I’m ridiculously hyped for the new God of War game. Kratos’ redesign is excellent. I’m really excited to see a different take on that character, one who has had years to reflect and mature, one who has let his burning, god-killing rage simmer down to a stoic, grizzly intensity. All while growing an excellent, gods-worthy beard. Oh, and he has a son now! A son who you can apparently order around to do your menial tasks. You know, exactly what sons are for! On top of all that, they’re taking a (literal) stab at Norse mythology, one of my favorites. The game looks amazing.
So naturally, with the release of a new game in the franchise, God of War is once again in the cultural spotlight, and it has people reflecting on the series. And, weirdly, a lot of people seem not to like it.
Now, that’s totally fine. It’s super legitimate to not like a game for any reason whatsoever. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. I’m just surprised that the cultural narrative surrounding these games seems to largely be that they weren’t actually all that good. Maybe I’ve had my head in the sand for the last ten or so years, but I seem to remember that the God of War games were widely critically acclaimed upon release. So why is it that I have regularly heard people bashing on the series lately?
Games, at large, have moved in a much subtler direction as of late. Look at big budget games like The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn and The Witcher. Narrative driven games have become very grounded in their storytelling approach, opting to tell more human stories than games of old. If you look at the PlayStation 2’s library, and the other gen 6 consoles, they largely consist of more cartoony, less realistic games. That was, I believe, mostly because of technical limitations; with the hardware on those systems, it largely wasn’t possible, or easy, to depict realistic humans (with a few notable exceptions). With the release of the PlayStation 3, it became easier to show moderately realistic humans and monsters, and games shifted from cartoony aesthetics to more realistic, grounded worlds and stories. “Real is brown” was rampant during the early to mid years of the gen 7 consoles.
And now we come to the gen 8 consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (ignoring the Wii U and the Switch, here, because they’re both off doing their own special, wonderful thing). Hardware has reached a point where we are rapidly approaching photo realism. And, with that graphical fidelity, the industry has pushed out more and more games like the aforementioned, where the main characters are modeled on real humans, with facial skeletal structures built in to the character models, and sub-surface scattering in their skin. Motion capture is even used to make characters look and feel as realistic as possible.
So let’s rewind a bit and look back at Kratos in the very first God of War. Up until Kratos’ release, most of the big Sony mascots were anthropomorphic animal-like people, like Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank. Kratos was one of the more “human” mascots Sony created at the time, but even then his proportions were not in any way realistic; his torso and height were both heavily exaggerated. This was a design decision likely made, in my opinion, to keep Kratos looking as cartoony as possible, and to keep him away from the uncanny valley; that’s why Pixar characters work so well, but those Final Fantasy characters from Kingsglaive look so damn creepy. They look almost real, but not quite, making it harder for us to suspend our disbelief. Kratos was an excellent mascot for the PlayStation 2. He is a simple and interesting looking character, with ash-white skin and a long, blood-red streak of paint. His profile is instantly recognizable.
Then the PlayStation 3 released, and marked a huge leap forward in technology and graphical fidelity. Along came Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, a game featuring characters more real than had ever been seen before. About three years after that God of War III came out, featuring a better than ever looking Kratos, whose skin had visible pores and blemishes, whose fabrics flowed realistically. Along with Kratos, his roster of monsters now looked more realistic as well, all of them sporting realistic looking skin and musculature structures, as if they were creatures that could actually exist. Kratos and his beastly friends had taken a step away from their cartoony origin.
Now, I’m not going to say God of War III looks bad. On the contrary, it is one of the best looking games on the PlayStation 3, and frankly I think it still holds up. But Kratos, a cartoon character, now had to contend with the likes of Nathan Drake, whose motion capture in Uncharted 2 marked a huge leap forward in the way that human characters were and are portrayed in video games. I think that Kratos, the way he was, couldn’t keep up with such mascots, and the cultural significance of his games has faded away slightly. Just look at the direction God of War 4 (simply called God of War) has taken. The pace is slower, Kratos is a much more grounded character, and the series focuses more on character building than ever before.
Moving away from the visual style, I would like to talk about the actual content of the games, and why people might not find them as enjoyable as I do. These games are akin to big, dumb summer blockbusters; they function on a scale that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Kratos smashes, stomps, butchers and slices his way through an entire pantheon of gods. By the end of God of War III, he is barely a sympathetic character, having unleashed all manners of horror on humanity just for the sake of petty revenge.
But, see, that’s what I love about the story of these games. Kratos is single minded and unstoppable. He was wronged, and he is incredibly powerful, and he will stop at nothing to avenge those he cared for. His story is tragic and, if you take a real look at what he goes through over the course of those three games, you begin to understand why he acts the way he does. Despite, as my friend John over at You Should Play put it, being more murder and violence and less ironic cosmic punishment, I think that the God of War games are pretty interesting twists on Greek mythology. And dear gods, the spectacle of those games. Not only are they technical masterpieces of their time, you fight some truly massive, spectacular creatures. The boss fights in all three of the God of War main trilogy games are, in my opinion, some of the best ever made. You can see the love that the developers poured into these games.
I think God of War is a little smarter than people like to give it credit for. Those games know exactly what they are about. I would liken them to the recent resurgence of dumb, smart action movies like John Wick; they tell a basic story with pretty basic characters, but they are executed with an aplomb that one rarely sees, with so much bombast that one can’t help but giggle in glee at all the mayhem. I can’t wait to see where they go with this franchise, what sort of crazy shit Kratos and Lil’ Kratos will pull together in the land of the Norse gods.
Do you love the God of War games like I do, or do you think they’re overrated? Are you excited for Kratos and Son’s new outing, or do you think the series should be put to rest like the gods of Olympus? Let me know in the comments below! In the mean time thank you so much for reading, and Stay Optimistic.