If I could affirm God of War is about—as in, capital “A” About—Kratos’ relationship with his son Atreus it’d make the job of writing this article much easier. Similarly, if I could justify the repetitious play hours I spend wandering off searching for collectibles, experience points, and other, miscellaneous videogame trivialities, as analogous for Kratos’ disassociation from his boy, that’d help, too. But this kind of experiential directionless, manifest in trad, open-world game tropes, the same kind which last month I derided Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5 for epitomising, is even more keenly-felt here.
Whether it meant to be or not, Far Cry 5 was successful at being a game about nothing: there came a point, during its infinite runtime, where its creators’ either commitment to raw content, at the cost of anything, including cogency, or their being unaware of, or disallowed from attempting, a different way of making sandbox games, transfigured Far Cry 5 into a sort of aleatory treatise on the current state of Play—put glibly, it felt coherently incoherent. God of War, by contrast, is commendable for having a central, narrative premise. I like how the game’s characters hold conversations, and conversations which instantiate more than just my next goal as a player; the words and moments they exchange are often, in functional and ludic terms, useless. And I know there is something happening to me, that in terms of how I spend my leisure time I’m gravitating horizontally away from videogames and back to cheaper, shorter, and more comfortably—in the sense there is less “text” per text—didactic other entertainments, like movies, which I can obtain, watch, and be ready to discuss with friends inside three hours.
Videogames’ sensibilities are very traditionally youthful. I don’t feel entirely justified, any more, in demanding they correlatively grow up, because it feels something like criticising Young Adult novels for not being advanced enough for me. This might be my illusorily-worded admission of defeat, my nice way of finally surrendering to the infuriating prosaism that “videogames are only supposed to be fun,” but I’m positive the fact I didn’t enjoy God of War is the result of my own increasing inability to engage with videogames on their terms; that what I’m about to write is going to sound like a man who prejudicially just doesn’t like games, because, owing to multiple influences, I don’t right now.
It was Astrid’s article, on God of War’s unbroken, tracking shot style of “cinematography” which brought this to mind—the idea that, if God of War is presented and packaged as a holistic piece, with Kratos’ and Atreus’ relationship at the centre (of the unblinking eye of a camera) every single on-screen moment is as significant as the other. The hunt for inexplicable game miscellany becomes as much a part of God of War’s story, treatise, didactic, whatever, as a heartfelt dialogue between father and son, because all the action is given similar visual prevalence. Not long ago I would have argued this dull theory for the rest of the article, resolving because it has no cuts, and its narrative persistently refocuses our attention back to Kratos and Atreus, God of War is complete nonsense; you, meaning Sony Santa Monica, can’t (and I would have actually used the word “can’t”) through various presentational means situate your game as a centered bildungsroman and then expect people playing it to just ignore the trashy parts that don’t fit that definition. You (still talking to Sony Santa Monica) put these things in here. You, quite literally, presented God of War as a cogent whole. You need to explain what relation me wandering off to find treasure chests and artefacts has to the game’s themes.
But saying all that now, it feels counter-intuitive. Rather than God of War falling flat because it doesn’t possess a kind of parented camera, so that all the deliberate elements end up conflated with the more-random ones, and everything loses meaning, what’s actually the case—and acutely more tragic——is that the dialogue between Kratos and Atreus, and their story and dynamic, are blatantly more convicted than, for example, God of War’s collectible-finding, but both are given equal currency anyway. It’s like the camera is apologising for or trying to redeem the game’s “game” parts, like capturing me killing 20 draugr or collecting Jotnar shrines in the same shot as Kratos and Atreus having a heart-to-heart is an attempt at convincing me those things are as worth paying attention to as the game’s scripted drama, which I don’t believe and don’t think I ever will believe. Which is also to say: I don’t believe anything I do as a player in God of War enhances God of War’s story. I don’t feel unwanted by the game, as such—it’s not that personal. But more than anything I’ve played since I first discovered the term ludonarrative dissonance, I feel troublesome—like an interference—and that the whole game would make more sense and be somehow generally better if I weren’t involved; like the best way I have for describing the camera is as a placatory kind of broker between my actions and the game’s intentions, and just the knowledge that that broker exists is enough to make me feel like I’d rather just go.
Which leaves me feeling like the Atreus to videogames’ Kratos: reluctantly accepted but reminded of my unimpressiveness, a nuisance, without whose presence life for my dad might not be as rich but would definitely be more straightforward; without whose presence, the game wouldn’t be as long, or various, or at times intriguingly fickle (so long as you’re a critic who gets their critical rocks off from comparing theme and aesthetic) but it’d make more sense, and probably be easier to justify to other people as something they should try. I used to admonish games like a disappointed parent, who had such high hopes for them and was only being cruel in order to be kind. In God of War, I feel like I, we, the player, is the problem child, the cosseted one, whose behaviour is the issue—who’s through years of making demands, about interactivity, content and being allowed to do my own thing, ground games into concession and now we’re both stuck in this dynamic, which is making both our lives worse, whereby I’m undermining the game’s authority and the game isn’t providing me direction. And at that point I imagine a family therapist would tell us both to spend some time apart.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.