Gears of War gets a lot of undeserved criticism for being as popular as it is. Third person, cover based shooting is old hat and haven’t we had enough of burly, neckless thugs gargling curses through gravel and testosterone? The aliens are bad, the good guys are good and Gears of War is just another masculine power fantasy in a medium saturated with the same.
But given the series’ popularity so far, there must be something that speaks to its audience beyond the chest-high walls and the gray/brown palette.
The games take place during the last phases of social collapse. The human world has been overthrown by the locust, the last vestiges of government cling impotently to the decaying world order, and the humans’ fight for survival slowly shifts from the chance of victory to a strategy of delaying inevitable extinction.
This formula mirrors the inevitable collapse of capitalism according to Marxism. The society of Gears of War reaches the peak of capitalist decadence, consequently that society experiences an underclass revolution and finally the underclass revolution is aimed at achieving a classless polis operated by the world’s labourers.
Before the events of the first game, the world of Gears of War follows all the trappings of capitalism. The economy of the world is fuelled by imperial warmongering, and numerous fragmented states coalesce into two world powers called the Coalition of Ordered Government and the Union of Ordered Republics.
The two sides reach a stalemate after immulsion, an underground fuel source, is discovered. Afterward, the two sides reach a peace and a “golden age of culture, science and the arts.” This suggests that the competition for resources has pushed feudalism to an extreme. Governments fight greedily until their wrath is deferred by the dicovery of a new resource and is reignited when that resource runs dry.
Indeed, the price of immulsion ignites another war between the two superpowers. It is during the last phase of a capitalist “boom-bust” cycle that the game’s antagonists, the locust, attack. The locust act as Marx’s proletariat, rising up as power is shared between smaller parties and used for poorly managed resources.
The locust rise during the “Pendulum Wars,” a war over immulsion. Immulsion, importantly, is harvested from beneath the planet’s crust, the locust’s domain. The locust have their own resources taken from them. Labour is exploited and wars are fought by a business class hoarding the planet’s wealth. It is at the apex of human (capitalist) society that it crumbles beneath their own weight and allows the inevitable locust (worker) uprising.
The locust are a simpleminded and crude populace directed by a charismatic, idolized leader. The locust queen, more well spoken than any of the gears, leads the locust with a near religious fervour. Like a Lenin or a Guevara, Queen Myrrah captures the imaginations of an underclass of people. The locust are literally digging out a hard living beneath the feet of a decadent, military-industrial society. Moreover, like a Stalin or a Mao, loyalty to Myrrah is universal and undisputed with a veritable personality cult surrounding her. If there is any locust with a controversial view, the player never hears of it.
More than just the theoretical similarities exist between Myrrah’s locust and Marxist revolution, there are practical similarities as well. The locust strike the human race when they are at their cultural apex. When capitalism has brought humans to a war that could destroy the planet, the ignored locust underclass literally rises up. The technologically advanced COG are overthrown by guerrilla tactics. The locust aren’t a brute force outmanoeuvring the COG. They are a critical mass of numbers, overwhelming the established power by coming from all directions. The locust are a people’s militia, simply armed but relentless.
As for the ultimate goal of the locust, the terms for success are clear from the outset: destroy the humans and lead a new world order of locust. Queen Myrrah takes the helm of a proletariat dictatorship, managing the overthrow of human capitalism until the locust can rule the planet alone, without an upper class to exploit them.
Of course, this is all ignoring the heretofore unexplained lambent. The lambent locust, a species living figuratively and literally beneath even the locust, are also engaged in their own successful uprising against the locust. Perhaps ultimately, revolutions don’t end. Perhaps, there will always be a lower class pushed into a war against the higher classes. The lambent fight the locust just as the locust fight the humans. The stranded humans fight the gears and the gears fight with their own commanders.
With Gears of War 3 still a day away, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to any more conclusions. But the Gears of War universe sets up a conflict surprisingly reminiscent of Marx’s own predictions—even if Gears of War has only ever been about chainsawing faceless monsters in a colourless world. But for a game that is supposed to have so little going for it, the way that it depicts a downtrodden underclass lifting itself above its oppressors has far reaching implications, especially when we the players are the oppressors staving off extinction.