What Have We Got Left? Gears of War and Cyclical History

Hi! I wrote this piece in collaboration with my friend Cole Henry. He writes for Paste, Bloody Disgusting, and a bunch of other cool outlets and can be found on Twitter @colehenry19. It spoils every main Gears of War game.

Grace: In Gears of War, the world spirals on from conflict to conflict, from tragedy to tragedy. The first game starts in the middle of a war that you barely understand. You learn, quickly, that it is existential. The Locust, (read: orcs with guns), rose from the ground 10 years ago and have charted a path of destruction ever since. “Emergence Day” came on the heels of the pendulum wars, an equally devastating inter-human conflict. The entire world is worn down. Mankind’s entire existence is at stake. Although the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or COG, eventually triumphs, it is after loss after loss after loss. The ending of each game is another event of mass destruction: a massive bomb, the sinking of a major population center, and a cleansing wave that kills all the locust.

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At the end of it all, our hero, Marcus Fenix, despairs. He shreds his uniform and asks “what have we got left now?” He has lost his best friend Dom, lost his father, the world he fought for is in shatters, and he has sacrificed his body for an organization that has only exploited him. It is not a question without weight. “Tomorrow, Marcus. We’ve finally got a tomorrow.” responds Anya, his future wife. But when tomorrow comes, she has died in childbirth and the world she helped protect is on the brink of relapse. The COG has barely changed, exercising violence to keep their burgeoning populace in check, hiding their explicitly fascist past to secure a policed, neo-liberal future. They are unprepared for what is to come. The Locust have risen from their graves. Gears 4 and 5’s endings have a more direct dimension of personal tragedy, but they are still center in loss that perpetuates further violence. Our protagonist now, Kait, joins the Cog despite her hatred of it. She sees it as the only way to combat the existential threat of the new Locust. Much of the plot of Gears 5 revolves around restoring a network of WMD satellites. We don’t get fooled again.

All this is a result of Gears of War’s production. The pressures of console exclusivity and the stakes of franchise making ensure that Gears will remain familiar, but that it will also escalate. In the age of Disney owning Star Wars and Marvel, capitalism’s mythmaking is self perpetuating. The “dark side” will always rise again. Yet, Gears of War does hint towards a different way. Kait’s hometown is a picture of a self sustaining community, separate from the power structures of the COG. But eventually, these things must end. The player must play the damn video game. Kait’s village is destroyed and she seeks vengeance. While I know that this is what capitalism is, that if we continue on our current path, Gears 7 will start a new trilogy, featuring an aged Kait, who watches her children make the same mistakes she did. Still though, I can’t shake the feeling that Marcus’s despair and anger might open up a way to a better world. So, Cole, I want to ask if there is a way out of violence and fascism for these games? If so, what is the way out?

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Cole: Hey, Grace. It will all come back to the tomatoes, won’t it? Marcus covets their seeds—a vestige of Dom. He plants them with care, his calloused and scarred hands moving with lightness he never knew he had. Marcus waters them, they grow, and he takes in their smell as they bloom ripe and oh-so-red. A boom can be heard in the distance, a familiar staccato rhythm lights up his homestead with tracer-fire. A knock at the door, J.D. enters. Marcus looks at his son, he knows what is in his eyes, and he grabs his Lancer knowing that the cyclical nature of violence has found him once again.

The mistakes of his father before him, the mistakes of Marcus during wars now hardly discussed, his son must atone for them all. And, in turn, J.D. must make his own mistakes because, one day, someone else must pay for his sins. But first, the tomatoes must be immolated in the orange glow of warfare. They burst, red and juicy, like a human’s head as Marcus, J.D., Del, and Kait fight their way through Fenix Manor. Marcus screams, “My tomatoes!” because it is all he can do. No time to stop. No time to mourn. The fight must continue. That was Gears of War 4, but it might as well have been the first title in the series. The COG have to fight or, if they have any idle time at all, they may start to think about the fascistic structures they vivisect enemies in the defense of.

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No, I do not believe there is a way out of violence for the Gears of Wars series. There will always be Gears of War fans and thus there will always be cover-popping and gore-filled gunfights. But if we seperate the interiority of the series from the external pressures of artistic creation within capitalist structures, then there is still no way out of the violence of it all. The war may change, the enemy may differ (if only slightly), but there will never be peace for the characters we’ve come to be compelled by. Gears of War 5 hints at peace, but it only does so after the most heart-wrenching story in the series. A story that forces a pivotal choice upon Kait (and the player) that is focused solely on life & death. Such is war, is it not? The Hammer of Dawn may be slightly more erratic than it was before, but it still beams hellfire into those unlucky enough to be targeted by it. Characters may change, Kait may have found what she starts to understand as her new family, but there is still a war to be won. There is always a war to be won, no matter how many named and unnamed characters have to die, because we always need a reason to take cover.

So, if we come to understand the Gears of War series about the persistence of war and the forwarding of family trauma—circles and cycles and the like—then where does choice play into this cycle? Did the choices that Marcus made in the first three games damn his son to the last five minutes of Act 1 in Gears of War 5? If so, what may come of the lineage that follows Kait, Del, and J.D based off of their choices in Gears 4 and 5? If not, what choice in the Gears series feels the most pivotal to you?

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Grace: Cole, it’s difficult to think about the Gears characters having agency because so often, their actions come out of survival. The Gears 1 campaign helped shape the roller coaster design of 2000s era shooters, which means an endless propulsion forward. There are ebbs and flows. Gears always gave you time to survey the ruined grandeur of the COG’s grotesque Baroque cities, before setting them alight with gunfire and sparks. These lulls are like the pit in your stomach before descending into a drop. Gears has dead spots, but they are almost always off camera. The immediate action of every Gears plot is thus reactive. While these characters might have some overall goal, it is consistently broken or changed. There is no time to think through what must be done, because there is always something that needs doing. Marcus personifies this constant lunge into violence. As mentioned before, Marcus hates the COG, and though he is ever ready for violence, he longs for a world where he has time to grow those damn tomatoes, to raise his son to be better than him, and place flowers at his wife’s grave every morning. But there just isn’t time. The threat the Locust pose is so terrible and stark that there is nothing to do but keep moving.

I suppose that is the first choice: to survive. It is Gears’ most fundamental loop, besides popping in and out of cover. Reloading a checkpoint or to begging to be revived are as characteristic of Gears as its active reload. Its characters’ guns blaze with the words, “No. Not like this, not now.” Even when these avatars are helpless, they shout for assistance and crawl away from doom. It’s uncanny, but appropriate, that Gears popularized Horde Mode, which asks its players to continue on from attack to assault to onslaught knowing there is only more of the same up ahead. Even in this blackened and burned world: it is better to live and survive than to die. Even if death would be easier.

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The choices that feel most significant, then, are the ones that choose death. Before Dom sacrifices himself, he places his COG necklace on his family’s grave. He leaves the idea for survival behind, replacing it with an individual peace. He sacrifices himself so others can live, true, but his last words are not some rallying cry, just an expression of loss: “Never thought it would end like this, huh? Huh, Maria?” He explodes a truck into a memorial of flame for the life he would never have again. For him, survival was not worth it. Though he could only let go of his life if that meant saving others.

In the A plot of Gears 3, Dom’s death serves mostly as an emotional motivator. When Marcus finally kills the Locust queen, he growls “That was for Dom.” He is a ghost for whom violence is done. By Gears 4, he largely disappears. A younger version appears in the game’s prologue and his memorial is grown pump and red, but his absence is felt far more than his presence. I cannot quench the feeling that he escaped, that his death brought a peace that no one else could have.

Dom’s absence begs the question: Did Marcus’s urge to survive, to push on despite despair and doubt, doom his followers to just more violence? Although Marcus’s figure looms large in the game’s iconography and mythology, I am not convinced he has any more freedom than anyone else or that if could have given his child, or anyone else, a different world in which to live. Marcus begins Gears 1 in jail and Gears 3 opens with a dream in which he is still imprisoned. Marcus’s manor is ruined, just as his father’s was. It is not that Marcus damns J.D., but that the COG damns them both.

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This is driven home by how the urge to define oneself motivates JD. One of the first things we learn in Gears 4 is that he defied Marcus by joining the COG and defied him again by running from them. Despite all this, the Locust’s return forces them both to rejoin the COG. If Marcus had died and Anya had lived, J.D. still would have joined the COG, still would have left, still would have returned to the manor for answers. J.D.’s foolish bravery and empty heroics come out of his personal need to prove himself to his friends and his father, but also out of a long mythologizing of these heroics. It would have happened anyway.

Yet, agency is still important to these characters. The terror at the heart of Gears 5 is the loss of control. In addition to J.D.’s need to actively assert himself, Kait longs for a self freed for a legacy she did not choose. The more she uncovers her familial bond to the locust, the clearer it is that Kait would rather die than not be her own. The idea that her bloodline ties her to the Locust’s violence is so terrifying that she severs herself from it with that same violence. In kind, the game offers her some control.

Kait is the first character for whom the COG and her family are not inextricably bound. Though her family is bound to the Locust, she separates herself from it in a way that Marcus and J.D. never could separate themselves from the COG. It is Kait that gets Gears’s first, admittedly tepid and uninspiring, open world. It is she that gets the chance to go out of her way to help others. For her, the mission is not eternally an imperative. Furthermore, the emotional climax of Gears 5 feels like the only time a character gets to form the kind of violence that will be done. Even Dom’s death, while still a choice made, comes out of panicked necessity. Gears 3 is far more interested in the aftermath of that choice, than the moment it is made. Gears 5 makes Kait choose between the lives of her two friends. Kait is still trapped. But, she gets a moment, a flicker of a real choice, even though it is terrible. I don’t know if these choices matter to the arc of history, to the COG or to the Locust. But they matter to her, to Marcus, and her friends. Maybe that is enough.

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Cole: Grace, your seeing in choice—and the desire to choose—as a type of freedom in Gears deeply fascinates me. These characters run and hide from death, and they run onwards into more death, more horrors to hide from. And they will have to be confronted, eventually. Characters in Gears run because they are told (or feel as if they have) to, shoot because they are told to, and die because they were just doing what they were told. Agency, to the COG, is ordained from some high authority on the other side of a shoddy coms system.

Choice derives from a position of power or an awareness of one’s own being, but Marcus and co. are freed from such a burden. They just are. They just do. And, sometimes, the veil cracks and Marcus sees himself in the mirror. He moves his hand and sees it reflected back to him—he did that, he moved his arm, and he did so through simply choosing to flex the muscles in his forearm and hand. Brush away the design and militarism of it all and the bodies that make up the flesh & blood of the Gears franchise are just synapses firing into the tracer-lit void. Marcus, Dom, and Cole always move forward, and if they stop, it is only to suss out a means to move forward in the best way possible. But once they learn how to choose, characters sometimes refuse to go forward. Dom goes backwards—a gasoline explosion into the vast nothing of warfare. Marcus? He refuses the call. He settles down. He chooses to just be. Going forward is in his past and his past is too bloodied to return to.

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Yet, was Dom’s choice really born out of agency or did it stem from the necessity that his sacrifice would allow his squad to keep pressing ever-on? Well, Marcus, Cole and Baird kept going. Dom died. His squad kept fighting. That is all.

The Gears series has never been a series bereft with choice. Gears 5 changes that. Kait—tortured and ready to just see this war through—has to make a pivotal choice in a horrid moment. How fitting. No matter how she chooses, someone else will never be able to choose (or have agency) again. Death will do that. Agency in Gears, to me, only exists in moments of conflict. Will bullets are not flying, bodies sit idle, they age, and walls that are meant to negate another war are built. But those walls come down, bodies are thrust into motion, and war returns. To choose to shoot and to take cover is to accept this eternal war—to accept Gears at its very core—and to succumb to the powers that be. Orders are barked through a radio, objectives are set, and all that matters is how many magazines Kait has. In accepting that agency in warfare is a holistic thing, characters accept that their side engages in war crimes—Gears are often dispatched to break up protests through often lethal force—and they accept that what is best for them may not be best for the war machine. To sleep while on guard duty is to put the lives of those you watch over in jeopardy. So, bleary eyed and ragged, you stay awake. But sometimes agency bursts through the bureaucracy of war like a bayonet through one’s lungs. Agency grabs Kait by the throat and demands a choice of her, of the player and what are we meant to do? To choose is to accept that there is a loss brought on by choosing one branch over another, and to not choose at all is to accept one’s own absurdity. To live or die, to save or kill, we’ll all be here again—these crossroads are well trodden in Gears. So, why choose at all?

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Grace: To be honest, Cole, this is a question that inhabits the corners of my mind. Most of us are not really to blame for climate change or the ravages of capitalism. The people who are truly responsible are much more powerful than my friends or I will ever be. Still, agency grabs us; it demands that we be actors and not mere spectators. It asks that we speak up, that we dare to exist loudly, even if that existence will be shot down by militarized police or some other terror of the neo-liberal order.

Gears is not capable of answering why we should choose or why we should live. It is, despite flickers of other ways of living, an anti-utopia. However, its characters do continue, fighting for a peace that might never exist, because they refuse to believe that this is the end. I admire them and weep for them, when the writing allows, because they strive. Gears of War is fundamentally tragic, but it is not nihilistic.

In the opening moments of Act 2 in Gears 5, Kait explores a village, for once there is no violence, though the COG’s fascist specter floats over her. In short time, the village will become swallowed by the rattle of gunfire and the screams of innocents. But for now, there is peace and there is life. Kait has come to persuade the village to join the COG, but they haven’t done it yet. Soon it will all be gone, but for now, it is here. It’s easy to read this scene as a shallow reworking of Uncharted 2’s village. Another AAA franchise makes a cynical attempt to briefly become emotive, to distract from the violence at its core. However, this sequence reveals a simple truth that Gears has explored again and again: In order for there to be loss, there must be something that can be lost.

Someday, we will all die and perhaps it will all be for nothing. There is still, though, this moment. There is this moment when something can be lost and but has not yet entered the abyss. There is the moment before Dom is swallowed in flame. There is the moment before Kait makes her choice, when both her friends are still alive and fighting with her. Perhaps, if we are aware enough, we can see what we have before we lose it. We can rejoice that we had it at all.

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