In Gears 3, the series’s iconic gritty brown-grey aesthetic finally couples with narrative and gameplay to actually tell a truly melancholy and sobering war story.
Warning: This article contains significant spoilers for Gears of War 3.
Deified heroes and proud warriors flood the shooter genre. The soldiers of Call of Duty, quite literally answering destiny’s call to fight for freedom, wage a relatively justified battle across the franchise’s many theaters of war. Master Chief (and all the Spartans of Halo for that matter) have become god-like. Their trials and exploits have become legend in their expansive worlds. As players, we vainglorious actors are rewarded with praise through achievements and rewards. It comes as a surprise then when Gears of War 3, the finale to one of the biggest shooter franchises on the market, ignores the trend. While Marcus Fenix and the team do share in macho gloating, the cast of Gears of War 3 share more in common with the ragged and exhausted soldiers of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. There is no glory for gears, no triumphant chorus to proclaim their deeds, and no exultation at all for a war well fought. In Gears 3, the series’s iconic gritty brown-grey aesthetic finally couples with narrative and gameplay to actually tell a truly melancholy and sobering war story.
I never expected to be emotionally affected by Gears 3. Its predecessor tried hard to squeeze in emotional drama that only fell flat. Dom’s infamous reunion with Maria from Gears of War 2 came off as silly, poorly acted, and inappropriate given its joyously violent trappings. Much to my surprise in Gears 3, the taunts and jeers so notable in the series have become dwarfed by the game’s melancholy tone and appropriated as meager efforts to maintain morale in the face of a doomed world. In the franchise finale, the “sweets” are so much sweeter when juxtaposed against loss.
August Cole, one of Fenix’s consistently funny sidekicks, stars in one of Gears 3’s most disheartening and yet humorous chapters, revealing the fruitless nature of war. Searching for trade goods in Hanover, Cole’s old hometown, he encounters remnants of his time as a professional thrashball player (a fictional football-like sport). This image appears emblazoned on life-size cut-outs and posters around the city’s stadium. A life-size metal statue remains unharmed, maybe even protected, by the city’s stranded survivors, an idol to Cole’s athletic prowess. Most of Hanover’s residents still revere Cole, welcoming his return and honoring him with ammunition and resources.
Yet all of Cole’s glory comes from his past as an athlete, not his acts as a soldier. Despite his generally chipper attitude, Cole appears far more beaten down and worn than his grinning cardboard cut outs. The cougars imagery glorifies only what Cole once was, not what war has made of him. The promotional advertisement of Cole shouting “The Cole Train runs on whole grain, baby! Whoo!”, while hilarious, also creates a sad sense of irony. No matter how valuable Cole appears on the battlefield, he is still out of his element.
Nowhere is the contrast between civilian life and the soldier's life more stark than in Cole’s admittedly cheesy but nevertheless emotionally compelling thrashball flashback. Entering his former locker room, he fails to offer a witty counter to Baird’s off-hand quip, too much in shock at the ravages of war. A foam hand lies abandoned on the floor with no hand to wave it. When Cole opens a locker, he is transported to the glory days and relives a thrashball moment when in full uniform he jukes and stiff-arms lambent enemies and plants a bomb, all the while an audience cheers in the background. The mission objective reads “Score a point for the cougars,” creating a temporary respite from the actual task at hand. Then the bomb explodes, obliterating the fantasy and revealing the destroyed remains of a silent and empty stadium, Cole’s fans long dead or evacuated.
At least Cole has some fans still alive. For the most part, the cog soldiers are actively distrusted and criticized. When the remaining soldiers evacuated the cities, they abandoned thousands of survivors, who grew resentful towards the troops. Antagonism against the troops remains consistent throughout the entire story and appears particularly strong in Char, a city largely turned to ash by the Hammer of Dawn and the COG’s scorched earth policy. Here Fenix and his team confront the devastation that their own side created. As a result, civilians hold no love for the troops. As one NPC states, they bring death along with them, wreaking havoc in the communities with which they interact. Almost by definition, war follows the soldier as much as the soldier follows war. In Char, see manifestations of this truth. While obliterating entire cities and their inhabitants along with them may have been the right decision, the result is nonetheless ugly and tragic. When confronting the civilian world, war in Gears 3 offers no sense of honor or glory.
Even in Dom’s brave act of self-sacrifice, the scene in which he drives his own truck into an explosive truck, saving his squad, there is no moment of glory. Instead of a triumphant score, the piano tune of Gary Jule’s somber cover of "Mad World" (a callback to the series’s famous ad campaign) plays in the background. Where other heroes might give one last nod to their doomed ally, recognizing the value of their sacrifice and honoring their choice, Marcus appears distraught. For a moment, he even curls into the fetal position, the most vulnerable that we have ever seen him. Dom’s death hangs over Marcus the entire game and rightly so. His sacrifice, no matter how noble, is no cause for celebration in this tragic war piece.
At game’s end, the melancholy tone, and the brown-grey aesthetic, remains. Appropriately, like so much of world, war has turned his father into dust. The victory cry that goes up upon Marcus’s victory is muted and only attended by fellow soldiers, and Marcus himself quickly leaves it behind, sits on the beach, and wonders what the war has left them. When “tomorrow” is the only answer, we must resign ourselves to a reality forged by an inglorious war. As players, we may celebrate our minor victories with Marcus and the rest of Delta team, but when it comes to war itself, there is nothing to praise or celebrate. Out of its grittiness and gore, Gears of War 3 depicts war as exhausting, unrewarding, and almost unbearable, a remarkably surprising take on war stories from a genre that all too often glorifies the heroics of battle.
With these themes in mind, I wonder about how the game’s tone reveals some developer sentiments. I can imagine members of the Epic team genuinely felt for Col, Marcus, and the rest of the team. Surely some of them have grown tired and withered by such an expansive trilogy. The weight of responsibility must have felt immense going into a project that built the capstone to a franchise that has already made video game history. While the constant battle to make an amazing game must surely feature its “sweet” moments, it must also come with exhaustion and the occasional sense of futility. Even the citizens of Char, antagonistic towards their saviors, may reflect some developer feelings towards the game’s critics who have derided the series over the years for its poor storytelling and disproportionate influence on the genre. Like Marcus Fenix, some of Epic’s designers may consider their own battle a victory, hard won.
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