The Lessons of God of War

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Can God of War teach us anything useful, or is it pure, mind-numbing entertainment?

During my college years, I had a professor who taught film theory courses. He shared many fascinating stories about the importance film played in his life growing up in a country that bordered the USSR, and how that drove him to pursue the study of cinema. One evening, he recalled a conversation he had with one of his professors, who began questioning him on an age-old debate – is cinema art?

Even some thirty years after being asked this question, the frustration of that moment still lingered. The question bothered him, he told us, because he was under the impression that this had been answered and resolved long before he took up film as a study. Yes, film is art, and in order for the medium to progress, we had to accept that as fact.

In some respects, I feel video games are almost at that point in their trajectory. Most people have come to accept video games as a medium for artistic, creative expression. Of course, there are detractors, people who will never view video games as more than a child’s toy. But for many, the debate has already been settled, and it’s time to move on.

That’s not to say there aren’t unresolved issues within the medium. Many video games provide players a way to interact with fantastical worlds, and that interaction is almost always carried out with a gun. Violence is the main mechanic in many games, and although video games have reached a point where most gameplay is fundamentally sound, there are aspects that are still primitive. It’s a work in progress, and there are encouraging signs that the medium is evolving.

I strive to support titles that push the boundaries of the medium, as my way of contributing to this progress. Titles like Gone Home, Ico, Papo & Yo and Thomas Was Alone break free from this mold of video games being a platform for violence, and present characters, stories and worlds that explore intriguing ideas, the same way literature, film and music have. Although these titles are outnumbered by the Halo, Gears of War and Battlefield games of the world, their number is growing, and I foresee a day, hopefully soon, where I have the same reaction as my professor to the question, are video games art?

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Games like Ico do not rely on violence to create a compelling experience.

That said, I spent this past weekend beating God of War: Ghost of Sparta, one of the six God of War games released thus far. Six complete games, which all revolve around a Spartan named Kratos straight-up murdering every Greek God, Titan and mythological beast imaginable. Six games of excessive violence, quick-time events and ridiculously unnecessary orgies. God of War is a franchise that doesn’t offer much in the way of story and character development, while relying a little too heavily on violence, and yet I love every second of it. I feel conflicted over my support of a franchise that does little to shed the image that video games are nothing more than power fantasies for socially awkward straight males, yet I ignore all that because, well, they’re really good games.

As soon as I wrapped up Ghost of Sparta, I happened across an article on the website Cracked, titled “4 Ways You Are Being ‘Aged Out’ By The Gaming Industry.” I’ve been a fan of Cracked for a long time, and often find myself in agreement with their takes on the video game industry. Yet this article surprised me – my reaction to it was mixed, equal parts praising author David Wolinsky for his views on a medium which is too reliant on using violence as a way to create conflict, and equal parts disdain for his low expectations for what the medium was capable of. The article is definitely worth reading, but to summarize:

  • Wolinsky views video games as a medium stuck in a state of arrested development – developers and adult gamers want to see the medium move away from 200 hour long murder simulators, and toward shorter, more meaningful experiences
  • The industry is being held hostage by kids, teenagers and college students who complain loudly when a game is too short and have the time and disposable income to invest in yearly Call of Duty releases.
  • He argues that video games are incapable of conveying ideas that are applicable to everyday life, unlike literature, film and music:

“If you grew up playing video games, sooner or later you have an epiphany: ‘This isn’t going to make me look at my life any differently.’ Video game culture has a deep foundation of insecurity, and this manifests in many ways. For example, many maintain that the mark of a truly significant and worthwhile video game is whether it made its player cry. This is, in a word, stupid. Like, remarkably stupid. ’Forrest Gump sniffing glue after a concussion’ stupid.

As video games attempt to assert themselves as a worthwhile method of creative expression, they are struggling to do so effectively. Many industry series, like Fallout or BioShock, draw heavy inspiration from films, but seem to be recreations of action movies as explained to them via a game of telephone a week or two afterward by a kid abusing Ritalin and Monster. This is not to say that people who make video games don’t understand how other mediums work and how to integrate what they learn, but we don’t get to see that by the time it’s been project-managed, market-tested, focus-grouped, and finger-blasted by GameStop executives for critical feedback on how they think their audience will feel about what they’re being shown based on early, formative stages. These are the meticulous sneeze guards that protect an industry’s audience from seeing different experiences, meaningful stories, and relatable characters.”

It’s in those words where I find myself the most conflicted – I wholeheartedly agree that video games do rely too heavily on certain tropes, and it’s time to see progress on those fronts. Yet I strongly, vehemently disagree that the medium, in its current form, is incapable of delivering the kinds of experiences that will impact gamers long after they’ve put the controller down. And that’s when I had my own little epiphany – despite all of the ways God of War fits the narrative put forth by Wolinsky, it’s also the perfect counter to his argument. God of War is a shallow, violent power fantasy, and it also has important real world lessons to teach.

So Easy To Use

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Great games like Shadow of the Colossus are hidden to many who would otherwise enjoy them, due to the inherent difficulty in playing video games.

One of the most common problems I run into when discussing video games with someone who hasn’t played them is their accessibility. This came up when I was explaining Shadow of the Colossus to a co-worker, who sounded very interested in the title. But before I could recommend it, she responded “It’s a shame games are so hard to play – I’ve never been able to figure out how to work them.”

This isn’t a complaint that should be ignored – video games require an absurd amount of knowledge and skill to play. For many, learning how to type on a standard QWERTY keyboard without looking at the keys is an accomplishment that has taken the better part of their life to achieve, and now they have to memorize the layout of a Playstation 3 controller? But what if they want to explore the world of Halo – now they have to familiarize themselves with an entirely different controller. And don’t even get started on whatever piece of plastic Nintendo is currently using.

This accessibility issue is one that has been ingrained into video games for so long that, as Wolinsky points out in his article, it has manifested itself in some unpleasant ways. Video game culture does have a deep foundation of insecurity, and in an attempt to allegedly “protect” the medium, little thought has been given to just how difficult it can be for someone to pick up a controller and play a game. This may seem like a very low hurdle to overcome for people who grew up with a NES controller in their hands, but for many it’s a big ask. Which is why the industry should always look at ways to make controls more intuitive and easy to grasp – that way it has a chance to reach the largest, most diverse audience possible, which hopefully leads to more diverse game development and releases, leading to the growth that developers and many gamers hope for.

If asked which franchise would be best for a first-time gamer to play, based on how easy the mechanics are to learn and master, God of War would be close to the top of that list. The gameplay in God of War, from the very first entry up through the last, is near perfection. Movement is controlled by one analog stick, combat is mapped to three buttons, and defensive maneuvers consist of one button and one analog stick. Offense is simple, with light and heavy attacks, and there’s no need to worry about controlling the camera along with player movement – God of War utilizes fixed camera angles, mostly as a way to increase the cinematic feel of the action, but also to lower the complexity of the controls.

That last part cannot be overstated, and it’s worth celebrating – the controls in God of War are the result of decades of refining, tweaking and trial-and-error. That it’s so easy to dash through ancient ruins fighting a cyclops, giant hydras and Zeus, and that it’s also entertaining in the process, is an achievement, and one that should be used as a way to lower that accessibility barrier, driving more people into the medium.

Unfortunately, there is more to gaming than learning the controls – context is crucial, and this is where God of War fails as an ambassador of the medium.

Press X For Group Sex (and Decapitation)

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It may be enjoyable, but God of War is also not the best ambassador for the medium.

One of the largest complaints levied at video games, and one that needs a considerable amount of work, is the lack of compelling narratives. Very few titles offer a story that matches the narrative quality of movies such as The Godfather, or TV shows like Breaking Bad. We know this is a problem, and we’ve illustrated on this site numerous times how video game stories often stumble, and also how they can succeed.

But the problems go far beyond compelling narratives. In the instance of God of War, the plot may be basic, but it’s very compelling. Revenge is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, and some artists have made entire careers exploring the topic. But the issues with God of War are in the methods used to explore this thematic device – violence, sex and more violence, and how, eventually, they begin to feel cheap.

I’ve written before about how unnecessary violence can ruin what is otherwise a great game. Wolinsky also addresses this, specifically the risk gamers run if they complain about violence:

“Criticizing violence in video games typically gets you labeled a prude, but within most gaming communities, there remains in 2016 a lack of widespread acknowledgment that maybe it’s getting boring to do the same things over and over.”

If God of War is inviting for how easy it is to play, it’s equally off-putting for how aggressively violent and sexist it is. Of course a story about revenge is, more often than not, going to get a little bloody, but God of War takes this to extremes. Even more worrying, if one is able to stomach the violence, they’ll quickly find a game that uses it too often to write itself out of a corner.

There are numerous example of violence in God of War that are unnecessary for both tonal and narrative reasons. In Ghost of Sparta, Kratos finds himself tossed into a volcano just outside the city of Atlantis, which the developers go out of their way to convey to the player is a peaceful, technologically advanced city. However, it was threatened by an eruption from a nearby volcano, and the citizens devised a system that would prevent a violent eruption from occurring – two large drills would allow lava to safely pour out of the side of the volcano, preventing any buildup of pressure that would result in a devastating eruption. But the volcano has another use – in the world of God of War, the Titans have been defeated and are kept as prisoners of the Gods. Beneath the volcano, the Titan Thera was kept imprisoned by Poseidon. Kratos comes across Thera, who asks for his help – aid her escape, and she will help the player, too.

There are countless possibilities and directions the narrative could have taken at this point. There’s potential to make fighting out of a volcano into a grand set piece, one that can build the character of Kratos into a survivor. There’s the issue of Thera’s imprisonment, which is an opportunity to not only further develop the characters but to expand on the lore. This one section had so much potential that it easily could have served as the narrative for an entire act.

Instead, Kratos coldly rips Thera’s heart out, leaving her to die a slow, painful death. His weapons are now imbued with fire, which helps him destroy the barriers to his shockingly easy exit from the volcano – the two drills keeping the volcano from erupting. Kratos smashes those, the volcano erupts, and Atlantis is sunk.

Before I go any further, I need to clarify something – I absolutely loved this sequence. It tapped right into the primitive lizard brain all humans still carry with them, and I enjoyed every second of it. That said, it was still gratuitously violent and, from a narrative standpoint, a complete letdown. It’s lazy writing to have a character just literally smash their way through all obstacles, consequences be damned. At a couple points throughout the game, Kratos is told that Poseidon is going to be upset and will retaliate which, in God of War III, goes over about as well as one would expect.

But another reason I enjoyed this scene (and the entire franchise) was that I know how much more video games are capable of. Knowing that allows me to turn my brain off when playing a game like God of War, because I know there are games that will engage me on a deeper level. However, someone who has never played video games before and is curious about them will not know that, and the mindless murder simulators out-number the dramatic, engaging experiences. Even though the barrier to entry may be lowered here, God of War does its best to turn off people who aren’t up for ten hours of intense mutilation, gore and blatant pandering to straight males, all in the name of revenge. To be honest, I’m not always up for that either, and I’m basically the target demographic. In this regard, Wolinsky is correct – video games have a lot of growing up to do. It doesn’t mean getting rid of God of War (after all, there are four Transformers films, and the medium of cinema has survived), but it means we need to do a better job of supporting games that offer different experiences.

You Can Take It With You

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God of War teaches gamers a painful, yet necessary, lesson that many can relate to.

This leads me to the point I most strongly disagreed with in Wolinsky’s piece, and where God of War helps demonstrate that even the most simple, repetitive video games offer something just as valuable as every other art form. The point that runs throughout all of Wolinsky’s article is that video games offer nothing more than an excuse to turn your brain off, to avoid other responsibilities. They cannot offer, at least in their current form, an expression of ideas similar to that of film and literature. They have never been able to do this, and the industry shows no signs of changing.

I mentioned a couple times now how God of War is basically one long revenge story. Six games, all of them centering around Kratos and his hatred of the Gods for tricking him into doing unthinkable acts. Six games about a man who becomes obsessed with destroying the Gods, no matter the cost. His revenge is the motivation for everything he does, right on through to the destruction of the world, and all of Greek mythology.

Most games place the player in the role of saving the world, but throughout the entire series, God of War places the player in the role of destroying it. And for what cause? Revenge. It consumed Kratos, and the urge wasn’t satiated when he killed Ares. It didn’t end when he slaughtered Poseidon, and when Gaia and Zeus fell, there was nothing left of the world, and yet his need for revenge was still present, still controlling him.

Over the course of six games, I have witnessed how destructive revenge can be when left unchecked. I have seen the torment it can cause, not on just the person seeking revenge, but on those around them. Each game conveyed this idea, but it was the culmination of six games that, when taken as a whole, allows the message to sink in. Not even the destruction of the entire world was enough for Kratos – his need for revenge was that powerful.

That’s a lesson I can take into my real life. I may not be cursing the Gods, but everyone has a boss, a co-worker, someone that irritates them, that makes their life far more difficult than it needs to be. But why allow that person’s actions to control you? What good can come of retaliation? Revenge, if left unchecked, can ruin a person, yet we all have felt at one point or another a strong desire to make a situation right, to bring someone to justice for a perceived wrong. Revenge is a part of the human condition, and I can think of few examples that explore the destructive nature of it better than God of War.

Are there films and novels that also explore this? Of course – I’m not saying that only video games can tackle certain topics. But each brings with it a different way of viewing these ideas, and in the case of God of War, I got to direct the action, experience the highs and lows, and witness the destruction that I caused. It’s a powerful message, and one I hope fellow fans of the franchise picked up on, and took with them long after they turned the console off.

Almost There

One of the goals of Theory of Gaming is to explore the nuances of video games, to start lengthy, deep conversations that, hopefully, result in better games. What allows us to pursue that goal is the fact that yes, video games are art, and even the most violent and pandering of them have something meaningful to say.

I have argued for more voices to be heard in the industry, and I will continue to do so. There are ideas and experiences that video games can explore that they haven’t even touched on yet. I eagerly await the day that the narrative elements of video games are just as highly regarded as they are in film and literature. But that doesn’t mean that we should condemn the medium wholesale because, currently, it hasn’t met those expectations, and it doesn’t mean that those ideas aren’t already out there. God of War is, simultaneously, everything that’s currently great about video games, everything that’s wrong with them and a beacon for their unlimited potential.