Like most people who play and love games, I’ve got so many memories of moments with them that have stuck with me over the years. Watching my sister beat Final Fantasy VII for the first time on the TV in the living room of the house we grew up in. Begging my grandma for the Xbox 360 she finally, inevitably got me. Getting to the end of Dark Souls after a long, arduous struggle, only to lose all progress as the game suddenly crashed. (That last one hurt.) None of them, though, occupy as much space in my memory as the time I spent playing Gears of War with my bestie, back in the Christmas of 2006.
Epic Games’ highly influential cover-based shooter had come out in November of that year. I still remember the E3 trailer, depicting a brutal world in which humanoid monstrosities had eradicated civilization. My teenage mind was immediately obsessed with the blood, the gore, the now-iconic chainsaw gun. My grandma, on the other hand, wasn’t too thrilled about what was displayed onscreen, gross viscera spraying everywhere as the soldiers known as Gears dismembered the ignominious Locust Army.
Still, my bestie Jay and I were enamored. So much so that not only did I plead with my grandma for an Xbox 360 that Christmas, but also for Gears of War and a second controller. She came through clutch, and on Christmas Eve morning, after we ripped through pajamas and socks and ugly sweatersscanning for the biggest box of the bunch, Jay and I found our mark. We bolted to my room, hooked up the Xbox 360 to the TV with giddy excitement, closed the door, connected the controllers, and smashed through the game’s campaign.
It was hard AF! The Berserker, a boss you encounter about an hour into the game and fight three different times in total, was a particular sore spot. Playing in split-screen local co-op, Jay and I got bodied by the hulking monster nonstop. Over and over again, The Locust Drone, with her ear-piercing screech, would run us over with her linebacker body, destroying our cover in the process. She frightened us, but through coordination and determination—and the ability to revive your fallen teammate—we pumped her with enough lead that she finally died. I remember the triumphant high-five we gave each other, exclaiming “OMG, yes!” as we tasted victory at last. Cue the epic handshake meme. It was an exhilarating moment, one we experienced a few times as we soldiered on against the Locust Army’s onslaught.
By the time we reached the final boss, Uzil RAAM, Jay and I were expert Gears. In maybe five minutes, the Locust Army’s High General was lying in a pool of his own blood. We high-fived again, breathed a sigh of relief, and put our controllers down as we watched Gears of War’s last cutscene play out. It was a satisfying experience, one we were bummed to see come to an end, but one that brought us that much closer than we already were.
Sure, we’d been besties since middle school, but there was something about “brothers” and childhood friends Dominic “Dom” Santiago and Marcus Michael Fenix overcoming all odds to (temporarily) save the world from imminent destruction, a fact that mirrored our own lives as we each dealt with abuse at home. In this way, Gears of War acted as a sort of therapy for us, a means to process the anguish and frustrations we had with our families by taking it out on ruthless monsters. It gave us solace while also being fun as hell, so when the credits finally rolled, we started the game over on a harder difficulty to test our skills as Gears. And instead of taking roughly 10 hours to beat, this time we finished the game in just five.
I miss this dearly. Games these days don’t always launch with local co-op. When they do, they’re either online games like Diablo IV, party titles like Mario Party, or brawlers like Street Fighter. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had fun with these kinds of games, and my partner and I are having a blast with Diablo IV as we slay demons in Sanctuary. But nothing has measured up to the camaraderie I shared with Jay. Sitting in the dark of my bedroom, ignoring the time as dawn broke through the curtains, those sweaty Xbox 360 controllers slipping out of our hands and constantly needing new batteries. It was special, especially since Dom and Marcus were always there for each other despite sometimes butting heads. Their relationship echoed Jay’s and mine in ways we weren’t expecting, ways we didn’t fully perceive or grasp at the time but that would leave a lasting impression as we grew older.
We’re far apart now. I’m in New York City while Jay’s still in California. I’m sad we don’t play games together anymore as our interests have changed and no online game has inspired us to join forces again, but I regularly reflect on our time with Gears of War. Maybe it’s the nostalgic rose-colored glasses or maybe it’s the fact that the golden age of local co-op seems to be a bygone era. That’s not to say that the Moving Outs and Overcookeds of the world aren’t enjoyable, just that Gears of War hit different. Regardless, though, I really do miss smashing through Gears of War’s campaign with my bestie.