Almost everyone is familiar with the Allied propaganda posters that were frequent during World War II. Phrases like “We can do it!,” “Keep calm and carry on,” and “Every citizen a soldier” have even transcended their historical utility and become iconic catchphrases that persist today. They’re interesting artifacts: a mixture of coldly calculated patriotism and homegrown wholesomeness, brought to life with deceptively pleasing Rockwell-style portraits of families seeing their men off to war. These campaigns, and many others like them, have defined the Baby Boomer generation over the last 70 years. Distance breeds detachment, though, and while we can understand—even still feel—the same patriotic fervor and love of country that swept through the West at the time, there are other aspects that are more alien to us in the twenty-first century. For every Rosie the Riveter poster there was a family rationing its butter. Every placard promoting the virtue of buying war bonds was hastily pasted over the window of a home struggling to keep its victory garden alive. But in the end, the impact of total war didn’t blunt the national spirit. After all, in the end, we won, and in today’s world, the ends justify the means.
But nationalistic zeal born out of a basic Hobbesian need for survival isn’t unique to this time period or even to the West. We have subsumed the innocuous propaganda poster-era into our cultural history, but we don’t often think about the darker side of nationalism, patriotism, jingoism, and total and utter devotion to powers and interests beyond our immediate sphere.
That’s where Gears of War comes in.
Gears’ universe is the bizarre evil twin of the nationalism and pride that saw the Allies through WWII. It perverts both the aesthetic and the zeitgeist of the era, transmuting pride and fervor into war-weariness and an alarming authoritarian overlordship that colors every interaction and bit of dialogue in the series.
Whereas the serious implications of a Nazi victory were somewhat blunted by folksy oil paintings and “golly gee” vernacular—not to mention an ultimate Allied victory—on Sera, the fictional human homeworld in Gears’ sci-fi setting, there is no such veneer of genteel civility. Like Europe, Sera is engulfed in total war. The main difference is that, on Sera, there is no end in sight. It is constantly Paris after the fall, London during the Blitz, the ruins of Stalingrad. Like Western civilization in the 1940s, humanity on Sera is united under the all-encompassing purpose of winning the war against the enemy.
Even the game’s aesthetic pulls from this era of Western history, reaching through the looking glass to grab a bloody fistful of not just our ideologies, but also our design sensibilities: In a developer diary promoting the release of Gears of War 2 in 2008, senior concept artist James Hawkins said that he modeled much of the weapons, vehicles, and architecture in the series after WWI- and WWII-era German military technology: “There’s something about the German military stuff, it’s purpose-built and it’s over-constructed, and when you look at it, you know it’s meant to blow stuff up.” And why not? In the midst of a total war, especially fighting against your own extinction, why wouldn’t efficiency be the top priority? In a world where flesh-eating aliens live mere miles below the surface and burst forth with no notice, why wouldn’t you duct tape a chainsaw to an assault rifle, or train your infantry up to physical proportions that defy both common sense and basic human physiology?
The aesthetic of the Gears games is extreme in its brutality. But it isn’t different in kind from the type of jingoistic zeal present in the early 20th century. It merely extends those thought processes to pastiche. The streets of Sera in the game’s opening cinematic, just before the endless war with the Locust breaks out, look like they could be ripped right out of 1935 Europe. Citizens sip wine on a cafe patio while a giant building-sized banner flying the COG colors and device flutters ominously in the background. The message is powerful: The State Uber Alles.
The ostensible unity of humanity in Gears of War is belied by the hardened fist of authoritarianism that drives every aspect of society in the game. Humanity is finally unified in Gears: the game is set in a world with no evidence of racial tension, no lingering political imbalances, no economic anxiety. For all we are able to see, Sera is for all intents and purposes an autocratic utopia gathered up under the protective banner of the Coalition of Organized Governments.
But it’s a false unity, less a flattening of the social pyramid than an obliteration of it. There is no hierarchy, no economy, no real social or political existence at all outside of the state.The series begins with protagonist Marcus Fenix rotting in a jail cell for abandoning his post to rescue his dying father: A picture-perfect praxis of the needs of the state towering above the needs of the people it, at least nominally, is sworn to protect and foster. Fenix’s sentence is cut short only when the Locust invasion begins anew and he is needed on the front lines; only after his usefulness as a soldier finally tips the scales against his usefulness as a political prisoner. But then, what can really be expected from a system that openly refers to its own soldiers as “Gears”?
And of course, once the war breaks out in earnest, we see how even this perfunctory social organization melts away. Non-military personnel are left, literally Stranded (the name given to noncombatants left to cower in makeshift shanty towns), to fend for themselves in bombed out cities. Soldiers take freely from them—vehicles, weapons, information—whatever commodities could potentially help finish the fight are automatically and unquestioningly requisitioned by the state.
This type of autocratic paradox is played out to its extreme in Gears, but its roots lie in very real world situations. World leaders, democratic and otherwise, have been using external conflict to unite citizenry more or less since we started keeping track of history. But the ultimate thesis of the Gears series is that extreme unity of purpose does not a happy society make. The game’s intro leaves players with a sobering message, stating that to prevent the Locust from completely overrunning the cities of Sera, the COG needed to destroy all its urban settlements. Staring into the warped carnival mirror that is Gears of War is a grim reminder of just how easily nationalistic ideology can be perverted, and what the consequences of such a failure can look like.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Bullet Points podcast, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.