From playing the first Gears of War I mainly have three immediate memories that I can easily recall: one, I didn't fully like its auto-cover system; two, it's end was quite challenging if not particularly interesting; and, three, the bottom line with it was that it ends up being entertaining if nothing else. Characters? Story? Context? Yeah, there was this guy in a huge military-looking armor suit that also looks like something out of a japanese manga comic, and there were this ugly creatures that seemed to live underground and looked like some sort of cross between zombies and demons.
The game is short, it focuses only on the essential, the action, the so-called entertaining bit. The novel, however, Gears of War: Aspho Fields by Karen Traviss is presented and sold as a prequel to the game but after reading it I can undoubtly say that it does much, much more. I don't need to wonder why fans of the game, who read the book obviously, have such appreciation for the author.
Beyond making her a very good writer the particular background from which Karen Traviss comes give her an incredible insight on the particular context within which the game unfolds. She is able to achieve a level of empathy with the different characters from the game that make it feel as if she had been there, with them, fighting the Locust doing the impossible to save whatever they can of Sera.
"[A] former defense correspondent and TV and newspaper journalist, she has also worked as police press officer, an advertising copyrighter, and a journalism lecturer. She has served in both the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service and the Territorial Army". Although, like she states in her own website and bio "[t]he most hazardous thing I've ever faced was a Royal Navy meat pie". However, even if not directly, she has been a frontline witness, a gun-less soldier, a part of that unique band of brothers that the military can be.
Obviously, it isn't difficult to also feel, and imagine, that as she tells the adventures and battles of Marcus Fenix, Dominic "Dom" Santiago, Augustus "Cole Train" Cole, Bernadette "Bernie" Mataki, Colonel Victor S. Hoffman and so many others she is recalling people she met, situations she heard --or was a part-- of that really happened, or are happening, in a battle much closer to our reality, in a context where real heroes, with real lifes and families fight for what they believe is right or, at the very least, for what they believe needs doing.
Aspho Fields is a very nice and elegantly written --game based-- novel. It starts where the game ends filling-in many of the gaps it has, story wise, and follows from then to a --sort of less-- rushed conclusion. In the process of doing so, of telling the now it seamlesly interwines with what happened in the past of the characters and that of Sera during the Pendulum Wars before the Locust Horde Emergence. While telling us what goes on in their lives, now, we learn and know about what occured before, we learn about some of the events that made of each of them what they are today.
In order to create a more tangible link between the present and the past Traviss adds a character of her own to the ones we get to know in the game. Bernie Mataki is an islander, a former Sargeant of the COG, a former officer of Santiago, a friend and peer of Colonel Hoffman. A soldier who went back before all hell broke loose, one who returns to the only place she now can call home.
Through Karen Traviss, thanks to her and because of her, at least for me, the rather standard and slightly clichéd game characters reshape themselves as she tells us more of them, more about them and the world they live and lived in since childhood. Sadly I don't recall many of the game details, as far as how the story evolves, but the novel provides a feeling that it completes or, at least, attempts to do so with all the standard loose ends.
Most game based novels, more so those qualified as prequels, are happy with establishing context or presenting game characters and mixing them in some sense-making standard adventure, Aspho Fields does much more.
Gears of War: Aspho Fields is written in a very personal way, is a very close quarters adventure so to speak, which goes along with the fact that the game is a third person shooter. Even how everything revolves around the player's avatar, Marcus Fenix, and is told as if from a third person view, almost never having him as the narrator just as an integral part of the events rather than at its center, is a unique way to let the reader know about him without taking away the sense that, in the game, the player is him. It feels as if we are reading about him but also, just as easy, about who we are in the game. It's a little hard to explain but it is a great style for the novel and how it fits in the GoW Universe and lore.
At the end we know a lot more about the characters, about Sera, about its past, present and what its future might hold. We know more about the character whom we incarnate. We know more about those who surround him and that in the game are nothing more than extra firepower, almost accessories of the gameplay and the interface.
After reading Aspho Fields I do understand the context of Gears of War a lot better, of what came before and what is happening now. I understand better why at the start of the game our avatar is saved from prison by his closest friend, Dom, and then lead out of it to keep on fighting against the Locust Horde. The game is but an instant in the life of the Gears in the Delta squad, the novel manages very well to provide us with a better insight on what they went through... so far.