“Gears of War Flexes for the World to See,” by Reid McCarter

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Marcus Fenix and his fellow soldiers do not run like humans. Less of a crack military squad than a thundering stampede, each footstep is the kick of a bass drum. Holding down a button, they huddle into a halfway crouch and sprint forward as if on tracks. They resemble a herd of baby elephants, startled and powerful.

Its characters’ weighty, deliberate movement is one of Gears of War’s hallmarks—it illustrates something about how its soldiers are meant to be perceived. In Gears’ science fiction world, Marcus and his team (COG soldiers or Gears) are the strong arm of an authoritarian military society, locked in seemingly endless war against bipedal lizardmen called the Locust. Though the characters we see throughout the game don’t seem interested in much else than killing, Gears’ few story beats contain reference to the politics its cast live with. In an early sequence, Marcus and his COG buddies have to find transportation from a city to a remote factory. They head to a neighbourhood where some of the game’s only non-military characters have assembled something like a village from the urban wreckage. The COGs are met with immediate suspicion and, later, outright hostility. Somebody calls them fascists.

This scene colours everything that comes afterward. Without labouring the point, Gears provides context for everything it presents. The Locust, hissing demons that they are, must be killed, sure, but the game offers a sideways glance at the kind of system that’s been created to do so. The Gears are incarnations of a military state that has squashed any other form of civilian life. The world exists in a constant state of emergency where giant armed men may appear from out of nowhere to commandeer precious supplies from unassuming, struggling communities. Everything about the game’s fiction exists in recognition of what the player does: shoot and destroy.

Gears’ political backdrop goes a long way toward understanding the outsized masculinity of its characters. At first, it comes across as a traditional action game. Burly men bark orders and crack cynical jokes, either as boasts or gallows humour. They appear to have no personality other than the one dimensional traits granted to professional soldiers in so much media—loyalty, self-sacrifice, and, above all, grit. The characters are all anatomically impossible and, aside from a brief physical cameo with the woman who will go on to monitor radio communications throughout the game, men. This last fact is impossible to forget. Marcus and the other COGs are ‘80s action movie stars, muscles engorged beyond the point of modern human biology or science. Their arms and legs are the size of tree trunks and when they speak short, to-the-point sentences their voices struggle to emerge through some internal miasma of carcinogenic gravel. Everything about them is meant to capture—and exaggerate—a specific style of Western masculinity. Emotionally stunted, super capable, and doggishly violent, they’re the supposed end point of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.

That Gears’ greatest reference points are Hollywood symbols, drawn from the Cold War flexing of American strength, speaks to the usefulness of physical dominance as a cultural value. While wars may be fought with intelligence as much as brute military force, the enduring image of interpersonal human struggle is two perfectly crafted bodies hurling against each other until one falls down. (Think of the cultural significance of a global proxy war venting itself through the fantasy of Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago beating the shit out of each other. It looks pretty similar to a 2006, American-made videogame where a squad of soldiers defeat a nebulous enemy that attacks the foundations of their cities.)

In Gears of War, the essence of militarism is dredged up through millennia of masculine-coded aggression, surfacing through the aesthetic markers of ‘80s American cultural imperialism, and spat out larger than life. The excess of its design is impossible to ignore and would be disconcerting in the same way that most ultraviolent war stories are if it wasn’t for that one scene—the one mentioned above wherein the Gears are diverted to a civilian area to appropriate its meager supplies for the all-consuming war effort.

Nothing thrives under a military state but its military. Though Gears’ civilians aren’t shown to have much culture beyond a taste for barbequed rat skewers and a surprising unwillingness to join the military and professionally fight the Locust, they serve their purpose as a reminder of the world that exists beyond the game’s battlefields. Every other sign of non-military life in the game is displayed or mentioned in past tense. There was a popular sport called “thrashball,” but former star Augustus “Cole Train” Cole is now a soldier. A campus town with libraries and computers, towering statues and cobblestoned streets, is now yet another strategic territory to be captured and controlled by opposing forces. Only the civilians and their desperate way of life shows that elements of society continue, desperately as they do, outside of the war machine.

Seen through this viewpoint, Gears’ action is more frightening than a mostly straightforward big-budget shooter of its era should be. The player becomes uncomfortably aware that Marcus and the COGs aren’t supposed to be viewed as unequivocal heroes but the arm of a totalitarian military state whose might is aimed, for the time being, at an external rather than internal enemy. As the Locust are dealt an enormous setback, their positions mapped and an important general killed by the game’s conclusion, the thought remains in the back of the audience’s mind: what happens when these crack killers are ordered to fight something other than monstrous lizard creatures?

The end result is a skewering of both the unthinking violence the game represents and the cultural and gender assumptions that find their expression in its very existence. No matter how outwardly brainless it may appear, the game is full of details unnecessary to a simple story concerned with nothing more than big dudes shooting and chainsawing monsters. If its creators had no goal other than gore and military aggrandizement, their work is undercut by the heightening of these elements to the point of parody and, more importantly, the inclusion of scenes like the civilian camp that serve little purpose other than to criticize the game’s apparent aim.

With this in mind, it’s hard to see Gears of War as anything but an undercutting of militarism and masculinity—especially both of these trends in both contemporary politics and videogames. This reframes the game, uncovering something in its story, the rhythm of its gunfights, and the bodies of its characters. It transforms Marcus Fenix and his thunderous run from a quirk of design into a comment. The COGs barrel forward like baby elephants not only to connote power, but to show that once they get going, they may not be capable of figuring out how to stop.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.