious imulsion.  He reveals that he's complied with the Queen's demands because he "feels responsible" for the Locust and wants to help them, though by this point "there's no more time for that" (a fact that he reminds us of time and time again in Act V).  Here, the game has made a bold move in suggesting that maybe--just maybe--the enemy isn't simply inherently evil, and that all along, they've merely been trying to survive just like Sera's human race has.
Even their fellow men know the COG are assholes.
But that can of worms is quickly shelved when Delta Squad reacts to Adam's sympathy with impatience.  The reasonable scientist, instead, reluctantly decides that the only way to save the human race is to activate a sort of "death ray" that breaks down every infected cell on the planet, thereby killing the Locust.  In the final confrontation versus Myrrah, she again reminds us that the humans are no better than the Locust, retorting, "Oh, that's right, we are genocidal monsters--just like you!"  Marcus, fittingly, responds, "I can live with that!"  Again, the game taunts players with the idea that there's more to this "enemy" that meets the eye, but never taking it any further.  This is where Gears 3 misses an opportunity to do something special, and just like every other military shooter, falls back into the convention of oversimplifying the conflict with the "good/evil" binary, with the clear winner being the "heroes."

I'm not saying that the trilogy should have come to a close with Marcus having some startling epiphany.  I'm not arguing that Delta Squad and Locust should have dropped their weapons then and there, and embraced each other in a fierce bro-hug, allowing tears to streak their manly, sweaty faces.  It's not that humans and Locust should have suddenly seen the error of their ways, and become the best of friends, agreeing to live together in peace and harmony.  What I'm suggesting is that they should have eventually and reluctantly found a way to co-exist in their respective homes--men above ground, and Locust underground--despite plenty of remaining bad blood and the understanding that they still don't at all like each other.  That's how Gears 3 should have ended; it would have been a hell of a lot more memorable, less predictable and less rife with military shooter clichés.

Your knee jerk reaction at this point may be, "But Filly, are you really surprised?  Marcus and his comrades are a bunch of hardened, cold-hearted, macho, bad ass soldiers.  The reaction they had is to be expected."  While I'm not exactly surprised with the turn for the worse Gears 3's ending took, that argument doesn't really fly.  Anyone who's actually played the past three games and paid attention should have picked up on the fact that these characters are more dynamic and sensitive than a superficial observer may give them credit for.  Underneath all that armor and hulking muscle is a conscience, and an ability to feel more than pure rage and blood thirst.
If this didn't pull at your heartstrings, it's because you have no heart.
Exhibit A:  the death of Dom's wife, Maria, after she was heinously tortured in prolonged Locust captivity in Gears 2.  Then Dom's death in the third game, and the sensitive moments leading up to it, such as his visit to Maria's grave.  Delta Squad is emotionally shaken by Dom's sacrifice; while it wouldn't have been in character for Marcus to just collapse into the fetal position and cry his eyes out, the pain he feels from losing Dom is clear enough, as is the sense of brotherhood felt between them throughout the trilogy.  Are Marcus and company among the most well developed characters in gaming?  Certainly not, but they also are not so unfeeling and one dimensional that a more morally ambiguous ending was not plausible.

The bigger issue at hand, I would argue, is that the series' "in your face" glorification of violence trumps the more under the radar themes of manhood and comradery.  The Gears franchise is still a grisly bloodbath where a slew of massive, beefy men (and by the third installment, also 3 women) toting chainsaw-decorated rifles the size of their torsos run the show, and inevitably that will pander to a certain demographic:  the kind that, frankly, loves this kind of violence and brutality, and don't care to contemplate on the psychological and emotional aspects of war.  If you were to buy into the stereotypes surrounding these military shooters, it's doubtful that the same "dude bro" crowd who flocks to Call of Duty et. al. would have held a deeper, intellectual appreciation for any end results other than the complete annihilation of the "bad guys."
Also, explosions are awesome!
Based on the entirety of Adam Fenix's dialogue in Act V, a different ending must have at least crossed the mind of Gears 3 writer Karen Traviss at some point or another.  It's possible that I'm just an oddity, and that Epic Games and Traviss correctly assumed that the majority of fans wouldn't "get" the kind of ending I would have preferred, or that said fans would have found it anticlimactic or dissatisfying.  Personally, I think they underestimated gamers' capacity to understand and appreciate an ending with some degree of diplomacy and truce.

The glorification of war and soldiers has shaped American culture since our young country's genesis.  Such fiercely "patriotic" notions won't disappear from military shooters grounded in "reality" like the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises any time soon.  But dark, sci-fi video games like Gears of War, far removed from our own world as we know it, should be nearly impervious to manifestations of such ideologies.  While Epic has suggested that we haven't seen the last of the series, and there remains plenty of room for a prequel series, the resolution to the human-Locust conflict came and went, and so did a golden opportunity to turn a tired convention of military shooters on its head.

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