Bald-headed Kratos, that Liefeldian-rage-case-turned-unlikely-Sony-mascot, spent seven games murdering every member of the Greek pantheon he could get his hands on with absolute bullheaded abandon. The God of War series was never anything but an excuse for a US developer to try its hand at the whiplash action of the Japanese Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden games, substituting brute force for the elegant virtuosity of its inspirations. The extremely sick twin blades fused into Kratos’s forearms serve as the games’ fixations in miniature: violence, served up as stupidly as possible.
Despite the ignominious beginnings of Kratos and his meat-grinder revenge trip, God of War in its 2018 incarnation is desperate to be taken seriously. A series which started as nothing more or less than the full artistic realization of David Jaffe’s ancient-history class daydreams has shapeshifted into another po-faced prestige videogame about fatherhood—a form that’s as trendy now as hack-and-slash games were in 2005. No surprise, either: creative director Cory Barlog worked on the series from the start, so returning to God of War over a decade after he helped usher it into existence bears juicy psychoanalytic implications. Barlog and the team at Sony Santa Monica made teenage games while they were young and they’re making mature games now that they’re older; or so they’d like you to think. The end result seems more like the visibly restrained work of people who have been cowed into thinking they’ve done something to apologize for.
The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 have set the tone for how Sony’s big-budget design teams appeal to a target audience that’s aging right along with the designers. The play becomes literally slower, heavier; actions and decisions carry palpable weight. I don’t like The Last of Us, as discussed on this site—that its fraught father-daughter surrogacy easily ranks as the most accomplished of its type is no great credit to any of its peers. God of War 2018 forces itself to conform to this model, but it’s ill-fitting even in its best moments. “Kratos” in Greek means “power,” and until now that, and on-the-nose allusions, are what the series delivered—viciously unrepentant, deicidal power fantasies that make Glen Benton lyrics look nuanced (as Reid already noted God of War2018 is no less a fantasy, except the stakes are now “how can I avoid becoming my own shitty dad?).
By God of War III, Kratos was a complete monster—he murdered people in cold blood to solve puzzles, and one lengthy POV shot of Kratos killing Poseidon positioned the player herself as Kratos’ victim, watching helplessly as he put out her eyes. I’m not interested in whether or not Kratos, who is fictional, deserves redemption. I was curious if God of War 2018 could make me care about a character so thinly drawn that “character” seems too strong of a word. More gods in Greek mythology are rapists than aren’t; compared to those stories, Kratos and his chain-blades are small potatoes.
In its bid for maturity, or perhaps just without any way to up the ante, God of War 2018 tones down the gore—and bare-nippled, priapic Kratos, once a Bond-level libertine, is now grimly asexual. The series’ inventive butchery is replaced with a set of repetitious, just-this-side-of-tasteful finishers . . . the repetition of which is not aided by the scant variety and massive volume of foes throughout the game’s lengthy runtime. The player will have wiped out an entire race of multicolored, stone-wielding ogres by the end, each dispatched in exactly the same way. Oddly, when Kratos faces off with the game’s few human enemies, there are no special kill animations. Instead the player whacks them with the axe and they go flying off, safely escaping the kind of bisecting or head-stomping inflicted on all the zombies, witches, and wolves.
This splatter-shyness maybe speaks to the ostensible disdain for violence Kratos picked up somewhere between leaving Greece and arriving in a version of the Midgard of Norse myth. He does a whole lot of killing, but it is executed with substantially less relish. There is, to paraphrase Ichi the Killer, no love in this violence; strange, when considering that the phantasmagorical grotesqueries common to Norse legends are easily the equal of the violent Greek myths that fueled God of War classic (Loki, who watched one of his sons turn into a wolf and devour his other son, whose entrails were then used to bind him beneath a bowl of dripping serpent’s venom, would think Prometheus got off easy).
But we’re all adults this time, unsmiling, turgid adults. Kratos has his son Atreus, not to mention the wishes of another dead wife (hey—he didn’t kill this one), to think about. The particulars of the Kratos-Atreus relationship are clumsily, but genuinely drawn—excepting the hilariously overplayed mid-game heel turn from little Atreus where he briefly turns into a genocidal maniac, frothing with hubris, before returning from the brink.
The moment-to-moment occasionally grates in that special way I can only describe as, yes, ludonarrative dissonance—the game laboriously lampshades the fact that the player may want to do her own thing before moving on with the main story business by having Atreus chirp up every time you finish a quest or approach a boat. “We can keep going or we can explore a little, father! Your choice!” During combat, human health bar Atreus will helpfully note to Kratos that “you’re almost dead, father!” In this way Atreus essentially functions as an extended HUD, prodding the player in the designer’s desired direction. “I can fire more arrows next time! Just let me know!” translates to “don’t forget you can use Atreus to stun enemies in combat.”
It’s a cute idea, but it also needlessly underlines the dramatic relationship between the pair. Atreus will always respond to commands (“Son Actions” being relegated to the square button); he will always, excepting one blip during his short-lived rebellious phase, do what the player wants. This isn’t Haunting Ground or The Last Guardian, where the player’s relationship with her companion is contingent on how she treats them. Atreus rarely gets into trouble in combat on the normal difficulty, even though he’s meant to be entirely new to fighting when the game begins. These are conundrums I’m not entirely sure are solvable within the established format of a third-person action game, which is designed first and foremost to be fun for the player—not usually an issue . . . until you want to communicate something besides empowerment!
God of War’s pretensions to solemn, nuanced storytelling and its stubborn adherence to basic videogame conceits collide in an unlikely place. You may have heard about the game’s approach to cinematography, which purports to be a “single take” despite videogames not being comprised of “takes” in the first place. I don’t need to tell you that nothing is being filmed; there are accordingly no limits to where a virtual camera can be placed, or for how long it can show you something. In an expensive third-person action game of the Uncharted variety, the camera is traditionally going to be behind the player character for most of the game; and in fact, that is exactly where the camera is placed for most of God of War.
But let’s allow that “take” in this case is shorthand for “the camera doesn’t change angles by cutting between them”—or, more cynically, that the game doesn’t have loading screens. It aspires to “intimacy,” though it’s a a simplistic idea of intimacy-as-proximity that evokes nothing so much as the exhausting gauntlet of close-ups that characterized Tom Hooper’s 2012 Les Misérables. The casualty of that intimacy is the sense of scale that characterized the previous games—climbing up the side of a Titan, or battling an enemy twenty times Kratos’s size, or even just the average distance from the camera to Kratos at any given point in a level. The camera never swings up to see Kratos from a great height, to impress on the player the enormity of what stands before her; there are never any moments when Kratos is visually small. He is always stood in front of the camera, the closest thing to it, always dominating the frame.
In fact, the insistence on tracking every single step Kratos takes from right over his shoulder—or, occasionally, rushing to catch up with him, or putting him and another character in strained two-shots that look more like stage actors facing the audience than anything else—both misunderstands why films employ long takes as well as the utility of, you know, any other well-established types of visual language. There is a total lack of adventurousness in framing and composition to match the game’s purported visual ambition.
It cannot be said enough that God of War looks like any other Naughty Dog-style videogame, except when instead of non-interactive cutscenes that emulate film editing it apes a certain noxious strain of long take cinema that doesn’t explore its potential for meditative calm, anxious tension, or capturing physical details, but instead goes for its razzle-dazzle ostentation. It’s absurd to impugn the long take full-stop; slow cinema, martial arts movies, and video art in particular have worked wonders with shot duration. But this particular flavor—think the weightless, CG-render aesthetic of The Avengers or the setpieces in anything from Daredevil to Mr. Robot—further tethers videogames to cinema, a comparison which will apparently limit the former forever.
Think of the experimentation with perspective in Nier: Automata or Bayonetta; these games play with camera angles in a way that engages with videogame history. Whether it be side-scrolling or top-down or Devil May Cry-style, they manage to do interesting things with the camera that owe nothing to film+. Of course there are ways to toy with cinematic language in virtual spaces—Paratopic’s disorienting smash cuts being a recent example—but God of War’s quintessentially douchey imitation of “Saving Private Ryan meets Revenant with a twist of Coen Brothers,” as the game’s camera director happily copped to, is all surface.
But who gives a shit, right? It’s just definitional hair-splitting, territorial pedantry. Except—the way God of War trundles along, the entire thing moving at the same tempo for 25 hours, has an unsettling effect. The game never pauses to breathe. Like Netflix coyly easing another helping onto the viewer’s plate, unbidden, God of War never affords the player any natural stopping points, no moments when it feels like she could save, quit, and do something else for a while. Without those breaks, it is exhausting—the visual and experiential equivalent of a run-on sentence, eroding sense and meaning as it chugs ceaselessly forward, weighed down with an ever-growing list of busywork that only distracts from the fundamental things the game does well. It is a close enough cousin to the wan “maturity” of stereotypical prestige TV; constructed not to be considered at a distance but to be gorged on in marathon sittings, narcotizing the viewer/player with its sheer tryptophanic abundance. God of War’s world is designed like a circuit, entered here and exited there, bristling with hints at sequels to come; looping, recurving, finally eating its own tail. There is always more to do here in Midgard. There always will be.
+ This is a sliver of a much broader idea, but it’s more productive to recognize the player-controlled “camera” in 3D games as a viewport into a space, rather than an authored composition.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.