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Masters of War

Tom Bissell and Rod Fergusson, the brains behind ‘Gears of War 4,’ on the video game tentpole’s antirealism


J.D. Fenix, the brawny, easygoing son of famed Coalition of Ordered Governments veteran Marcus Fenix, is crouched behind a concrete crash barrier in the courtyard of a rusted and ruined industrial building. Across the way from J.D. and behind a series of low walls are members of the Swarm, four pale, vaguely reptilian creatures toting brutish-looking weaponry. Let’s cut these dudes up. As J.D.’s compatriots, Kait and Del, provide covering fire, I maneuver J.D. around the Swarm’s right flank, punch down on the B button on my Xbox controller hard enough to make my knuckle pale, and rev up the chain saw on the bottom of J.D.’s lancer assault rifle. The blades bite into the Swarm foot soldier’s chest, splattering my screen with virtual gore, rendered in pin-sharp definition. The bug soldier falls apart like pastrami. That was fun. I want to do it again.

There’s a lot riding on Gears of War 4. Producing AAA video games — the industry term for big-budget titles and franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, and Metal Gear — is an inherently a fraught endeavour. These are the game industry’s tentpole products, and their success or failure cascades across years of planned hardware and software releases. A successful launch requires a developer to martial innumerable moving parts — graphical elements, art, story, dialogue, voice acting, motion capture — into a cohesive, entertaining whole, while hurtling toward an all-too-often inflexible release date. It’s like building an aircraft while it’s in the air.

For Gears 4, that process was even more complicated than usual. It’s the first new Gears game produced by game studio The Coalition after Microsoft Studios, The Coalition’s parent company, acquired the franchise’s rights from Epic Games in 2014. It’s the first Gears of War game not overseen by the series’ charismatic creator, Cliff “Cliffy B” Bleszinski, who left Epic in 2012. And like Gears of War (2006), the first game in the franchise, Gears 4 is designed to be a visual showcase that will help sell Xbox One consoles. Since its release in November 2013, the Xbox One has been getting pummeled by Sony’s PlayStation 4 by a 2-to-1 margin.

Microsoft still has a chance to regain market share, though, and Gears 4 is part of that strategy. In an unprecedented move, just three years into the life cycles of their current generation of consoles, both Sony and Microsoft are releasing upgraded versions of their respective vanilla platforms.

For Microsoft, that means the Xbox One S, which features a slimmer profile and support for 4K video playback and HDR color, and the mysterious Xbox “Project Scorpio,” which promises true 4K gaming and virtual reality support. The Xbox One S is out now; Project Scorpio will launch for the 2017 holiday season. The social contract of video game consoles, between manufacturers and consumers, established over three decades, was a trade-off sacrificing top-level technical specifications for long-term stability. The life span of a console, until this generation, was five to seven years. Buying an Xbox 360 meant forgoing the bleeding-edge graphics of PC games for the ease of knowing any game you bought would just work. With the advent of the midgeneration console release, the old model is effectively dead. Sony and Microsoft need to give consumers a reason to pony up four chips several years earlier than usual. Aggressive price cuts and the introduction of the Xbox One S boosted Microsoft to the top of the charts for the first time this summer. Gears 4 couldn’t arrive at a better time.

Gears of War 4 looks and feels like a Gears of War game. Its third-person perspective is a welcome change of pace in a marketplace flooded with first-person shooters. But what makes the series, and Gears 4, interesting is how rewarding its seemingly narrow gameplay is.

If you want to play Gears as an emotionally shallow, violent feast for the senses, you can do that. If you want to delve into the characters — their histories, and relationships with each other — you can do that, too. Gears games are loud, subtle, stupid, and whip-smart. Characters handle ranged weapons, and yet the best action happens at arm’s length, with shotguns and chain saws. The game’s male heroes are built like hypermacho professional wrestlers, but the story line’s most affecting moments tug the player’s feelings. People have been known to weep during Gears of War cutscenes. Nailing those disparate experiences and grounding them all with the mechanical feel that players have become accustomed to was an arduous, and necessary, process.

Rod Fergusson, The Coalition’s studio head, has a reputation in the industry for being an effective midwife for AAA projects. His résumé includes Gears of War 1–3, Unreal Tournament 3, Half-Life: Counter-Strike, and Bioshock: Infinite. Microsoft hired Fergusson in 2014, shortly after purchasing the rights to the Gears franchise.

I asked him how The Coalition went about making Gears 4 look and play like the previous games in the series. “We had people who had worked on Assassin’s Creed and worked on Crysis, worked on all these other games,” Fergusson told me. “They immediately approached it with: How can we do it differently? We stopped what everybody was doing and said, ‘Here’s the encounters from the original series, go re-create them.’ So we created a Gears 1 battle and a Gears 2 battle and a Gears 3 battle. Then I said, ‘Now imagine you were making it back in the day, how would you improve it?’ They went and improved it. Then I said, ‘OK. Now that we’ve improved it, go create your own encounters based on your own ideas. A lot of that actually showed up in Gears of War 4.”

I also spoke to Gears of War 4’s lead writer, Tom Bissell. Bissell’s collection of essays on video games, Extra Lives, is required reading for anyone interested in the games as a storytelling medium. He was Grantland’s primary video game critic.

Gears has always been about conceptual contrast,” Bissell said. “This Vietnam War–era type technology set in this sort of sci-fi world with this Victorian architecture with this horror vibe. It’s about these giant men who spend a lot of their time hiding behind cover. There’s all these things, whether some of them are conscious or some of them are not, but I think it all grows out of the same thing. Because there’s these scenes that seemingly shouldn’t fit together but they do.”

For Bissell, the transition from writing fiction to writing for video games was about learning to work within technical limitations.

“When I’m writing a book,” Bissell said, “there’s no one to tell me that nine enemies can’t be on the screen at the same time, or that environment art can’t support the thing you want to do. That just never happens. You have all these constraints put on you as a game writer, but rather than get defeated and frustrated by them, I try to use them as a way to inspire me to do something creative and inventive. A lot of the work you do as a games writer is absolutely invisible to the audience. And if you come up with a clever way to do it, Rod and a few other people say, ‘Hey, nice work on that, but the audience will never see it.’ You learn to take a lot of pleasure in the small things that are hidden. Learning how to navigate those problems and possibilities are the biggest part of the job.”

Writing is writing, though, no matter the medium. The particular constraints applied to the process may change, but the problem-solving techniques are timeless.

“When you watch Shakespeare,” Bissell said, “whenever a fool comes out on stage and starts rambling on about something, you know that Shakespeare needs the leads backstage changing their costumes for the next scene. In game writing, this happens too. Someone comes to me and says, ‘We need a 73-second-long cinematic here.’ I’m like, ‘You realize there’s no dramatic reason, no storytelling reason, for a 73-second cinematic to be here.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but we need 73 seconds to cover the load [screen].’”

Gears of War 4 takes all the core characteristics of the series and turns the dials up two notches. The enemies — both androids and the Swarm — are uglier and more menacing than ever. The gore, rendered in a seamless 60 frames per second, is bombastic and absurdly beautiful. When you kill an enemy with a drop shot, a weapon that fires a floating, laser-guided explosive, the geyser of blood that ensues catches the light from the environment in a way that makes you thankful to be alive in the second decade of the 21st century. The violence is pitched to a level of absurdity that’s cartoonish rather than troubling; no small feat. On television, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld asks audiences to consider video game violence in the context of realism. Gears 4 revels in its antirealism.

“These characters have a lot of personality and don’t seem to take it too seriously,” Bissell said. “Like, if you were to see the kind of exploding body parts that you do in a real combat situation, everyone would have PTSD after about five minutes. Our characters just sort of roll with the punch and keep going on, covered in monster gore. There’s something about that that is really charming. Early on, we toyed with a more kind of grounded Gears of War, and I think we realized that that was not going to be a great idea, and so my big touchstone tone wise was something like Guardians of the Galaxy. … That movie and that tone were constantly in mind, in my mind as we were developing the game, to sort of hit that sweet spot between serious and funny.”

The original 2006 Gears of War’s multiplayer modes held my interest for a few months, but no more. The same issues bedevil Gears 4’s online play. Combat invariably revolves around barrell-rolling into an opponent and shotgunning him or her in the face, ad infinitum. This technique is simply the best way to get kills. After a while it becomes tiresome, a waste of an otherwise interesting weapons set.

The best Gears of War mode has traditionally been “Horde,” in which four players, working together, hold out as long as they can against wave upon wave of progressively stronger, faster, and smarter enemies. Gears 4 is no different. “Horde 3.0” introduces classes — sniper, engineer, soldier, and scout — each with different attributes that a team can leverage to survive as long as possible. This, along with some other changes, like an attribute-boosting card system and wagers players can place on their own performance, called “bounties,” adds a increased level of strategy to the already tense gameplay. Killing enemies produces currency that the players can use to build defenses. It is the perfect hanging-out-online-with-your-friends multiplayer mode. I’ve been playing it a lot. And I never pass up an opportunity to use my chain saw.

This piece originally misidentified the organization J.D. Fenix belongs to and one of his compatriots. They are the Coalition of Ordered Governments and Del, respectively.