God of War Retrospective
Games are often viewed as a landscape of violence, a playground for sociopathic tendencies to be artificially unleashed. But the most effective action titles support violent player action with storytelling methods which bridge interactivity with the central plot. Dark Souls suggests a cyclical purgatory in which death produces a liminal conditioning state of mortality. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare dehumanizes the player as a mere expendable soldier, fighting wave after wave of similar mindless drones.
If sweeping panoramic portraits of landscapes in an artwork suggest the encapsulating grandeur of God’s vision, then the cinematic vibrance of God of War implies the pursuit of conquering that divine being as mere mortal form. Therefore, the game simultaneously evokes power and mortality in its playable protagonist, Kratos, who seeks vengeance upon the gods for driving his own murderous hand.
The irony therefore determines Kratos as a conduit of the player’s own violent fantasies, an avatar through which an audience may project their bloody desire, indeed like a god. The player does not take control of Kratos as in a typical narrative gaming experience. Instead, they are assigned the role of an oppressive being with the ability to manipulate his actions in spite of his personal characteristics or motivations. Each swing of his blade is the result of a button press that dictates his every action.
Only God of War effectively illustrates the separation between faith and action, allowing his character individuality from that of the player, almost condemning them each times he cries out against the will of the gods.
Much like BioShock, violence in God of War functions as a deceptive form of empowering oneself. Both games allow the player to level up the playable protagonist to improve their murderous efforts in moving one step closer to godliness. But whereas BioShock allows players to personally attach their own conscious principles to their character, thanks to its silent protagonist and first-person perspective; Kratos is structured as his own individual character, with motivations, goals, and philosophy separate from the player.
Santa Monica Studios utilize this “ludonarrative dissonance” to heighten the storytelling, rather than allow it hinder their narrative ambitions. Kratos does not care how many lives he must take during his quest for vengeance, be them innocent or inhuman. His lack of empathy mirrors players’ own subconscious rendering of these virtual creatures as fictional, inconsequential graphical models to eliminate, whether hideous monsters or fearful human beings.
Santa Monica have thus crafted the ideal narrative game protagonist: a man with his own motivations to inspire a gripping plot, while also acting as a fitting conduit for players to express their own manner of skillful, violent expression. In other words, God of War greatly promotes virtual bloodshed, as it lacks empathy for anything that stands in Kratos’s way, making for the most appropriate meta-game experience to feature so-called ‘hack-and-slash’ gameplay.
Essnetially, playing God of War puts players in the role of Fate itself; of an omnipresent being whom through of a wave of their hand seizes control over this vengeful Spartan warrior. Kratos’s godliness is obtained through his willingness to participate in the player’s jurisdiction, allowing himself to be compelled by the will of the gods as a means of securing his own retribution.
God of War is therefore made compelling by its layers of ironic sentiment. Kratos’s vengeful goals are fueled by his surrendering his soul in exchange for success in battle. This results in the death of his wife and child, by his own hands as sanctioned by Ares; and this direct parallel implies his inability to learn from experience. The gods are selfishly motivated by their own pursuits, because power dispels empathy, which is further emphasized by the player’s own hand in the progression of his quest.
It can be assumed that audiences are willing to play God of War for its stellar combat and overall experience. Bloodshed comes first in hack-and-slash titles like this, and Santa Monica display an understanding of this through their unique methods of pacing. Backstory is continuously presented in short cutscenes as the player progresses, existing as an unobtrusive background for the violent scenarios playing out.
Kratos’s tragic tale then provides appropriate context to the bloodshed, while simultaneously letting the gameplay and level design speak for themselves. It is a pitch-perfect representation of interpreting substance through interactivity, proposing a commentary on Mankind’s historic marriage between religion and violence, and inviting the player to question their own subconscious involvement in this relationship.
Santa Monica’s 2018 revival of the series aims to subvert this concept. Kratos has been given a responsibility demanding unselfishness: a son to lead, to protect, and to teach to protect himself. The series has always revelled in its violence, marrying players’ subconscious desires with the role of a merciless killing machine. But the latest entry seeks to begin again with this in mind, not necessarily to critique this collective allure towards violence, but to demand more from players in their pursuits.
Mindless action becomes a necessary means of survival against natural odds, be it the dangers of the world or the gods themselves. Faith bridges these divisive concepts of danger together, and God of War as a series constantly asks its audience to pick a side.
This distinct subversion dictates a concept arguably only videogames can truly master in presentation. By reconfiguring gameplay to reinterpret the series’s most significant themes, God of War (2018) both expands upon its early design principles and simultaneously radically departs from the original blueprint.
Fortunately, the original God of War remains a testament to Man’s advocacy of violence, mirroring age-old Mythological fascination of Greek gods to that of our current era. In modern times where the entire medium is experiencing attack once again for its allowance of bloodshed through interactivity, God of War stands as a stark counter-argument to the mindlessness associated with traditional videogame violence. A thorough example of a title that infuses gameplay with context, and demands thoughtful play from its audience.