How Gears Of War 3 Alienated Me

You should know, before you continue, that I'll be engaging in spoiler-like activities. So, that's out there now, in the world for you to absorb and contemplate. Read on if you've finished Gears Of War 3, don't care about the story, or just like a good-old fashioned spoiling to get you riled up on a Sunday, just before you go and kick down sandcastles at the beach.

A Thing Warning You About Spoilers After This Point

It's bad.

We're surrounded by Lambent humans, their cadavorous, fluoro forms lumbering towards us, uncaring of bullet or Lancer chainsaw. I imagine this is what a zombie rave might feel like, if I were the main course.

Chris and I, after hours of play, have finally reached the dilapidated city of Mercy. More accurately, we're pretty much done with it. We sit beside each other, engaged in split-screen co-op, exactly how we've done with Gears Of War 2 and, surprisingly, the original Gears Of War.

Say what you will about clichéd characters and the now-formulaic gameplay, but grabbing the latest game in the series had become a small ritual for my brother and I, a sacred bonding session between two siblings whose ages round closer to 30 than they do 20.

As bearded deuteragonist Dominic Santiago, I unload my Gnasher Shotgun dispassionately into a horde of Lambent undead and watch as their bodies dissipate into unsatisfying clouds of ash. Chris, as the eternally-scowling Marcus Fenix, carves powdery chunks off his mindless, glowing assailants with his Lancer's chainsaw. I swear it's the only gun he ever uses, his second-favourite, ammo-less game weapon, just behind the phaser from Star Trek: Elite Force.

I can sense the checkpoint coming. Yes, our time in Mercy is at an end. It certainly feels like our number of Lambent kills, combined with the time we've spent accumulating them, has crossed the requisite computational threshold. Just like every other near-death situation our bulging characters have encountered, we'll get through this one, ready to take on the next. But only after irrationally discarding our carefully groomed selection of weapons for the default arsenal, as is want to happen between levels.

Except, that's not what happened.

Cue a cut-scene, which we can instantly tell is not rendered in-game. No, this is a hand-crafted movie with a very special message to deliver. Chris and I watch as the hordes close in on Fenix and Dom. We watch as the fighting intensifies and all looks lost. We watch as Dom reaches the same conclusion and, sensing the invulnerability that served him so well over the past two games has magically expired, leaps into a monstrous nearby vehicle.

We watch as he drives off, leaving his friends to their fate. Or so, it would seem. We watch as Dom accelerates back, determination, fear and a sense of peace crossing his features as he does so.

Then, in an instant, he's dead.

An explosion of suitably massive proportions punctuates Dom's selfless act, and we're left to contemplate the last 30 seconds of emotional activity to an instrumental version of Tears for Fears's Mad World.

Chris and I are stunned, me more so than him. Surprisingly, my first question is "Well, who am I supposed to play now?"

Jace, that's who. Unceremoniously, I'm thrown behind the eyes of a character I barely know, introduced in the briefest of manners at the start of the game. I helped this guy get a chocolate bar. That's as far as the relationship goes and, to be honest, as far as I want it to.

Having played Dom for two-and-a-half-games, I feel no connection with this new, almost alien entity. It's not like the minor segues with Cole and Baird, because you know it's temporary. A pacing mechanic to break up the game. This is an ever-lasting transition of my gaming soul from one player-character to another.

It's then my interest in the game fades almost completely. I'm taken by surprise at the strength of it, the deep, sucking hole left by Dom's unexpected demise. The game has told me that I am disposable, unless I'm wearing a cool black bandanna. My brother, out of genuine concern, asks if I'm OK.

I tell him I'm not, but that we should keep playing. And so, we venture onward.

Jace becomes annoying. His naive quips and constant chatter put me on edge. I walk mindlessly through the next level, barely aware of what's happening. I no longer care about the weapons I have or where the secret Mulcher's hidden.

I just want to be Dom again. But it wasn't to be.

For the rest of the game, I never managed to reconcile my lost connection with Gears Of War 3. It wasn't until weeks afterwards, once I'd ruminated thoroughly over my feelings, that I understood why Dom's death affected me the way it did.

I had no issue with the how and why of his passing — as far as dramatic game character exits go, it was definitely memorable, but not amazingly so. I didn't cry or get out the razor blades.

No, it was the way in which the game handled the mechanics of it. One moment I was Dom, the next Jace. The disconnect between the design and the emotion was gaping. Had it been handled with a bit more care and finesse, I might not have minded so much.

It reminded me that, no matter how hard games strive to be considered "art" by the majority, we still have a long way to go, as game creators, when it comes to handling delicate transitions like this. In a movie or book, the director/writer has the luxury of non-interactivity to guide you through a character's death with the firm hands of narrative. With games, interactivity is something designers have to deal with, and I don't think we're quite there yet, if Gears Of War 3 is any indication.

How should have it been handled? I can't say, but I'm keen to hear what you think.


Comments

    Admittedly, it's in Gears of War 3, which hasn't really even tried to be poignant or sensitive. It's not surprising that their attempts at emotional resonance are going to be ham-fisted.

    Well when the time comes that developers and publishers understand that the vocal game haters that designate it as a kids toy become an greater minority is when we will start seeing more "Mature" games that tackle more sensitive subjects and create more emotional interactive experiences and stop tackling some issues in the minds of a 12 year old. Once this happens death in games will have a much greater effect then simply "well his gone, we wont be seeing him again, lets move on".

    I felt the same way... For the rest of the game I just complained about Jaces presence and Doms lack of

    Dom will live on.... in multiplayer.

    Inb4 Chazz comes into this thread and whines about everyone spoiling GoW3.

      Why would I whine? Logan started off by saying there were spoilers ahead. He didn't just blurt out the spoilers or put them in the article title and he definitely didn't post it under a stupid name with the intention of being an immature twit.

    I guess they never considered that some people will have always played second player, and never been the first player.

    Also, I did not like Jace. He just felt too much like an outsider. I remember playing the campaign through the second time, the first time with a friend and I let him be Marcus because that's what bros do. We got up to that part, and I was like I WONDER WHO I PLAY AS NOW. I HOPE IT'S SAM. OR ANYA. AS LONG AS ITS NOT JACE.

    Hell why wouldn't it be Anya? She's been there the whole time. Maybe it's a case of "We are marketing at dudes, and dudes will be playing co-op with other dudes, so first and second player get to be dudes, all subsequent players get the girl roles."

      Totally agree, I was quite surprised it wasn't Anya. You're almost through the game when you finally switch to her.

      Series wise, she has so much more history than Jace. Would definitely have been better, and it would have meant keeping the character the same for the second player for the rest of the game, a much more favourable outcome.

      Sadly, this wouldn't have solved the core problem - the weakness of handling the whole thing from a gameplay perspective.

      Jace, to put it bluntly, is beyond unlikeable.

        I play games set in fictional universes to *get away* from cornrows!

        There's also the issue of some men refusing to play as a girl. It know you think it's bull, but my friend's brother flat out *refuses* to play any form of female protagonist. Not even in multiplayer =/
        I also think it would make much more sense for you to play as Anya. There's no real way to prepare the player for who they're going to play. If they "warned" the player it would break the immersion but just swapping to the next person doesn't help either. Maybe if Anya said something like "It's alright Marcus, I've got your back" It would make sense in the situation and also let the player know that's who they're controlling next.
        I played Solo and had no issue with Jace. ^^;; However I was amazed that Dom death did affect me because none of the 4 main characters would die. I was always complaining that Dom was a whiny bitch but when he died I was surprised that I was affected.

    The conflict between the demands of a noninteractive artistic task (i.e. delivering a plot) and an interactive art form arises again.

    That said, when characters we identify with get killed off, its ALWAYS alienating. This includes in noninteractive stories; the character I project myself into dies and I lose much connection with the fiction.

    Honestly, I don't think its necessarily a product of bad storytelling. If, say, Baird were killed off then all the people that identify with him would feel alienated as well.

    Was the transition poorly handled? I'm not entirely sure I'd say so... out of all the remaining characters, Jace is probably the closest to Dom in personality (both are kind of, well, the "feelings-y" ones), but that doesn't necessarily mean someone that identifies with Dom will identify with Jace.

      I didn't have a problem with the storytelling either. It's not a masterpiece, but I felt genuine emotion when Dom died.

      My primary issue is how it was handled from a gameplay perspective, and the lack of forethought for players who may have played in such a way as my brother and I (which I don't believe is unusual, considering all GoW games have had a co-op campaign as a feature point).

      I don't have an idea for how it could have been handled any better, but I will be giving it serious thought.

        Firstly i think they should have allowed that section to be player controlled, the impact may have been increased and then at least its not like the character was ripped out of your hands powerlessly, you were involved in the act.

        that aside Jace is still a lousy replacement, it absolutely should have been a character that's been in it since the beginning.

        i think this is a really interesting subject though, GoW is a game all about mateship and i like many others here played all three with the same person as Dom, cant say how he was affected, we were doing a 4 player co-op run at the time so it wasnt quite the same

    I was never a huge fan of Dom, and his death wasn't entirely unexpected. Even the reveal trailer shows a Dom who's just about given up; Marcus was the only person pulling him through. Dom just never seemed to think much before doing anything.

    Let's take the discovery of Dom's wife, Maria for example: a malnourished, clearly disoriented Maria doesn't jump out to greet the series' sidekick with open arms and a smile. She must then of course be beyond saving, and is quickly dispatched. The whole scene felt forced to the point where my brother and I discussed it and broke into raucous laughter. "Oh loyal wife, you're no longer beautiful... for that you must die!" It was a farce.

    I feel much more love for Cole and Baird as the comic relief. Dom was a drag. Jace may not have been the best replacement, but I didn't really notice the change. That being said, when I played through GoW and GoW2 with my brother, I was always Marcus.

    As far as the transition goes, maybe Anya should have been the default Player 2 from the beginning. She does have history with Delta Squad and you perhaps could have watched Dom's decline from afar. Either way, it wasn't overly elegant but it wasn't a game breaker.

      Maria was a little more than just malnourished and disoriented. She was kinda broken under the weight of torture, being in a prison camp oh and lobotomised.

        The lobotomy revelation isn't in-game is it? I thought that was something that was delved into in the books?:

        http://gearsofwar.wikia.com/wiki/Maria_Santiago

        http://gearsofwar.wikia.com/wiki/Isabel_Hayman

        In the context of the game, he simply finds her then kills her. Well at least that's how I remember it.

          Even still, it doesn't take a genius to see that she was beyond help when they found her in the game.

            I'm pretty sure that if I was held captive in a tiny cell, without much food and sleep for a few months/years that I'd be looking pretty dishevelled and disoriented upon being discovered. Maybe with some food, sleep and medical care, I'd recover?

            What I'm trying to say is, how can you determine someone is beyond saving when finding them in that condition? I guess I would need to be a genius - or at the very least, a physician - to make that determination.

              Go watch the scene on youtube. Notice the giant surgical scar around her head, the scarring on her face, that she can't talk, that she's blind, doesn't respond to being spoken to at all. To call that "dishevelled and disoriented" is a ridiculous understatement.

                Still, it's hard to say that she's beyond saving; especially if he cared so dearly for her. Let's agree to disagree.

                  I'd say she was pretty messed up. For how long Tai was captured compared to her and also him having a huge constitution it was pretty clear she was too far gone

    I've only played the first one but was planning on going through the 3rd one co-op with my husband. This sounds like a deal-breaker for me. Not because of the death, but like you say, the way it's handled gameplay-wise.
    It's surprising they didn't foresee the disconnect though, considering Epic have been championing co-operative play with this series right from the beginning. I'm not sure how they should have handled it though, maybe given you a choice of who to play as now, or put a quick mission in for just 1-player to give the co-op player time to process?

      Just saw Tristan's solution of having Player 2 as Anya right from the start. That's a really good idea.

        Given the 3rd game supports 4-player co-op in the campaign (with someone playing Anya for most of it, I imagine) I'm surprised it's not an option.

      Don't let it be a deal breaker. For all the disconnect player 2 might get (ie you) the whole game is pretty enjoyable all the way through. No part is super terrible compared to the rest.

      Unless you're playing on insane, oh my god.

    I promise to read this when i finish the game. Good on Logan for ample spoiler warning!!

    I felt the same towards the end of red dead redemption, when suddenly I was playing an annoying character I had no attachment too.
    I finished the game but it put me off replaying it

    Totally Agree, Thanks a lot Logan for writing this. My brother and I played all three games together too- me as Marcus and him as Dom and all I could think at that point was I'm glad I'm not you man. Man we hated on Jace so much he's the last character I think anyone wanted to be thrown into, it most definately should have been Anya, Cole or even Baird.

    We even stopped the game to wiki Jace and find out more about him. He comes from the Gears comics and is a much darker character than he comes across in the game. Ironically my brother has started reading the comics and becoming a fan- He's even started using Jace in multiplayer!

    I think the best approach would have been a switch to Cole/Baird for the start of act 4, that way the transition is a bit less of a shock rather than just jumping right back to the Marcus/Dom story

    You shouldve been put in Anya's control. I was so mad i was suddenly playing Jace. Whoe the fuck is jase? Like you I did not care.

    Was started caring again when I had Anya to control. Was Much fun with the retro lancer.

    This has a lot of parallels with the end of Red Dead Redemption, doesn't it? Quite a jarring experience, the complaints about Jace mirror those made about Jack Marston. At least in RDR it can be put down to his lack of father figure, which is quite deftly handled (and justified) in the narrative.

    Suffice to say, you still kept playing, despite the lingering feeling of alienation. Not unlike real-life grief scenarios. I think if you dropped the controller and walked away, his death might have been even more poignant.

    Still, digital games narrative is a young concept, and I think this specific issue you raise is very significant in furthering the medium; expect to have this article cited in the essay papers of game design's next generation of innovators (including mine).

    Also, think Raiden from MGS 2. People hated his guts; Kojima said it was intentional, to give Snake a better context, and to relate to him from an outside perspective

      The difference here, of course, is that Dom is gone, so there's no chance to get an outside perspective any more :)

    It's a video game, get over it.

    I dunno, I don't see it as a big issue since I'd think anyone who cared about the story would be playing it solo first... whenever I play co-op it's just for shits and giggles and we spend more time tagging each other with grenades and pushing each other off cliffs than listening to the cutscenes.

    If that's how you beat Myrrah at the end of the game it probably wouldn't have cut as deep. Much like yourself we had to have a break but continued on clinically to the end. It was well done it was just the wrong point in the story to do so.

    Pay attention at the start of the game....plenty of clues abound if you watch the interaction between Dom and Jace.

    While I didn't find the disconnect so bad, I DID spend the ENTIRE rest of the game occasionally remarking to the screen at Jace and Anya - "You, sir/madam, are no Dom". Basically whenever Jace opened his mouth. I didn't like Jace. I didn't even know who he was.

    I think the game peaked with Dom's death. The apparent genocide - which notably didn't kill the queen - was just too easy.

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