“Gears of War’s Vulnerable Supermen,” by Ed Smith

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare caused a splash of critical fervour because it killed one of its heroes. Spec Ops: The Line castigated its players and made war look ridiculous. The Last of Us was brutal, but also tragic. Wolfenstein: The New Order featured a lot of gore, but also a heartbroken and weary protagonist. Black Ops III was about soldiers losing their minds with every successive kill. Mafia 3 told a story of racism via bloodshed and shooting.

In short, for roughly the past decade, videogames have sporadically tried to use violence to do or say something. Some attempts have been condescending and pious. Others ground-breaking. But Gears of War, from 2006, has always sat firmly outside the better violence canon. More than that, it seems to encapsulate precisely the attitudes and styles violent games have been trying to escape. If Spec Ops: The Line comes up in every discussion on how shooting games are experimenting with change, Gears of War is its direct counter-example, used to illustrate why a change would be welcomed in the first place. Its characters are all ludicrously bemuscled men, its trademark is a machine-gun with a chainsaw attached to it and it’s in general gratuitous and boorish: when lead character Marcus Fenix yells “what’s the status on that APC?” his comrade, Damon Baird, shouts back “the status is that it sucks!”

Nevertheless, Gears of War has something to say, or at least inadvertently tell, about videogame violence. Particularly in light of its satirical contemporaries, which questioned shooting game tropes by knowingly playing on them, Gears can easily be read as a sly undercutting of the player’s confidence. It takes hugely proportioned men, whose emotional settings are “extremely angry,” “extremely determined,” or, on occasion, “extremely mournful,” and makes them seem acutely vulnerable. It makes violence seem less about propagation of power and more about self-defence and preservation.

Gears of War popularised two game mechanics, and they both force anyone playing it to take a more considered approach to their running and gunning. “Active reloading” in Gears means that, after pressing the reload button once, you can follow it up with an optional second press, which, if timed correctly, gives your gun a temporary damage boost. If you mistime the “active reload,” however, your gun will jam and your character will have to slap and swear at it for a few seconds before you can start fighting again.

“Cover,” especially now it’s become ubiquitous in shooting games, is more self-explanatory: to avoid getting wounded during Gears of War‘s gunfights, you can tap a button to hide behind walls, corners, dumpsters, etc. More notable than the specifics of cover is how, even in 2006, it was still a videogame novelty. Namco’s Kill Switch had pioneered it; Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had featured cover as well. But typically in shooters, circa the early-to-mid noughties, you survived combat by repeatedly picking up health packs. Keeping yourself alive didn’t require thinking tactically so much as procedurally collecting resources.

Combined with its burly avatars, these mechanics make Gears of War a fascinating contradiction: absurdly masculine men, who have to be maintained and protected in a way that, for its time, was unprecedented. In most violent games before Gears, your gun had two simple functions, fire and reload, and each was executed using one button. Now it was more complex. If you were heavy-handed or careless with it, it could break and betray you. Your characters, too, were unusually vulnerable. They might have looked monstrous, but compared to other videogame heroes of the period, who could either wade into gunfights unshielded or heal themselves using magical items, Gears of War‘s protagonists had to fight and defend themselves as if they were human beings. Like Joel from The Last of Us, BJ in Wolfenstein, and the butch grunts in Black Ops III, they’re burlesques of videogame men, forced to confront an idiosyncratic kind of fragility; both Marcus Fenix with his muscles and bandanna, and his gun, wrapped in a chainsaw, look rough and ready but are radically brittle.

In ways admittedly drowned out by boisterousness and pyrotechnics, Gears of War makes the tools used for killing look less than glamorous, and the men wielding them like they’re trying to hide something. By that measure, it belongs to the collective of games that admonish, question, or ridicule virtual violence and our own conviction in committing it. To say its subversiveness is accidental, or only detectable now that debating violence has become a well-honed critical practice, is to risk underselling its influence. It’s loud and populist, and probably made by people with concerns other than undermining the male hero, but Gears can’t help reflecting a changing mood in videogame culture. By virtue of being outside—even antithetical—to the gradual trend towards it, Gears of War illustrates the ways in which traditional approaches to videogame violence were being reconsidered. It was not the product of a campaign, or some kind of artificial, contrarian decision. The concept of a different kind of virtual violence existed and was trying to be expressed even in absurd, crowd-pleasing shooters. It was clearly on game-makers’ minds. It was in the air. It was coming. And though flagpole titles like Spec Ops and Modern Warfare did it forcefully, and so made more of a difference, Gears of War also, casually, articulated a change to how games could handle their favourite topic.

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Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.