They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky… It’s another FangByte article! Welcome to our autumnal crop of Halloween themed Fanbyte fun (that we like to call FangByte). Each day on the week of Halloween, we’ll have more pieces dealing with creepy, crawly topics across games and other pop culture. Make sure to check back for more! For now, though, enjoy the following.
There’s a moment in the middle of Gears of War 2 that sets the game apart from most other third-person shooters. Marcus Fenix and his squadmate Dom Santiago are down deep in the planet’s crust, shooting their way through supply lines and temples and other strange things. They’re looking for Dom’s wife, Maria, lost for 12 years already, but she’s certainly down here in the torture pits where the nefarious Locust Horde are doing something awful to her. They find her, and it’s not pretty.
She’s in a metal tube, and when Dom cracks it open she comes spilling out, ready to embrace him and begin their life anew. Estranged no longer, fulfilled in the completeness of time, they unite as celebratory music plays. Then the camera moves, revealing that this is all some kind of strange fantasy in Dom’s head. Maria, in reality, is thin and wiry. She’s covered in wounds and bruises, and it looks like most of her hair has been torn out. She’s catatonic and unresponsive. The music swells for maximal tragedy, and Dom heroically does what must be done.
It’s predictable and tropey. The drama doesn’t really work in a Gears game. But what’s surprising about it is that the tropes aren’t really out of drama. They’re straight out of horror: it’s the scene where the partner has been bitten by the zombie, or where the lone fighter has to protect the escape. It wants to be the end of Titanic, but it’s really the end of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.
I’ve been slowly making my way through the Gears franchise this year, and I’m here to holler about the fact that these are, in fact, horror games. The hollow earth is chock full of creatures come to murder and capture civilians and friends while you and your rag-tag team of compatriots come to accept the conditions of this hellworld as normal. This shit is scary.
If blockbuster video games are often designed like theme parks, then the Gears of War park is rocking at 50% haunted house.
At the mining facility in Gears of War, Marcus watches the shadows of enemies scamper around at the edge of vision. They stalk him and his team as they attempt to enter the facility, seen only in flashes, until all hell breaks loose. This scene repeats itself throughout the Gears games, and it’s not just there because it works to get you into combat.
The real reason is that Gears wants to set you up for the same experience that a horror game or film goes for: you’re ready for anything and on-edge, then you’re overrun, and then you persevere long enough to make it to the next encounter. The games dip back into this well over and over again not because it is necessary but because it is the only thing that can temper the rah-rah soldiering that Fenix and his crew embody.
In the same way that the space marines of Aliens need to be de-powered by the haunting threat of the xenomorph and its hit-and-run tactics, the Gears have to be constantly put into situations of scares and horror for their big and boisterous gun scenes to matter.
In other words, the flow of these games is secured by horror. They work because they adhere to some basic principles about power that operate within the genre. Recently, in Gears 5, we spent a large amount of time walking through a facility where mutated horrors stand frozen from a horrible encounter that happened years before. In the same way that mannequins and statues are used in horror films to amp up the tension, these stock-still ice sculptures are there to make you worry about what’s going to happen when they start moving.
And they do start moving, of course, because they have to. Where a horror film might use some classic tropes like a big knife rack or a blinking overhead light to amp up the tension, subvert it, and then scare you, Gears is just using it to shortcut into some emotions before action takes over.
When slasher films use the classic “fridge shot” (camera on the side, protag opening the fridge, door closes and there is something there…or not), they do it to amp up the tension and then scare us or let us off a little unsettled so that they can scare you some other way. When Gears uses a stock trope like the lights cutting off or shadows cast on a wall, the designers want you to think “oh damn, that’s something they might use to scare me!”
The Gears games use horror to put us in a meta stance toward the trope. We’re meant to be “outside” the scare in some way, and maybe that’s because we’re always in the bodies of burly men and women who are going to saw their way through whatever horror comes tromping along.
In the final calculus, Gears of War might have the same relationship to horror that Scream or Cabin in the Woods does, but that still places it handily within the horror realm. And that’s credit that the games don’t get enough.