Gears of War is not about narrative. It’s about gut instinct. Pure, primal, primitive emotion. It paints on a big canvas, and uses thick brushstrokes, but the result is an unfiltered, expressionistic roar. It’s just like a newborn baby.
I remember the blood. The shouting. I remember sweat and pain and carnage.
Gears of War 2
I remember losing all sense of time – minutes seemed to be hours; but somehow hours disappeared in a flash. There was exhilaration, and chaos, and confusion. Bunkered in, feeling wave after wave of intensity and fight, bearing down against the rush.
At one point I thought it was all over, but there was even more struggle, more agony to come. It seemed altogether more terrifying than I had ever imagined, and yet I surged with adrenaline that made me alert, and alive, and left me shivering. And then, when it seemed we could give no more, when we had been pushed beyond the point of endurance – it was over. A swell of staggered, numb relief washed over me as I realised we’d made it through. All of the fight was worth it, and the horror washed away in a flash, in the achievement of something sublime.
My child was born.
Oh, sorry. Did you think I was talking about Gears of War?
I guess it’s an easy mistake to make. Both are filled with agony and blood; both involve a frenetic urgency, confusion, chaos, and more than a little fear. Both rob you of all coherent thought as you start to react instinctively, and find a way through the confusion. Both have a military organisation assembled from the last stragglers of human resistance fighting back against an unstoppable alien armada.
No, wait, only one of them has that.
In any case, it’s fair to say that personally, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so weirdly analogous to the experience of those first few moments of parenthood – the birth itself and those chaotic first weeks of caring for a newborn.
People often say ‘rollercoaster’. The early days of parenthood are just like a ‘rollercoaster’, everything’s upside down and a big rush, but soooo exhilarating. I disagree. I’ve been on rollercoasters. Rollercoasters have tracks. Rollercoasters have safety harnesses. Rollercoasters make you remove your hat and secure all valuables.
Some people say it’s like having your heart outside your body. In this I slightly agree. Certainly, in those first few weeks I remember my wife and I feeling like all of the blood had rushed out of our systems, that our bodies were in a state of startled atrophy – sleep-deprived, exhausted, short-tempered, panicked by every noise or cry our daughter made, unable to concentrate. On some level we really did feel like the guy in Temple of Doom who gets his chest torn open and thrown into a pit of lava. But still, it does not really capture the drudgery, the chaos, and the weird exhilaration that these first few weeks inspired…
For that, I submit for your consideration: Gears of War 2; videogaming’s finest depiction of the emotional maelstrom that comes in the wake of parenthood.
Back up momentarily to the week before my daughter was born and my beautiful wife was (as logic would dictate) still in the final month of pregnancy. We were in the long anticipatory period before birth; the anxious, poised state, waiting at any moment for the inevitable to kick in to gear. A bag was already packed. A crib was already assembled. Linen was already tucked. Diapers were stacked. Pumps and wipes and feeding pillows and basinets and (for some reason) grinning soft toy dinosaurs were all gathered and arranged. Now came the killing of time.
And so, finding myself, as I so frequently am, flicking through a shame pile of unfinished videogames, I decided to slide in a copy of Gears of War 2 (purchased on sale only days prior) and leap in to while away the hours.
To begin with, if I’m honest, I was a little nonplussed. Perhaps it was the result of jumping into a series without having played the previous entry, but to me the whole aesthetic seemed to be predictably washed out browns and murk, rust uniformly spattered with blood; the enemies looked like WWF dolls left in a microwave too long; the harrumphing self-satisfaction of the main characters completely rubbed me the wrong way (dialogue that purported to be ‘banter’ came off more as ‘redundantly repeating the painfully obvious’); and the clunky sack I was controlling seemed to move with the grace of a rolling wheel of cheese.
I played through the opening sorties with a vague appreciation of its game-mechanical polish, an appreciation for the relatively optional turret sections now becoming obligatory in other shooters, and a gradually rising respect for the art direction, which was starting to show some variance, and a surprisingly deft hand at rendering the awe of an ongoing apocalyptic collapse. But I was still, nonetheless, mystified by everything going on in the story, and although I’m not exactly squeamish, some of the finishing-move animations (my gun has a chainsaw?!), and the spigots of blood pumping out of everything seemed a little gratuitous.
Then, suddenly, it was time. There was labour. There was hospital. There was birth. There was a new little girl in the world. And the tribulations of Delta Squad faded utterly into the nether.
Days later, back from hospital and putting that stack of change wipes to work, I decided to occupy my fatigued mind in between bouts of newborn crying by returning to the fight. I needed something non-taxing; something that could be paused at a moment’s notice; a game that would not judge me for being incapable of following along with a plot given my foggy mental state.
Gears was still in the Xbox. I loaded it up again.
I remember actually thinking, ‘Heh. Look at that. My gun has a chainsaw on it!’
And five minutes later it had clicked. All of it. As my divine cherub slept in her basinet, offering a few sweet moments of quietude, I tore through the Locust horde now emboldened with a synchronicity of player and text that only comes from understanding, at last, what the core of whole thing means.
Suddenly, sitting in the flickering half-light of the television screen, with every piece of clothing I was wearing stained with spit up and saliva, the game’s gratuitous obsession with blood and gore and puke – with bodily excretions and fluids of every type – made perfect sense. Surrounded by a trash can filled with used diapers and scattered tissues filled with snot, suddenly, hearing the words ‘Shit!’ and ‘Crap!’ in every second clause structure, and watching my character get covered in slime and brain matter and viscous goop seemed completely familiar.
‘Hmm… Now I’m fighting my way through the digestive tract of a giant worm? Yeah, seems legit.’
‘Hey, is that a guy being eaten alive by stomach acid? Well, we’ve all been there.’
‘Yeah, that’s not so much Riftworm blood to have to vomit back up.’
Even the sight of the bombed out detritus of once bustling cities reduced to smouldering wastelands was instantly recognisable. As I looked around the house what I saw was all but unrecognisable from the week before: sprawls of swaddles and teething rings and pumps and bottles and mobiles, blankets and soft toys and wilting flowers, boxes filled with discarded gift wrap and dirty laundry piling up for the morning.
And yet, just as it is in game, the sight of it all was somehow glorious. The shambolic wreckage of a new parent’s house, retaining the shape of what once was, but spilling over with the happy, weary chaos of something altogether vibrant and new.
And completely covered in drool.
And I realised in a flash: maybe that’s why the opening level started in a bombed out hospital! Like life, the game was declaring: You were born into this shambles, parent! Now embrace the life-affirming pandemonium!
As I played on, I was able to dive into the swirling, mayhem of the story. Just like every moment of caring for the needs of a newborn, the game is not about making plans and schedules and adhering to rigid structure: it’s about reacting, running on instinct. If your child needs food, you give her food. If your child needs burping, you do of the burping. If she needs to be changed, you change her. Needs to sleep, you help her sleep. Linear time does not exist. Your logic, order, timeframes, are but ashes in the wind of her principal need.
So too with the game.
‘Why is the Locust Queen human?’ someone who sleeps in more than half-hour increments might well ask. Or, ‘What’s all this about a bomb?’ Or, ‘Who’s the guy chained up to the thing, and why did he wig out like that?’ Or, ‘Why is the Queen exploding that bomb?’ Or, ‘Why is this building being knocked down, set on fire, and flipped over?’ Or, ‘Why am I exploding the bomb now?!’ Or, ‘How are we all suddenly riding on the friendly space bugs who wanted to eat our faces a minute ago?
And the answer will always be returned: Who the hell cares? It all just is. And if you run with it, it’s a magnificent squall. Because Gears of War is not about narrative. It’s not about causal links and arching plotlines (at least not that I saw), it’s about gut instinct. About pure, primal, primitive emotion. Rage. Fear. Revulsion. Love. It paints on a big canvas, and uses thick brushstrokes, but the result, if you suspend all disbelief (and maybe even a good deal of belief, too) is an unfiltered, expressionistic roar.
Even controlling Marcus – now that I had just given over to the mindset that the game required – had become a joy. My lumbering pile of meat was suddenly a fluid ballet dancer across a blood-soaked stage. There was rhythm and drive to it all, and I was soaking it in.
And speaking of Marcus – I finally knew exactly what to make of Delta Squad.
Margaret Stevenson-Meere, an Early Childhood and Family Health Nurse, wrote, in the introduction to her book, Baby’s First 100 Days, “Babies are not rational beings…. Babies lose the plot occasionally… A baby does not have a grasp on anybody else’s emotional needs until he is about 7 years of age.’ (Doubleday, 2001), p.xiii)
They were children. All of them. Manifestations of humanity’s primal id. That’s why they are all so snappy and rash. That’s why Marcus shouts ‘Gimmie that!’ when he picks up a gun. They, all of them, operate in a newborn bipolarity of emotion. Mournful and melancholy one moment (‘Dear God, we lost them all…’), screaming and in shock the next (‘I’ll kill those bastards!!!’), only to immediately undercut it all seconds later by cracking wise and giving pet names to captured space bugs. Like a newborn they snap from glee to devastation and back again without warning, each time punctuated by seemingly random shrieks and snarls.
Indeed, these characters even look like inflated newborns. At first glance they appear to be farcically over-muscled Y-chromosomes made flesh, but check those proportions: they are upsized babies. Thick arms; chubby legs; Marcus Fenix himself looks like a toddler with a soul patch. (I’ve not played game three, so I’m not sure if he ever takes it off, but I’m fairly certain that he wears that bandana non-stop because his fontanelles have not yet closed over.)
Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in the character of Dom. Dom is haunted throughout the game – to the point of complete irrationality – by the hunt for his lost wife, who has been kidnapped by the Locust scourge. And when he finds her, near the climax of the narrative, the Bro-thumping tenor of the game momentarily shifts and, for but a fleeting glimmer of time, we see some genuine heartbreak – true sorrow that creeps in amidst the locker room jocularity.
Dom’s wife is gone, a twisted, malformed shade of the woman she once was; turned into yet another monster. Dom must do the unthinkable, and in a moment of profound pathos, we feel his loss.
But literally seconds later Dom is spitting out the one-liners again as a fresh horde of meat-bags he can riddle with bullets files in. Admittedly, I was not expecting him to sigh, brush a single, silver tear from his eye, and turn to the heavens to murmur like W. H. Auden:
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…’
But you would expect something.
After almost an entire narrative filled with desperate obsession and emotional fanaticism intense enough to endanger a mission to save humanity itself, he leaps back into the fray and reverts to ‘Boo yaw!’ type. In any other game this would be a universe shattering moment of cognitive dissonance, here it’s a sign that maybe Dom needed a nap.
Speaking of which (if you’ll forgive me the aside) but: What the hell is a ‘Cole Train’?
At one point I’m in the middle of a hopeless battle, surrounded on all sides by snarling, grasping fiends – a city block collapsing around me in flaming rubble as my squad scavenges for cover – and suddenly someone called ‘Cole’ barrels through the line, shoving grenades down throats, kicking unholy monsters through the thorax, and whooping like a rodeo clown. And from that point on in the plot he appears to offer little more debate or discussion than a series of third-person catch-cries or yelps for joy. It’s like someone took Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and Elmo and squeezed them down in an olive press to make Extra Virgin Cole.
In any case, the men throughout are depicted as hunks of needy, flailing meat, while the women – the few that there are – become absurdly, hopelessly idealised. I presume that someone, somewhere has already made this observation, but truly: the women in Gears of War (or at least here in 2) are exceedingly romanticised creatures. When they are seen (which is rarely) they are statuesque, swimsuit model-proportioned, tactician voices of reason. Frequently they appear only through headsets – angels calling from the beyond to try and calm down the chaos. Dom and Marcus will be pinned down, screaming and storming, and a soothing voice will come over the com to act as a comfort, to direct them forward.
Substitute this sequence of events with a baby’s cries and the consolation of her mother’s voice, and the metaphor is potent indeed. These women – protectors, guides, solace – who appear at the end to patch up the soldier’s wounds, are like surrogate mothers: a home to return to, a source of peace in a maelstrom of emotional turmoil.
From what I understand, women get to play a far more active role in Gears of War 3, which frankly would be nice to see. Having watched one extraordinary example of their gender give birth to my child, and observing her superhuman capabilities while I fumbled about in a newborn haze, I can attest that they would handle the gore and endurance and carnage far more handily than any number of storming ‘Cole Trains’ or ‘Bairds’ or ‘Doms’.
For me, what Gears of War 2 proved, again and again, is that often the greatest splendour can arise from the most acute disarray. As the old adage goes: children – like an invasion by murderous alien bugs – do not come with an instruction manual. There is no definitive handbook to read to prepare you to become a parent, no class you can take that properly renders the journey it puts you through. ut in the gory haze of Epic Game’s stirring sequel I found a distorted funhouse mirror of my own experience, and a striking experiential metaphor for the peculiar Stockholm Syndrome of love that it engendered.
By the end of those first few weeks of parenthood I could see beauty in a dirty diaper, and a peculiar glory in the exploding membrane of a writhing, mutated monstrosity, stewing in its own ungodly putrescence. And while I’m not sure precisely who to thank in that equation, or even what exactly it is that I am thanking them for, it has meant a great deal.