Now that the Gears of War III beta test run has ended, I wanted to turn in a new direction here at Randomaniac—video games, of course.
Throughout human history, games of all types have held great artistic value—take chess: the concept, stratagems, and primitive narrative all merge with each unique piece/board design to create what can only be described as an “aesthetic” experience. Depending on your own performance in the interactive battle between good [White] and evil [Black], it’s either an adventure or a tragedy. In the 21st century, Video Games—with their unique technological relationship to the cinema—are a necessary niche for any modern Film critic to explore.
There are a lot of good resources on the web that have looked at the functional changes in the Gears III beta. In a lengthy video review/playthrough the critics of Giant Bomb do an adequate job summing up many of the little gameplay tweaks that the Gears of War team threw in—and they give a good look at each gametype and level included—but I wanted to look at the new game from a more cinematic perspective; so I’ll be focusing on the art design of the new characters and levels in purely visual terms.
Anya Stroud—Hit & Miss
When looking at the GOWIII in this way you can’t help but start with Anya Stroud, the series’ new—and first—playable female character. Visually, she’s the most important addition to the game, and her presence demands a critical response. The Gears of War universe is a hyper-masculine battleground with barely sublimated homoeroticism and highly sexualized violence duking it out for psychological supremacy in the player’s mind. The addition of a playable female character is a largely symbolic gesture—a response to longstanding criticism of the game’s overly macho-attitude and seeming “no-girls-allowed” mentality. I am extremely glad that they included her at all; that is definitely a victory for gender diversity in games, but nevertheless I still think that she poses a significant opportunity for criticism and growth in a medium notorious for problematic gender politics.
I want to start with what’s good before launching into my tirade. First of all, it’s good that she’s there at all. Most people never thought Gears would go there, and it’s commendable that they did.
Another thing, she is tough. This comes across mainly in her dialogue; she doesn’t shy away from the game’s frequent vulgarities, and she’s just as aggressively hostile as the male characters—trash talking with the best of them. In the High Heeled Gamer‘s review, she says
…the multiplayer sound bites for her are piss-your-pants hysterical.
This sharp tongue is by far the most interesting aspect of Anya’s character design, and shows a genuine desire for equality between her and her male squadmates. Finally, her character model isn’t overly sexualized or imposed with gravity defying breasts; however, this final point is where the middle of the Venn diagram starts—hit AND miss.
There’s elements like the character design of Anya, one of the few females you actually see in the Gears of War universe, and for example her chest and her waist is in proportion to the rest of her body, we were very much pushing to keep her modest so it’s not all about jiggly physics. Yeah Gears is a gory, over-the-top shooter, but at the same time I try to make it beautiful in its own way—CliffyB [lead designer]
While I agree that Anya’s model represents a step forward from Porn-inspired characters like Lara Croft, I find her design disturbing on other, more subtextual grounds—something rather undefinable known as “soul.”
In the High Heeled Gamer’s review she also said,
…Anya looks good. Slimmer than the often ridiculously large male cogs, Anya looks like a realistic warrior woman [my emphasis]. Her armor fits her well, her hair is realistic for war, and her breasts aren’t popping out. She’s believable.
These two comments—one from the developer and one from a critic—actually sum up what I like and dislike about her design. The problem with Anya is that she stands out, and it isn’t just her gender. She’s too clean. Cliffy specifically describes her design as “modest.” Both of these comments mention that Gears is an over-the-top game, so what should Anya’s more realistic design tell us? She is special because of her gender. Throughout the series, the male characters have been shown as unique through extreme signifiers that are all now—in the presence of Anya the Unremarkable—gendered as exclusively “male.”
- Extreme Muscularity (Marcus, Cole, Tai)
- Scars (everybody)
- Facial Hair (Dom, Baird)
- Baldness (Kim, Cole, and Tai has a mohawk)
- Beta-status (Rook, Carmine)
Besides the mere fact of her gender, what unique design elements have been bestowed upon Anya? Visually, her only unique trait is her suspiciously clean face; she has no Gears personality. This is a very political gesture; Anya’s design was the safest option. If they’d sexualized her, they would have caught too much flak from the public at large, and if they’d made her unconventionally attractive, older, or muscular they would have caught too much flak from fanboys. As it stands, they’re just getting flak from me, so—good call.
It wouldn’t have taken much to make Anya interesting. They could have made her older and more visibly battle hardened. They could have given her something—anything—to put her on the same visual playing field as the males. For instance,
- A scar
- Bodybuilder muscles
- Crazy hair
- A unique piece of armor (goggles, headset?)
Obviously I’m just spitballing, but frankly the character that they came up with defines the term “generic,” and anything they could have done to change her from straight-from-the-deparment-store mannequin to an authentic hardened veteran would have been appreciated. Better yet, have multiple playable female characters. There’s just no reason why Anya had to be the playable female at all. It was like they thought, “hey, we already have one female character in this universe so far…let’s use her!” They could have easily brought in new characters, expanding the roles women have in the world—positions in both leadership and combat. I don’t think that would’ve been code-overload—why does the balance have to be so far off?
Still, I’d like to repeat—it is incredible that they included her at all, and perhaps the other playable female character (not released with the Beta) will have more genuine Gears style.
A galaxy close, close to home
Band of Brothers was filmed in England when it was clear and nice, but the way it was filmed it looked almost completely gray. It’s that sort of desaturated look that we’re shooting for.—Lead Designer Cliff Bleszinski talking about the orignal influences for Gears of War.
The game’s overall art design hasn’t changed too much since Gears day one, and while giving sci-fi horror World War II trappings wasn’t something entirely new in the game world [Wolfenstein for instance]—the art in Gears of War was still awesome because it took its premise so far. Obviously influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the Locusts were like a cthonic force of nature; the COGs were an interesting blend of contemporary fratboyerism and archetypal WWII icons, and Sera was a beautiful amalgam of a Space Opera homeworld, Western frontier, and war torn Eastern Europe.
However, the first game’s art design was limited by the relatively narrow scope of the plot. By far the most visually arresting set piece was protagonist Marcus Fenix’s father’s estate—an enormous gothic mansion with palatial gardens. The second game gave us a much better look at both the Locust’s massive supercities—whose architecture clearly invoked the work of H.R. Giger—and humanity’s last fledgling settlements—strange Greco-deco architecture.
That being said, the four levels that debuted in the third game’s Beta completely outshine anything in the other two in terms of their colors, lighting, and mise-en-scene. While maintaining much of the architechtural spirit of the previous entries, they explore untapped settings with some very beautiful results.
“Thrashball”—their universe’s version of American Football—has been mentioned several times throughout the Gears of War series, and the Gears gameplay, armor, and lingo all bear more than a passing resemblance to Football—which in turn models its gameplay on warfare! The new map, Thrashball, makes all of those subtextual connections explicit by turning a Thrashball arena into a battlefield.
Ostensibly, the map is divided into Red and Blue sides that would correspond to whatever Thrashball teams were playing there. These are also the colors of opposing teams in Gears of War multiplayer, creating a nice meta-signifier that reminds you of the old world on Sera, the current war with the Locusts, and the competitive game that you’re playing on Earth.
With everything from enormous padded goalposts and an interactive falling scoreboard to an elevated concession area with battlements in the stands, Thrashball makes ample use of the world’s mythology to create a visually arresting environment.
Checkout was definitely something new in terms of narrative. So far we’ve seen very little of domestic life on Sera—part of the game’s hyper-masculinity, and the atmosphere in Checkout was more ‘everyday’ than any other level in the series so far. I loved the CCTV’s in the Pharmacy. The flashing static and colorful emergency bars create a surreal backdrop to the bloodflow, and light muzak can occaionaly be heard when the gunfire dies down.
Unfortunately, besides these nice little touches Checkout was the most visually uninteresting addition to the gameworld. It’s color pallette is even more washed out than their usual sad Saw-ness, and the cover—mostly empty aisle racks—is ugly and boring. Still, this is a good map for play, featuring some great crossfire patterns (on the grenade stand) and unique flanking opprotunities (at the photo center.)
This was really my favorite new map, but I’m a little prejudiced. I’ve always longed for a game set during WWI, and Trenches’ deep gullies and over-the-hill confrontations are the best we’ve gotten so far. Visually, this isn’t nearly as inspired as Thrashball or Old Town, but with its multiple levels of elevation, blinding sunlight, moving crane, and incredible depth-of-field it’s still miles beyond the cold grey boxes of Checkout.
The second-to-last downloadable map add-on pack for Gears II had desert levels like Nowhere and Fuel Station; these featured browns, oranges, and swirling sand—a departure from the series’s emphasis on deep blacks, reds, and blues. These Earth tones show up again in full force on Trenches. Every round even has a dust storm that clouds the entire screen for about a minute.
The particle physics have been vastly improved—bullets make tunnels through smoke, and players actually have creepy sillouettes as they get up close. This works well on Trenches during the duststorms where there can be some very surreal encounters with shadows in the dust.
Moreso than the other new levels, Old Town felt like a departure for the Gears team. First of all, it’s conventionally beautiful, with a bright blue sky, flowers, and gorgeous Meditteranean-style architecture. It feels like an ancient Roman city, and there are no craters or downed helicopters to break the illusion. Instead there are gardens, fountains, and a color palette that drifts between golds, greens, and yellows. Old Town practically exists in an alternate universe!
It also has the most complex layout of any multiplayer map since Ruins from Gears II, and that was set in a labyrinthine underground temple! Old Town mixes tunnels and alcoves with big open pavillions and walled courtyards. It was something of an enigma, and I’m anxious to see what role it and places like it will play in the next game’s storyline.
The special edition of the first Gears of War came with a book of game art called Destroyed Beauty. It seems like in the third entry they’re starting to move away from that extreme aesthetic. Visually the game has always stood on broken ground; set in a post-apocalyptic, epic-sized caricature of our world, I’m not entirely sure a move away from their earlier, more radical concept of “beauty” is a good thing. Still, I can’t deny that Anya is cool, Old Town is beautiful, and that I want to see these COGs and Locusts battle in more settings like it. In that sense, the Beta was perfect. It made me think, got my mouth watering, and now I really want to see where they go—artistically—in the next game.