What’s Great About God of War? (Part 3)

Part 2 Here.

I would be remiss not to go into further detail, however. It’s obvious that the game holds some large problems, not the least of which is its mechanics. Given the site’s focus on video games, though, the experience of being the God of War doesn’t circumvent the game itself. This doesn’t mean that Ninja Gaiden, DMC, or Bayonetta don’t have flaws; far from it. Each has genuinely bad things in them, but GoW’s list of negatives outweighs the positive when judged as a game. Even its story falls below par. Yet, it’s in the story that we see God of War’s true character.

Let’s say I like GoW’s story, for example; I mean, it’s functional, I guess, but for all the emphasis placed on how awesome it is, it all boils down to “Kratos kills people who wronged him or he doesn’t like, or even those who get in his way”. He’s a maniacal murdering nutcase, for the most part. Is it explained by the fact that his family was murdered? Somewhat. Revenge narratives provide a clear (and cheap) motivation for any character; Ezio’s story was motivated by revenge, but his motivations grow. He fights for a cause greater than himself – namely, human liberty and freedom. The fight against the Templars goes far beyond his initial feelings, and Ezio becomes a different person as a result.

Kratos? Well, his revenge was motivated by Ares, the “God of War”. Kratos was a Spartan warrior who fought many battles, but was eventually outnumbered and outgunned. Saving himself by declaring servitude to the gods, Ares took him up on the offer and plunged the famous “Blades of Chaos” into his arms. During one of Kratos’ battles, Ares places Kratos’ wife and child in the village he assaults; he kills them both purely by accident, and it is here that Kratos revokes his service to the gods. He ends up serving the other gods in Olympus for ten years, allowing his hatred and vengeful feelings to stir. Even the other denizens of Olympus stand aghast at Ares’ ruthlessness; thus, they resolve to send the mortal Kratos to kill the God of War. Surprise, he succeeds at this task (even after dying), but this doesn’t break his guilt nor solve his problems – instead, he is forced to take Ares’ place.

His lust for revenge makes him abuse this power, as he spread chaos and violence in the mortal realms with his new found powers. It probably wasn’t a great idea to give a tortured warrior god-like powers, hmm? Then Kratos is killed again because he acts all violent. Then (in true Metroid fashion) he has to gain enough power to fight the gods once again. And again. And again. Not to be overly reductive; it’s fun seeing the pantheon of gods and various beings in Greek mythology given form, but clearly the motivation for Kratos’ murder spree get thinner and thinner each time. Zeus didn’t kill his family, after all, yet he’s the main antagonist for the second and third games. They make a whole new motivation for Kratos – it’s not even really the same character arc! And how often does an act of self-forgiveness lead to a brutal and horrible beating. Zeus is basically the Anakin Skywalker of this story, which makes me laugh. A lot. If I wasn’t already horribly disgusted by this spectacle. Let’s numb ourselves to all violence by beating someone to death! That’s a fun little game mechanic, right? You can beat him so hard that your vision is covered by blood. Seriously. What is the meaning in this?

Dance Dance Revolution + Violence = Win?

What’s even worse, that bloody victory doesn’t even require a whole lot of timing or skill. If there’s no challenge to the combat, then what am I doing? Pressing buttons – the quick time events rear their ugly head here and throughout. I’m sure it gives that video game “sense of satisfaction” of a well designed mechanic (the pauses when you strike nearly anything, for example), but there’s nothing underneath. It’s a shallow experience. If I just want to be pleased repeatedly when I play a game, I could do that just as easily by watching television without any input on my part. It’s a subtle illusion on the part of the designers to make an interactive medium “non-interactive”.

It’s interesting to note that comparable games like Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden’s reboot, and Devil May Cry (the Japanese developed iterations) don’t care much for story – interactivity was their key motivation. Bayonetta’s plot doesn’t make any sense at all, not that I care. Ninja Gaiden’s plot does little but provide interesting settings – it’s just kind of there. Devil May Cry has fun with its protagonist (except in DMC2) and makes him say corny one-liners all the time. Story is important in this particular class of game only in providing a fitting atmosphere for the combat. In fact, I imagine one could say if they just plopped me into a situation, said all the things the “plot” says with a minimum of exposition, I would have just as much fun and consider it a great/awesome video game regardless. A truly well-made game doesn’t need aesthetics and artifice to show that it is, in fact, a good game.

To make the point further, let’s not even get into the genre debate and distinctions. Let me bring an example. Super Mario Galaxy has a story. Every Mario game has a story, however simple. Do I much care that the “story” is, to put it lightly, simplistic? Not really, because it’s irrelevant to the fact that it’s well-made (yes, a retread of a 14 year old game, but still solid). If God of War’s theme is essential to the experience, this means the game IS lacking something on the actual “game” end.

So, you move through a series of perfunctory fight sequences with cinematic quick time events to reach the objective to a story that takes as much from Star Wars as it does Greek myth. What do you get? Well, nothing I need to play, that’s for sure. If anything, it’s a weird promotion of bloodlust and carnage for its own sake – not to a purpose. As much as they gussy up the story with contrived motivation, what other reason does Kratos have? He’s not an “anti-hero” – he’s just a scumbag and a horrible human being. He makes deals with the gods and goes back on them. He gets his way by virtue of beating or smashing everything to death…and this is the character we idolize and cheer for? 1Up’s Bob Mackey makes note of this in his preview of the newest installment, God of War: Ascencion:

After a producer took the stage to flatly spill the beans about the latest God of War “product” (hint: the best way to get people excited about your game is to speak of it as you would a tractor or discount boating supplies), a crowd of journalists bore witness to not one, not two, but four ripped-and-shredded Greek figures tearing into monsters and one another with the kind of testosterone-fueled mania now standard for the God of War series. An initial fight with a cyclops ended with a spectacular burst of violence when the one-eyed creature’s meticulously rendered entrails slipped out of his man-sized torso wound, causing its lifeless body to slump over and disappear, Double Dragon-style…

After the somewhat directionless action leveled off, the playable characters focused their attacks on the colossal megaclops, which seemed like it’d be happier anywhere else, given the chance. After slicing his jaw down the center, our heroes each launched a grappling hook into his throbbing, bloodshot eye, as if to reenact some ancient World’s Strongest Man competition. But instead of yanking a bus down a city street using only their teeth, these brave warriors slowly but surely pulled his eye from its socket in what can only be described as an excruciating handful of seconds. Just before the eye could pop forth from its happy home, a player leapt at it, sword pointing dangerously outwards. Mere tenths of a second before contact, the God of War: Ascension logo hit the screen with that noise logos make when they do such things, mercifully interrupting what could have been — surprisingly — even uglier.

The lights go up, and the crowd erupts. I slink down in my chair. Did I somehow get on the wrong bus and end up at a serial killer convention? Or are tasteless examples of sadism like this slowly but surely slithering their way into video games?

I’m not all that uncomfortable with violence in video games. I know the difference between good and bad, though, and that violence needs reason. Even God doesn’t enact violence for his own caprices. Just because a game provides a flimsy justification doesn’t justify its bloodlust. I can’t stand for that kind of sadism; as a Christian, it’s totally unacceptable. As a human being, it should be totally unacceptable – yet, here we are, promoting and cheering for people pulling something’s eyeball out of its socket. How is this cool? Why is it fine in a civilized, supposedly nonviolent society?

Apparently because that’s cool to see?

The nihilistic reigns in such games and in men’s hearts. It’s immediate pleasure of something sick and twisted without any consequence or punishment. What could make us want this? There is no redeeming factor in this harbinger of death. Kratos, then, is the hero of the modern age – a self-sufficient deity unto himself. But what does he have to show for it? Nothing but death, destruction and harm in a world that thrives on the continual cycle of sin. The third game throws in a line about Kratos filled with “hope”, but once mankind has killed God, what is left? Nietzsche, of course, would say:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

But I can’t accept that answer. Idolizing violence, physical or spiritual, doesn’t solve the problems of humanity. What have human beings wrought as the gods of their own world? Nothing but sorrow. Only God can end the cycle – not a God of War, but a God of Love, love incarnate. That’s all that will save us – not some misguided nihilism of self-mastery. Christian was an escape from the world of Greek and Roman religions, with their petty, violent, and fake gods. They stand no chance against a God of love who overcomes by subversion in pure love. Proverbs 3 applies as much to the digital realms as to real life.

29 Do not devise harm against your neighbor,
While he lives securely beside you.
30 Do not contend with a man without cause,
If he has done you no harm.
31 Do not envy a man of violence
And do not choose any of his ways.
32 For the devious are an abomination to the Lord;
But He is intimate with the upright.
33 The curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked,
But He blesses the dwelling of the righteous.
34 Though He scoffs at the scoffers,
Yet He gives grace to the afflicted.
35 The wise will inherit honor,
But fools display dishonor.

Violence for its own sake never works; it’s what brought down many a great empire and civilization. Who says the same couldn’t happen to us? That’s why I don’t play God of War…and why you shouldn’t, either.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
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  • As someone of a nihilistic (or existentialist) ideology myself, I find it repugnant yet familiar to see you describe God of War in this light. I never saw nihilism the way the public generally does. It’s not an all encompassing ennui, it’s a freedom to decide and, to a degree, discover meanings for ourselves independent of assumptions about inherent or underlying purposes in nature. God of War as you have described it is the worst variety of nihilistic, destroying meaning completely. The great struggle of the nihilist is to create meaning for one’s self rather than slip into meaninglessness. Things have use but they do not have meaning, it is how we apply things that create meaning and that is true in DMC or Bayonetta or any such game. God of War has no meaning to find, it is blank, and for this reason as someone who is perhaps your opposite philosophically, I agree with you on this matter. It’s kinesthetics without anything backing them, and it’s just as disgusting as imagined.

    • Zachery Oliver

      Late, late response!

      I didn’t so much mean Nietzsche; I realize he is a different breed of “nihilist”, and that’s there is great variety in the spectrum. But I mostly needed him for an understanding of the concept.

      But yes, glad to see we agree on this: God of War has always felt empty to me.