Gears of War. The mere mention of the name is probably enough to illicit memories of gravely voices, refrigerator physiques, and a rush of testosterone that you probably haven’t felt since middle school. Surely I’m insane, right? Gears of War isn’t progressive about anything. “You’ve played Gears, right?” you’re probably saying. “The only progress in that game was the progression of my chainsaw through a skull.”
Well, yes and no. I’m not saying Gears is this paragon of equality in games. It does a lot wrong. There are not one, but two characters whose whole personality consists of “is black”. It took them three games to put a female character in the fray. Marcus Fenix has a do-rag and a soul patch. Surely nothing of social merit has do-rags and soul patches. Right?
Wrong. Ish. Gears of War 3, I’d argue, actually has some progressive elements that are surprisingly well done, for coming from such an obviously dude-bro series. Take, for instance, the character design in the game. Games are constantly lambasted for putting men in big, bulky, plated armor, while giving women costumes that look like if Playboy made cosplay gear. Well, here’s Gears of War 3‘s leading man, Marcus Fenix, and leading lady, Anya Stroud.
That’s….that’s actually not that bad, is it? That armor’s actually pretty reasonable. The only skin it shows is completely unsexualized (unless you have a thing for arms), and common between the male and female variants. This armor actually seems pretty usable.
Now, someone’s probably gonna call me on this, so I’ll go ahead and bring it up myself: Myrrah. Myrrah, for those not immersed in Gears lore (chuckle), is the main antagonist of both Gears 3 and the series as a whole, and is the Queen of the Locust Horde. This is her:
OK, so there are two big reasons why this armor seems way more misogynist than the female Gear armor, and I’ll concede it’s not great. But, hey, it’s still better than a lot of female outfits in games. At least everything’s still covered, right? It’s perhaps a little too, let’s say form-fitting, but this still looks like armor that could work in conflict, or at least in video game conflict where a bunch of pointless ornamentation is the norm.
Speaking of which, Myrrah sees quite a bit of action in Gears 3. Myrrah is a pretty active antagonist, and holds her own through a good portion of the story. She doesn’t have a male figure she’s constantly relying upon. The one male figure in her life, Adam Fenix, failed to provide a solution to her race’s issues, after which she promptly took the reins and declared war.
So Myrrah’s not a helpless damsel, she’s a warlord who wields vast military power, and isn’t afraid to fight herself sometimes. But she’s not quite an ice bitch, either (ice bitch being the diametric, but still bad, opposite of the damsel in distress). Her declaration of war is justified: her subterranean race was pushed to the surface by increasing tides of a mutating substance, and her hate of humanity was spurred by their disgust towards the Locust race. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s not awful either.
“OK, so maybe the gender thing isn’t quite that bad,” you’re hopefully saying at this point. “But what about the race thing? Cole Train is a ridiculous caricature. There’s no way you’re defending that.”
I kinda am, though, that’s the weird thing. Cole Train (or Augustus Cole, series mainstay since Gears 1) is the blackest black dude in the history of stereotypes. He’s an ex-football, sorry, ex-blitzball player, ends every other sentence with “baby”, and is pretty much perpetually vulgar. Cole Train’s also awesome. Anecdotally, he’s probably my favorite character. In a game of such ludicrous extremes as Gears of War, Cole fits right in, and is probably the most memorable character in the series.
The key thing that I would argue makes Cole Train not an offensive character is that he isn’t meant to be disliked, or even liked ironically. Cole Train is genuinely fantastic and enjoyable. He’s a big, lovable goofball who occasionally yells about cereal.
Besides, even if the characters can be caricatures sometimes, at least Gears has ethnicity. While Gears‘s Sera is technically not Earth, and thus doesn’t technically have Earth ethnicities, there are still recognizable ethnicities in the game. In the Gears series, there are:
- two black characters (Augustus Cole and Jace Stratton)
- one hispanic character (Dom Santiago)
- one Pacific Islander (Tai Kaliso)
- and one asian character (Minh Young Kim)
Gears doesn’t handle these characters tactfully by any means, but they aren’t absolutely abysmal either. Kim never kills a Locust using previously-unmentioned kung-fu skills, and Dom doesn’t wear a poncho are play acoustic Latin guitar. Nobody’s worse than anyone else, and everyone’s kinda empathizeable.
The key observation, then, is that Gears of War is stupid inherently. Everything about the game is big, loud, and dumb, and so the characters are too. When you take into account this sort of “mean level of stupidity” and look at the characters compared to this baseline. When you take this into account, the characters of Gears are typical dudes and ladies, Average Joes from down the street. When the guns have chainsaws on them, yelling a lot and going “Woo!” isn’t exceptional, it’s boring. It’s average. And in this way, Gears of War isn’t insensitive, it’s just dumb.