Looking back at my childhood, I remember two things: having an unlimited, uninhibited imagination and thinking that guns were awesome.
I’d spend hours daydreaming – drawing and writing stories about imaginary creatures and worlds I invented out of thin air. I couldn’t take a breath without some absurd creation popping into my mind, begging to be smudged into life via crayons and a piece of paper. At the same time, like many boys, I discovered an ability to turn any appropriately shaped piece of wood, kitchen utensil or cardboard tube into an imaginary gun. I couldn’t walk through a forest without mentally reconfiguring at least one branch into a laser rifle I could use to destroy some evil alien monster or, more often, my younger brother.
I’m 30 now, don’t have time to daydream much and haven’t wielded a twig like a pistol for many years. But I was reminded of those childhood feelings when I played two videogames recently: Super Mario Galaxy and Gears of War.
From its opening flashes of color and familiar setting, Super Mario Galaxy made me experience all the wonder of being a kid again. Like previous Super Mario games I played when I was younger, Galaxy felt like one of my old daydreams come to life. I loved it. Gears of War made me feel like a kid again, too, but in a different way. I’m sure my younger self would have thought its ridiculously proportioned action heroes and “kill ’em all” gameplay was fantastic, but my grown-up self found it immature and embarrassing. I hated it.
Galaxy made me feel childlike, but Gears just felt childish. Had something changed in me? Virtual slaughter could have once been called a forte of mine. I grew up fragging hellspawn and Nazis in the gloomy corridors of Doom and Wolfenstein as much as I did bouncing through the sunshine and rainbows of the Super Mario games. Why had I outgrown one kind of game and not the other?
Gaming makes for some strange scenarios, and playing Super Mario Galaxy is no different. Picture me, a 30-year-old male sitting in the basement of a house in a northern Canadian town, pretending to be a mustachioed Italian plumber saving a race of mushroom people from an evil turtle by chasing bunnies, floating in bubbles and cleaning a giant bumblebee. In 99 percent of the years humankind has spent on this earth, society would have considered me an absolute lunatic.
In this era, lucky for me, I’m just another run-of-the-mill gamer, part of a demographic that is comfortable spending significant amounts of our recreation time pretending we’re still children. We’re cool with that. We’re used to hearing people say “I feel like a kid again” in a purely positive way. For us, childhood is all about cuteness, innocence and simple, unpretentious joy. We selectively forget the other major attributes of childhood; namely, the lack of common sense and abundance of aggression. And that’s where Gears of War comes in.
Gore is an integral part of the Gears experience, and it’s lavishly rendered onscreen. Buckets of brown-black fluid leap out of every bullet wound. Fresh corpses lie in small ponds of what used to be their insides. A close-range shotgun blast is enough to explode torsos into crumbling chunks of meat. But the distillation of the Gears aesthetic is your character`s chainsaw bayonet, which vividly splatters a fountain of blood all over the screen whenever you saw into enemies with it. Videogames are no strangers to violence, but the attention paid to creating such exaggerated depictions of injury and death puts Gears in a different league (alongside the likes of Mortal Kombat, Soldier of Fortune, Manhunt and God of War).
Raining carnage on your enemies in Gears isn’t leavened with the black humor of, say, a Grand Theft Auto title. Gears is a silly game that takes itself way too seriously. An epic orchestral score accompanies players` death-dealing as though the game was some Spielbergian tragedy. Protagonist Marcus Fenix and his comrades grunt jaded, war-weary dialogue one minute, but gleefully shout “Sweet!“ and “Hell yeah!“ when slaughtering enemies only moments later. Its “He-Man on steroids”-sized characters should be parodies, with their sandpaper voices, perfectly sculpted five o’clock shadows and space-marine-chic outfits. Instead, they’re presented without irony as the manliest of men – equal parts World War II platoon, football team and biker gang. Playing Gears of War feels like stepping into the sports car your balding, middle-aged, recently divorced uncle just bought. The desperate stench of overcompensation fills the air.
That’s coming from a 30-year-old, anyway. In the eyes of a kid, I’m sure everything that’s stupid and ridiculous about Gears comes off as being “totally sweet.” Posters of Fenix are no doubt plastered on many a young boy`s wall. Gears creator Cliff Bleszinski said the characters in his game were meant to “look like an idealized sci-fi version of what your average teenage boy would like to be.” It’s a cute quote we can all easily nod along with, but consider it more closely and it becomes disconcerting. Do we really want to reinforce the half-formed ideals of teenage boys? Should games pander to (and solidify) the uninformed stereotypes that dwell inside a child’s mind?
This unhealthy sense of what is presented as ideal in Gears is a big part of what makes it such an immature game. Though it attempts to pass them off as heroes, Gears` protagonists are more like psychopaths, unable to contain their joy at the violence they unleash and solving every problem with a gun. As most children mature into adults, violence loses its appeal. Fascination with gore is replaced with a realization of what the consequences of injury and death really are. Images of war as something exciting for our G.I. Joes to undertake are replaced with the knowledge that when real human lives are at stake, war is a terrifyingly serious subject. Gears` version of war is a childish one, focused completely on the idea that violence is fun and cool while ignoring its graver aspects.
Fortunately, games like Super Mario Galaxy prove that appealing to your inner child doesn’t have to come with all the infantile, immature baggage. From the beginning, it’s evident in the color palette alone that you`re engaging in a much different kind of experience than Gears of War. Galaxy`s bright, saturated tones contrast sharply with Gears` limited variations of gray and brown. Where the latter is meant to evoke gritty realism, Galaxy takes a more fanciful approach. Plumbers gracefully fly through space, traversing worlds ranging from desert ruins to spaceships to giant, rotating pastries. Manta rays exist to be surfed on. And anthropomorphic stars power a giant observatory traveling through the cosmos disguised as a comet. There is no pretense to depicting reality here; Galaxy is wholly fantastical, a product of that state of mind we have as children when anything is possible.
Boundless imagination and childhood innocence go hand in hand. Kids are innocent to the horrors the world contains, unimpeded by rational thought and free from the laws of physics. They don`t know how the world works, so they`re free to make up their own rules. In Galaxy, you can turn into a spring to jump higher, challenge penguins to swimming races, and fall into lava with a singed behind as the only consequence. Shigeru Miyamoto and his team have once again created a playground where these youthful feelings can freely express themselves.
Galaxy`s innocence comes from being completely divorced from reality. On the other hand, Gears‘ half-baked realism invites criticism for glamorizing war and misrepresenting violence. It treats a serious subject, war, with the naivety of a child`s mind. Killing is just something to do for fun in Gears, and all its imagination is focused on that one act. It`s the ultimate expression of that childish feeling of picking up a stick and pretending it`s a deadly weapon. As a kid, I’d have loved it, but I’ve lost the taste for its pointless violence, superficial heroism and offensive male stereotypes. In other words, I’ve grown up.
It`s not that violence in games is wrong. It`s that Gears of War portrays it in a shamefully simplistic and childish manner. Other games, like Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life 2 and BioShock, prove that violence can be depicted in videogames with maturity and complexity. Ratchet and Clank shows that guns can be goofy and fun without being distasteful. Super Mario Galaxy`s route is to steer clear of the subject altogether, avoiding offensive depictions of real-world subjects by existing in a purely imaginative realm. By doing this, Galaxy lets adult gamers like me reconnect with the childhood I want to remember, not the ugly, immature parts in which Gears of War revels. Maybe part of growing up is being able to reclaim all the innocence and wonder of youth while shedding its naivety and false ideals. Gears of War may have received the M rating, but it’s Super Mario Galaxy that is the more mature creation.
Chris LaVigne got his first Mario game along with a Nintendo Entertainment System as a surprise gift from his parents for getting the chicken pox. He’s sure no disease has ever been so fondly remembered.