One of us has got to hit the road
I guess it must be up to me
Spoiler alert for the first three Gears Of War games. More importantly: this is a fucking long article, even by my standards.
Home is important because it gives you a sense of stability. But too much stability becomes stagnancy. The NCIS TV franchise isn’t bad because it worships the military and has protagonists who are giant smug dicks to literally everyone who crosses their path, it’s bad because the shows themselves resolutely refuse to learn or change. Sometimes the circumstances of characters’ lives change – McGee will get married and have twins, Deeks and Kensi will start banging – but never in ways that are surprising or upend the pillars the story is built on. Gibbs and Hedy must always be obeyed. Being a dick to people is always funny. People who try and stop the protagonists from doing what they do are always bad. Anything done in the name of righteousness is always good. Anyone who deviates from a specific set of norms – including being against the military – is at best an idiot and more often a monster who must be owned in some fashion. Police procedurals are famous for being formulaic, but it would be more accurate to call it ritualistic. Paterson is formulaic – a movie that strips out cause-and-effect entirely and instead swaps out imagery within a strict structure. The NCIS franchise works under cause-and-effect, but the connection between the two is always tightly predictable; trying to own Gibbs will never succeed no matter what the context. The major downside of never allowing yourself to change is that people who are willing to change will eventually surpass you; in the sixteen years since first seeing the pilot episode, I’ve come to see the franchise as a bully that’s convinced itself it’s powerful by exclusively picking fights with people weaker than it, and the only reason it’s lasted for so long is because cowards tend to live longer. This is the classic asshole who never left their home town, this is why people who don’t leave their home town can be assholes.
Standing in contrast to it is the original Gears Of War trilogy. Even in comparison to NCIS, the writing is shitty. In fact, not only does it have the same flaws all the way through, it actually keeps piling on more like a snowball of mistakes – the fundamental error of the series is an artless listlessness, with the majority of the story’s action answering the question “how did the characters get from one location to another?”, and the third game throws in an extra problem of the action largely being driven by events that happened in the expanded universe novels, which would make the story incomprehensible if it weren’t so simple. As it is, it’s just emotionally inert. But there’s a genuine desire for growth that makes the series endearing and gives it a beating heart. I don’t know if it’s because video games are still relatively novel (especially back in 2006-2011), or because they’re not weighed down by auteur theory, or because designers think of themselves as entertainers rather than artists, or because games tend to be made by nerds, but game designers as a group are usually very receptive to criticism. The first Gears was criticised for being too grey and lifeless in art design and having too slight a story, so the second game amped up the detail and made a long, incident-filled campaign. The second game was criticised for looking too much like the first and not having any playable female characters, so the third completely redesigned all the characters and threw in a whole bunch of women to play as (and while it was at it, going absolutely wild with the colour scheme).
At the same time, there are impulses the series has that it gets better at acting upon, even if I think it doesn’t fully recognise them and consequently doesn’t lean in for full effect. The series’ sense of home is something like Always Sunny in that its a combination of specific gameplay tools (get into cover, flank enemies, reload, etc) and specific images (the Locust you fight, the various guns you use, the people you see over and over) that it continuously recontextualises and remixes, and this is often the source of the genuine emotion the series evokes. The sequel achieves a higher level of spectacle simply by putting more enemies on the screen at once, and climaxes by letting you ride the toughest enemy in the game. The less actiony emotions get this kind of treatment too; Anya going from the voice on the radio to gun-totin’ playable character lets you know that nobody in the COG can simply do one job anymore and everyone has to pick up a gun to fight.
What’s interesting too is how the series constantly expands its emotional range. My fundamental issue with The Sopranos is that it’s exactly as limiting as NCIS but with despair and contempt in place of smug self-satisfaction – it refuses to let itself feel grace or joy or hope, at least without immediately shutting it down. Now, I’m not saying Gears Of War is a sophisticated exploration of emotion, but it is constantly experimenting with setpieces that generate emotions beyond the vague post-apocalyptic bleakness. The emotional crescendo of the second game is a classic, textbook, teach-this-in-classes example of fridging when sidekick Dom discovers his long-missing wife was kidnapped and tortured by Locust until she was reduced to a husk and he’s forced to mercy kill her. In terms of female representation it’s basically horrible, reducing a wife to an abstract idea of Goodness with no motivation or reason to exist beyond her more-interesting husband and using her death as a motivation to kill a whole bunch of aliens even more brutally. However, in the context of the game itself, it’s a shitty situation far beyond any we’ve had to deal with up until now, and the only thing Marcus or Dom can really do is acknowledge this kind of shit happens, file it away, and move forward.
Gears Of War isn’t really equipped to deal with this level of emotion, but to me that makes its attempt to grapple with it more endearing; this is the first fumbling attempt at emotional complexity. The third game has an extended sequence early on where Cole, a former
sportsball gridiron American football Thrashball player, comes back to the remains of his home stadium, still filled with merchandise dedicated to his glory, and sadly reflects on what he’s lost because of the Locust War (“Ever feel like you died and no one told you?”). And the emotional climax is when Dom, perpetual sidekick, sacrifices his life to save the whole group; it’s the most potent moment of emotion in the whole series, partly because it’s the one moment with any kind of dramatic power, but also because it brings together enough different elements of the series into a single action. There’s Dom’s love for and depression over his wife (he calls out to her before he dies), there’s the bond of macho loyalty between Dom and Marcus, and there’s the overall bleakness and sense of the worst always happening, all of which makes Dom sacrificing himself feel like an inevitability that finally occurred. For the next act, Marcus’ usual badass stoicism falls by the wayside, until he outright explodes at some asshole he normally would have given a simple cold shoulder to (“I just lost my fucking brother, alright?! You hear that?! My brother! You, and your tower, and all of this fucking Imulsion can go to hell!”). It’s a problem too big for even Marcus Fenix to solve easily.
Gears kept venturing further out of its comfort zone to greater returns, having strange and new experiences, learning from them, and filing some away while discarding others. It’s interesting the kind of experiences it has too; if home is what’s stable, then the things a story discards pretty quickly are not home. For Gears, the surface details are both the gameplay elements that one uses to interact with the environment, and the recontextualisation of familiar imagery; the speed with which the series adds to and discards these details grows as its confidence does. Another way of putting this is that the world Gears sees consists of two things: new ways of interacting with the world, and new roles to play, and we file away those toys and roles, we process them emotionally and use them to express those emotions. Obviously, I am projecting onto the story somewhat, taking the ideas embedded in it to a logical conclusion beyond where the narrative itself does. But I think if the story had been more sharply written, then this would all be a lot clearer, and I think that because the impulses that drive this story are very similar to the impulses that drive It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Like I said in my earlier article, Always Sunny‘s sense of home completely dominates it and makes up a large part of the premise. In its own way, this makes the influence of the ‘outside world’ even easier to quantify because there’s so little of it. More often than not, it’s a new toy to play with, throwing some object in the Gang’s vicinity and watching them fight over it like rabid dogs – whether it’s a board game, a podcast, or a dumpster baby. But you can also see the same idea of recontextualising an image with the episodes that involve putting the Gang in a particular place and watching them go – a water park, or the woods, or therapy. Unlike Gears, there’s no experimenting with different emotions; the only reaction it aims for is laughter, which is a fine goal for a fuckin’ comedy show, and almost every break from that has been a setup for a joke. What’s interesting is the way the constant recontextualisation has turned the Gang into social commentary just by existing; in any situation, the Gang will always choose the most selfish and greedy option, and so they end up as a voice for the selfish and greedy. There will always be people like the Gang, and there’s always be new situations for them to arise in.
This is all in parallel with Cowboy Bebop. The surface of Bebop is composed entirely of images delivered at a delirious pace; there are more strange, uncanny details in the first episode than there are in the entirety of Always Sunny – and in fact the tiny montages the show regularly engages in are very reminiscent of those “one second from every episode of Always Sunny” supercuts, if less depraved. Gears takes a few images and keeps modifying and warping them with different contexts; Bebop takes the same basic archetypes and keeps finding new visuals to express them. If you like, each approach compensates for its own potential weaknesses – Gears and Always Sunny compensate for showing the same image over and over by warping it, and Bebop compensates for a total lack of visual continuity with recurring archetypes.
Inbetween Gears and Bebop is Order Of The Stick. Much like Gears, it explores different emotions, but it’s much more clear-eyed about the kind of emotions it wants to explore. It believes in Good and Evil, not just as objective divisions of two sides the way the D&D game works, but as states of being one can be in, and you could say one of its central artistic goals is to find out every kind of Good and Evil that exist. Roy is one kind of Hero, constantly trying to correct not just Evil but ineffectual Goodness, and a big part of his journey is coming to recognise when he himself is being ineffectually Good. O-Chul is another kind, a Hero that can let go of smaller incorrectness for the sake of a bigger picture. Redcloak is one kind of Evil, willing to commit tremendous atrocities for the sake of his goal. Xykon is another, not just committing atrocities but actively trying to piss people off whenever he can get away with it. Belkar is a third, indifferent to the feelings or lives of others but capable of working with them for the sake of self-interest. The comic constantly takes the character’s actions and files them away – these are the actions of an Evil person, these are the actions of a Good one, and these are all the inbetween people.
Perhaps what makes NCIS shitty is that it simply allows ideas to float through it without letting them land. Perhaps what I’m describing here is what beloved Soluter Rosy Fingers referred to as ‘digesting ideas’. A good life is spent learning and growing; one learns and grows by taking what happened in the past and making it mean something; one makes the past meaningful by choosing what to preserve in the present; one has things to preserve in the present by actively searching for new experiences. A good life is created by constantly feeding yourself new material, placing it in some kind of category, learning from it, and moving forward. Gears Of War lacks the brains to go where it could have gone, but I can see that the work it does is an awkward, childlike, fumbling attempt at the work the true greats achieve.