Until the End: Why Gears of War is the Quintessential 9/11 Game

By Mitch Krpata
Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 9:00 am
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Gears of War: Is Marcus Fenix the face of gaming's response to 9/11?
Some of humanity's greatest aesthetic achievements have been inspired by its most unspeakable horrors. Works of art inspired by tragedy can be purifying, validating, or reassuring. They can spur us to action. They can clarify our feelings, or challenge our assumptions. They can make us feel that we have not suffered alone. It would be gauche to suggest that these works are an adequate substitute for what we have lost, but sometimes they are necessary to make us feel human again.

A decade on, what has been the defining artistic response to 9/11? In film, Paul Greengrass's United 93 recalls the terror and confusion of the day in vivid detail. In music, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising confronts profound sorrow with grace and humanity. In literature, Don DeLillo's Falling Man dissects the psychological journey of survivors trying to pick up the pieces.

All good choices, but I'd argue it's none of the above. I think it's Gears of War.

I'm sure Cliff Bleszinski and company would be the first to argue that Gears has nothing to do with September 11, and that's their right as creators. But it's our right as the audience to find our own meaning in the work. Ever since I first played Gears of War almost five years ago, it has struck me as a game that could not have existed without 9/11. Something like it, maybe, but not this game, with its unusual and potent mix of fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness.

Start with the premise. In Gears of War, you aren't fighting against alien invaders, or a foreign army. While the citizens of Sera drift through their lives, a hostile organization plans the total destruction of their civilization from literally underneath their feet. What are the Locust but a massive sleeper cell? If there is a better metaphor for an enemy who blends invisibly into the quotidian routines of its targets, I don't know what it is.

This motif is repeated throughout the game. The player can never be sure where the next attack will come from. Instead of attacking along well-defined front lines, the Locust stream through "emergence holes," spontaneous portals that can appear in front of you, behind, or on your flank. There is no way to know where the next one will erupt. How can you defend against that?

Defend you do, and it is here that Gears again departs from gaming orthodoxy and taps into the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Unlike many shooters, it is not a power fantasy. At all times, you are aware that you are outnumbered and outgunned. The only successful strategy is to stay behind cover, displacing when necessary, and not exposing yourself to enemy fire unless absolutely necessary. Your character doesn't level up or acquire new skills as the game progresses. Forward movement comes yard by agonizing yard. And while Gears doesn't embrace scarcity of ammo the way something like Metro 2033 does, even its most overpowered weapons, like the Hammer of Dawn, are meted out like Soviet bread.

Oddly, Marcus Fenix and the other COG soldiers look like the toughest hombres around, and although they are humanity's last, best hope, they still have a funny habit of dying when somebody shoots them. They're built like pickup trucks, but need to stay behind cover at all times, and can only cross open stretches of land by putting their heads down and hustling, which renders them unable even to shoot back. They're armed to the teeth, yet their weapons - chainsaw bayonet included - are nearly insufficient for the task. Hmm. Big, brawny, and well-armed, yet impotent to stop an unpredictable and suicidal enemy. Remind you of any countries in particular?

If you've stayed with me this far, then you at least agree that Gears of War captures the mood and the subtext of a real-life atrocity, albeit through heavy metaphor. But why do I say it's better than its cross-media brethren? Certainly, it lacks the uplift of Springsteen's songs, the insight of DeLillo's words, and the verisimilitude of Greengrass's images. But it has something they all lack, something that only games have, and that's interactivity.

Gears of War is one of those games that you couldn't truthfully call "fun." As short as it is, a single playthrough is wearying. You don't end with a sense that you've won as much as a sense that you've survived. But as it conjures those feelings of despair and horror, the game at least gives you a chance to fight back. Even as you die over and over, you can always try, once again, to press forward. It's not a revenge fantasy - simply a chance to do something in the face of evil.

For most of us, 9/11 happened at a remove. We watched it on television, and, if we were lucky, weren't directly affected. Yet even as the TV screen was a protective barrier between us and physical harm, it also left us feeling helpless and inert. We could watch, but we could not act. And so, in the intervening decade, we have done what we could. We have read, and listened, and played. We have coped. We are still coping.

Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. Read more of his work at his blog, Insult Swordfighting.

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