Heads up - spoiler alarm ringing now. If you're playing Gears of War 2 and you don't want the plot ruined... then what the hell is wrong with you? Why are you playing Gears 2 for the plot? Ugh. Anyway, if for some reason you care about keeping the plot pristine for your first playthrough, I suggest not reading on.
I accidentally completed Gears of War 2 today. Any game players out there know what I mean? You sit down in your bathrobe at eleven o'clock with your breakfast spaghetti in a bowl beside you, flick on the console, and then you don't stop playing until the sun has set, the game is over, and you've sustained significant kidney damage.
Anyway I did that with Gears today. It's good! Who'd have thought it. Well, everyone. The Gears series is getting a bit like Halo - it's a summer blockbuster in computer game form, it's very popular, it has huge production values, and you get a very polished product. This installment sees new weapons, new baddies, yadda yadda yadda. It's been out two months, if you're interested in the game content then you either read the reviews or bought it already. What got me about Gears was the romantic sub-plot.
Gears being a summer blockbuster, it had to have one. In this case its main support character Dom's search for his lost wife Maria, a human refugee who was separated from him at some stage in the war against the Locust aliens. For about the first two acts Dom spends a lot of time (in cutscenes) asking various people (the Military intelligence operative assigned to your patrol, other refugees, toothless old madmen) if they've seen her. We all know we're going to see a heartfelt reunion.
Which is why I did a double-take when the reunion actually occured. Maria is interned in a Locust labour camp deep underground when Dom finally catches up with her. The quirky robot sidekick cuts open her holding cell. And there is Maria sure enough, glowing with a warm filter and a soft lens flare, all the light of summer caught in her mediterranean tresses.
If this is wasn't a summer blockbuster, alarm bells would already have been ringing. Internment camp? Slave labour? Deep underground? Surely this woman should be showing some signs of wear and tear? But no. This is a summer blockbuster, and I was expecting that saccharine moment of reunion to be the end of the matter.
So I was surprised the next moment when main character Marcus says to his partner simply, "Dom", and the veil drops away. We've been seeing Maria as Dom needs to see her. The lens-flare dies and standing before them both is a husk, a starved and tortured physical shell with no human intellect behind its rheumy eyes. Maria is emaciated, scarred, blind, mentally dead.
The Maria story was utterly irrelevent to the plot. It did nothing to humanise Dom or Marcus or any of the other walking refrigerators who joke and banter their way through ten hours of testosterone fuelled alien slaughter. The cliche of the soldier with the soul, the guy who's just doing it for his gal, has seen more use than the bed-springs in a brothel. It tends to engender about as much of a reaction as showing Playboy to a corpse.
But that very, very brief moment in which I was made to look at a real aspect of human suffering - the truth of already fragile bodies pushed out of recognizable form not by armour piercing rounds or a sticky grenade but by hunger, forced labour and torture, actually registered. It made me feel bad. And knowing that that sort of reaction can come out of a completely by-the-numbers action story, even more so from a computer game, makes me feel good.