Along with my peers, I chuckled at the “So Macho” remake of Gears of War as 2006 drew to a close. And this was only natural. Gears of War‘s washed-out, hyper-macho vision of a world on the cusp of complete annihilation was more than a little silly. That’s fine. That’s videogames.
But my first clue that this satire was solidifying into something else came with Eurogamer’s year-end awards.
Where most sites choose to present the illusion of a united front in their “Best Of” selections, Eurogamer prefers to revel in messy internal dissent. After they assemble their list by popular vote, they mail it out to their writers and wait for the colorful commentary to pour in. Rather than resulting in a bland chorus of, “We think Ultra-Shooter VII is a real progression in the genre,” you end up with writers who despised the game, shocked to find it presence on the list and venting about it. Because – y’know – this is all subjective, and if you think everyone in the world agrees that a 9/10 game is a 9/10 … well, you probably work for Metacritic.
But when Gears of War slipped in at seventh place, things got messy. After reading the writers’ responses, you’re left with the question: If this is what they all think, how on Earth did it reach such an elevated position to begin with?
Like any commercially successful title, Gears of War has been a topic of constant debate since release. But while its merits at a game are split equally among the chattering classes, the writers at Eurogamer expressed nothing short of open scorn for its aesthetics. Take my partner in crime at Rock Paper Shotgun, John Walker: “Honestly, I’m the girliest man in the universe, and I’m secure enough in my masculinity not to need to play this,” he says, before later adding it was “one of the ugliest games I’ve ever seen.” Or Triforce mainstay Dave Taurus: “It’s the most blatantly homoerotic game of all time, so at least it’s striking a blow for equality.” Keza MacDonald went as far to describe it as “trashy. It’s gratuitous, brash, full of itself and overall a tad unsavory.” These opinions have become so commonplace that it’s virtually impossible for a smart site to talk about Gears of War without a few digs at its ass-slapping, locker-room attitude.
What’s going on here? At the time of its release, it was arguably the most technically impressive game ever created. Its production values are as high as the very best games have managed, before or since. The developers even managed to distinguish it from the pack, deciding that desaturation controls were put in Photoshop for a reason, and they’re bloody well going to use them. So, what’s the problem?
Part of it is standard cultural warfare. The quasi-intellectual subset of game critics is aware that Gears‘ Xbox LIVE contingent takes itself terribly seriously and – as anyone who’s played online knows – has a tendency toward blatant homophobia. Whether you take someone out or get taken out yourself, you’re almost certainly going to be called a fag. Accusing Gears of War of a more homoerotic undercurrent than Top Gun‘s volleyball scene is an expedient way to provoke a response from these diehards while simultaneously dismissing them
But this rhetoric seems to have hardened into something more than retaliation for hours of one-sided deathmatches. It’s become an actual failing of the game, a reason not to play. I suddenly realized that a good chunk of people laughing at Gears of War for being stupid weren’t thinking, “This is awesomely stupid,” but rather, “How stupid would you have to be to like this?”
Here I separate, and it comes down to priorities.
In that Eurogamer round-up, I described Gears of War as something of a dinosaur – it lies at the far end of the evolutionary tree that began with Wolfenstein 3D. While not a first-person shooter, it belongs to the same militaristic, pop-horror pedigree that inspired id and their followers. It’s on an express elevator to hell. It ain’t got time to bleed. It’s groovy. In other words, its core values are firmly, resolutely, undeniably Western, with barely a nod to anything outside the ’80s-movie canon. And depending on the audience, this can be a little alienating. Chatting with designers trying to make pan-territory games, they describe a Korean gamer’s bemusement when presented with a game like Gears of War: “Why am I controlling the bad guy?” The blob of protein and steel that Epic upheld as the ideal male specimen was something alien. Foreign. The product of a culture he didn’t understand.
Western commentators, however, do understand it, and think it’s the worst kind of stupid – a stupid that takes itself seriously. But they’d never cry foul as often, as vehemently or as oppressively at the equally adolescent (and equally irony-deficient) Devil May Cry 4. No arguments here: God Hand is ironic. Devil May Cry isn’t. Devil May Cry is gloriously, phenomenally stupid – and that’s the point.
Within its own lineage, Gears of War is just as dumb. Gears takes from the two sorts of marines that loom in the collective imagination of a certain school of concept artists – the colonial marines of Aliens and the space marines of Warhammer 40k. And while Gears‘ COG troops aren’t as utterly ludicrous as those of the latter – where the average soldier looks like the offspring of a Panzer tank and a Gothic cathedral – it has something of the “’80s-metal album cover come to life” in it. Gears of War‘s success has an interesting parallel in the hair-metal fantasies of Guitar Hero; bedroom-bound and messy, their aesthetic sins seem as urgent and necessary as the first time you masturbated.
Therein, of course, lies the problem.
Serious gamers have a problem with embracing the concept of unvarnished juvenalia – unless there’s an out. They’re typically eager to escape from the popular perception of games as entertainment for teenagers – especially if they’re teenagers themselves. Gears of War‘s serious-men-with-chainsaws formula? That’s the most petrifying thing in the world; it’s the last thing they want associated with them.
There are notable exceptions to this rule, however. Games like Devil May Cry get a pass because objecting to its aesthetic reveals yourself to be culturally illiterate, the sort of RPG fan who’d reject a Final Fantasy game on the grounds of characters using too much hairspray. But the double standard is kind of obvious – they find redeeming value in another culture’s juvenalia while rejecting wholesale their own. Juvenalia with a sense of exoticism passes the test on its exoticism alone.
Game critics’ dogged insistence that games are more than a teenage pursuit reveals some fascinating conflicts. A serious gamer who rejected a proper Mario title (not Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, mind you) just because of childish graphics would be ridiculed by his peers. Miyamoto worship has become so ingrained in our critical dogma that no one seriously considers arguing against it. There’s never been a need for teenage games to be defended, if only because the ones who are most aggressive towards kiddie games are those self-same teenagers. But as the demographic grows older, it’s about time we actually considered the visceral wonders of those angsty years as a possible source of as much delight as the more innocent pre-teen ones explored by Miyamoto, et al. Because it’s fun to saw someone in half and watch his guts spray everywhere.
Hopefully you’ve seen the incredible Edgar Wright comedy, Hot Fuzz. It’s an affectionate satire of Hollywood action films. Stress the “affectionate.” While it relishes the absurdity of transplanting the “jumping through the air while shooting” tropes of high-octane summer blockbusters to a small West Country hamlet, it has nothing but love for all things Keanu. A key scene has super-cop Nicholas Angel and bumpkin Danny Butterman drunkenly bonding over their mutual love of Point Break and Bad Boys II. As stupid as those movies are as works of art, they’re wonderfully stupid, the kind of stupid that feeds a real human need. After all, man does not live on Proust alone.
So, yes, Gears of War is pretty gay, and Felix and Dom probably have testosterone-producing glands the size of grapefruits. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate its adolescent charm. When I heard My Chemical Romance for the first time in 2006, just as Gears arrived, I knew that if I were 12 years old, they’d be the most important band on Earth. Now, in my early 30s, they’re the funniest. And I’m fine with it, either way.
I think we should feel exactly the same about Gears of War.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.