BY ALEX WAKEFORD
The Coalition’s next entry in the storied Gears of War franchise looks to be very different to its predecessors in many ways; the fact that it won’t feature any smoking or tobacco use, however, is not one of them.
This week, Universally Speaking looks at the recent controversy over this move to maintain the course that Gears has held since its inception.Last week, the internet was set ablaze after Variety reported that the upcoming Gears 5 will exclude depictions of smoking – their specific phrasing being “taking smoking out” – after concerns raised by the non-profit anti-smoking organisation Truth Initiative.
Things lit up further when Rod Fergusson, studio head of The Coalition, weighed in to clarify that this was not a ‘new’ development for the franchise – he has, in fact, been against smoking appearing in Gears of War from the beginning.
It hasn’t been “taken out” of Gears 5.
It was never there in the first place.
Fergusson stated on Twitter that he “Wasn’t trying to [be] any moral police, just reflecting my beliefs after losing friends to lung cancer,” and that he didn’t want “to contribute to the continued normalization of smoking.”
Naturally, people just accepted the creator’s vision here and took it as ‘not a big deal.’ It was, after all, just a few months ago that the unquestionable sanctity of the developer’s vision was touted in response to people considering how Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice could benefit from greater accessibility options.
Everybody just moved on swiftly, no fuss…
Right?Things really dragged on (I’ll stop now, I promise) as cries of “Censorship!” and whataboutery regarding the franchise’s other M-rated elements flooded Fergusson’s mentions.
In the campaign expansion for Gears of War 3, titled ‘RAAM’s Shadow,’ there is a character named Michael Barrick who is depicted with a cigar. The trailer highlights the act of him attempting to light up, which is also the first thing the player sees when they launch the campaign.
This, Fergusson elucidated, was a compromise that had to be made.
Looking further back, to Gears of War 2, concept art for the then-newly introduced character Dizzy depicted him with a cigar which was not something that was realised as part of his character in the final game.
Fergusson cited his desire not to use smoking as a narrative device to further normalise it as an image, stating that he was not “trying to [be] any moral police, just reflecting my beliefs after losing friends to lung cancer.”
It seems to me that it’s absolutely understandable for somebody who has lost family and friends to lung cancer as a result of smoking to want absolutely nothing to do with it, particularly when it comes to considering one’s responsibilities as a creator of influential media.
It also seems to me quite distressing that Rod Fergusson was essentially driven to reveal his personal traumas to justify a legitimate creative decision that nobody actually cares about.
Nobody plays Gears of War and thinks “I really wish there was more smoking in this game beyond the barrel of my gun! This world of monsters and chainsaw guns just isn’t Realistic™ without it!”
Naturally, people have responded by pointing out the ultraviolence that Gears is well-known for, asking whether guns-with-chainsaws will be removed too.
I don’t think that’s a half-bad idea, actually! The latest game has dropped the ‘of War‘ part of its name, which leads me to wonder what a Gears game might look like where I’m playing as Marcus Fenix tending to his beloved tomato garden…
(No, really, I’d love that!)
There is, as has been well-documented, no correlation between violent crime and playing violent video games. People revving their chainsaws in the street with volatile gusto seems like a less prevalent issue in society compared to smoking, which remains one of the lead causes of preventable disease and death in the world.
It is easy to identify something that is exaggerated and silly – between ‘cartoonish’ and real violence – which is where the Gears franchise rather neatly fits.
Smoking doesn’t necessarily hit that same “this is silly” button.Smoking has historically been used as a visual shorthand in a lot of fiction to convey things such as anxiety, cynicism, sexual attraction, masculinity, and class distinctions – it has been normalised as a narrative device.
Storytelling has evolved a great deal over the years and we now seek far more substantial emotional expression from characters.
As part of our own process of localising games to bring them to a wider international audience, we at Universally Speaking consult on culturally sensitive aspects of games on a daily basis and there are a lot of moving parts to these things that others simply don’t see.
We are more mindful of how we tell these stories today, expanding beyond the outdated archetypes of stoic, emotionally stunted men who chew on a cigar as a quick-fire way of informing the audience that they’re a Badass™ who’s not to be messed with.
It is easy to underestimate the impact that media and marketing has on us. It is natural to think that things won’t sway us one way or the other, but we can only speak for ourselves on that matter.People do emulate their favourite characters. San Diego Comic-Con has just concluded, London Film and Comic-Con is happening this weekend, Halo: Outpost Discovery is currently touring around the US – all these events and more always see an incredible turn-out from dedicated and talented cosplayers, which is just one way that people show their love for their favourite fiction.
And that fiction does have a huge impact on us. Many return to their favourite games as a comfort as one would a book, film, or television show; one would not struggle to find stories of people who have been helped through some difficult part of their lives or been brought back together by games.
Where there is the capacity to be so positively affected, we must acknowledge and deal with the fact that there exists negative potential too.
Removing the image of smoking from one game obviously isn’t going to solve a much larger societal issue, but if it helps prevent cancer in the future of even one player today… isn’t that worth it?
What are some of your favourite games that have had an impact on you? Has a co-op game brought you closer to a family member, or made you spend more time with a friend?
Let us know in the comments below!
Gears 5 will follow Kait Diaz as she embarks on her journey to discover the truth about her past – her family’s connections to the Locust.
For me, this looks to be the Gears game that I’ve been waiting for. The origins of the Locust was one of my favourite branches of lore to follow in the original trilogy, and Gears of War 4 got me profoundly invested in the new characters as they navigate this post-war setting.
The world is crumbling. The Swarm has corrupted the Coalition’s robot army and is descending upon human cities. With danger closing in, Kait Diaz breaks away to uncover her connection to the enemy and discovers the true danger to Sera – herself. [Xbox – Gears 5 page]
It is due to release September 10th on Xbox One and Windows 10 platforms.
The next Gears 5 tech test will run from July 26 until July 29, it is available to those who have Xbox Game Pass or pre-ordered the game.
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