Warning: Lots of spoilers herein for the Gears of War franchise and for plot points in Gears 5.
I keep waiting for Gears of War to do something challenging with its story.
With the release of Gears 5, the franchise is now 13 years old, and yet it’s still walking along the same narrative path as the original Gears of War trilogy. Humanity is banding together with its last vestiges of authority to fight an existential threat of subterranean monsters. Those monsters never negotiate, engage in diplomacy, or show mercy. They have to be wiped out–and the Coalition of Ordered Governments has just the extremely beefy, well-armed, globe-spanning army to do the job.
Gears 5 revists a number of the same plot points as the original Gears of War trilogy, as new protagonist Kait and her squad try to figure out what the deal is with the Swarm, the new, evolved brand of the old Locust threat. Kait’s journey to find out about her personal ties to the Locust takes her through old COG facilities that explain the Locust’s origin, but the game doesn’t do much of anything with that information. Yet again, Gears 5 is a game about killing all the faceless, frightening monsters so you can save all the humans.
That’s fine, since an unstoppable army of sharp-toothed crocodile-people with machine guns makes for a good set of enemies for a shooter. But what’s weird is that Gears 5 hints at bigger ideas–ideas that have been swirling around the Gears story for the whole of its existence. But the game never really engages with those ideas beyond using them as set dressing to push you into cover behind a chest-high wall. Gears as a franchise seems like it might have a lot of interesting things to say, if it ever committed to saying them.
It all starts with the COG, a government the heroes serve mostly because it’s the only game in town. It’s a well-established fact in the Gears universe that the COG is more than just vaguely fascist, using a lot of patriotic language and iconography while engaging in horrible acts. They’re the surviving government of a past series of conflicts between humans, the Pendulum Wars, and when the Locust show up on Emergence Day in the first Gears of War, the COG is just about the only organization with the soldiers and the guns to deal.
You spend time in most of the Gears games trying to recruit people to the COG in the face of the Locust/Swarm threat. There are people who live in the COG’s Romanesque cities, and then there are settlers out in the wilderness, going it alone, in the name of freedom from the COG’s authoritarian control. Gears is full of people who don’t like to live under the COG boot for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the fact the COG killed a bunch of civilians as collateral damage when fighting the Locust.
Early in the war, the COG used giant orbital lasers, the Hammer of Dawn system, to blast the advancing Locust horde. But when it did so, the COG also leveled most of the human cities on the planet and turned huge portions of it into a wasteland. In the original trilogy, the humans left behind during the Locust war were called the Stranded. Gears 5’s anti-COG folks, choosing to live outside of the government’s system, are known as Outsiders–and main characters Kait, JD, and Del are all counted among them in Gears of War 4. Gears acknowledges people with a legitimate beef against the COG, but never really dwells on why they feel the way they do, or what it means for you to serve on the side of the authoritarians you might disagree with.
Gears doesn’t just gesture at the COG’s oppression, it takes time to fully illuminate some of its most heinous acts. Gears of War 2 explores the origin of the Locust and Gears 5 revisits all that territory, revealing that the Locust threat was created by COG experiments–on children–to create soldiers to fight its wars for resources. The Locust escaped underground, later emerging as a threat great enough that it could wipe out humanity, and the COG covered the whole thing up–until it was discovered by the protagonists of the series. The Gears franchise clearly has some thoughts about how governments engage in warfare, how they treat their citizens, and how they shirk accountability. Despite having some incredibly important knowledge about the conflict they’re embroiled in, though, neither Marcus nor Kait ever do anything with that information. The nature of the Gears franchise is to focus on soldiers on the ground, dealing with the weight of the war around them and, at times, the unreliable brass sending them into dangerous situations. They’re the literal gears of war, and yet the series never really pushes them to think about the war machine they’re driving.
And then there’s the Gears relationship with genocide. Most of the story of Gears 5 is about bringing the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon of mass destruction responsible for a lot of mass destruction, back online. The opening portion of Gears 5 deals with some of the implications of the Hammer of Dawn, but its dangerous effects are mostly relegated to a few brief character interactions without much in the way of far-reaching consequences. The Hammer of Dawn is an incredibly powerful creation that doesn’t discriminate about who it destroys, and yet even as Gears acknowledges its deadly, horrific possibilities, it doesn’t linger on them.
The main Gears trilogy made you a part of some pretty awful actions as well. At the end of each of the three games, Marcus and his squad inflicted massive death on the Locust, first with the Light Mass bomb, then with the sinking of the COG city of Jacinto to flood their underground caverns with seawater, and finally with a weapon developed by Adam Fenix, Marcus’s dad, that brought the Locust to extinction. (The Swarm, a mutated version of the Locust, exists thanks to that last weapon.)
Part of this is an inherent conflict between the badass nature of burly soldiers chainsawing baddies and the idea of telling an emotional story about the horrors of war. In the past, weapons like the Hammer lent themselves to some pretty cool video game moments as it rained death down on the biggest, meanest, hardest-to-stop abominations the Locust horde could throw at humanity. Gears is trying to have deep characters (recall the heavy use of “Mad World” in Gears of War 3 and its marketing) as well as its superheroic moments of kicking ass. But the emphasis on the latter undercuts the former, and Gears still hasn’t managed to strike a balance between them.
And the thing is, Gears establishes that the Locust aren’t just unthinking monsters who only know enough to use guns and wear pants. In the trilogy, you spend time in the Hollow, the Locust’s home, and discover their cities. You find that they have art, written language, and religion. They have a social hierarchy. They don’t just destroy–they build, too.
In the first Gears of War, you uncover the reason for the war on humanity: it’s because the horde also faces extinction. Underground, the Locust fight another enemy called the Lambent, a version of the Locust mutated by exposure to a fuel source called Imulsion. The Lambent are driving the Locust out of the underground homes, killing or converting whoever they find. Coming to the surface is a situation forced on the Locust by those circumstances, and in Gears of War 3, you learn that Adam’s weapon was created because he was working with Mirrah, the Locust queen, to try to eliminate the Lambent and save the Locust.
Yes, the Locust represent an existential threat that’s looking to wipe out humanity, and which engages in a number of horrifying acts against their victims. There’s an argument that the humans have no choice but to respond in kind to such an enemy. The problem is, nobody really has that argument. Gears is obviously aware of these ideas, but it never puts those questions to its characters. Kait and her squad rush around the world trying to make the Hammer of Dawn work again in Gears 5, and while a couple characters stop to wonder if it’s a good idea, they put up little opposition to it. The idea that the Hammer might not be worth the human cost only provides momentary pause.
Some of the best writing in Gears 5 is its on-the-ground character work between the members of Delta squad, and it’s pretty clear that The Coalition has the chops to write strong, interesting characters dealing with extraordinary, emotional situations. That’s what makes its reticence to deal with the bigger ideas so frustrating–it would only make the characters and storytelling stronger if they were allowed to spend more time on the less heroic moments and their consequences. Gears doesn’t need to change what it fundamentally is–a shooter about fighting monsters who want to kill everyone–but there’s a lot more it could do in pushing those characters about how they fight their war, how they feel about their actions, and what they’re willing to sacrifice of themselves to survive, individually and as a species. It’s clear the Coalition is thinking about these ideas. It should challenge its players to think about them, too.
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