Exactly one week ago on the 20th of September, Gears of War 3 was released to much anticipation and critical acclaim. Once one has completed the game, and thusly the trilogy, it is easy to say that the accolades were well earned. Gears of War began as a gamble by Microsoft Game Studios to find a triple-A title to accompany the launch of the Xbox 360 and has developed into an iconic franchise that has sold millions of games, provided hundreds of thousands of hours of online gaming time, and branched off into the realm of the written word and graphic novel. This is hardly a unique occurrence in the world of video games, but one thing that tends to set the series apart is its meticulous focus on characters and the remarkable fidelity with which these characters, as familiar as old friends, are represented across various mediums.
Gears of War, or sometimes just “Gears” or GoW, is an epic story about a desperate struggle against an uncompromising foe that will settle for nothing less than the extinction of the human race and complete dominance over the world of Sera. The Locust horde is ruthless, inscrutable, and beastly in manner and appearance, but as the series develops they become infinitely more terrifying because of their similarities rather than their differences. The lines between the traditional “good guys” and “bad guys” become ever more muddled and indistinct as we learn more about the Locust and the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or the COG (our ostensible protagonists). All of the altruistic sensibilities found in your average military shooter, the clear and distinct line between the cowardly enemy and the heroic allies that echoes of axis and allies; absent is the sense that one side is in “the right” while the other is the clear aggressor. Instead of these things you have a war in which both sides are responsible for such atrocities that it is difficult to find a comfortable place to set your sympathy. This may seem to be a weak foundation to base an experience that is designed to be intensely immersive, but thankfully we have Delta Squad.
They do not understand. They do not know why we wage this war. Why we will fight, and fight, and fight…until we win…or we die…and we are not dead yet.
– Locust Queen Myrrah (Carolyn Seymour)
Beyond the overarching story of the war between the COG and the Locust, GoW is a story about people. Specifically, it is a story about soldiers that have nowhere to look but to each other for hope. The characters in Gears are the true meat of the experience and are more compelling protagonists that those of a dozen other titles. The games center on Delta Squad, the eponymous Gears of the COG that form the very tip of the spear in the war effort. Marcus Fenix, liberated from a brutal prison sentence for desertion and dereliction of duty to become one of the key figures in the war; Dominic “Dom” Santiago, Marcus’ best friend and a fierce warrior on a quest to gather the shattered remnants of his family and springs Marcus from jail; Damon Baird the technical genius whose gruff and cynical manner makes it such that you can only like him out of spite; and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole the sports star that freely gave up his money and fame to serve is government in the war and seems to have an infinite reserve of esprit de corps, especially for Baird. These four soldiers represent the heart of the story and the redemption of the COG, the government which burned its own cities and people in a failed effort to stop the Locust. Delta squad is comprised of the characters that constantly accompany the player of the games, but they are only four of the dozens of characters that come to be important to the player (or reader in the case of the novels and comics). Anya Stroud, Victor Hoffman, Dizzy Wallin, Bernie Mataki, Sam Byrne, Jace Stratton, and even the three Carmine brothers are but a few among dozens of characters that you can love, loathe, cheer, or jeer throughout the course of the narrative. The individuals are what hold the universe together and create something unique and treasured from a generic story template. These characters are treated with respect, care, and infinite competence by the writers of the various stories with special mention of Karen Traviss, who is responsible for the four (soon to be five) novels, several issues of the comics, and the third game.
Come back next week for part 2 of 2 of this article where we will examine the graphics, sound design, and legacy of Gears of War on the gaming world or see the author’s thoughts on his blog.