Writing Done Well: On Cole and Gears of War 3

In Video Games on September 26, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Show, don’t tell. It’s probably the most frequent critique in all of fiction, from books to movies to television, and likely the first Rule of Fiction shoved down your throat in a creative writing class. The best writers wonderfully illustrate any number of points, issues and background information through the normal conversations and interactions with their characters; the worst ones present works that are sickeningly didactic and shatter the suspension of disbelief. So believe me when I say that it’s obvious that Gears of War 3 hired and has benefited from having a real writer pen the story.

It’s not that there isn’t a rich, impactful setting to move the characters, though through the series you’d need access to the collector’s edition art books to truly appreciate that. Nor is it that we’re playing as simple soldiers with basic deviations outside the standard archetype; more has been done with far less, I assure you. But at its most basic element, games can show you a great deal and it takes a good writer to use that, rather than relying on the player accepting what they’re told.

In the second game, we’re told that Dom is looking for his wife, the challenge and failure of which makes him alternatively angry circumstance and angry at the locust. When he finally finds his wife, cheap tricks are deployed to tug at our heartstrings, and Dom is left hating the locust even more.

Dissecting this a bit, we never really get much on Dom’s wife or why she’s so important to him. Yes, she’s his wife and that’s probably reason enough to rescue her, but there should be something more there. Were they childhood friends? Was he dating up? Did she give him self-worth? Did she run away from her family to marry him? Would they even still be together if the COG hadn’t Hammer of Dawn’d all the divorce attorneys?

We don’t know. They tell us she’s his wife and he loves her, but shows us nothing. And while I will state with authority that, if you did not cry when he found her, then you have no soul, it accomplished this through some cheap albeit effective tricks that would have granted equal emotionality had he been looking for (say) Tai, or his dog. To what end? In the showing, we see him eschew a stealthy approach to gun down all of the locust bastards that did this to her, which is so much different from the normal hatred he had for the beings that have laid Sera low to begin with, against an enemy we’ve been content to annihilate since the first game.

In short: it accomplished nothing in deepening Dom’s character or humanizing the conflict between the humans and the locust. The developers already did that, very effectively, through the juxtaposition of architectural grandeur and stark destruction, in the attitudes of the Stranded and the state of the COG, and just how desperate everyone seems in general.

Getting into Gears 3 (while I’m sticking to a minor element about an hour into the game, you may wish to avert your eyes for potential spoilers), they already show much more than they tell. The game begins in Marcus’ nightmare, an amalgam scenario from when he went AWOL to rescue his dad. It’s very believable that this event haunts Marcus to this day, a decade later, especially that he was a soldier then as he is now. It’s easy to understand that he’s probably thinking about it every time he fires his iconic lancer, and just as easy to believe that he dreams about it every now and again.

Fiction can fall into the trap of unnaturally having characters unnaturally explain things to each other when there’s no real reason to do so. “As you know,” they might begin, “Your father died when you tried rescuing him, years ago.” To which the character might sarcastically chide them for stating the obvious. In Gears, we see a new message from Adam Fenix, and Anya, both in-character and for our benefit, gasps, “It’s your father!” She doesn’t unnecessarily then state, “You know, the dead one,” and Marcus only gruffly, and appropriately replies, “Yeah, I noticed.” It’s a subtle difference that makes the experience all the better.

But the best example has to be when Cole visits his hometown and old stadium. Everyone recognizes him, which is nice, but when he gets to his locker and sees his old thrashball equipment he begins thinking of (and we see through his eyes) his life before E-Day, the awards, the accolades, how he was branded a hometown hero while playing for the Cougars. He had it all. Then, without breaking from this reverie, he’s called into action to destroy a glowie stalk with a bomb that’s been setup across the field (the stadium now housing some Stranded). In a sepia-toned pseudo-flashback, we see a thrashball-suited Cole use the moves that shot him into fame and fortune to, in slow-motion, grab the “ball” and slap it on the stalk down the field, “scoring” one for the good guys.

It’s a sad moment because you realize that Cole, with his fame and fortune and living the dream, has lost more than most (and yet, lost less). Yet the juxtaposition of his heroics as a gear and his jukes and dives on the field show us that the loss hasn’t destroyed Cole. He’ll take being a hero as a gear with the same charisma and determination as he played at being a hero to his hometown. He shouts “Whoo!” and plays up his bombastic personality because that’s what he’s always done: helped people through tough times by giving them something else, something more. His hometown isn’t unique in its devastation — “The whole world looks like this,” Cole remarks when Baird sarcastically questions whether it’s changed at all — but that response and the flashback gives us greater insight into Cole and why he fights, more than the locust being evil or needing to save the world.

It shows us all of that with a ten minute sequence that begins in a locker room that uses no cheap tricks and stays entirely and believably in-character.

  1. I do not disagree with you.


    I wanna present an alternate view.
    It doesn’t matter what Maria was like, or how she met Dom. It’s not Dom’s story. Gears is not Lethal Weapon, it’s Die Hard. What matters is that Dom is there for Marcus because they are friends and battlefield buddies. Yeah we get some bits of Dom’s past, much like we hear Al Powle’s past, but Dom is a character in Marcus’ tale.
    Dom’s tale comes to a point not when he finds his wife, or his decision, or the rampage after. Dom’s point comes to play when he implores “Marcus, what do I do!” and you, as Marcus who has been saved multiple times by this man who has always had your back, can not answer. Can not give him any solace. You can’t help your friend when he needs you the most.
    Because now you know, no matter how many Locusts you kill, no matter how many times you revive your fallen friends, when your friend needed you you were useless.

    Which is pretty friggin’ dark.

  2. It’s kind of like, there are different tools for different jobs. You can certainly hammer nails with a sledgehammer, but there are other tools that get the job done better and are easier to carry.

    That Gears is not Dom’s story unfairly simplifies things. Afterall, the quest to find his wife was the major subplot or Gears 2 and was the justification for more than half the locations and action sequences.

    It’s a quick band-aid to add emotion to a series that, for the better part of a game and a half, contained characters that made quips and screamed “MOTHERFUCKERS” at their inhuman foes. Do we care? Yes, they are the bad guys and they’re fun to shoot. Epic decided we didn’t care enough, and threw Dom’s wife in there to sweeten the deal.

    The point is you don’t just kill off non-explored characters so we’ll feel bad for their inferred relationship. Characters are explored through interaction and reaction. Just because it’s an action game doesn’t change that. The books and comics had other characters that would have had better justification to hang around Marcus and Dom (like Dom’s brother, who Marcus looked up to) that would have had better emotional impact and character development while not resorting to cheap bullshit.

    It doesn’t make it a bad game, and the moment is full of emotion, but what it is is bad writing.

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