Revival in Co-op Shooters and the Myth of the Lone Soldier

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Most shooters operate at two stages: First, you are a fully functioning, autonomous body, able to act and move even when suffering from multiple shotgun blasts to the face. Two, you have taken one shotgun blast too many and are now dead. Game over. Doom, the eternal go-to shooter, operates by this basic binary. Though Doom Guy’s visage gets ever more battered, you run at a clip and your trigger finger will never slip. Your body is always easily commanded, until you cannot do it anymore. On the surface, reviving only adds an in-between stage where you are incapacitated, before either death or rejuvenation comes. Revival does not create a more nuanced depiction of the body. It is impossible, for example, for any of these heroes to become disabled or even injured in a way that requires time and attention. However, revival creates vulnerability and a need for help that in part undoes the power fantasy these games are predicated on.

I’ve written a lot about how shooters tend to reflect an toxic, inflexibly masculine view of the world. This is still true in some way, but there are also almost always holes in the ideology of art. The original Doom’s first episode ends in a dark room, surrounded by enemies that kill you almost instantly. A lot of Halo is spent hiding, waiting for your shield to recharge. For there to be empowerment, there must be the tension of loss.

Playing through all 5 Gears of War games cracked this open for me. Gears of War is famous for its lumbering meat-bag bodies, chainsaw machine guns, and dreary grey aesthetics. None of this is unearned, but Gears of War is also about men living through tragedy after tragedy, becoming ever more broken. While it articulates that through an escalating machinery of violence, through which we can merrily a conquering go, at the end of it all, Marcus Fenix despairs for there is nothing left to hope for. Being revived is a reminder of how fragile these meaty bodies are. How quickly they can be made vulnerable, unable to fight back. The terror of knowing you are about to die, with nothing you can do to stop it, is one Gears indulges frequently.

Yet it also emphasizes community. I have played each of these games alone, but in the majority of them I have needed help from outside actors. And they have needed help from me. In Gears of War there is no lone gunman. I am cared for, and protected by, others. The game is not about this, but it does facilitate it, far more than similar games which disappear AI actors if no one is playing with you.

In short, revival requires vulnerability, the open wound, just as it requires help, the open hand. From moment to moment, Gears is mostly about domination. Your body exercises strength against another, proving its worth. But as I plowed through each Gears game alone, overcoming difficult odds, it was those moments that let me plead for help that felt the most vital. Even games which are easily written off have moments where the ink fades, where the vulnerability of our bodies is shown, where the terror of ourselves, and the need for connection, is found.