[Whenever possible, Destructoid critiques overlooked design aspects of games both old and recent for our "Revisited" series.]
There exists in the gaming community a particularly virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that would assert, among other things, that Gears of War 2 "is just a game, bro." On the opposite of the spectrum is an equally uncharitable position: Gears of War 2 is nothing but a testosterone-fueled male power fantasy with no real merit.
Don't get me wrong: Gears of War 2 is definitely a game, bro, and one that I like very much. It spends too much time with clumsily-stitched-together set pieces and not enough time letting me take cover and shoot things (which is a testament to the quality of its core mechanic), but it's a definite narrative step up from the first one, and it's still the third-person multiplayer shooting experience par excellence.
But Gears of War 2 is also, I want to argue, a modern treatise on masculinity, agency, and anxiety, and perhaps strangely, a recasting of the Pinocchio story.
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.
All told, Pinocchio is about growing up, about transition, and about what it means to be "a real boy." In short, Pinocchio is about masculinity. One of the most famous scenes in the story is when Pinocchio gets swallowed by the Terrible Dogfish while looking for his father and creator, Gepetto. Nimble-minded readers who have played through at least the first half of Gears of War 2 will see that the Dogfish (itself probably inspired by the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale) finds a modern counterpart in the Riftworm.
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.
Unfortunately, the allusion to Pinnochio's Dogfist doesn't support very careful scrutiny: Fenix doesn't go through any of the transition or development that Pinocchio does. The Riftworm's imagery does evoke some of Pinocchio's broader concerns, though, and I'd like to use it as jumping-off point to explore how Gears of War 2 explores masculinity.
Compare Gears of War 2 to the action movies of the mid 1980's--one dude, killing the shit out of everything on his own. In contrast, Gears of War not only follows the story of four Delta Squad soldiers, but places a heavy emphasis on cooperative play. In a piece titled "Yes, Video Games Can Be Political," BitMob writer Lee Bradley attributes the rise in co-op gaming to a shift from conservative to relatively liberal politics:
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.
If the mechanics of Gears suggest a departure from traditional forms of masculine power, then Gears of War 2's narrative undermines them totally. Gears is certainly a violent game, but "male power fantasy" is a judgment based on the game's externals: its brown and grey graphics, its over-muscled character designs, the bits of gore and carnage that hit the camera when Marcus chainsaws a grub. The problem, though, is that concepts of masculinity, power, and fantasy are internal constructs--a notion literalized by the Riftworm scene.
Structurally, Gears of War 2 is set up like most fantasy stories: line and circle, or quest and rest. It's a type of organization that most games employ and one that feels familiar to us: little bits of story (the circle, or the "rest") are cut up and placed between action sequences (the line, or the "quest"). Those externals that I mentioned above--the graphics, the violence--are most associated with the lines, but the internals that I'm interested in take place mostly in the circles.
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.
It's understood that Tai is a victim of physical and psychological torture, but the game is never explicit. The scene is an effective attack on masculinity because it perverts what we accept as "normal." Tai has been presented to us as some sort of mystical, unbeatable soldier, sound in body and mind, but he's reduced to a mute and catatonic shell. Even worse, he uses his Lancer, his very own weapon, against himself Marcus' shotgun. Men use weapons to fight their enemies, not themselves. By inverting Tai-as-soldier to Tai-as-suicidal, Gears 2 examines how fragile our ideas of masculinity--authority, agency, stability, physical strength--really are. Eighteen American servicemen and servicewomen commit suicide every day.
In a thematically related scene, Dom finds his wife, Maria, locked in an iron maiden in a Locust prison camp. She too is psychologically shattered and mute, and the game is similarly ambiguous concerning the torture she's been exposed to. Choosing to end her suffering, Dom shoots Maria with his pistol, shares a quick nod of compassion from Marcus and moves on. Again, the scene is emotionally devastating because it exposes the limits of what we consider masculinity --Dom moves from loving husband, protector and provider, to mercy-killer.
Right after killing the Riftworm, Marcus and the rest of Delta Squad get a message from Colonel Hoffman and Chairman Prescott, ordering them to investigate an abandoned research facility at the base of Mont Kadar, even though Marcus had requested evacuation. It's a brief scene, but it highlights another anxiety present in Gears of War 2: how does Marcus reconcile his independence with his life as a soldier, especially when he knows that he's being manipulated by the powers that be?
And so Gears of War 2 presents players with several examples of the ways that masculinity and manhood can be undermined: psychologically, physically, emotionally, and even bureaucratically. This theme finds its climax in the death of the Riftworm: one part birthing sequence, one part stunted assertion of power. In the Terrible Dogfish analogy, Marcus should emerge from the Riftworm having undergone a transformation, armed with some new understanding. Instead, he gets new orders from Hoffman that he has no choice but to follow. Gears 2 argues that the old ways of asserting masculinity are no more.
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.
While there is a subtext that runs through Gears of War 2 that questions the validity of Rambo-style masculinity, Epic Games seems reticent to make a unified statement about it either way. Marcus and the rest of Delta Squad are hardly self-aware or self-reflexive: they don't balk at being jerked around by Chairman Prescott, and apart from a few knowing looks after Maria dies, they seem like tabulae rasae. I mentioned earlier that the comparison to Pinocchio was risky because, while the two stories share some thematic concerns and some imagery, Marcus never develops as a character. He is a cipher.
In any other medium, a static character like Marcus Fenix counts as a strike against, but this particular brand of flatness seems just right for a game like Gears of War. Delta Squad's black humor is engaging and appropriate, but Marcus' character never gets in the way. He shows real emotion only twice throughout the game--during the search for Maria and when he thinks Anya has died -- throwing the rest of it in sharp contrast. Seeing Marcus Fenix express human longing and sympathy only reminds us how cold and blank he is most of the time.
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]