In defense of Gears, the ultimate "bro game"

Yesterday, the Border House wrote The Evolution of Anya Stroud, a piece about Anya's development in the Gears franchise. They've linked to my coverage of Gears before, and they were one of the blogs that actively agreed with my claims of gender unfairness. Border House and I certainly don't run at cross purposes when it comes to wanting more inclusiveness in games.

But there is one thing we disagree on, and it has to do with Gears.

Border House and other inclusive gaming communities consistently refer to co-op shooters as "bro games." For example, in Border House's wrap-up post about E3, Alex complains about "narrow focuses on “bro games” – gritty multiplayer shooters like Gears of War."

Any gendered classification of an activity is dangerous. You're pretty much asking for commenters to pipe up with "I'm a girl, and I play it" or, in the case of a "feminine" game: "I'm a guy and I play it." The latter is less likely, since most gaming spaces are dominated by both genders engaging in performative masculinity -- not inherently bad, but definitely intimidating to those who don't conform. (More on that if I ever do a post on stereotypical "gamer culture," and to what extent I am part of the problem by having been a "one of the guys" type of girl for most of my life.)

Ultimately, calling Gears a "bro game" is a coded way of saying that it's sexist. And, yes, parts of the game are offensive -- but it's an oversimplication to write off the entire franchise as something that only a misogynist can enjoy. There's a reason why I'm still going to buy Gears 3.

1. The Co-op; a.k.a. Marcus and Dom's relationship

In the final scene of the first Gears, Dom makes sure Marcus isn't left behind. How romantic!
Gears does co-op better than any other game I've ever played. First of all, it doesn't obsessively track which person did best. Resident Evil 5 presents you with a score card at the end of every act, so you know which of you scored higher on accuracy and kills. Gears doesn't do this. Sure, you could look it up if you wanted to be competitive, but across the board, Gears emphasizes working with your partner.

Marcus and Dom's personalities are part of what make the co-op so effective. They've been in training together since they were kids, and now they're all grown up; Dom's even married. They've spent some time apart due to Marcus having been in jail, but the two of them are still comfortable with each other in a way that other co-op protagonists aren't. Their experiencing the entire story together as dual protagonists is also a rarity. Allow me to draw some comparisons.
In Halo 3, it's clear that the game was meant to be played by one player (as Master Chief), but you can get a partner to play through the game with you as the Arbiter. The Arbiter and Master Chief don't get along, and the dialogue consistently refers to Master Chief being the "only one" and "alone" -- so, not only does the co-op feel tacked on, the person playing as the Arbiter feels like they got the shaft story-wise.
The exact same thing happens in the first Resistance, in which you play a nameless black soldier who follows around a white guy supersoldier. No one acknowledges you at any point; all of the dialogue is directed at the white protagonist. Stupid, not to mention offensive.
Resident Evil 5 does a better job of making the two characters part of the story, but Chris and Sheva don't know each other before the game begins. Not only that, the characters don't have chemistry. As soon as Jill Valentine (SPOILER) enters the story, you can immediately see Chris soften to see his beloved old partner. Sheva also has her own boy toy in the game. But the majority of the game is just Chris and Sheva -- and they don't have a relationship. Their stories and lives are not intertwined. You get the impression that their feelings towards each other are strictly professional, and that takes away a level of the story's urgency. If these characters don't love each other -- as friends, or family, or what have you -- why should we be expected to love them?
Gears of War is about Marcus and Dom's relationship -- and whether you think they're secretly gay or not, you can't deny that they have chemistry. Sure, maybe it's just as-friends chemistry, but their magic is what makes Gears stand out on my shelf full of shooters.
Playing Gears with a good friend or significant other is bound to bring the pair of you together in a way that other co-ops just won't, especially if you play the game all the way through. Even if you skip all the tender cutscenes, there's just something about the dialogue and action that makes it clear that Marcus and Dom care about each other. In a totally masculine way, dude. 'Cause it's a bro game!

2.) The soundtrack

A good soundtrack is absolutely key, especially for an action game where you want to keep your blood pumping and focus up. Bad music, or at least inappropriate music, can ruin a gaming experience. In this area, Gears delivers, and I hold every game to Gears' standard. (Most games don't measure up.)
The first Gears has trouble transitioning between battle music and "normal" music, which is unintentionally hilarious at times, but the music itself is still wonderful. The second game does better with the transitions and adds new material, so I expect no less than the best from the third installment. The militaristic drums and violins of the main theme do a far better job of inspiring me to kick ass than Halo's battle music.

4. The Locust Queen

Female villains are common in Disney flicks, but a character like this is definitely uncommon in the "bro game" genre. We'd heard the Locust Queen deliver dramatic monologues before, but this is the first time we get to see her -- and she is not "butt ugly," as Cole and the rest of the guys are shocked to discover. Like the other Locusts, she bears a creepy resemblance to a human, but unlike the also-female Berserkers, she isn't horrific.
The Locust Queen is also extremely coherent. She speaks both Locust and English, and she's a master tactician. I guess we'd better hope the Coalition of Governments can keep up with her; based on this scene alone, it doesn't look like anyone can.
You don't get to fight her -- but it seems incredibly obvious to me that she's going to be the final boss at the end of the third game. If she goes down without a bad-ass fight, I'll be shocked, not to mention disappointed. (I mean, come on, check out those crazy back tentacles!)
As for whether the Locust Queen's sheer coolness makes up for the rest of Gears' failure on the female front ... I'm not sure. But it's something, and it gives me hope that they won't completely bungle the new female characters in the third installment.
Should you refuse to buy a game because it's sexist? What if it's an extremely awesome game that you really want to play? How sexist does it have to be before you refuse to support it?
These are questions that I have to approach on a case-by-case basis. I admit, if a game is incredibly fun, it's easier to forget about the problematic elements. In Gears, the problem is a lack of female characters (and, unfortunately, the extended universe backstory for why the women are absent is squicky). It's not like, say, Halo: ODST, in which the entire story is purportedly about a woman but then ends up making a total fool out of her.

Female fans asked for women in Gears. Now, they're there. Is it a cause/effect relationship? Well, Cliff Bleszinski is trying to be respectful about including women, even though he's kind of botching the job. (Different difficulty settings make a game girlfriend-friendly? That must be because your girlfriend is going to be wayyyy better at the game than you, and will need to put it on expert in order to enjoy it, right? Right.)
So does that mean Gears is no longer a "bro game"? What makes a game a "bro game," anyway? And when can we inclusive gamers play Gears without feeling guilty about it?
My answer: right now.

Don't feel guilty about loving the games that you love -- I sure don't feel guilty for playing Gears. Just be aware of the problems in the games you play. Complain! Cause a ruckus, loud enough for the developers to hear! If they're anything like the Gears developers, they just might listen.
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