war and games

Critical exploration and think pieces about the relationship between games and war or violence.

Full Metal Planet – Are High Moon’s Cybertron Games Anti-War?

anti-war games transformers war for cybertron

Are High Moon Studios’ Cybertron games anti-war? A close reading of conflict between talking robots and how two action games glorify combat but repudiate war.

A week ago…

I snatched two really competent action games in a sale on XboxLive. Transformers – War for Cybertron and Transformers – Fall of Cyberton. If you are even vaguely familiar with Transformers as a franchise, you know it’s about good robots who can transform into vehicles fighting evil robots who can transform into vehicles. It’s normally presented in a really cartoonish fashion, originating in the 80s tv-show with attached toy brand of the same name. Oh and yes, they also have been exploited to provide explosions for three – soon to be four – of Michael Bay’s misanthropic masturbation projects.

You didn't think I would write somethinga bout Transformers and not take a jab at Michael Bay for pissing on humans, did you?

You didn’t think I would write something about Transformers and not take a jab at Bay for pissing on humans, did you?

Transformers never have been very high-brow – more style than substance, riding good-vs-evil tropes to sell toys to kids – and on the surface the two games in question here don’t really change that track record. So, let’s look below the surface. I’d like to argue that High Moon’s Cybertron games smartly emplos typical popculture story traits to then subvert them and by doing so end up becoming a morality play about the senselessness of war.

Thank god, no humans!

The big thing about these two Transformers games is that they don’t take place on earth. And this is key to what makes the plot of the games so interesting. In most incarnations we start observing the events after the Autobots (good guys) and the Decepticons (bad guys) crash landed on earth. The Autobots join forces with the humans to defeat the evil Decepticons who are basically hostile invaders of earth. This alien invasion framing with Autobots as the nice helpful aliens clearly establishes a good-vs-evil dichotomy. Decepticons want to harms us – we the humans of earth – and the Autobots want to help us.

Without the earth and its inhabitants at play, things are much more fuzzier.

So, who is responsible for the war on Cybertron?

The war on Cybertron is a civil war. It’s a war based on political differences amongst brothers which escalated into violent faction based conflict. Some audio logs trace the beginnings of war back to Megatron – the leader of the Decepticons – getting rejected by the high council – a political committee deciding on who leads the cybertronians.

The position of Prime is not the position of a king. You want to become Prime because you think you have what it takes to lead your people to prosperity. Megatron behaves like a cartoon villain, has a short fuse and suffers from delusion of grandeur, but he constantly reminds us that he wants to be what he thinks is a good leader. The high council did not allow Megatron to become a leader through the official procedures, so he formed the Decepticons and basically started an armed uprising.

What the differences in political views between the high council and Megatron were is never explained. The audio log is all we get to explain aeons of conflict. Something about the status quo back then was so intolerable that Megatron started a war … and the funny thing is, the Decepticons are his followers. They aren’t drafted or cloned, they follow him. Audio logs have Decepticons speak of Megatron’s actions as revolution ending the cybertronian oppression and they are thankful that they are free now.

Yup, pretty much.

Yup, pretty much.

Autobots and Decepticons both think they need to win this war to survive and both factions see their opponents as evil aggressors and oppressors. Thankfully, High Moon Studios did not decide to make a statement about which faction is actually right here.

On the contrary…

High Moon makes you play as Autobots and as Decepticons – Genius!

Both factions think they have to win this war to save their planet and the way the campaigns in both games are structured really helps you to get that. As trivial as it sounds, but forcing the player to switch between Autobots and Decepticons, forcing the player to experience the unfolding events from both perspectives, makes it really hard to just look at one faction as the enemy.

We learn that Autobot soldiers are just as hostile and hateful towards the Decepticons as Decepticon soldiers are towards the Autobots. We also learn that the Decepticons feel they need to fight for their people and for having something worth calling a future, just as much as the supposed Autobot heroes are.

Whatever successful attack we managed to perform in one mission, we will be on the receiving end of that attack in the next mission. The player always has to deal with the fallout of his own previous actions. It’s a very impactful decision that somewhat challenges the player to empathize with members of both groups.

anti-war death of bumblebee

Fall of Cybertron: Bumblebee – the character usually designated to be the most likeable and relatable bot for audiences – goes down in the crossfire of the very first mission. A fitting symbol for all that will be lost in the escalating conflict ahead.

There is no moral high ground on Cybertron.

The studio did put the player into both perspectives and left the causes of war basically unexplained. The only thing left is conduct in war times and maybe the question of who wins.

Let’s talk about conduct. Sure, Megatron has a very evil and aggressive demeanor. He is a violent robot person, growing up as a gladiator (another hint at a oppressive pre-war society). His actions and behavior are very confrontational and he has little regard for life. He is the one in War for Cybertron who escalated the conflict to planet-killing proportions by tapping into the so called “dark energon”.

He did this to gain enough power over Cybertron to force the other side into capitulation. Megatron frequently offers his enemies to join him – or serve him as he phrases it. This happens sometimes pre fight, so bloodshed could be avoided and sometimes after he beat his enemies as an act of mercy. I’m not saying serving Megatron would be a good thing – I don’t know what his goals are and why the Decepticons are following him – but Megatron at least gives his opponents the chance to stay alive.

Optimus Prime? Not so much. He just kills, while shouting contextless pathos like “We will never sacrifice freedom!”. The leader of the supposed good guys never ever asks his opponents to drop their weapons or to change their ways. Megatron and Optimus both see no value in diplomacy or reasoning with enemies. But while Megatron wants to rule by force, Optimus just eradicates everybody who is not already on is side.

Mercy? He isn't offering any.

Mercy? He isn’t offering any.

At one point in the second game Optimus explicitly states that he “isn’t offering any mercy”! Optimus is outright gleeful about it. Wisecracking over the next act of killing, using the euphemism “need to be taught a lesson” before ordering a deadly air strike on a whole battalion of Decepticon soldiers. After shredding an enemy’s head to bits he victoriously brags “You shouldn’t have challenged me!”.

The big plot point of Fall of Cybertron is that everybody has to evacuate the planet, since the planet – a huge sentient machine – shuts down to repair itself after being too damaged by the ongoing civil war. For that Optimus had his Autobots build a so called ark and in order to escape they had to refuel with Energon (the omnipotent energy source on Cybertron). So they where taking the last Energon reserves on the planet for themselves, to refuel the ark and subsequently escape, leaving all(!) Decepticons to die on the planet’s surface. The list of Optimus Prime’s almost genocidal views and acts in the game goes on, but I’ll stop here.

anti-war no right side

Can the player decide here who wins the war?

Nobody wins in war.

If you as the player somehow still feel like one side is in the right here, High Moon decided to give you one last wake-up call. In the last mission the player is forced to constantly switch between Autobots and Decepticons, further blurring the lines between factions. And in the inevitable final confrontation of Megatron and Optimus, the player is tasked to choose who should win. Switching between factions was mandatory so far, but now the player somewhat is asked to pledge allegiance.

..only to fight for “his team”, complete the sequence and then be treated to the same ending sequence no matter who he has picked.

Yes, the conflict stays unresolved. Both factions still interlocked in battle get sucked through the escape portal wormhole thing at the end. The choice of faction is meaningless, you will just fight and suffer on. No triumph, no satisfaction. The whole game series is just a series of escalating conflicts and subsequently exacerbated losses.

anti-war no winners

The game ends with both factions on their ships getting pulled through the wormhole, basically flushed out of that solar system and we as the observers stay on this side of the door, seeing them vanish into nothingness.

I know it’s a specific way to read the games and no I don’t know how intentional that was, but High Moon’s Cybertron games successfully deconstructed the normally omnipresent justifications for going to war in war-based action games.

More, it deconstructed the normally default good-vs-evil dichotomy in popular sci-fi and fantasy franchises. Even more, it deconstructed real life war rhetoric by exposing both talkative leaders of the factions for being quite hypocritical in their speeches and managing to make nothing better for anybody.

The player gets no explanation for this war.
The player can not choose a side in this war.
The player gets no resolution.

..just perpetual violence, hate, loss, fear.

Let’s hope they don’t fuck that up with their next Transformers game tying this universe together with the Bay-verse. Fingers crossed.

As of now War for Cybertron and especially Fall of Cybertron are really well made, well structured, fun and engaging war-based games with a refreshing lack of self-righteousness.

Check it out.

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From Rapture to Dubai

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

I will make comparison of two on the surface very similar player journeys, with one key distinction at the core.

Bioshock asks and answers all existential questions within its gameplay mechanics for you. While Spec Ops: The Line pushes you – the player in front of the screen – to ask and maybe answer the questions for yourself. …and therefore turned out to be one of the most interesting and perspective-changing interactive experiences I had this console generation.

After Spec Ops: The Line, for me, there is no more going back. My relationship with games has changed. Profoundly.

  • Editor’s note: This article is full of spoilers, obviously.

Existential Gaming

Most game designers aim at creating a state of oblivion, making the player get lost in the world and colors and mechanics, immersed, in state of flow, hopefully completely forgetting the controller in their hand and their butt on the couch. To me, the most interesting and intense gaming experiences are the ones that make me self-conscious.

They challenge me with more than skill tests, logical conundrums or quizzes… they challenge me to explore who I am. Of course there is still some translation work involved, the virtual game world is an abstraction after all. Still, if a game makes me discover something about myself, imho it becomes truly meaningful. More meaningful, than any high score could be. It becomes a personal Voight-Kampff test basically.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

some kinda existential experiences games gave me

Bioshock was one of those games. Anongst others, like Mass Effect, Limbo, Shadow Of The Collossus, Red Dead Redemption, Dead Space, Spelunky, Dragon Age 2, Alice – Madness returns, The Darkness… and now – very high on the list: Spec Ops: The Line.

Why compare Bioshock and The Line?
Well, the structures of both games and how they lead up to the existential revelation in the end are very very similar. There are major parallels in the way both stories unfold from a bird’s eye perspective. But even under close scrutiny, looking at individual elements, it becomes evident, that both games basically provide the same context for the player’s actions and decisions. But from there The Line takes you to a place where Bioshock didn’t dare to make you go.
Into The Heart Of Darkness.

Here is a quick overview of the key sequences in both games I’d like to discuss:

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

I assigned labels to the key sequences I’d like to discuss here and found, that treating the game sequences as metaphors for stages of a life’s journey using motifs from christian mythology ends up being rather appropriate.
Please note, that – while the credits roll after The Line’s conclusion – the campaign in Bioshock actually continues. There are a couple of missions following the big cataclysmic revelation. They basically contribute nothing to the experience than a completely unnecessary, undeserved and conciliatory winning scenario, which only serves to make the game get in line with normative expectations. So, I’m going to treat the conclusion in Bioshock as final as it is in The Line.

Anyway, let’s begin.

The Birth

We crash-land in a hazardous environment (desert and ocean), instantly struggling for survival, with only one option to save ourselves: find shelter (in Dubai or Rapture). I both games we know basically nothing about the character we play before we crash land. Live basically begins here. Surviving an accident like that often gets referred to as “being reborn” or “getting a second chance for life”. Note: In The Line the order of events was shuffled to start the game with the crash.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

from the opening of Spec Ops: The Line

In both games, when the city gets revealed, the creator is superimposed over the world he shaped… In The Line Konrad is standing on a balcony sharing his top-down view with us, while in Bioshock Ryan’s voiceover accompanies the skyline shot.

The Creator

Very soon after the crash landings in both games – before we start exploring the cities – we get introduced to the creators. The Creator is a superiorly powerful, intelligent and ruthless being. Godlike. The evil of the world gets blamed on him, because he supposedly created it, but he still has followers willing to die for his ideals.

We never meet the creator until the end of our journey.
We only hear people speak of him, see monuments to his glory, gun down his disciples and get manipulated by his voice over a radio speaker. In Bioshock, Ryan is the one who envisioned and built Rapture, while Konrad is the one who established his own regime in the ravaged Dubai. In both games missions are structured around finding them and dealing with their followers, while riding a ghost train, witnessing the horrors of the world they helped create.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

Konrad’s silhouette superimposed on Dubai skyline and Ryan’s voice superimposed on Rapture skyline.

Konrad and Ryan both share another eerie similarity: They are both not only the architects of the unfolding scenarios, they are also both named in reference to the writers, who created the books, which inspired the games.

John Konrad represents Joseph Konrad, who wrote The Heart of Darkness and Andrew Ryan (anagram for We r Ayn Rand) represents Ayn Rand, writer of Atlas Shrugged (amongst other relevant books). They are literally named after the actual creators of each respective universe.

The Realm

In each game we get presented early on with a wide shot of the city at the end of the introduction of the creators. This connects the creator with their respective cities and allows us to see the vast structures, we are going to explore. Both – Dubai and Rapture – are originally symbols of wealth, decadence and capitalism, featuring lush architecture, art and expensive interiors… which then got ravaged by a major catastrophe.

In Dubai a massive sandstorm struck, while in Rapture everyone got mad. The fall of man, another biblical motif, a paradise lost. Two cities drowning in sin and getting divine punishment for it. Both cities are surrounded by an endless empty deadly terrain – an ocean and a desert – effectively turning the cities into prisons with their citizens locked inside, starting to literally tear each other apart.

The biblical motifs in both games go much further than that. While we enter Dubai after it is flooded (with sand), the threat of the great flood is a constant companion in Rapture, with leaking pipes and cracked glass. Dubai – as the touristic attraction it once was – features stereotypical paradisiac imagery in its resort hotels. Both cities are challenging God – Rapture by explicitly rejecting God as one form of authority, Dubai by having the highest sky scraper in the world, analogous to the tower of Babel.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

Common crucifixions in both cities.

Interesting fact: the classic music played when Konrad’s soldiers attack the protagonists with a helicopter from the sky, is not only a reference to the Ride of the Valkyrie in the helicopter sequence from Apocalypse Now (the movie adaptation of The Heart of Darkness). The track played by the radioman during the helicopter attack is Giuseppe Verdi’s Dies Irae – a sequence from an opera in which God sends his angels to rain down judgement from the Heavens. This musical metaphor further indicating John Konrad’s status as a godlike figure.

In total the christian mythology references in Spec Ops: The Line are more, than in Bioshock, starting with the three kings crossing the desert and much much more references.

  • Editor’s note: Rapture and Dubai are both game worlds in my backlog of places I want to explore in detail in the future, like I did with Arkham City for example. Though I think this will take some time before I go there again. You can check on the game world tag to keep an eye on that.

The Trial

The more we descent into Dubai and Rapture the more we get exposed to the corruption, the madness and the sin… and we are confronted with it, forced to react to it, fight it. The people around us are depicted as wrongdoers… monsters.. and it is our trial not to become one of them. This is where we experience the first core distinction between the two games, which will be very important once we start sorting things out after The Judgement.

In Bioshock you are told where to go and you are never explicitly confronted with any questions, regarding how okay it is to gun down Splicers. They are the enemy and you need to take em down. The splicers are all corrupted by their own desires, to be beautiful, to be strong, to be smart. They used Adam – an omnipotent chemical with a not so subtle biblical reference in its name – to modify their god-given bodies and paid a price for that. The game never ever calls into question if any of them actually deserved a bullet to the head. They just pop up in front of you, attack you, you kill them
and then loot the bodies… …that’s about it.

On the other hand in The Line, your character is the one deciding what to do and when, you aren’t following orders, you are giving them. There are many many occasions, where your actions in combat result in unjustified killing and the game tells you, that the killings where unjustified. Some inhabitants of Dubai are just scared of you, follow wrong orders… some aren’t even involved in hostile activity and you still kill them.
The game stops the game flow to take time to make you – the player – understand, that collateral damage here means people died and suffered because of your decisions.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

See how explicitly the available choices are spelled out on screen in Bioshock.

In both games we get confronted with morally ambivalent proposals. In Bioshock we repeatedly encounter Little Sisters and are asked to either save them or harvest them, including respective button prompts. The moments of moral decision making are encapsulated, have a clear beginning and end and are reserved for special characters. There are no accidents in Bioshock, all immediate consequences are explained to you in neat little user interfaces and through character exposition.

In The Line the moral choices are much more organic and varied and are triggered via basic game mechanics, like shooting or moving. Sometimes it is obvious, that the player is at an decision point, but sometimes shit just hist the fan without any warning. Also even the predetermined next steps in many missions get treated by NPCs as morally questionable. The lack of a clearly indicated border between decisions sequences and linear play keep the player continuously involved in what happens and make even the predetermined outcomes feel relevant.

The Revelation

After witnessing the horrors of humanity’s corruption, after surviving endless onslaughts of enemies, after countless kills – some in combat, some not – we stand before our maker. Konrad and Ryan are both indulging themselves in recreational activity (Konrad paints, Ryan plays golf) and both are calmly expecting us and both are well kept and look healthy. (In contrast to the citizens they rule over, who live in the dirt, suffer, die, starve and kill.) We have to go upstairs to talk to them. All this symbolizes how much they are above things.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

Konrad paints a rendition of a traumatic experience Walker had. Get the hint!

Then Ryan and Konrad drop expositions bombs and this is where it gets interesting.

The revelation in Bioshock:
Ryan discloses to you, that you are a brainwashed agent. You are conditioned to follow commands, which start with “Would you kindly…‚”. He monologues about free will and how free will makes you a man, not a slave. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” Then the man chooses to force you to beat him to death with his own golf club, by saying “Would you kindly kill.”

The revelation in The Line:
Konrad turns out to be already dead for a long time and the Konrad you talked to all day and who is now right in front of you is a hallucination. A figment of your mind, which conveniently provided a villain for you, so you could go out on a violent power fantasy rampage and feel like a hero doing it. He reveals, that the decisions you made are meaningless and the only thing you could have done to not perpetuate the horror and not become a monster yourself is stop marching on.

The Judgement

In Bioshock you kill your creator and have as much responsibility for this kill as you have for all the others before… none. Except from the explicit decisions sequences with the little sisters, the game completely absolves you from everything you have done so far by making you slave to the game’s system. You then move on to break the mind control, because this is where the road the game leads you to. You have no say here. You continue to be slave to the system, continue to follow the voices in your radio until the credits roll, just that they now don’t use the “would you kindly” phrase anymore.

The Line presents you with the fact, that you are slave to your own self-constructed system of justifications and slave to your own desire to feel like a hero. The game makes you responsible for every trigger pull you performed and then gives you a choice. Do I wait until the Konrad-figment shoots me, do I shoot him or do I shoot myself? It’s your choice, you can die right here or go out scott free. Though how much of this is not just happening in your head, since you have been talking to a ghost the whole game is another issue.

I woke up.

Both games guide you through a hypothetical extreme situation and let you express yourself within the limitations of the game mechanics and campaign design. Both games frame spreading destruction as a method for survival and finally a path to redemption. They conveniently give you an already damned world and god-character to blame it all on, so you can feel like a hero.

It’s a diligent construct to rationalize the still dominant “shoot-first-ask-later”-mentality in games, in a medium which is nowadays technically able to treat those issues with way more thought, than it cares to do.

But Spec Ops: The Line has the guts to let this construct fall apart.

The game is now addressing the player through the voice of Konrad.

The game is now addressing the player through the voice of Konrad.

When I first played Bioshock, it flashed me. What you say, I was blindly following orders and haven’t even noticed it? The experience Bioshock gave me actually changed my relation with games. A bit at least. I now no longer just accept the orders barked at me in radios and head sets. I’m now a self-conscious part of the system. I understand now that game devs in general expect me to respond as reliable to button prompts, level design, enemy units ect as they expect it from their KI or GUI. Sometimes I actively try to undermine that… see what happens when I exploit the boundaries of the interactivity. And sometimes I get pissed off, when the game forces me into actions, I cannot reconcile with the feeling I want to have playing a game.

In hindsight though the delivery in Bioshock was kinda clumsy and very much on the nose. After all they pulled a rabbit out of a hat without establishing the hat first. It was an answer without a question. After I was granted the knowledge, that I was manipulated the whole time, the quest structure stayed the same. The game did not give me a framework to actually benefit from what I have learned in that moment. The game did not let me put their lesson into practice.

Today – thanks to Spec Ops The Line – I know now, that it is not the game designer’s job to create systems which allow me to break free… it’s my job as a player to break free from those systems.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

Video games are many things. Some are quick tests of skill and brains about arranging colored squares into groups, just fun, some are sport simulations, rather trivial, …and some are interactive hypothetical situations regarding ourselves, our societies and norms.

How many games made me do things in this hypothetical space, which I didn’t feel like doing? How many kills did feel odd to me, even within an exaggerated fictitious war scenario, but I still marched on? How many days did I spend just mindlessly following waypoints, screen prompts and nice voices? How many times did I accept pretty girls void of any personality as a bribe to save the day? In how many games did I reluctantly accept racial stereotypes as just what the enemy looks like?

I know. Everything is fictional. All happens in a virtual space. But how long are we going to let games tell us to do things we don’t want to do? …to accept rewards we don’t want to have? …to accept ideas we reject?
Where and to what degree do we accept this bullcrap outside of games?

I’m fed up. To be honest with myself, I kinda already was for a long time. I’m still going to enjoy a good mindless carnage, exploitation and brick-stacking. But games, that only work when I turn my brain off and only work when I turn my morals off… I’m fed up with me playing by their rules.
I’m fed up with harming people as my only option. I’m fed up with moral choices, which in the end amount to nothing but a narcissistic exercise.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

Spec Ops woke me up… by pointing the finger at me for playing along. …for keeping on pressing buttons, even if I didn’t approve of the results they triggered. …and for not pressing the one button I may have should.

spec ops the line and bioshock criticism violence

  • Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of an article originally published in october 2012. You can find the original article and other older articles in the pdf archive.
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Gears Of War And Genocide

gears of war and genocide

Genocide sells… …apparently.

Intentionally or accidentally – the iconography, cultural references and the similarity between events in the trilogy and real life turn Gears of War into an allegory for the United States of America and its wars. Considering the political context, this – made in America – shooter title has a really disturbing ending with disturbing implications and intolerable messages.

This was a pretty hard article to write for me, because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of somebody finding the way the trilogy ended appealing. To me it was just offensive and disturbing. The only way I see to possibly gain any satisfaction from this ending is from an American perspective – a perspective I have no actual insight into.
I’m bound to fuck something up here, I’m bound to step on someones feelings and I sincerely apologize for that.

Still, Epic Games made a horrible statement here. They chose to glorify a fascist society and to celebrate a super holocaust… … and made me, the player complicit in it. And that’s not okay. At all.

I did my fair share of virtual kills and fatalities, accepted many stereotyping enemy clichés as entertaining cannon fodder and allowed myself to even dwell in pretend misogyny. Sometimes without caring much and sometimes by being able to put aside the socially questionable or downright wrong implications of video game narratives. Gears of War 3 made that impossible for me. I was disturbed by the way the story ended and felt like I was playing a villain all the time but nobody told me. Where I was hoping for redeeming value, I was answered with increasingly barbaric sentiments.

A few things come together here:

– The strong analogy of the Gears v Locusts conflict to US wars
– The dehumanization of the so called Locusts
– The final solution for the Locust problem

Analogy

A couple of major plot points and motifs that make Gears Of War analogous to US war conflicts. For example are almost all Gears modeled after stereotypes of US citizens:
Language, names, iconography and ethnic mix make the COG distinctively US America. What could have been a cultural mix or something vague, is defined to be US American. Most obvious examples include the characters of Cole and Dizzy. Cole is an American Football (Thrashball) playing and ebonics speaking black character. And Dizzy is a bearded caucasian trucker, wearing a cowboy hat, speaking with a strong texan accent and is shouting “Yeee-Haw!” from time to time.

There is one character – called Tai – who is not directly representative for American culture. His appearance and demeanor resemble what an uneducated white person thinks a polynesian native is like. He is the games noble savage or magic native american and Epic games makes an explicit point out of his otherness and the fact that he is not from them same culture as the rest of the COG.

So who are the Americans fighting in Gears of War? I’d argue they fight people from the middle east. Let’s have a look at the unfolding events of the war and see how this maps with the conflicts between the united states and arab/persian nations:

Humans in search of immulsion, a valuable liquid fuel source to be found underground, invaded and damaged the cave habitat of the Locusts – a nation living where the immulsion is – forcing them to head to the surface. The human characters refer to the war as a “war over immulsion” critically.
Waging a “war for oil” is a popular subject for criticism against the US engagement in war against Iraq under President George W. Bush.

When the war over immulsion escalates, Locusts resort to attacking human cities, killing large numbers of civilians and making sky scrapers collapse. The invasion of the Locust territory (in GoW 2) as a response to the attacks against human cities is directly analogous to the invasion of Afghanistan as a response to the attack on New York on september 11th 2001.
Actual quote from the game: “We are taking the fight to them.”

Putting the American iconography of the Gears, the timeline of unfolding events in the war, the immulsion motif and the terroristic nature of the Locusts together, you get a fairly strong but distorted mirror image of what started as the American War on Terror. This makes it pretty hard for me to not regard the way the fictional conflict is resolved in Gears3 as a fantasy blueprint to end that war. And it’s not pretty.

Master race

Trying to make other races appear to not be real or full people, dehumanizing them is the oldest trick in the book to make justifications for inhumane behavior towards them. Especially when there are clear visible distinctions like skin color and when the oppressive group can claim the oppressed group to be less civilized.
It is done with prisoners to beat them up, was done with slaves to keep them as property, native americans to drive them from their lands, to indigenous people in colonized nations, to african tribes to justify ethnic cleansing, to jews to put them in camps and on and on and on…

I know it’s the internet. Bloggers and commenters are playing the Hitler-card like nobody’s business. And yeah, usually those people think they are making a point, but just fail by drawing a completely ridiculous comparison between their minor complaint and a unfathomable act of madness and injustice.
But in this case the comparison is the meat of the problem.

Nazis referred to Jews in terms of them being a plague, vermin, pests, parasites… …Gears call their enemy race Locusts. In battle, the Locust Queen asks, what makes a life of her people less worthy than a human life?
On which Marcus Fenix, our designated hero, simply and confidently replies: They are not people, they are monsters. The big problem here is… THEY ARE PEOPLE! They are an independent society, with spoken and written language, social structures, cultural treasures, art, architecture forced into becoming a war culture by human intrusion.
Granted they are barbaric and ugly. But that does not make them less than people.

Racial segregation is fairly common as a plot device in scifi and fantasy stories, like for example orcs = evil in Lord Of The Rings and subsequently in Warhammer and Warcraft. But in publications like this the makers at least had the dignity to limit acts of violence against enemy races to individuals who have actually shown to be a threat…
I mean, imagine Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli going around and slaying orc babies in their cradle.

But in Gears we should find a sense of victory in killing every single Locust on the planet, no matter if they have done anything wrong yet, no matter the age or personality. They deserve to die – all of them – because they are not human.

Endlösung

“Final solution” (german: Endlösung), for those who don’t know, is a euphemism coined by officials of the Third Reich. It was used to sell the idea of completely eradicating the jewish people in Nazi Germany.
The holocaust. If you don’t know the history behind that word, look it up. Seriously. I’m a german, I live in Berlin, I know that history.
The Nazis had found a way to basically industrialize the killing of people of jewish heritage (and political enemies) by hunting jews, imprisoning them in work camps and using gas chambers to finally kill them. The goal was to eradicate jews as part of an idea of them being a lower inherently evil race. Genetical distinctions, were used to artificially define an enemy worthy of total annihilation.
And as it turns out, launching a super holocaust to solve the Locust problem, worse and more thorough than anything the Nazis were capable of, is the celebrated victory you achieve when beating the final boss of Gears Of War 3.
Adam Fenix (father of the protagonist) has created a machine that is capable of completely and totally killing off every single Locust on the planet. The blow of the machine reaches every corner of the world and is calibrated to kill off people and creatures that carry the Locust genes but does no harm to humans. A genetical distinction decides here who deserves to die and who deserves to live.

This kind of doomsday device – build explicitly for the annihilation of races – is exactly the kind of thing, which a Hellboy, Captain America or aWilliam “B.J.” Blazkowicz would fight to destroy. In the skin of Marcus Fenix, we are fighting to activate it.

gears of war and genocide

Don’t get me started on the symbolism of Marcus pulling the only talking female enemy close, shoving a knife into her, asking her if she feels it and throwing a gendered insult (bitch) in for good measure.

No irony.

After the final battle is won and the machine began the deletion of Locust life, the Locust queen returns to the scene to spell it out for everybody. The is no justice or moral in what the player has fought for. It is just another act of killing.
And while the queen was the only one actually talking some sense, confronting us with the injustice we committed, Marcus takes a knife and stabs the unarmed woman to death, up close and personal. Filled with rage and hatred he says: “That’s from Dom and everyone you killed, you bitch!” while she sinks lifeless to the ground.

After the only voice of reason got stabbed to death,Marcus gets cheered and celebrated, swelling victorious music plays, he gets the girl, can finally throw away his gun armor and look hopeful into the future.

I cannot reconcile being a genocidal hate-filled grunt with being the hero deserving of praise and prizes. But then again I’m from Germany and maybe the remnants of my nation’s history make me sensitive for those subjects. I’m also not even in reach of understanding how it feels to be an American under the pressure of 10 years of war.
Maybe if Osama Bin Laden had killed 3000 of my people, I could relate with fantasizing to kill him up close and personal and make it hurt, any moral implications be darned. Maybe if I knew someone who lost a limb or his life in Afghanistan or if I had to fear to be drafted again, maybe then I could relate to the fantasy of pushing a button to just making it all go away.

gears of war violence and genocide

We successfully cleansed the planet. Congrats?

I don’t know what it would take to make me find any satisfaction in what I was ultimately fighting for in Gears Of War. But I know I’m far away from that and it is discomforting to me to see that games are a market in which you can excel by selling fascist genocide role play.

  • Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of an article originally published in september 2011. You can find the original article and other older articles in the pdf archive.
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