[Whenever possible, Destructoid critiques overlooked design aspects of games both old and recent for our "Revisited" series.]
Most of us are probably familiar with the 1936 version of Walt Disney's Pinocchio -- it's a triumph of animation and was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress. It also just happens to be the most famous adaptation of The Adventures of Pinocchio, a novel written in 1883 by Italian author Carlo Colludi.
The soldiers of Delta Squad -- a four-man group of the game's protagonists -- gets swallowed by the Riftworm while investigating seismic activity near the city of Ilima. As its name suggests, the Riftworm is an enormous annelid, eight miles long and capable of leveling entire cities by hollowing sinkholes in the planet's crust. The iconic Marcus Fenix ends up in the bowels of one after it swallows his helicopter whole, and his squad must carve its way out, snipping the beasts' arteries as they go.
The language of the presidency has changed from "I" to "we." Now we strive to look after each other ... Even in games where the cooperative element of co-op is less pronounced, the ideology is the same: You are not on your own anymore, you are part of a team. What's more, that team is more than likely multicultural and/or multi-gender. Don't dismiss the presence of the Hispanic Dom in Gears of War.
The jump from politics to culture isn't a big one, and it's easy to see that the way Western society constructs the idea of masculinity or manliness is changing, and that, as Bradley points out, this change can be reflected mechanically in videogames. In Gears, if a player takes too much damage, he is "downed" until one of his teammates revives him. Weakness, vulnerability, and fallibility are built-in, and the bond between Delta Squad is better for it; for John Rambo, they are impossibilities.
Sending four soldiers to destroy the Locust stronghold of Nexus is just as far-fetched as sending one to topple the Viet Cong, but it's clear that notions of masculinity and power have changed over the past thirty years. Compassion and teamwork now have a place in the midst of bravado and aggression.
The first circle is, for my discussion, Tai Kaliso's suicide. Earlier in the game, the player watches helplessly as Tai and Dizzy face off against Skorge, the head of the Locust's Kantus forces. Later, when Marcus and Dom board one of the Locust's "Torture boats," they find Tai locked in a cell. After they release Tai, Marcus hands him a gun; instead of re-joining Delta Squad, Tai shoots himself. Dizzy is never heard from again.
The Riftworm is an easily identifiable phallic symbol as well as the fulcrum on which the rest of the game turns: Pinocchio and Gears of War 2 might both be about the trials and anxieties of manhood, but Pinocchio never cut through a whale with a chainsaw. Desperate times, indeed.
The best thing about videogames is the way they can take these types of internal conflicts and externalize them rather easily. If you believe that Gears 2 presents a series of masculine anxieties, it changes what the Locust represent and why you fight them.
Yes, the Locust have invaded Sera (maybe?), but they also represent the types of psychological and emotional dangers that consume Tai and Dom. The Locust represent a perversion of the human form as well as a corruption of traditional masculine social roles and values, turning protectors into killers. The Locust are enemy soldiers, but they are also psychological threats to the relatively fragile type of social mores and masculine ideas that Delta Squad buy into. Gears of War 2 isn't so much a celebration of the male power fantasy as it is a literalization of the types of psychological, emotional, political, and symbolic threats to it.
If you read the Locust as externalized anxiety, it becomes tempting to conclude that Gears of War ultimately comes to a pro-male conclusion. After losing a protracted battle of attrition, the human forces are pinned down in the city of Jacinto, which sits on top of a hollow plateau near a river. After evacuating the city, COG forces blow a hole in the levee, filling the hollow with water and drowning the majority of the remaning Locust, the last phase of the desperate counter-attack that acts as the premise of Gears 2.
Doesn't the game's conclusion (a phoned-in boss fight against a Lambent Brumak) validate all those claims that Gears is a vapid power trip?
Well, perhaps, except that the last thing the player hears is that perennial bugbear: Adam Fenix, Marcus' supposedly-late father. "This is Adam Fenix, is anyone out there...? Can you hear me...? This is Adam Fenix, can you hear me...? What have you done...?" he asks, in reference to the sinking of Jacinto.
Not only does Adam Fenix comes dangerously close to undermining everything that Delta Squad has been fighting for during the past twenty-odd hours and calling the entire war into question. Gears of War 2 is marked by uncertainty, not confidence or swagger.
Instead, he is the perfect cipher for symbolic and psychological subtext that Gears 2 offers. Playing as Marcus directs your attention to the fact that Chairman Prescott is manipulating you or that Tai's suicide is arresting, without gumming up the works with any of the introspective melodrama of, say, a JRPG. He is literally an everyman, at least every man that plays Gears of War: his doubts are your doubts.
[Image credit: Tai Kaliso, DC Comics.com]
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