In just the span of a few years, Gears has seen three different lead characters between J.D. Fenix, Kait Diaz, and upcoming Gears Tactics’ Gabe Diaz. IGN sat down with two members of The Coalition, Gears Franchise Narrative Director Bonnie Jean Mah and Gears Tactics’ Design Director Tyler Bielman, to find out how they decide who leads Gears’ stories, how they choose where to tell those stories, and what the future of the series could look like.
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Crafting New Gears of War Protagonists
The Gears of War saga began with Marcus Fenix, a soldier we saw go from prisoner to military hero as he led a team to destroy the Locust and Lambent at the end of Epic Games’ original trilogy. Then, The Coalition brought back the franchise and set it 25 years later with Marcus’ son J.D. in the leading role.
“We could have picked [Gears 4] up as a direct sequel from Gears of War 3,” Mah said, “but Rod [Fergusson] made the decision to jump us ahead by 25 years, which is a really interesting decision because then that forced a whole bunch of rethinking about our universe; who the enemies are, where the characters are, what the heck is going on. So, that already set a really good precedent for Gears of War “thinks” like that. We can think about jumping ahead in time, we’re not beholden to just telling a very linear [story].”
Then came the task of creating a trio suitable to carry on the legacy of Marcus and Delta squad. Mah said she loved that Marcus, Cole, and Baird – among others – were still involved in the story, but hoped to see new characters stand on their own regardless of the connection they have to the series.
“I think our guiding principle was, we wanted these characters to be interesting and believable in their own way.” Mah said. “If we didn’t have any of the Gears trappings around them, would they be people that you would want to spend time with, and be interested in their point of view? But then we worked to connect them to our world.”
J.D. Fenix didn’t get long in the spotlight, though. After Gears 4, Mah said that the story shifted in such a way where it didn’t make sense to play its sequel from J.D.’s perspective. That’s when they made Kait Diaz the lead in Gears 5 as the story focused more on her family and the origin of the Locust.
Shifting Gears Again for Tactics
We’re getting another new protagonist with Gears Tactics, the upcoming turn-based strategy game developed by Splash Damage and The Coalition. We’ll still fill the boots of a Diaz, but this time it’s Kait’s father, Gabe.
“We could have done this with Kait and her timeline, but we didn’t feel like that was right, given there was so much to tell of her story in Gears 5. ” Bielman said. “We could have set it with Marcus and the Delta team, but we felt like we wanted our [Gears Tactics] hero to be unique and have a different take on the world. And while the Delta squad are an amazing set of characters, there wasn’t one that we thought fit the bill for what we were trying to do.”
Bielman explained they wanted to craft a character that made sense specifically for a turn-based tactics game. They needed to be a strategist, and as they began figuring out the story for Gears Tactics, they knew it had to be someone who was “disenfranchised from the COG – to a certain degree.” Gears Tactics is set 12 years prior to the original Gears of War, which put it in the perfect timeframe to star Gabe.
“We spent some time talking with all the different stakeholders about that decision, and ultimately it just kind of really came together really nicely,” Bielman said. “Some of Kait’s dialogue was still being written for Gears 5, so we were able to add those notes… But it all started with our desire to make Gabe a different kind of Gears hero, for a different kind of game, with a different kind of story, for a different kind of player. All the while, though, he’s still got that Lancer with a chainsaw on the end, so he could definitely kick ass.”
His identity isn’t just defined as being “Kait’s father”, though. Even in the short time I spent with Gears Tactics, it was clear that this Gear is unlike other Gears protagonists. He’s combat-ready, but not eager for combat. Still, Gabe is a leader, and one way The Coalition goes about further defining that key trait is through gameplay. Gabe is a Lancer-wielding member of the support class, which is an uncommon character class for a protagonist.
“So many of our characters are defined by the weapon that they carry,” Bielman said. “It became obvious that we were going to make a sniper with our signature Longshot, we were going to make a heavy with our Mulcher, we were going to make a frontline character with our Gnasher Shotgun. And that kind of left us with just only certain things that the [support] class could really do. And at that point, it became clear that if we could build a kind of support character that wasn’t just a medic, but in fact allows you to unlock the potential of the other units and make all your other units better, that felt perfect for a leader.”
Building New Stories in Negative Space
Have you noticed there’s no official world map of Sera? To the dismay of artists and designers at The Coalition, Mah’s team have made sure a complete map of Gear of War’s world, Sera, won’t exist – ever – even when one might make sense in a game or comic.
“The art team is often asking us for a map of the world like a globe, like, ‘can we just put a map in this office?’ I’m constantly saying no, because we have worked really hard to continue what they did in the original trilogy, which is, not commit to a map of the world,” Mah said. “So it’s fine to have local area maps, but as far as I’m concerned, we will not ever have a globe with continents on it.” While this may seem counterproductive to creating the most detailed world possible, it actually helps ensure that there’s always room for the creative teams ideas.
It’s an idea called “negative space,” a concept former Coalition Studio Head Rod Fergusson touched on in an interview with IGN about the Gears of War movie. “We want people to have the freedom to have new ideas and to take things differently,” Fergusson said. [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Negative%20space%20gives%20us%20a%20way%20of%20keeping%20some%20of%20our%20story%20a%20mystery.”]
To this team, negative space means intentionally leaving gaps that they can be filled in later. That doesn’t mean always leaving continent-sized holes or decade-long breaks everywhere – this gap can be as short as the two weeks between Gears 4 and Gears 5. That time was used as an opportunity for a Gears 5 prequel book called Gears of War: Ascendance that featured a journey for Kait and Marcus.
“Negative space gives us a way of keeping some of our story a mystery,” said Mah. “For example, the origins of the Locust were talked about, talked around, in earlier games and novels, but because it wasn’t defined in pure black and white. In Gears 5, we were able to actually take that question – ‘Where did the locust come from?’ – and tie it into Kait’s whole journey,” she says. “So those types of negative space little bits and nooks and crannies in our universe, when we’re thinking about new stories, we do go and try to figure out what hasn’t been explored yet, and where can we sneak our way in?”
It can also be a previously undefined battle or monumental moment, like where (and when) Gears Tactics takes place.
“It made sense to us to go back in time and set it right around the events of Gears 1 – but then we kind of locked in on the Hammer of Dawn offensive as a really dramatic way to start a game,” Bielman said. That particular moment in Gears history – when the COG deployed enough orbital lasers to permanently scorch the planet – helped the team tie in the new mechanics as well.
“This made a perfect sort of setting to start the player in a place where they don’t have a lot of supplies, they don’t have a big army at their back, they can’t really call for reinforcements for a while. And so, once we locked into that event as being the kickoff of the game, then the rest of it just sort of fell into place.” Bielman said.
Books vs Comics vs Games
But how does a story in the Gears universe end up as a book instead of a comic or a video game? What’s the deciding factor? A lot of it comes down to the current publishing opportunities available to The Coalition, Mah explained, and the opportunities a medium provides. Often times, it can be difficult to highlight visually complex moments or intricately interwoven stories in games, but they’re stories from that ‘negative space’ that the creative team still wants to find ways to tell.
“Rise of RAAM is a great example,” Mah said. “We told a story about the Locust, and we got an inside view into the Hollow, the characters involved, the Queen, and all of these politics and machinations and giant battles between Locust and Lambent. That would have been very difficult to tell in a game, just from a scope standpoint, but comics give us incredible freedom to tell these really enormously, visually complicated and giant stories because they’re on the page.”
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The upcoming Gears of War: Bloodlines novel is another example. Mah said they saw the book as an opportunity to explore the four-month gap in the story of Gears 5. The book allows greater insight into not only how Kait’s relationship with the COG changed after a major moment in the game, but also introduces additional info on Gabe’s story leading into Gears Tactics.
“For the players who are interested in finding out more, that information is there, but it’s not required reading,” Mah said.
The different mediums can even serve as a jumping off point for one another, as well. As a spinoff game set long before the events of Gears 5, Gears Tactics gives The Coalition an opportunity to dig into new variations of old enemies.
“Ukkon is a really interesting character to add to the canon, Bielman said. “It was really fun that we were able to introduce him in the comic books before anyone knew that he had anything to do with Gears Tactics… The [comics] elaborate a lot on RAAM’s ruthlessness and intelligence and scourge, but it was the idea of a genius-level scientist in the Locust Army was something that was really exciting. The idea of being able to talk about where some of the technology and the beasts – how they come together, who did that work, who put the rocket launcher on a dinosaur to make a Brumak – That was really interesting to us”
The canon side stories presented in the books and comics provide interesting opportunities to bring back cut characters, too. For instance, Cole’s daughter, Hannah, was originally going to be in Gears 5. However, due to story changes, her character didn’t quite fit as well as they originally planned, and they instead brought her back in the Hivebusters comic series as a scientist who develops the method of infiltrating and destroying Swarm Hives from within.
The Future of Gears
The Coalition’s Gears of War started with Rod Fergusson at the helm, and though he’s left the studio, the creative vision he had for Gears lives on in the current team.
“Having [Rod] guide us and instill that Gears DNA into our studio, I am confident in saying that we live and breathe Gears and understand his intention for this franchise,” Mah said. “We’ve been living it, we’ve been realizing his creative vision over the past six years. So now that he’s gone off to new adventures, I feel like we have it in our studio blood and our studio gut feeling about what would happen next. And we do have hints of what he was thinking of, but he was also very open to new ideas for what would happen next.”
Gears Tactics is the next canon Gears game, and while it’s probably safe to assume The Coalition’s next big game is Gears 6. But, as a studio so firmly tied to the Gears of War franchise, more Gears stories are likely on the way even after Kait and Marcus’ story is long over. Some fictional universes have been hurt by trying to tell stories greater or more ambitious than the one that made the universe popular in the first place, but Mah has an idea of how to make sure that doesn’t happen (while still keeping things interesting, of course).
“For our stories to resonate with our players, we need them to be able to not identify, but feel like they can care about and get involved with the main character. So, it comes down to creating stories that have a really compelling protagonist, making the stakes personal to that protagonist. I think for a lot of stories, the trouble with having giant stakes of saving the world is that: how do you top that every single time? It’s about putting a spin on that giant pile of stakes that you’re trying to deal with, by making it personal to the protagonist.
“And because we need to tell stories in our universe, we then need to make sure that the protagonist actually feels relevant to our story, and sometimes we worry everyone in our universe is related to each other. We’re trying not to do that. But there still is value in making the connection between people. Maybe it’s sharing a history in a certain battle or something, so that there’s a touchpoint that we can make that connection between our new stories, our new characters, and what came before. Because there are certain things that I feel we’re strong at with Gears of War. We tell these very over the top stories, but we ground them with believable characters, believable performances… What we write is a really strong way of uniting our games, no matter what they are,” Mah said.
As for where they can go for the stories, well, that’s what they’ve left all that negative space for. Mah mentioned they still have more to tell of Del’s story, and they don’t want to restrict their creative options for just the “here and now” of Gears either. She reiterated that the jump ahead 25 years from Gears of War 3 to Gears of War 4 shifted how they’re able to think about their stories. And, she said so long as they think it’s a story players will get excited about and that they’re excited about, then stories set in the future are always something they’d be open to considering. [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=It’s%20about%20putting%20a%20spin%20on%20that%20giant%20pile%20of%20stakes%20that%20you’re%20trying%20to%20deal%20with%2C%20by%20making%20it%20personal%20to%20the%20protagonist.”]
“I’m just really excited about all the different avenues of stories that we can tell,” Mah said, referencing not only the different eras that the team wants to explore, but the new mediums – and now, with Tactics, genres – they have to do it. “We’re figuring that out next, but Tactics is a great opportunity to tell a brand new story that’s going to fulfill that Gears of War itch, while we figure out and plan what’s going to happen next in the main series. So I just feel like we have so many opportunities for our fans and our players to still get engaged in our universe. And we’re not going to stop.”
Miranda Sanchez is an executive editor at IGN. You can chat with her about video games and anime on Twitter.