Resonance or Dissonance in Gears of War

My last post generated the most comments of anything I’ve written (so far). At the end of the comments Dagda had this to say on the Gears of War franchise:

“It’s why the “rah-rah kill them” mentality of the Cogs is somewhat undermined by the fact they cower behind chest high walls at every opportunity despite wearing refrigerators.”
That strikes me as ludonarrative resonance; undermining the tough-guy images the characters present is Gears of War’s central narrative theme. The game is chock full of moments illustrating how deep-down these characters are actually scared, vulnerable, and desperate. An “ooh-rah kill them” attitude is a highly adaptive reaction to this kind of situation, no matter how silly it might seem to us civilians.

I could have kept my thoughts to a response in the comments section, but one I feel that would start to drift off topic and two, I’d much rather use it as a spring board to discuss my thoughts on the characterization of the Gears universe.

To start off the bat, I missed out on the first Gears and my first hand experience is solely with the second one. But from what I understand there is not much of a difference tonally between the two games, so I don’t think it will be an issue.

The game Dagda experienced would be one I would love to play, however Gears is not that game. I don’t feel there is any deep-down fear among any of the principal (and from the Gears perspective) important characters. In fact the Gears of War games perpetuate a concept that fear is to be avoided. Anyone who is afraid or takes the basic steps of protecting themselves with a helmet or bracers is subject to an instant and ironic death. The greatest protection afforded to a person is the shield of ‘I don’t give a crap’ cynicism the game is chock full of.

Carmine is the epitome of this concept, both of them. Anthony Carmine has a gung-ho attitude and bright personality, so he has to go. Benjamin Carmine is more fearful and worried due to his inexperience. He is shown to be far weaker and inferior to the muscle-bound protagonists. During co-op we were counting down the seconds from his first appearance for what would be his “untimely” demise. His introduction within this universe painted a big red bull’s-eye on him. The game disregards anyone who isn’t part of the main cast of 4: Marcus, Dom, Cole and Baird.

Another character in Gears of War 2, Tai is a spiritual man from a line of classically inspired honor-bound warriors. He is as bulky and skilled as any of the other members of the Delta Squad. However, he doesn’t espouse the rah-rah “fuckin’ sweet” attitude of the standard 4 Cogs we follow. After his capture and torture, and from my memory he wasn’t captured that long, rather than continue on he commits suicide in what can amount to a direct reprisal of his previously held beliefs. His final act in the Gears universe is the equivalent of a deathbed conversion. ‘If only I had fought this war with gallows humor and unbridled machismo I would still be alive.’ I get that really it was the Locust’s version of Hector that killed him, but it is the handling of the situation. He goes off the Gears tone the milieu implies that he should have lived.

But it is not only with the side characters providing counterpoint to the “heroes” attitudes and personalities where we find the Gears universe dictating the characterization. The main characters keep with these attitudes and make it through. The times when Dom starts going on about his wife are so insincerely manipulative we can only see these scenes for what they are, an attempt to direct and force our sympathy so we will have an emotive response other than what the game has built us to expect. It was a nice notion, but the execution falls flat and became a major punching bag of the game upon its release. This factor is a minor infraction of ludnonarrative dissonance unto itself.

Gears of War is a teenage boy’s fantasy of what war is, and I wont take that away from him, provided everything else keeps us out of real wars. The glory characterization of war had been around since the time of Homer and probably before he ever started spouting poetry, but even Homer had the good sense to depict battle in all its gory detail. It had characters debate over the worthiness of war as a vehicle for glory verses its destructive and horrific attributes. Gears of War is a work that disregards the second part. Then in the sequel where it tries to address those emotions, it rings hollow and unnecessary to the game, because the world has been built too strongly on a cynical enjoyment of war and ability to destroy without consequence that when the counterpoint comes along it can’t fit itself anywhere in the narrative properly.

My other major contention with Gears’ resonance interpretation is that the reading of their actions would require some form of subtlety on the game’s part. To pull back the veil of bravado, humor and adrenaline induced haze and see venerable, scared individuals is a difficult tightrope to walk. It can be done through a heightened exaggeration to inflict the desired emotional response, but unless you can evoke that within the game parts and not just as a token effort in cutscenes then it doesn’t matter. Also, with this situation it requires a stark reflection of what is being done. In other words, the work has to recognize the ridiculous nature of the action, even if the characters do not and comment on it. Gears is a Loony Toons episode with more cursing. If viewed in realistic terms or deconstructed it would give the viewer an understanding of the violence and would horrify anyone seeing it. Of course Loony Toons doesn’t horrify anyone. People laugh at it; it’s absurdism, or maybe not that far and just ridiculous.

The point is, one gets the same visceral thrill or enjoyment from the Gears of War franchise as one does from Loony Toons. Both are safe, non threatening entities meant for surface entertainment. (And yes I realize there is more to some Loony Toons episodes, but for the most part. The super-meta cartoon artist episodes not withstanding.) The milieu’s zeitgeist is too firmly established as one of cynicism and playful destructiveness. The fact that there is a chainsaw on the main gun should have been the first clue. This is a game about what is awesome first and what is subtle second.

Now the game play has the player hiding behind cover, shooting from cover, creating cover, and running from cover to cover. In a war setting this is perfectly reasonable. Were I being shot at by homicidal, man-sized insects, I’d be hiding right next to the Cogs and would probably stay there. The game gives us feedback based on this rule. Hide behind cover to live. That is what playing the game instills in us. Get to cover as fast as you can, rush as desperately as possible. That is the feeling the game evokes as we play it, especially during some of the more difficult encounters. But the game’s fiction does not back this up and establishes a feeling of the complete opposite. There is no hidden agenda behind the game’s story. It’s a bunch of fun and colorful ideas thrown together. Some parts of the story didn’t even make sense while we were playing it, but we ignored that feeling, laughed along with it and kept playing. It’s a game that doesn’t want to be taken seriously or even closely examined, because it begins to crack and fall apart at its most basic structural level. The mechanics are solid, the environments varied and the strategies diverse enough to keep things interesting. The plot, story and narrative do not have that luxury.

Again, Dagda I would have loved to play the game you did. I didn’t, because it does not exist in Gears of War. The elements are disconnected. Even within the elements there is some messing around. That is the definition of ludonarrative dissonance. When the thematic purpose behind the ludic elements and the narrative elements do not match up, are disconnected, and/or are in disarray. To me Gears of War was and still is the poster boy of the term.

Ok, over two pages of criticizing, I feel I need to say this. Gears of War II was a good game. It succeeded despite the ludonarrative dissonance. It got away by being exceptional at what it did in it’s technical prowess, if not it is artistic one. Nothing about it is really memorable. It’s a cheeseburger of a video game. Great when you have it, leaves a taste afterwords of you wanting more, but if you give it some time you wont remember it all too well. I appreciate that Gears of War II tried to insert some actual human emotion in order to connect on an empathic level to the characters we were controlling. But telling us to be empathic and convincing us is a whole different ball game. In nearly every great war story the action may be bombastic, but the emotions are subtle. There are quiet moments and they are what allow the heightened moments and the work as a whole greater impact. You think that iconic death in Platoon would matter at all without all the quite scenes where the characters sat around talking and smoking.

The subtle war game has not yet been made.

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