Gears of War 3: Characterization
I finished Gears 3 last night. This is a series I’ve followed since the first game made an appearance on the 360, and it’s one that I’ve loved from the get-go. My friends and I would gather around and play the first one together, remarking on the controls and the cover system. I played Horde mode non-stop once the second came out, and I was immediately the best of my friends. At this year’s past E3, I waited a little under an hour in line just to play a few rounds of Horde mode in the third game.
While Zelda: Ocarina of Time will forever be my most favorite game ever, the Gears series is definitely my favorite as a young adult. Why?
A year ago, I would have given the answer, “It’s simply a fun, well-executed game. The pieces all come together. The result is cinematic and epic. I feel like a hero.”
After finishing up this last entry, I want to bring up another aspect that has caused me to enjoy the series even more. It’s something that Gears detractors (one of them a dear friend of mine) enjoy bringing up and ridiculing.
The character insight given to players in Gears 3 reverses previous notions of an all-brawn-but-no-brain cast, and the characters become stronger and more developed in simple moments throughout the game.
Spoilers, from here on out.
I will be the first to admit that the first two Gears had wooden caricatures. When the first game in the series came out, I was only sixteen. I found the characters laughable. They were there to lighten the game and provide a breather. With the second game, things took a turn for the serious–heartstrings were tugged with the death of Maria and the breakdown of Dom. I didn’t find that arc particularly compelling–well, at least there was some semblance of a touching, serious story, even if it didn’t entirely work. I give the team props for trying, but to me, the characters were still one-dimensional and not too memorable.
Gears 3 introduced memory sequences in which characters–Marcus and Cole–were controlled in a graphically stylized sequence that played out in the past or in a mixture of nostalgia, past memories, and the present. These portions were by far some of the best I’ve seen in a game because of the artful way in which the story, characters, and memories were presented to the player.
Cole’s sequence in particular added some much-needed depth to his character. He was no longer just a lumbering caricature that shouted… well, everything. Cole became someone who had to keep his chin up and come off as frivolous. He had a job to do, and that was to protect his fans. He was a hero to the people before E-Day, and they admired him long before he became a COG. Cole left the realm of pure caricature and grew to be a willing hero of the people. The player could now understand his gung-ho, cocky attitude–he was idolized and respected because of the way he had acted as a Thrashball star. He was an inspirational hero of the people.
The game gave just enough insight to the inner-workings of the characters without revealing too much and without appearing to make up for lost time. Only a few missions were dedicated to Cole, and–barring the memory sequence–the only clues to any indication of depth in Cole’s personality lie within the people and the way they interact with him. The people revere him much as we revere our own sports stars nowadays, and while that is no indicator of a heartwarming, dutiful personality, keep in mind the situation in which these people are meeting him. They are starving, terrified, tired, and under constant attack by the Horde. They hate the COG for justifiable reasons. If Cole was anything but a grounded, kind person in their good favor, the survivors would be sure to cut the reverence and the niceties immediately.
Is it a bit pandering and unrealistic that every single person in Cole’s hometown would be completely supportive and helpful towards our band of heroes? Of course it is. But, when people in every other town are constantly shooting at you, shooing you away, or sending you off on a quest to do them a favor and prove that this group of COGs isn’t a bunch of jerks, it becomes a nice surprise. Predictable, sure, but a nice surprise nonetheless. As a player, you get tired of hearing the people you’re trying to save repeatedly telling you to shove off.
I’ll admit to something: when I played the first Gears, I immediately forgot who Cole was. When I finished the second Gears, I… might have been guilty of forgetting him even more quickly than I did in the first game. One of my friends once brought him up in conversation and all I could remember was that he shouted, “It’s the Cole Train, baby!” a lot. Needless to say, I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular topic, whatever it was we were talking about.
The third game, however, ensured that he’ll stick around in my mind a little longer.
What I’m saying here is that instead of trying to shoehorn in a deep, epic, romanticized story line in which we learn of Cole’s flaws and triumphs, his insecurities and his confidence, Epic went the more sensible route. Suddenly throwing a one-dimensional character into a reflective journey of the self is too jarring and extremely out of place–especially when that character is a supporting cast member. What they did instead is humanize Cole through simple actions and words by him and others. That kept the coherency of the story and the emphasis on the action. I was now able to empathize with Cole–believe me, I thought the chances of empathy with anyone in that cast of characters would be well below “unlikely.” His nostalgic memories for Thrashball and his sad realization that he probably never will be able to again enjoy the sport or being an idol struck a chord with me.
Gears of War isn’t a game that needs fully developed and fleshed out characters. Forcing a complicated reason behind each and every character for the sake of adding a little humanity would be completely unnecessary, especially at such a late stage. Instead, Epic did it simply. They provided one event or a few lines of dialogue to give the player a little more insight into the characters they had followed thus far. This allowed the players to see the characters as something more than just the one-dimensional, hulking cardboard cutouts that they were before. They have a little more life to them now, a little more depth. They just want to survive and get any semblance of their old life back. The characters are still simple, but far easier to empathize with. I think the way Epic went about in conveying so was perfect–even if it was a little late.
Sorry if some of this is a tad nonsensical, I’ve been writing and editing this while on pain meds for my wisdom teeth extraction. Probably would have been a good idea to have someone else edit this article…