Now nearly a decade and a half old, the “Gears of War” franchise will be remembered for refining and defining the third-person duck-and-cover video game shooter. Well, that, and its trademark chainsaw gun.
That may start to change, however, with “Gears 5,” which brings a surprising amount of emotional depth and — dare we say it — maturity to the series. In fact, in the somewhat conservative gun-obsessed shooter genre “Gears 5" feels relatively progressive, where its firearms and violence often take a backseat to themes of colonialism, militaristic imperialism and personal autonomy.
Its growth comes as the franchise has swapped leads, putting a woman in the starring role and even, at times, portraying machismo as dangerously ignorant. There are still plenty of chainsaw guns, but what I remember most from my time with “Gears 5,” available for the Xbox One and PC, are its quiet moments. The conversations, for instance, between leads Kait Diaz, voiced by Laura Bailey, and Del Walker, voiced by Eugene Byrd, when they divorce themselves from the military pack. Or the strolls through lower-class settlements in which residents are trying to choose peace and freedom over the quest for wealth — and the war that comes with it.
By freeing itself from the stocky, jock-like center of the previous game in the franchise, “Gears 5" feels relaxed enough to take narrative risks. Through Kait, writers and developers explore broader themes of heritage and what is potentially lost in the homogeneity of a militarized society. Her own quest to discover her lineage — and her familial relationship to some of the monstrous villains of the franchise — raises suspicion among her peers, painting her as a permanent outsider. She’s also the most fully realized character of the series.
There are multiple factors at play, says Rod Fergusson, head of The Coalition, the Microsoft-owned, Vancouver, Canada-based studio that has developed the last two games in the series. It’s expected that games be “more nuanced,” he says, in the “way that you deal with characters and character development.”
“When we look at the original trilogy, we didn’t have a lot of time when we were making the first game to create the characters with a lot of backstory, and so we tended to default to archetypes,” says Fergusson, connected to the “Gears” series since its 2006 debut. “We had the gruff anti-hero; we had the over-enthusiastic sports athlete; we had the the nerdy, sarcastic science guy. You could sort of describe a person in three words, and you knew who they were. The way we would think about the story was similar. It was very black and white.”
“Gears 5" lives a bit more heavily in the gray zone, and, throughout, it raises suspicions that the stereotypical “good guys” are on the side of wrong. Early on there’s a threat of a schism in the patriotic team when it’s hinted that law enforcement didn’t exactly treat peaceful protesters with peace, although these events seemingly shift based upon who is doing the telling.
Narrative director Bonnie Jean Mah credits returning writer Tom Bissell (“The Disaster Artist”) with adding these layers of complexity, but also says the studio wanted to more fully flesh out the futuristic world and could better do so with a new lead who was questioning her place in the universe as much as she wanted to fight for its survival.
The previous game set up a mystery surrounding Kait, one that allowed The Coalition to more deeply explore the increasingly intertwined relationships between the humans and the humanoid creatures they’ve long battled. Without spoiling the game, it’s safe to say man made a mess of things, a story that unfolds as Kait and Del split from the military.
“It’s quieter,” Mah says. “They’re still having combat encounters that are totally fun, but there are moments with just the two of them.” That “change of pace,” says Mah, gives “Gears 5" a more “personal and intimate” bent.
Of course, the game industry is not yet at a place where a female lead can go unremarked upon.
While recent years have given players more options than just Lara Croft, this is a relatively new development, so much so that “Gears of War” creator Cliff Bleszinski, who went on to become a producer on the Tony-winning musical “Hadestown,” tweeted this month that a protagonist such as Kait was once considered an impossibility.
“Not gonna lie,” he tweeted, “seeing a woman on the cover of a ‘Gears’ game makes me happy. I was told for decades ‘games with female leads don’t sell.’ ”
Reading Bleszinski’s tweet, neither Mah nor Fergusson said they want to be seen as taking a risk, noting it was the natural evolution of the story from “Gears 4.” And yet Mah, when asked about representation in games, noted she’s a “firm believer in, ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’ ” What’s more, for an industry that has long gone out of its way to present its art as neutral in its social commentary, Fergusson doesn’t deny that there’s greater thought given today to who games are including — or excluding.
As part of its customization options, for instance, “Gears 5" allows players to choose from 19 different Pride flags. It was a move that was applauded, but the fact that such inclusive efforts are not the norm indicates there’s still work that needs to be done.
“You can’t expect things to change on their own,” Fergusson says. “You have to be proactive in making that change. That change starts in your own studio and in your own culture.”
Developer: The Coalition
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)
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