Dealing with Madness

Image by Flickr user: leateds (cc)

Gears of War is kind of a crazy series. It takes place on an alien planet upon which humans are fighting for their right to exist against subterranean creatures (which they may or may not have created), who are in turn fighting for their own survival against members of their kind who have been taken over by an intelligent…substance, and that’s just the setting. Almost everything about these games is over the top: from the weapons, to the set pieces, to the overly-built populace. “Subtle” really isn’t in the Gears of War vocabulary, so when it tries to have its serious moments they tend to feel discordant. It’s a feeling that’s affected the entire series and even its advertising, especially in the case of the “Mad World” trailer for the original game. Whereas the trailer depicted a somber and desperate scene with a tone of hopelessness and despair, the tone of each game came across as more bombastic than anything else. However, there’s something buried in that outward lack of subtlety; something that I believe makes that trailer, and especially the song, fit the series perfectly.

Spectacle has always been a large part of the Gears games. Everything that happens: every kill, every enemy, every action set piece, is meant to get in your face and dominate your attention. It’s all cartoon-ish to the degree that none of it really feels real, but closer inspection shows most of it to be incredibly brutal in actuality. We see heads getting blown up, humanoid creatures chainsawed in half, people crushed by debris, civilians eaten alive by swarms of bat-like creatures, comrades brutally murdered and tossed aside, and so on. It’s all stuff that’s horrible to see, yet our heroes wind up taking it all in with an air of being unfazed. Further still, they’ll even enter combat with sense of excitement or even reckless glee, tearing through the enemies as if it’s all just a game for them too. My first thought regarding it all was one of confusion. It didn’t make sense to me how these characters could take such things in stride. How could Marcus, Dom, and the rest go on like normal after witnessing their friend die so horribly? The answer turned out to be rather simple: it’s because they’ve seen it all countless times before.

By the time we meet Marcus and Co. in the first game, the war has already been going on for a great many years. Atrocities and loss have been a part of their lives for a long time now, and what’s worse is that there was no end in sight. Each “crippling blow” to the Locust Horde only made it more ferocious and only pushed humanity closer to the brink. It’s the sort of reality that one can accept only so much of, lest they risk being broken by it. So we see them shrug off the blood, shrug off the deaths, and embrace the excitement accompanies combat. This is their world, and this is the way they’ve managed to cope with most of it. We even see that attitude begin to break down in Gears of War 3. The death of Dom’s wife causes him to more or less give up, Cole starts hallucinating, and Marcus’ desire to end the war becomes a personal vendetta rather than his mission. Throughout the series we see Marcus and the gang get more and more stuff piled on until they’re finally ready to break in the finale. This is where the series’ lack of subtlety comes into play. It’s important that we, as the player, see everything that Marcus and the rest of Delta squad endure.

The situation in the Gears of War games is desperate. The humans are vastly outnumbered, and lost the advantage of technology a time to go. Which each game they’re pushed further and further into a corner until they’re finally left with nowhere to go. The games may be a bit silly in how over the top they get, but it’s all in the name of making sure that we understand how badly the war is going. Sure Marcus and his squad seem to be able to mow through the Locust with relative ease, but it’s never come without a cost, and their efforts never really seem to do much to end the war until the very end of the final game. Until that final blow against the Locust Queen, it would be fair to say that the situation was more or less hopeless and they were just fighting against the inevitable. So really, a song like “Mad World” fits rather well: everyone and everything has been worn down to the point of despair by the insanity of a seemingly endless war that they’ve been losing  since day one.

What’s your take on Gears of War? Do you see anything about it that might have been missed?

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