Epic Games vs The World at Large

Hey; I just got a job (at school) and have been settling into it (plus it’s triage time at the schoool), while Thursday last week saw me spending 8-10 hours out of town due to a doctor’s visit. Busy busy busy… but also, money money money. Now I’m all ready to start school next week, and I’m settled into my job, so regular posting has been interrupted, but should resume in a few weeks. I’ll be posting when I can, but it definitely won’t be a set Monday/Wednesday schedule like I’d hoped. Yesterday, I began writing this post, but I got stuck when I decided to check out some elements of Bulletstorm/Gears 1 and found that I’d gotten lost in them, just because they’re so fun. To be completely honest, I’d rather be playing Bulletstorm right now than writing this, but I need to stick to my guns and do this thing. Also, this post is going to have quite a few links in it. I highly recommend checking them out.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was this post on Kotaku, specifically, the statement that “The Destructoid folks, playing an early part of the campaign as the loudmouth hero Cole, were impressed by that thing that Gears of War games aren’t known for: Gears of War 3’s quality writing,” as if the franchise hasn’t got quality writing. Earlier today, another article on Kotaku had a commenter defending the absurd protagonist of Lollipop Chainsaw by pointing out Kratos and Marcus Fenix. This certainly isn’t a problem endemic to Kotaku–after all, I have a friend who, despite never having played Bulletstorm nor having allowed me to talk to him about it, insists that it’s the worst game of all time, purely because of the ads and the unsatisfying demo.

It’s not hard to see why people might feel this way, of course. Just look at any picture of the Gears.

If this were a 90s Marvel comic, his name would be like BLUDGORE or RAGESTRIKE, but it isn't, and that's the point.

That picture doesn’t scream “serious war drama,” does it? No, not really. Likewise, this Bulletstorm vid does not exactly scream “this game is an exciting, hyper-intelligent romp through a pulp universe.” In fact, Bulletstorm’s advertising was so over-the-top that it drew the ire of Fox News, who usually reserve their attention for crass, vulgar, and artless games like Manhunt 2, Postal 2, and Mass Effect.* The thing is, Epic tells smart stories. They make smart games. In fact, they’re some of the best developers out there right now, cranking out shooters on par with Bungie and what-was-once-Infinity Ward, or, in other words, the best shooters in the industry. Go watch Cliff Bleszinski talk about being a power creative, or, failing that, just pay attention to Epic’s games. If you actually bother to pay attention, you’ll understand just how smart their games really are.

I could devote a large portion of this post to the intelligence of Epic’s game design, to talking about the cleverness of the levels, the inventiveness of their weapons (pausing to lament the lack of the Ripper in this millennium’s Unreal Tournament games, of course), the perfect feel of the gameplay, their great AI, and the great variety of their enemies. I could even discuss the beauty of their art (Bulletstorm is one of the finest-looking games I have ever played, and Gears of Wars’ art aesthetic is absoltuely flawless, even if it could use a bit more color), the fantastic soundtracks, or the really good sound design. Instead, I’m going to sum it up in one simple sentence: Epic’s games, particularly this generation’s, have been very good in all respects, because Epic does a superb job in every department of game creation.

I don’t really need to discuss their technical proficiency, so instead, I’m going to focus on their writing, because that’s that one exception to the rule.

I don’t mean it’s bad, of course, because it most certainly isn’t, but more often than not, it doesn’t quite fit. Before I get to that, though, I want to back up the claim that it’s really good–then I’ll come around to explaining what I mean about it not fitting.

I've got nothing clever to say here.

Aside from the chainsaw gun, what do you see? What does the tone of the game’s cover convey? Does it advertise “HRRGRR STRIP THE FLESH! SALT THE WOUND!”? No. No it does not. Borderlands does, but it wears its humor on its sleeve. There’s no way you could miss that it’s trying to be funny, with its psycho midgets and intergalactic ninja assassin Claptrap. Instead, what we have is a solemn poster with a big guy. He’s holding COG tags. Do you know what happends to put that many tags in someone’s hand? Usually death. In a game where people are trying to be all “MURDERDEATHKILLPUNCHFACE!” generally, their covers are a bit more dynamic than Gears of War 2. Usually, in the place of muted colors, wafting smoke, and solemn looks, these games have cocky heroes with explosions and bright colors.

Gears of War isn’t trying to be absurd HURRRRR GRAAAAGH ROOOOOAAAAAARRRRRGHHHH even if it does have a chainsaw on a machine gun and characters with muscles. Try watching the Mad World trailer. After that, go for Rendezvous and War Pigs. Finally, watch Ashes to Ashes. The game’s always been advertised as serious war drama, and its told its story as such. It saddened me to see many comments after the War Pigs trailer that asked “why are they using War Pigs, an anti-war song, to advertise Gears of War?” Most people just laughed at how stupid the advertising was. It was like they were completely missing the point of the game. The fact that it’s an anti-war game is why it’s so great, and, of course, having really fun (not as fun as Unreal Tournament or Bulletstorm due to its slower pace, of course) combat works against that. The storytelling of the series, though, has always been serious, emotional war drama.

First off, the fact that Marcus and Dom are brothers in arms seems to be horribly misinterpreted these days. Whether it’s because of the fact that college frat boys enjoy playing Gears (thus associating the “bro” mentality with the game in the mind of nerdy, hardcore gamers) or because of the fact that culture effectively refuses to see close friendships between men as anything other than sexual/closet sexual, people completely fail to interpret the male relationships in the games. I’m very close with my brothers, and I have friends that I think of as brothers. We’re extremely loyal to each other in that sort of way that can only be described as brotherhood. It’s that sort of family bond. Dom and Marcus, being members of Delta Squad, really do seem like brothers, as do Baird and Cole. Through the games, the characters run the gamut of emotions, and it’s not wonky, cardboard character transformations like you get in most video games. Maria’s death is one of the most moving moments in video game history, and definitely the most emotionally engaging death, especially if you’ve been hoping that Dom would find Maria this whole time. There are no Mary Sues to fuel cheap emotional stabs–after a game and a half of searching for someone, she’s ripped away from you, and worst of all, you knew it was coming, especially after what happened to Tai. You hoped it wouldn’t happen to her, but it did anyway. Gears 2 stood head and shoulders above Gears, and those death scenes were a big part of that reason.

Doesn't really look like Duke Nukem, does he?

Gears 3’s Ashes to Ashes trailer, shown above, is reminiscent of the aftermath of bombings in World War II. Some time ago, I read a book (I want to say it was Flyboys, but that doesn’t seem right) detailing the American bombings of WWII. It talked about how American bombers dropped napalm on Japanese cities, burning them so hotly that people turned to ash where they stood. One woman survived by leaping of a bridge into a river, only coming up for air when she needed to. She had suffered third degree burns on her hands from the rails on the bridge. The next day, she walked through the streets of the city until she came to a temple. A man stood there, but when she reached out to touch his shoulder, he disintegrated right before her eyes.

There are plenty of other bits throughout the game. The entire art design of the cities harkens back to images of Dresden after it was bombed in 1945. The Locust are armed with weapons disposed of by humans after the Pendulum Wars, a 79-year-long period of infighting between the humans of Sera, itself an offshoot of the Age of Armageddon, a millennium-long period of war in human culture. Hints and clues (there was another link but I can’t find it; I could write a whole post on my pet theories for Gears) have been offered that indicate that the Locust may be a result of human bioengineering (I presume the Locust Queen to be some perversion of Marcus’s mother; perhaps Adam tried to bring her back after she died). Throughout the story, the continuing emphasis is that war destroys us. Marcus often expresses regret and frustration in regards to war, like when he meets Anthony Carmine for the first time.

Overall through the imagery, story, and history of Gears, we learn the story’s message: war is hell. While Apocalypse Now communicates this message through psychosis and Full Metal Jacket through emotional detachment, Gears simply gives us war head on and asks “is this what you want?” We are faced with the relentless brutality of Gears, and not once does it take an opportunity to glorify war in any way. Time and time again, the series says “no. This is awful. How could you enjoy this?” To be portrayed as worse than humanity, the Locust have to become complete monsters, with floating torture barges and towering butchers hiding in their gothic caves decorated with skull motifs.

This is Dresden, by the way. This is a crime that was actually committed by humanity against humanity.

There are numerous reasons that people don’t look at Gears as a smart, thoughtful game. For one thing, there’s the stigma that shooters have had since the days of Doom, something I’ve been covering. Then there’s the fact that Gears of War, a shooter, actually took itself seriously, and people seem not to like that. There’s this idea that first person shooters can’t take themselves seriously (see all the hate Microsoft received for Halo 3, which Epic themselves parodied; Gears’ Mad World trailer was parodied by Bad Company.). It’s like everyone is saying that FPSes are big and dumb and cannot “rise above their station.” There are, of course, pictures like the one of Carmine above that exaggerate this image of braindeadedness. In addition, gamers have something of a nerdy resistance to the perceived jock-like nature of Gears’ protagonists–the ignorant idea that a meaty body means a meat-head. And, of course, there’s the games themselves.

In replaying Gears of War, which I haven’t played since the PC port back in 2008, I was struck by the “bro-like” comments made by Gears’ protagonists, such as “nice” after the occasional kill. Finally, there’s the split-nature of Epic’s games. At heart, they’re always absolute blasts more than anything else. If you are not having fun playing an Epic game, then you don’t know how to play an Epic game, because they are nothing but pure, unadulterated fun. Generally, the game’s writing doesn’t always work with that. The gameplay of Gears of War, with its chainsaw, excessively-stylized gore, gorgeous Grub architectural style reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia, and growly, uniquely-designed protagonists all put forward the idea of a game that is somewhat separate from its writing. Gears of War’s visual, auditory, and haptic experience puts you in mind of Epic Meal Time, not Black Hawk Down. It’s a clash.

More often than not, Epic’s writing is often a bit like someone trying to film Casablanca by way of the Wizard of Oz. They’re both great, but the experience doesn’t always mesh with the writing. Unreal Tournament 3 is Epic’s best example of this trend, delivering an offline arena bot experience coupled with a seemingly-unrelated storyline. Even when the story meshes perfectly with everything else, like with Bulletstorm, the advertising kicks in and screams “HAY IM BIG AND DUMB AND STOOPID!” and it puts people off. I don’t know who was responsible for Bulletstorm’s advertising, but I find myself suspecting Electronic Arts. You might notice that the Gears of War trailers, in contrast to Bulletstorm’s, don’t the game’s highlight puerile stupidity–instead, they accentuate its quiet reverence. Ultimately, it feels as though Epic is often guilty of divorcing story from gameplay (but with each game, they seem to realize the mistake and improve!), and too many gamers are busy paying attention to the experience to pay attention to the story itself.

Wait, this has a story? I thought I this was just an excuse to use a dinosaur with laser eyes!

Of course, gamers have never been terribly thoughtful about stories. If they were, we wouldn’t see Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, or the vast majority of RPGs receiving the praise for their stories that they do. People wouldn’t look back on adventure games and praise them for their clever narratives, and Half-Life 2 wouldn’t have the most praised shooter story of all time. If gamers were actually smart, they’d realize that Modern Warfare 2’s story makes more sense (so long as you pay attention to it, because, like Inception, it has a lot of narration shifts and tiny details you need to pay attention to) than one of the most praised JRPGs of all time, Final Fantasy VIII. Not only that, but Modern Warfare 2 actually has some worthwhile sociopolitical commentary to offer, letting the player be a victim of an unwarranted invasion (putting the player character in the terrorist’s shoes was only the first step, intended to show that people can have good reasons for doing horrible things). Of course, because it’s a shooter that requires attention to detail, and people seem to think shooters aren’t smart, well, most just didn’t bother to pay attention, and called it stupid.

Maybe I shouldn’t expect much of video gamers.

I think Clay Carmine is going to die. I don’t want him to, but I think in their morbid stupidity, most gamers see Gears as its gore, rather than its story. It’s all HAAHAHAHAHAHAHA DIE DIE DIE to them. They’re going to kill Carmine because to them, the story doesn’t matter. They’re Romans at the Colosseum: they want blood; little else will sate them. Carmine’s death will hold no consequence. As a figment of their imaginations, an irrelevant element of an irrelevant plot, they completely miss the point, and the beauty, of the game.

The game says war is hell because life is good, and gamers? Gamers are going to consign Carmine to death, just ’cause they’re cruel, miserable people.

I hope I’m wrong; I really do. …but I don’t think I am.


Speaking of Gameplay vs Story… well, I’ll be writing about that very soon.

*Mass Effect is artless, not crass or vulgar. I’ll cover that later.

    • icemonk
    • August 18th, 2011

    Very nice post! I have been replaying the gears games and i can see what you are talking about. I think one of the reasons people think that gears is a big dumb shooter is because the game rewards brutal killing with the executions. It’s kind of hard to say “war is hell” when the game allows you to chainsaw a person in half.

    • Jim
    • September 10th, 2011

    I’ve been reading your articles recently, and while I don’t always agree with you, I do like how your views on things are often different from what is considered the norm simply because the majority views it as such.

    On that note, I really want to read your article on the Marathon Series. So very much.

  1. Hey, Jim, if you agreed with EVERYTHING I said, I’d be pretty disappointed, I think. Your second comment in that first paragraph has me a little confused–are you saying I’m being contrarian? That’s certainly not what I’m going for. It’s more like… nobody talks about this or that. Nobody talks about the importance of an identifiable theme, nobody talks about Marathon and metatextuality, stuff like that.

    Nobody talks about the flaws of Half-Life 2. We all know why it’s great–and, worse yet, some of the things that aren’t so great about it get complimented (most notably confusing great character aspects for good story while neglecting the weakness of plot). So I’ll be writing about Half-Life 2’s mistakes and successes (because people talk about physics, level design, and atmosphere all the time; I want to talk about sound design and facial animation).

    Regarding Marathon… I’ve got an FPS article to finish out my Greatest Game Ever Played series, and a rebuttal to a post on Kotaku, and I promised myself I’d finish one other article… but after that, I plan on the Marathon article. At worst, it’ll be about a month. But I will try to expedite it.

      • Jim
      • September 22nd, 2011

      I suppose I was a bit vague (and by a bit, I mean completely) about the “your ideas are often differerent…” comment. While I didn’t explain it well at all, I was thinking at the time of comment that I always find myself enjoying opinions that are not necessarily agreeing with “the norm”. By which I mean, for example, your article on Epic Games.

      You are not exactly going against the crowd here (at least in-so-far as your apparent enjoyment of their games), but your opinions on WHY people should like them, seem – to me at least – far different from what I usually hear. Most people praise the “Big guns go boom, cover is kewl, and chainsaws are bad-ass”. While you manage to like the game, and more importantly explain why in a very convincing fashion, for a reason that I would not usually think of. I admit, I have hated on Gears of War in particular, because I tended to think of it as nothing more than a big, stupid, frat boys game, just like you say. But I think I’ll try to pay just a little more attention to the writing in Gears of War 3.

      Well, I hope this makes some sense – it’s too late at night for me to possibly hope that this is coherent as it seems to my sleep craving mind. I’ll just stop here, and possibly come back to my idea later.

      However, before I go – I certainly did not mean to accuse you of being contrarian.

      • Alright, that makes sense! I’m going to be doing a massive rewrite of most of my site articles here soon, so my Gears of War one will be improving quite a bit. In addition, I’ll be writing some Gears 3-specific impressions fairly soon, since my previous Epic article was really written during my wait for Gears 3. Plus, I like to digest a game before I give my impressions of it.

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