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
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.