Summer of Mailbag V: Passing the Buck

Free Advice: Shut Up

Courtesy of Epic Games Gears of War 3

The Art and Design of Gears of War

An exclusive excerpt from Tom Bissell's upcoming book

Emergence Day — a.k.a. November 7, 2006 — came and went without much notice from me. At the time, I was living in Rome, Italy, and researching a book about early Christianity. While I had an Xbox 360 (unwisely) installed in my office, I was not playing all that many games. What I was doing was playing the same few games over and over again.

In the days after November 7, whenever I logged on to Xbox LIVE, I noticed that a number of my friends were playing Gears of War, which I had written off as a shooter I doubted I would find terribly interesting. I had played Halo: Combat Evolved a few times and liked it well enough, and of course I had played GoldenEye 007 and Counterstrike and Medal of Honor and Battlefield 2, but a lot of shooters left me with a feeling of gameplay indigestion. Charge over there and kill those guys. New mission: Charge over there and kill those guys. Okay. Got it.

I did read some reviews of Gears. The one thing that sounded intriguing was its use of the over-the-shoulder third-person point of view. I figured this had been borrowed from Resident Evil 4, which was — despite its ESL dialogue, unfathomable plot, Britney Spearsian sidekick, and Castilian midget villain — probably my favorite game experience of all time. Even though I was interested in all sorts of video games, it was pretty easy, while living in Europe, to regard something like Gears as too familiar, too American.

The big game in Europe at the time was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Every Italian gamer I knew was on his second or third play through. I had been trying to teach myself Italian with an Italian-language edition of Oblivion, and it was greatly amusing to my Italian friends that I knew the Italian words for shield, ax, inventory, pestle, arrow, and skeleton, but not meal, sidewalk, pigeon, girlfriend, and confused. The thing I most loved about Oblivion was the same thing I then most loved about video games, which was the opportunity for unscripted player exploration. At least since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City I had become convinced that the medium’s future lay in open-world experiences. Heavily scripted, linear video game experiences were, I hoped, on the way out, and please let them take cutscenes with them. The days in which gamers invited their friends over to watch some putatively astounding video game cutscene were fast receding, and it seemed increasingly clear to me that all cutscenes did were highlight how inadequate cinematic games’ cinematic aspects really were.

Soon it was December in Rome, and a number of my LIVE friends were still assiduously plugging away at Gears of War. I finally asked one of them in a message: “how is that, anyway?” He typed back: “incredible. can’t stop playing. like an action movie. co-op astounding.” I headed out to buy a copy but, no matter where I went in Rome, Gears of War was sold out. I ordered a copy from Amazon UK and, due to the seeming lethargy of cross-region postal services, it arrived in my mailbox only a few weeks later. My parents and my brother and his family had just arrived in Rome for Christmas, and so the night I finally got around to playing Gears, it was late. I decided to host a co-op session. A few moments later, a guy with a decidedly French gamertag hopped on. He spoke only a little English, which was ten times more than the French I spoke, but neither of us minded, and, together, we marched into the breach.

These days, Gears of War, despite being one of the most critically acclaimed games of this generation, earns the occasional knock for lacking innovation. The august authority, Wikipedia, in its summary of the first Gears‘s reception, makes note of this, citing some spanking admonishment courtesy of Eurogamer: “[L]et’s not pretend that we’re wallowing in the future of entertainment. What we have here is an extremely competent action game.”

The first time I played Gears I was not monitoring its innovation levels, but I was certainly struck by its competence. Gears was so polished it practically gleamed. From the mold and dried blood all over the walls and floor of the prison in which the game opens to the naturalistic voice acting, and from the responsiveness of the controls to the way its enemies behaved under fire, its attention to detail was like nothing I had seen.1 The more I played Gears, the more it drew me in.

For one thing, the game’s obvious cinematic aspirations seemed unusually well integrated into the gameplay, and its cutscenes were brisk, evocative, and decidedly mysterious. I had no idea, at the time, that these brief cutscenes were giving the Xbox 360’s hardware the necessary breathing room to stream in the next bits of environment, which preserved the player’s sense of spatial continuity. There are exceedingly few load screens in Gears of War. Almost every environment across which you walk (or, later, drive) has a clear relationship to the previous environment. Indeed, in the highly unlikely event that the person playing Gears does not perish, it is possible to walk across much of the Gears landscape with only a few seconds’ worth of LOADING announcements. That was something very few gamers had ever seen before,2 given that the only game to do this until that point was 1998’s Soul Reaver. Most “cinematic” games, then and now, simply teleport the player from one location or sequence to the next, but Gears put its cinematic aspirations to a clever double purpose.

Another thing I did not initially notice about Gears, but which is absolutely crucial to its tone, has to do with what I will call conceptual contrast, by which I mean something greater than the Tallahassee Community Theater putting on “Hamlet in Space.” Indeed, Gears of War has so many conceptual contrasts, spread across so many layers of the game, that you do not really notice them — that is, until you do notice them, at which point you cannot stop noticing them.

Gears of War introduces its core conceptual contrast right away, when Marcus and Dom have their first run-in with the game’s pale, dinosaur-skinned Locust, a hard-charging enemy ferociously intent on getting as close to you as possible during firefights. The conceptual contrast is how gladiatorial the combat in Gears feels, even though everyone is armed with assault rifles and shotguns. Another conceptual contrast: Gears is a science fiction game that grounds its weapons in the technology of the Vietnam era and draws its architecture from Regency Britain. Another: Marcus and Dom are huge, ostensibly indestructible giants, and yet the vast majority of the game finds them diving toward cover with Nureyevian grace and cowering behind it like boys playing hide-and-seek. Finally, there is no conceptual contrast more Gearsian than getting blown into bloody pork chops by a Locust fragmentation grenade only to hear, during the failure screen, a lilting, plangent version of the Gears of War theme played on, of all things, a piano. Amazingly, none of these elements ever seems dissonant or self-negating; most barely become the object of conscious notice. This is because much in the world of Gears has an important video game quality that Chris Perna, Epic’s Art Director, described to me in this way: “It just is.” Isness is a large part of what makes Gears of War effective.

Gears of War 3
That, of course, and the combat, which has an Isness as intense and significant as anything in the game, despite such initially ridiculous-seeming weapons as a chainsaw-bearing assault rifle and bolo-chain grenade, the tossing of which looks like a rejected Olympic sport. I know that my French friend and I had a couple big laughs the first time we chainsawed a Locust in half, the first time we popped out of cover and pumped fifty rounds into a Locust chest, the first time one of us twirled a frag grenade and lobbed it into a crowd of Locust and watched them come apart in a burst of stumps and gore. How could such horrific imagery be so funny, so weirdly exhilarating, and not push the rest of the game into tonal incoherency?

It was not until we reached the final segment of Embry Square, the game’s second extended combat sequence, that I realized how much I was loving Gears, how utterly distinct its combat felt, and how hard it was for me to imagine the shooter being the same. The Embry Square segment concludes with the players approaching the unassuming plaza steps of the House of Sovereigns, where one’s attention is drawn to a slightly askew central fountain and the numerous sandbag fortifications that surround it. By this time, the combat flow of Gears has been established: skirmish, followed by a slightly bigger skirmish, followed by a skirmish, followed by a slightly bigger skirmish, followed by a set-piece encounter less skirmish than spontaneous heart attack simulator. Epic’s designers call this “the hourglass”: a series of combat encounters that go from narrow to wide to narrow, corridor combat to bowl combat to corridor combat, with change-ups and variations as their strange minds see fit.

Up until the House of Sovereigns, Locust appearances occur at a relatively lenient and somewhat predictable pace. Here, though, Locust begin appearing from everywhere, including buildings and doorways, and for the first time you feel distinctly outnumbered and outgunned. The spaciousness of the House of Sovereigns’s plaza also gives the Locust the chance to make use of open ground and run for cover while actually flanking and surrounding you. At this moment, Gears of War turns from an exciting corridor shooter into a thrilling reverse Alamo.

While my French friend drew Locust fire, I moved inside the House of Sovereigns to clean out the Locust barricaded within. To my shock, an emergence hole opened up just off the main foyer hallway, out of which climbed a distressing number of shotgun-bearing Locust. Only moments ago, my French friend and I were working together in plain sight of each other. Now, in my perilous separation, Gears of War set out to remind me, in the form of an incapacitating facial shotgun blast, why sticking together was probably a good idea. “Au secours!” I said over my headphones (which my French friend had told me meant “Help!”). “I come,” he responded. After a few moments, he chainsawed my assailant and revived me. We set about the grim business of cleaning out the remaining Locust and exhaled in unison to the oddly respirational power-chord music cue used to indicate the end of a Gears combat encounter. Of course, this was followed by the cutscene death of poor, doomed Anthony Carmine and another wave of attacking Locust. My French friend and I scrambled to make use of the ramparts and battlements that had failed their defenders, unaware that this about-face of frenzied offense into scrambling defense was yet another pillar of Gears combat design: space conquered into space protected.

Dave Nash, the Epic level designer who came up with Embry Square, was not at all certain what he had on his hands when he was first penciling it out. “I do most of the early design stuff on paper,” he told me. “Graph paper, old-school, D&D style. I just sketch out stuff that I think would be fun.” What Nash actually did was demonstrate to himself and others what Gears of War could be. Embry Square not only became the first sequence of the game publicly demonstrated to outsiders — though as an “engine demonstration,” interestingly, long before Gears was officially announced — it also turned into the go-to area for Epic’s designers whenever they tested new weapons and enemies as the franchise went on. “If it works in Embry Square,” Lee Perry, Epic’s Senior Gameplay Designer, told me, “it works pretty much anywhere.”

Nash did something else, though, and that was to lay the foundation for an experience that me and millions of other gamers can point to as an example of how riveting — how tactically interesting — video game combat can, at its best, feel.

Gears of War 3
As I write this sentence, Gears of War has been with us for more than five years, which in video game time may as well be a geologic era. Five years ago, everything was different. The Xbox 360 had neither a marquee title nor an instantly recognizable mascot. The Call of Duty franchise was still years away from releasing a new title annually. The future of the console shooter was still largely uncertain, though Bungie had proved with Halo that a successful console shooter was no unicorn. That Bungie had looked within the original Xbox and saw its shooter potential has always bothered Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic and the mind behind its Unreal Engine. “In terms of art and style,” he told me, “Halo is a lot like what we did with the first Unreal game. We had all the technical resources and experience to make a game like Halo, but we didn’t see it. We were still in the PC mindset.”

PC shooters had developed to showcase precision, lightning quick turning speeds, swingy cameras, and copious respawns. They were brutal, fast, unforgiving, and wild. A mouse-based control schema made a lot of these design choices somewhat inevitable, but Sweeney, along with Cliff Bleszinski, Epic’s Design Director, realized that if shooters really were moving to the console, the way the shooter felt and played had to change. “Cliff’s big initiative,” Sweeney said, “was to rework the gameplay so that it would make sense with a controller.”

Hardcore PC-shooter fanatics still lament the genre’s Great Console Migration, and they maintain that the controller provides only a fraction of the mouse’s precision. Almost certainly, this is true. But Bleszinski understood something vital: If the shooter is about a visceral connection between player and avatar, action and reaction, perhaps nosing a mouse along a felt pad was a poor approximation of the shooting experience. Perhaps the approximation of holding a big rattling piece of hot and deafeningly noisy metal made precision somewhat beside the point. Perhaps the messier controls of the console shooter actually had the potential to make shooting profounder, somehow. Many developers who went from PC to console shooters never understood the necessity of this leap and thus never made it themselves.

Yet, on the face of things, there was little reason for anyone in the first half of the 2000s to believe that Epic was on the cusp of releasing a shooter of generational impact. In fact, Sweeney admitted, Gears‘s development put Epic at considerable risk. “We bet the company on the fact that the console was going to be the future,” he told me. His other bet was that the Xbox 360 would be the dominant console within that future, which was not at all certain when the PlayStation 2 had outsold the original Xbox by a factor of five to one. Finally, there was the question of Epic’s available manpower. Although the studio was (and remains) a relatively small company among its AAA peers, the original team tasked with developing Gears was tiny by any metric. “Maybe twenty-five people,” Sweeney said.

When I asked Rod Fergusson, Epic’s Executive Producer, about Gears‘s early days, he sighed. “It was nothing but risk,” he said. Fergusson came from Microsoft to Epic in 2005 to streamline what had hitherto been a long, chaotic, and, at times, infertile production cycle. He was happy to count off for me the obstacles facing Epic: “The team in place had not shipped a campaign game since Unreal 1. They’d never done a third-person game. They were going from tournament games on multiplayer ladders to trying to tell a story, and they were doing this on a platform that wasn’t even available. It was just a bunch of dev kits.”

Gears of War began its development life around 2003 in the form of Unreal Warfare, which was conceived as a class-based multiplayer shooter designed for large numbers of players and the frequent inclusion of vehicles. “We worked on that for a while,” Lee Perry told me. “Then Battlefield 1942 came out, and they did everything we were thinking about. On one hand, that validated our vision. On the other hand, it was like, ‘Crap. What else can we do?'”

The game’s next iteration was that of a hub-based, vehicle-utilizing narrative shooter. Nothing about the game fit within Epic’s long-established Unreal universe, however, and the story elements — then being handled by the novelist and game writer Eric Nylund, who would go on to write for the Halo franchise — were stymied by the way the game had been conceived. Fergusson was especially unhappy with how long it took the main story to begin, which was not helped by the game’s “Let’s-head-back-to-base” narrative style. “Eventually,” Fergusson said, “we decided to tell a story about thirty-six hours in the life of one character, so that it was all part of one story.” Epic brought in the well-regarded game writer Susan O’Connor to provide narrative ligaments between the set-piece moments already in place (among them, the Embry Square fight and a Berserker encounter), but they did not yet have the character around whom this new story would form.

Gears of War 3
Epic did have enemy characters, which were called Geists (from the German word for “ghost”). In the earliest iterations of Gears‘s fictional backdrop, Geists were hulking white humanoids that emerged from nocturnally dug holes and pilfered human children. Chris Perna, who designed the Geists, remembers more or less nailing their design on his first or second try. “I gave this scalloped look to the bridges on a Geist nose,” he said. “Originally, we carried that through to everything, including all their vehicles. We had a Geist hovertank that was scalloped, a troop transport whose front was scalloped, and their armor had the same scalloped look.” Very early on in development, the Geists lost their proposed mechanical vehicles for more beastly locomotion, and, in 2005, when Nintendo released a first-person haunter (seriously–look it up!) called Geist,3 they lost their original name as well. In the search for a new enemy name, someone at Epic noticed that one unit within the Geist army, namely the Locust, had a pretty cool name. Thus did a bunch of melanin-deprived, not even vaguely insectoid enemies end up with an entomological name.

Once the look and design of the Locust had been established, a few things happened, the exact order of which is slightly disputed within Epic, but all of which wound up determining the aesthetic fate of Gears of War. The first was the introduction of a cover mechanic into the game. The second was how much of a blast everyone was having while playing around with the Locust in the early stages of development. The Locust were huge, lumbering, scary, absurdly fun to control, and they looked great. In order to maximize the Locust’s best qualities, the previously spacious, Unreal-esque prototype level designs slowly but surely grew more cramped and claustrophobic. At this point, according to Lee Perry, the game “started really becoming Gears.” More than that, everyone at Epic had grown tired of “pixel-hunt” shooters, wherein players spend most of their time shooting at enemies from afar. But Locust needed to occupy real space on the screen. “If we’re going to put all this detail on these giant creatures,” Perry told me, “we wanted to be able to see them.”

At this point, Cliff Bleszinski was thinking of Gears as having one large metal boot planted firmly in the survival horror genre, which was traceable to his admiration of Resident Evil 4. In fact, Bleszinski coined a new genre, “military horror,” to describe the kind of game he had in mind. While this “survival horror” version of Gears of War was abandoned, horror elements survive in the game, from the skinned corpses Marcus and Dom find hanging in the prison rafters, to the lightning-lit spook-house factory environment visited midgame, to the sequence in which Marcus and Dom must make their way across a chasm over rottenly collapsing planks.

As Gears‘s central characters began to emerge, Bleszinski began to see the outline of a Band of Brothers-type game about the bonds men forge in the kiln of combat — a better realized and more emotionally fulfilling experience, Bleszinski hoped, than what was always promised by the World War II shooters then dominating the marketplace. While this vision of Gears was also largely abandoned for something more kinetically incendiary, it planted the narrative seeds for Marcus and Dom’s friendship, which has become, for many gamers, the most striking aspect of Gears’s fiction.

As for Marcus Fenix, a character known to and loved by fans worldwide, he required many rounds of refinement and rescoping. By Bleszinski’s count, there are “at least six” versions of Marcus kicking around Epic’s concept-art database. In designing Marcus, and all his fellow Gears, Epic’s idea was to make them as big and fun to play as the Locust, which would not only allow for duplicated animation sequences and art assets but give the world a sense of chunky consistency. The earliest attempts at designing a typical COG soldier covered the conceptual waterfront, from twenty-third-century samurai to SWAT-ish urban warriors, but until Epic knew what Marcus looked like, no COG design could make much of a claim for itself.

Chris Perna did not do the original concept drawings of Marcus, but you need only to meet the man personally to realize the influence he had on Marcus’s design. This is another way of saying that Perna is one of perhaps a dozen people on this earth who could don Marcus’s armor and not be laughed out of town.4 Designing Marcus’s body was easy, but his face was somewhat elusive. “We wanted a predatory intelligence in there somewhere,” Perna told me. “The early iterations of Marcus’s face just didn’t have character. Then J-Hawk [Jay Hawkins, an Epic artist] sketched out this rough, crazy head with scars and acne on the back of his neck and the bandanna — and that was Marcus. He just appeared.” Getting Marcus to this place was the stuff of solid, nuts-and-bolts design. Giving him neck acne? That was a stroke of genius.

The overall look of Marcus’s fellow COGs — including Dom, whose texturing was loosely based on actor Danny Trejo — quickly fell into place: massive soldiers with the armor of a professional military force but which bore the wear and filth of a paramilitary force. These sci-fi barbarians were at last positioned to duke it out with their Locust enemies in the white-walled prototypes of Epic’s early level designs.

For Cliff Bleszinski, the magic moment of Gears‘s development came later, during a purposefully mysterious tech demo, when Gears was — publicly, at least — called nothing more than COG City Adventure. “It was the over-the-shoulder viewpoint,” Bleszinski remembered. “It was night. There were some pillars and Locust in the distance shooting at you. Marcus was diving into cover, sitting there for a second, mantling over, and moving across the map using cover. That was the first glimmer of what we actually had on our hands.”

For Dave Nash, there was no single magic moment but rather a magic realization: “We were all playing versus against each other after a long, exhausting week, and we were still having fun. When the thing you’ve been working on for a couple of years should be boring you out of your mind but is still a blast to play — that’s a good sign.”

The magic moment for Michael Capps, Epic’s President, occurred worryingly late in the process. “I was threatening to cut multiplayer from E3 [in 2006] two days before we left for the show,” he told me. “It was not ready. The major UI [user-interface] elements weren’t there. But the guys worked forty-eight hours straight to make it work and we took it to E3, where, for the first time, I saw outside reaction to the game. People got it so well. They understood exactly what we were trying to do with cover and flanking and chainsawing. They were having a blast. The chainsaw was ridiculously overpowered at E3, and we were like: Who cares! I didn’t know for sure about Gears until I saw that reaction.”

Lee Perry’s magic moment is inexorably bound up in what he believes is the secret to Gears, which is not cover but what he calls “combat range.” According to Perry, “We put in the cover system to make sure everyone was closer together, having gunfights at thirty feet, about the size of a living room, which is an absurd range in real life.” The perfect Gears combat range did not become apparent until an early map design called “Streetfight” caught Perry’s eye. “It was just two buildings,” he told me, “and a narrow street between them. Actually, it was more like an alley. I was shooting across this alley and for the first time I thought, Wow. I can really see that guy. He’s close enough to charge me if he really wanted to.” Perry then thought: Aha.

In a typical Gears encounter, enemies can mantle over cover and be on top of you in seconds, and not until Perry played “Streetfight” did he realize that this could give Gears‘s combat a wonderfully alarming flavor. “After ‘Streetfight,'” he said, “we knew what a good combat range was. And we finally knew where to place our cover.”

The Art and Design of Gears of War is available only by purchasing the Epic Edition of Gears of War 3, which goes on sale September 20.

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which is now available in paperback.

Previously from Bissell:
Death Can Be Funny
Beyond Angry Birds: The many pleasures of iPad games
Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire

To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.

Filed Under: Art, General topics