Serotonin: Gears of War, with me and the Commodore

November 9, 2013


I love cooperative play in games. Playing with a partner isn’t always feasible, though, but thankfully games have been getting better at implementing AI partners. Ellie in The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite‘s Elizabeth show that escort quests don’t have to be excruciating, and if you don’t have a friend to play with, you’re not completely alone.

But Elizabeth isn’t going to punch me on the arm excitedly when we beat a tough boss, or scream at me loudly when an enemy pops out of nowhere. Ellie will never call me in real life and ask if I’m down to play a session of Gears of War or bring over beer.

There are a few games that are associated with specific friends. You don’t often picture peanut butter without jelly. Abbott without Costello. Mario without jumping. They might exist apart, but you’re not interested in the individual components. They more than complement each other; alone, they seem incomplete and not nearly as compelling. I read a ton of stories online about gamers and their best experiences; almost all of them include a friend, or a special group that enhanced your experience and formed a bond that wouldn’t exist without that game. I can’t imagine Gears of War, and the two main sequels, without one of my best friends, Scott Murray.

Scott is larger-than-life, a top character in a life that is full of them. He has an explosive laugh and a keen energy, and he’s one of the best writers, public speakers and debaters I know. He’ll make a fantastic lawyer, if his Gears of War play is any indication. Sadly, I doubt his bar exam will have any questions about chainsaw bayonets. For a few summers, we worked at a whale-watching company together. All of the boat drivers were required to have handles; this was used for radio communication, but also used as a fun name to yell during drunken shenanigans. Scott dubbed himself “Commodore Paddycakes,” later shortened to “Commodore.” See what a good edit can do? I got “Shackleton” because Ernest Shackleton’s middle name is Henry. How I deserved the nickname of one of the best explorers ever to set sail, I’ll never know. I have to put on sunscreen in November, and I can barely survive a vacation without getting sick.


Scott and I always played shooters together. GoldenEye was the first, then Halo, then Battlefield. Gears of War would eventually come, but not before Hidden and Dangerous, a tactical military shooter that presented you with challenges like capturing a specific building, neutralizing enemies and falling through the ground and dying while lying on it. It wasn’t very good. In 2006, Scott and a few other friends had an Xbox 360 at a time when very few did, so I was eager to see what the fuss was all about. I remember watching them play something that looked insanely cool with the kind of shock interest that accompanied my first viewings of GoldenEye and Halo.  It looked like a combination of Aliens, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Why were they ducking behind cover so much? What’s the deal with the reloading? Why are they all screaming? Why are the characters’ arms bigger than their heads?

It didn’t matter. As soon as you saw the original Gears of War commercial, with “Mad World” playing in the background, you had to play it. That ad was poetry. The music beautifully contrasted with Marcus Fenix running through ruins before stumbling upon a hideous enemy the size of a house. The screen fades out right before the monster attacks. The song fades out, the logos flash.

After I delved into the instruction manual (remember those?), I read a message from the game’s director, Cliff Bleszinski, about his intentions when designing the game. It was very cool, and something you don’t often see in an instruction manual. Imagine if each Nintendo game had a personal message from Shigeru Miyamoto himself, welcoming you to the world of the new Mario, Zelda or Pikmin. It would make me read the instructions every time.

The Gears games are built for cooperative play. It’s easy to set up, and the second player is more than just a clone of the first. You’re Dominic Santiago (Dom, for short), and you play an integral role in the story. When cut scenes occur, you’re just as much a part of it as Marcus.  It’s fun when you’re constantly screaming at other in a battle, or devising strategies, or commenting on how cheap that boss was. You’re rarely low on ammo, and opportunities for flanks or providing backup are plentiful.


We beat the first game’s campaign pretty quickly; it’s difficult in parts, but I was lucky to be paired with someone who was born to be good at shooters. It was a very dark game; there’s not much color and a lot of genuinely tense and creepy moments. I know it sounds macabre to chainsaw an enemy in half while laughing, but it’s so satisfying that you just can’t help it. It helped the game’s sense of beautiful chaos that you could revive your partner if they’d taken too much damage. Your priority becomes clear when one of your best friends is yelling at you, “revive me!” Where are you? By the stairs? Which stairs? Oh, I’m dead now.

When Gears of War 2 came out 2 years later, it was a no-brainer who I wanted to play it with. We played it during one of the biggest heat waves in Victoria’s history. I lived in a poorly-ventilated apartment, with no air conditioning and carpets that soaked in heat and multiplied dust. All we had to keep us cool was a fan that should’ve been in a retirement home. And beer. Lots of beer.

The original had its moments, but other than the initial “wow” factor, I found the levels to be par for the course. Oh sure, stopping and popping and battling amongst waist-high barriers was cool. It felt like something that our teenage selves would’ve been obsessed with. But the sequel is leagues better. The storyline and world is greatly expanded upon, the cut scenes are more intense and the levels are so varied and creative that it was hard to take it all in. Some levels had you in battles bigger than anything in the first game. Others had you controlling giant vehicles in massive sieges. My favorite involved you slowly walking through a pitch-black cave, making it impossible to stray outside your light source without being killed. It was relentlessly intense, and totally different from the earlier grand battles.

The heat was getting to us. Our friendly banter had turned into hostile accusations. Mistakes were made with alarming frequency. There was a lot of sighing and getting up from the couch, looking to hit something soft and inexpensive to release the internal rage. The Brackish Waters boss (a giant fish monster thing?) nearly drove a spike into our cooperative companionship. We should have quit; we were at the end of a long session, and I’m absolutely sure we were starting to smell. Our bodies were out of sweat. Beer seemed like a good substitute, but I don’t think it helped our gaming abilities. We finally beat the thing after the fifth try, and were satisfied with leaving the rest of the game for another, hopefully cooler, day.


By the time we beat the second game, things weren’t looking as certain in our lives. I was moving out of the apartment, and Scott would be going to law school. Most of our friends had left Victoria for either work or school, and hangouts were becoming less frequent. Just because you finish a game doesn’t mean you can’t hang out, but as you get older, friendships hinge more and more on mutually-shared activities. Proximity is perhaps the most underrated factor in relationships, and when it’s gone, it takes effort to keep them strong.

Gears of War 3 was released in late 2011. Scott still has family here, so I would see him from time to time, but his law school in Halifax is a long way from Victoria. It’s also busy, and I was working full-time. Life goes on, but you sort of wish it would pause from time to time. Commodore informed me that he’d be back for Christmas, and we should tackle Gears 3 and maybe try to finish it. There was no maybe in my book. This might have been the last time we play games together for a very long time, and I was going to finish this with him if it killed him. It very nearly did.

Gears 3‘s levels aren’t as varied, but there were some good new characters, and Cole Train continued his fanaticism towards talking tough and swearing profusely. It was also brighter than the first game. The thriller atmosphere was replaced with more military- and team-based levels. That said, it holds the distinction for having the absolute best scene in any of the three games. Dom sacrifices himself late in the game to save the rest of Delta Squad from an overwhelming amount of Locust, and as he’s dying, the instrumentals from “Mad World” begin to play. There had been a few scenes in GOW2 that tried to pack an emotional punch with Dom’s wife, but this was in another league.

Scott was getting tired at this point. It was late in the holiday season, and Commodore was still jet-lagged. (It’s not easy adjusting to a four-hour time difference after a 12-hour trip.) But this was the last night before he went back, and when would we see each other again? We’d beat every level of every Gears of War together. Commodore and Shackleton, Marcus and Dom. We lost Dom, and soon we’d lose the Commodore.


We weren’t in a stuffy apartment, but the TV we were using was smaller, the chairs weren’t as comfortable as a couch and Scott couldn’t drink a lot before driving home. He dozed off after chainsawing an enemy to death. His character just stood there staring at the mutilated corpse. Marcus is hardly the reflective type, so I poked Commodore awake.

“Henry, I’m so tired. I have to go home.”

“Nope. We’re almost done.”

“I can barely keep my eyes open. I’m falling asleep.”

“No you’re not! Pick up that controller.”

I kept checking walkthroughs to see how far along we were. The amount of psychological tension was palpable: would Commodore find out how much I was bending the truth? He could only be fooled for so long; after all, the computer screen was right next to the TV.

We finally arrived at the final boss, and that gave us the shot of adrenaline we needed. Unfortunately, unlike the first two titles, Gears 3‘s boss in this one took us forever to figure out. Maybe we were too tired. Maybe we missed the obvious weak point. We must have died 30 times each before the solution presented itself.

If only I were able to revive Scott as easily in real life. Once the end credits hit, he was gone.


That was the last time we played together. I’m proud of myself for being so abusively deceptive, and proud of him for sticking through it. We can now say that we beat all three Gears games together. Every Locust defeated. Every boss taken down. Every stealth portion ruined by Henry. Every Delta Squad victory was achieved together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scott’s actually going to be in town soon again. Maybe we should give Gears of War: Judgment a shot?