Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sensationalist: Loss, Value and Gears of War

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Most Sensationalist posts will likely revolve around how games succeed in evoking emotions and sensations, but there are times when a game's failures provide just as much insight into the creation of emotion. The Gears of War franchise, particular the most recent sequel, is such a case of interesting failure. Developed by Epic Games, and the oddly-notorious-for-a-developer Cliff Bleszinski, Gears of War undoubtedly focuses on immense action and explosive entertainment. Yet atop this tale of gargantuan soldiers exuding masculinity, Epic attempts to tell a story of loss.

The sadness that accompanies loss is not alien to us by any means. Most everyone has lost a loved one, be they family or pet, so it is relatively east to feel empathy for those coping with the death of someone close. It could be said playing off such emotions is an easy method to captivate an audience, a sucker punch to the heart. Yet Gears fails to elicit an emotional response despite having an easy target, largely due to crippling thematic incompatibilities.

There are plenty of unfortunate deaths in the Gears franchise. Marcus Fenix, the game's lead, sees first hand the death of a superior officer, a fellow soldier of comparable girth, two of four Carmine brothers (rookies), a compatriot's wife, and various soldiers, civilians, and enemy combatants. There are plenty of reasons this rough member of the Cog Army could get misty-eyed, but he never does.
Yet surely we can feel for our protagonist, even if he shows no outward sign of emotion. There is no reason we cannot empathize with a soldier who has traveled through the depths of an enemies subterranean home and lost friends along the way. Soldiers stolid in the face of suffering could even enhance the story as we embrace the emotion they do not have the luxury to feel. Even the most impassive individuals can be the face of tragedy, as long as we are shown through other means (cut scenes of a normal world, playable flashbacks, etc.) the importance of what we've lost. However, even visually, only the destruction is beautiful.

It is impossible to feel a sense of loss when nothing in the world but violence holds value. Marcus does not interact with loss in any significant way. His compatriot's suicide earns a "Nooo " and some disapproving head shakes, but the mission quickly resumes as if it never happened. This same cold focus on the mission at hand occurs after every scene of loss, which itself acts as a transition between calculation and sports camaraderie taunts like "Sup bitches" and "Eat boot," which all delta squad members seem to enjoy.

The most emotional scene in Gears occurs when Dom, searching for his lost wife through both games, finds her emaciated and zombie-like, and puts her out of her misery. I actually find the scene in question more powerful out of context. The story is potentially effective because we are so familiar with this cliche yet mournful tragedy, but the opportunity is wasted. Marcus and Dom spare two sentences of vague remorse and head full speed into battle.
Maria, Dom's wife, is just one of many valueless objects in the Gears universe. What makes makes Maria so appealing, other than she appears to be the last civilian female on the planet? What memories does Dom hold so dear that he would risk the fate of the world on finding her? Our protagonists show little affection for anything but violence and "hot food." We are never shown what makes this planet worth saving, so there can be no sense of loss.

I find it hard to critique the game for trying to evoke emotion and in a pre-established universe that makes such an effort impossible. The lesson may be that the combination of epic adventure and jovial stylized violence may be incompatible with evoking mournful sensations. Had Marcus shown concern for the safety of civilians, or interacted with his own emotions and the emotions of others more sincerely, the ravished world could stand in contrast to a valuable world rich in meaning, but this may have sullied the experience. Instead, a rallying speech from Chairman Prescott explains why violence is the only thing of value in Gears: "War is all we know."

1 comment:

  1. Marcus has had a really rough time of it. This actually works to his advantage, as there's so much at stake. His ability to just grit his teeth and carry on despite the horrors he's witnessed is an advantage.

    Everyone has their own way of dealing with stress. Some people go nuts, some just freeze, and some joke about it. There's no doubt all these soldiers (yes, they're big, they're meaty, shall I mention another three times how very physically large they are?) have a lot of emotional turmoil but they all deal with it in their own way.

    To quote John Howitzer from Vice City: I'll cry when I'm done killing.