The closest thing video games have to the Oscars are the annual "Game of the Year" awards handed out by the gaming press. This year, there's a rough consensus that three games deserve the nod. The first two are predictable, worthy selections: Wii Sports and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, games for Nintendo's innovative, you've-never-played-like-this-before Wii console. The third choice, however, is something of a surprise—a derivative piece of genre work for the Xbox 360 called Gears of War that somehow still manages to astonish and keep you up late into the evening.
If video games advertised themselves the way movies do, the Gears of War people would have no trouble finding superlative pull quotes. "[B]etter than Halo," enthusesEntertainment Weekly; "the best looking game I have ever played," says GameSpy; "the most fully-realized truly cooperative action experience in games since the days of 2D beat 'em ups—Double Dragon and their ilk," slobbersGame Developer. Gears was also named the overall (encompassing PC games and all consoles) game of the year by GameSpot, Joystiq, and GameDaily.
Gears of War isn't getting critical acclaim because it's unique or revolutionary. The game will be recognizable to anyone who's picked up a game controller in the past 10 years. It's a science-fiction game (a third-person shooter rather than first-person) in the tradition of Doom, Quake, and Halo. You're Marcus Fenix, a run-of-the-mill character whom Gears lead designer Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski describes as your typical "sci-fi combat badass." Fenix finds himself under siege by a race of marauding, genocidal space aliens. He starts out with a relatively weak machine gun but acquires increasingly powerful weapons over the course of the game's five "acts": a chainsaw, a shotgun, a sniper rifle. Conveniently located ammunition clips are sprinkled throughout the game. You know the drill.
What's the big deal, then? First, Gears is the kind of game that Wii skeptics pointed to when they said Nintendo's console doesn't have enough horsepower under its hood. Gears of War uses the superior processing power of the Xbox 360 to render the most impressively animated video game ever made. In one interview, Bleszinski strained for the neologism cinemactive to describe the filmic quality created by the game's graphics, which paint a bleak but beautiful war-scarred planet. Playing Gears of War feels like being dropped into a sci-fi action movie like Aliens or Starship Troopers. (There's even a Bill Paxton-style "Game over, man, game over" meltdown by one of your fellow soldiers.)
Wii Sports uses the motion-sensitivity of the Wii Remote to create an astonishingly realistic gaming experience that belies the game's cartoonish graphics. Gears, on the other hand, doesn't feel realistic in the slightest. The graphics instead draw you into a compelling universe that is fantastical and otherworldly (with more splatter than an early Peter Jackson film). Despite the mantra of many gamers, graphics do matter. (As Bleszinski told GameSpy last year, "[U]ntil recently you couldn't express a nuanced brow raise or a wry grin which can say a thousand things to the user. Instead we'd just go, 'That's hard, let's give her some huge boobs and call it a day.' ")
To go along with its graphical wizardry, Gears of War also employs a couple of nifty gameplay innovations. Most shocking, you can't jump. Almost every game since the days of Super Mario Bros. has permitted players to hop around, even if there's no compelling reason to do so. In Gears of War, however, pressing the "A" button sends Marcus Fenix diving into cover. He hides behind pillars, cars, couches, walls, and any other obstacle you can find. In the game's manual, Bleszinksi says the design was inspired by a game of paintball, during which he realized that the run-and-gun tactics of most shooting games did nothing to approximate the duck-and-cover tactics of a real (or at least a paintball) firefight.
In addition to being a great marketer, Bleszinski is also terrific at explaining how game design works. "In the grand scheme of videogame real estate the 'A' button is Park Place," he wrote in a blog post this past September. "The D-pad, Y, and back are Compton and Watts. When we put together our control scheme for our games we say to the player that the buttons that are prime real estate are the things that the player will be doing most often while playing. Allow me to ask this question then—how did [using the 'A' button for jumping] from the days of Sonic and Mario creep into the shooter genre?"
Despite the clarity of this logic, those who are fiercely attached to gaming convention have moaned that they can't make Fenix bop up and down like Mario. In part that's because anyone with a certain amount of "gaming literacy" expects that "A" equals "jump." When that doesn't happen, it can be frustrating. It's like driving a car that has the brake and the accelerator reversed.
To compensate for tweaks such as no-jumping-allowed, Bleszinksi made the rest of the game hew pretty closely to the conventions of the shooter genre (see the aforementioned sniper rifle). In that sense, the game is intentionally derivative. But while the gameplay is repetitive enough to allow for a pleasing feeling of mastery after some practice, it also has surprising variety. It never feels like you're just plowing through a level to get to the next one. Each successive "scene" is a discovery.
In a 2000 Game Developers Conference lecture, Bleszinski called this element of game design "pacing." "Constant scares dull the senses," he said. "The scariest horror movies are the ones that lull the viewers into a false sense of security and then spring something scary upon them, and a great level is no different." Good pacing, I would argue, is what gamers really want, rather than plot. Pacing can feel like plot, because we're accustomed to thinking of games as narratives, even when they're not. Gears has only the thinnest of stories drizzled over its gorgeous visuals and addictive mechanics. The pace is what makes it great.
In another blog post at 1up.com, Bleszinski acknowledges the derivative nature of much of Gears of War. And that's what people like about it, he suggests. He points to the innovative, critically acclaimed, and commercially disappointing game Psychonauts, whose designer recently complained that game publishers aren't interested in originality. (He might have added that many gamers aren't, either.) "I don't think it's always a good thing to be 110% unique," Bleszinski wrote. "Sometimes, the more unique your game and universe design the more difficult it can be for millions of gamers … to latch onto your game mechanics and characters." He added, "The most original and unique films are often not commercial box office hits. They're the groundbreaking ones that other more mainstream flicks draw from in years to come as the larger audience evolves with them."
That's a good analogy. Bleszinski and his team at Epic Games set out to make Gears of War as the gaming equivalent of a top-notch popcorn movie, and they succeeded. It's a blockbuster, not a revolution.