Gears of War is smarter than you think it is

When the covers feature a bunch of cartoonishly buff men wielding chainsaw guns, you may have a hard time believing this series actually has a lot to say about war and PTSD.

The Gears of War series’ reputation as the definitive ‘bro-shooter’ precedes it, thanks to an excessively gory emphasis on its competitive multiplayer and cooperative-focused Horde mode. But while revisiting the main trilogy of Gears of War games for the first time in five years as preparation for Gears of War 4, I saw the characters and their world in a new light. Gears of War actually examines real-world issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), euthanasia, and refugee displacement within the staples of classic sci-fi storytelling.

The action takes place on an Earth-substitute planet called Sera, complete with its own architectural aesthetic and fractured political climate. From the game’s introduction, players are thrown into a continuous war with an alien species known as the Locust. The humans’ only means to fight back are soldiers in the Coalition of Ordered Gears (or COG, if you’re into thinly-veiled commentary on the machinations of war). Many people have been uprooted from their homes and left to fend for themselves, simply referred to as The Stranded.

This aspect of life on Sera is even more resonant now than it was a decade ago. Desperation is apparent within every inhabited environment, while people hide in blocked-off buildings and starve in the streets. Buildings are dilapidated, graffitied with anti-government messages, and convey the sense that life isn’t getting easier any time soon.

Gears of War. Gears of War. Dinosaur.

Things are no less desperate for the central characters. Dire situations lead Dominic Santiago to pull his closest friend out of jail and back to the military. Marcus Fenix was imprisoned for abandoning his post to try and save his father, but after his escape at the start of the first game, he’s back to being a dedicated soldier. Marcus never did save his father, and Dom’s wife has been taken prisoner by the Locust. These are two tortured men searching for any feeling of family, and they find it in the COG.

Dom and Marcus’s pre-established relationship drives the events of the entire series, as the two endure all manner of nightmarish events together. Despite Delta Squad’s penchant for quips and witty banter, they’re fighting a war they don't know they can win. Players are spared a wealth of tragic monologues explaining each character’s history with the war, and instead witness the most traumatic events with their own eyes.

Almost immediately, the group’s authority figure Lieutenant Kim is brutally killed, forcing Marcus to step into a leadership role. Delta Squad spends most of the game trying to find a way to strike at the Locust’s central hive, but stops in various refugee camps and towns to clear them of Locust soldiers. They’re reluctant heroes, not war-hungry macho men.

Gears isn’t the kind of story built around political strife that offers sympathy for both sides. The conflict with the Locust is a perpetually violent one, and people fight back strictly to survive. Even if the COG managed to kill the entire Locust horde, their mission is pointless if they didn’t try to save every human life they could along the way.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag includes missions to free captive slaves, but treats them as objectives and resources. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag includes missions to free captive slaves, but treats them as objectives and resources.

The end of the first game finds the COG striking their first major victory against the Locust, but there is no time for celebration. Cities are still collapsing, people are still going missing, and society still suffers.

Gears of War 2 escalates the conflict with the Locust as well as the personal strife that follows Dom and Marcus. Gears 2 also introduces Tai Kaliso, a spiritual soldier who is captured by Locust soldiers, at which point the story takes one of its first dark turns. Though Marcus and Delta Squad rescue Tai from an underground Locust base, Tai, scarred by his experience, says nothing and fatally shoots himself.

Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield treat this kind of rescue operations as simple objectives. Infiltrate the enemy camp, save the prisoners, and continue your path of vengeance. These franchises downplay the atrocities of war for fear of inviting direct comparisons to the contemporary countries and conflicts on which they’re based.The alien setting lets the Gears of War series make points about violence and trauma without being beholden to the limitations of realism. The series doesn’t need to vilify real-world nations or honor history, but can put the spotlight on the haunting consequences of war.

Gears could have presented a more gratuitous scene hinged on shocking violence to drive home the Locust’s methods of torture and still earn that ‘M’ rating. But the decision to leave Tai traumatized and inexpressive respects the harrowing conditions that prisoners of war are forced to endure. The characters are shocked by Tai’s suicide, left to imagine the way the Locust treat their captives just like the player.

Tai in Gears of War 2, shortly before his death. Tai in Gears of War 2, shortly before his death.

This uncomfortable sequence only makes Dom more adamant to reunite with his wife Maria, and he won’t entertain the thought that she isn’t alive somewhere. When he finds her held in an underground slave camp, tortured to the point that she’s barely alive, Dom decides to end her suffering. Unlike Tai, Maria has no volition left by which to make the choice to take her own life.

She appears before Dom gaunt, speechless and drained of all humanity by the Locust.

In many other shooters, escape and rescue missions prioritize the action, choosing to tell a tale of heroic survival and gloss over the foregone conclusion of the prisoners’ suffering.  What’s powerful about Gears of War’s representation is the truthful way it addresses failure. Tai and Maria’s fate demonstrate that pain isn’t magically erased when a mission is finished, and that those affected will carry anguish with them long after the fighting ends.

Later Gears of War games have included more women among the main heroes. Pictured: Anya and Sam from Gears of War 3. Later Gears of War games have included more women among the main heroes. Pictured: Anya and Sam from Gears of War 3.

Gears shows restraint in denying us the cliched character arc where Dom goes on a passionate spree of murderous revenge. Instead, he breaks, devoid of all hope. Dom doesn't care about fighting any more, but continues his mission with the COG so maybe someone else can find a happy ending. He’s never the same man, right up until the climactic moment in Gears of War 3 where he explodes the tanker he’s driving to help the team escape an overrun town. Moments before collision, he calls out to his dead wife, as if the thought of honoring her memory was all he had left.

The player has probably seen Dom fall in combat plenty of times, especially on a higher difficulty. But this is a tangible, moving death. Marcus cries out as he watches his best friend sacrifice his life, an instrumental cover of “Mad World” plays. A moment that may have been over-sentimental feels earned for players who had been with the series for years.

Gears of War 3 still serves as an excellent closing point for that chapter of the franchise, and caps the years spent watching Delta Squad struggle through battle after bloody battle with remarkable poignancy. By the end of the game, humanity is splintered but the Locust have been defeated. The loss of Marcus’ father and Dom weigh heavy on the final moments, as the game fades to black on a quiet moment rather than a pronounced celebration. Time will tell if Gears of War 4 has made Sera a more inhabitable society thanks to the sacrifices witnessed in the original trilogy.

Gears of War 4 revisits Marcus Fenix as an old man. Gears of War 4 revisits Marcus Fenix as an old man.

On the surface, Gears of War is a beefed-up third person shooter full of blood and guts, but the sci-fi take on war purposefully demonstrates the personal fallout of violence. Sera isn’t restricted by the history of our world and the wars that have shaken it, but imagines a fictional conflict to portray the effects of war on and off the battlefield. The entire series is centered on how the continuous fighting affects human beings, from the refugees that have lost their homes to the soldiers that have been through hell. Conflicts for the COG hinge on saving lives, rebuilding society and chasing hope. So much suffering has taken place by the end of the original trilogy, but Gears tries to say that despite the overwhelming horrors of war, there was something worth fighting for.

AJ Moser is a freelance journalist and recently exiled Game Informer intern. To read more of his work, as well as musings on Star Wars and the indie rock scene, follow him on Twitter at @AndMoser.