Dom’s wife, Maria, represents a unique kind of storytelling for games. She represents a story in which we don’t play as the main character, in which we’re just an observer even though we still get to participate in all the major events of the story.
But let me back up a bit.
A player’s relationship with his avatar presents us with an interesting paradox. When I play Gears of War 2, I’m Marcus Fenix and yet I’m not Marcus Fenix. I’m also myself playing as Marcus Fenix. Unlike an actor in a movie, a player doesn’t become the character when starting a game but rather the character becomes an extension of the player. We’re both at the same time; it feels just as natural to say “I fought the Locust” as it is to say “Marcus fought the Locust.” This ever-present dichotomy is a major obstacle for any game that wants to connect with the player on an emotional level.
There will always be a disconnect between us and the characters, making certain kinds of emotional involvement difficult. We have an instant affection with our avatar because this character is us; we care about ourselves, so we care about him or her as well. But this favoritism doesn’t necessarily translate into an emotional connection. Since we’re essentially the same person we should have the same reaction to events in the game, but this rarely happens. How many times in how many games has some dramatic twist left the main character devastated and you shrugging your shoulders? The event doesn’t hold the same emotional impact for players because they don’t always see it as happening to them directly. It’s happening to the character not to me, and I know we’re not the same person…even though we are.
Gear of War 2 took a unique approach to this dilemma by not making the main character the emotional center of the game. Marcus is a stereotypical buff, gruff, badass. He’s a cliché, but he’s the very cliché that we want to play. He’s the perfect avatar, but as a character he’s very bland and uninteresting. If we didn’t play as him chances are we wouldn’t care about him. That’s fine though, because we’re not meant to care about Marcus, we’re meant to care about Dom.
Dom is by far the more interesting character of the two because he’s personally involved in the conflict. His wife is missing, and as we travel deeper into Locust territory, he hopes to find her and rescue her. Unlike Marcus, this character is not a shell that we can easily project ourselves into, from the outset he’s motivated by emotions the player could never be expected to share. Gears of War 2 realizes this, so when playing a single-player game we don\‘t play as Dom. Instead we watch him though the eyes of another, and watching his increasingly desperate attempts to find his wife is like watching a character in a movie. Since we’re not being asked to feel the same emotions, it’s easier to empathize with him, or not care at all, without breaking the fourth wall of the game.
Unfortunately, Gears of War 2 completely backtracks on this idea by making Dom a playable character in co-op. When the second player is suddenly asked to care about some woman not even mentioned in the first game, we’re immediately distanced from the character and any emotional resonance he might bring to the story. When Dom finally does find Maria, it is a powerful scene, but more so because of its shock value than as the emotional climax of the story. Gears of War 2 had a good idea, but ultimately failed to follow though on it.
If the story of Gears of War 2 was told in any other medium, Dom would be the main character because he’s the only one with an emotional arc, and arc driven by his lost wife. We only think of Marcus as the main character because he’s our avatar, but he’s a static character with no development over the course of the game. By putting us in the shoes of a supporting character, Gears of War 2 gives us a unique perspective on the story: We’re able to watch a Dom go though a dramatic arc, thereby experiencing that drama vicariously through him instead of our own avatar. I realize that this is not exactly the best use of the medium since it relies on us watching a character instead of being a character, turning the game into a literal interactive movie, but it’s still a unique idea and one I think is worth attempting again. Preferably without the co-op.