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Guest Post: Kratos' Touchy-Feely Redemption

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

It seems odd that On Violence, a blog based on the discussion of war and violence, has managed to avoid a discussion of such an acclaimed piece of media as the videogame series God of War. As the resident On V gaming guru, it feel to me to address one of the bloodiest and well received games of 2010.

God of War stars Spartan warrior and Spike TV proclaimed bad-ass of the year Kratos. He’s an anti-hero with a single mind for vengeance that wages a war against the gods over three installments. A demigod stained with the ashes of his own family, he hacks and slashes his way through innumerable hordes of creatures, Greek gods, titans, classic heroes, and even innocents, to confront whatever entity he’s convinced has wronged him. (In the player’s first encounter with Kratos, he leaves the boat captain with whom he traveled to die without acknowledgement.) Initially, he seeks vengeance against Ares for making him a slave and killing machine. After killing his original master, Kratos spends the second and third installmentsattempting to destroy Zeus (and by extent the entirety of Olympus) for removing Kratos from his achieved role as the new God of War. But his blood lust is sated only by the next kill; the next battle. There’s no break, no relief, just the continuation of rage filled murder after murder.

The God of War series is extensively violent and bloody, probably excessively so, which warrants discussion here. Eric C recently addressed the question of who it is acceptable to kill in video game simulation and the God of War trilogy would seem to extend the question to how graphic those acts of violence can/should be. From repeated rapid button pressing to trigger the rapid slamming of a man’s skull against marble to gouging the eyes of Poseidon, the player enacts Kratos’ brutal wrath.

While I could discuss the extent of the exaggerated acts of violent and copious amounts of blood, they are not the aspects that I found more disturbing. Ultimately, the portrayal of violence is an artistic choice. My real protest stems with the series’ culmination with Kratos sacrificing himself to save mankind.

Kratos, a self-serving butcher with little regard for any life other than his own, ends his life in a peculiar attempt at redemption. At the end of this journey, with all his foes slain and his vengeance achieved, Kratos who has all but destroyed existence by slaughtering gods and titans, suddenly decides to sacrifice himself to help restore some semblance of order to the world. It makes no sense.

It’s bad writing for two reasons:

1. That sh*t just doesn’t happen! A man does not slaughter on the magnitude of thousands in a bid for retribution and then suddenly care about the rest of humanity. That’s not a logical progression. He’s been consumed by rage his entire life allowing him to kill without a second thought and suddenly his conscience tells him to save the earth. The action genre equivalent is something like Ripley from Aliens suddenly caring about the well being of the alien species after loosing a platoon of colonial marines and blowing up half a planet to stop their spread. Thematically, it doesn’t make sense.

2. It’s a cop-out. Kratos is a popular character in the gaming world because he’s such a bad-ass, so the game has to end with him doing something nice for humanity so the player can feel at peace with the fact that he spent three solid hours torturing and rending Greek Gods that are already beaten defenseless. Self sacrifice is not in the character’s nature. It’s an end of the ride fake out saying, “See, it’s okay to like the mass murderer because he’s leaving his money to cancer research.”

Eric C and I have a running debate about the importance of plot in video games. Eric C believes gameplay--or ludology--matters more than a coherent and enjoyable storyline. God of War III seems to champion his point of view. It’s vicious and visually stunning and easy yet enjoyable to play. There were plenty thoughtful and compelling plot options missed; an actual path to redemption, Kratos assuming the role of Zeus and needing to be overthrown himself, or a maybe even just a portrayal of the horrific consequences of all his actions. Any would have been better than the anti-hero awkwardly stabbing himself to let out the wisps of glowing blue hope lingering deep (really, really deep) within him to help humanity survive the chaos he wrought them.

eight comments

Let me defend myself about the characterization in the last paragraph.

1. Gameplay matters way more than story in terms of what game you enjoy playing more. I don’t replay Halo to replay the story, I replay it because it has excellent gameplay. Look at multi-player shooters as the best example of this.

2. I also think narrative, in video games, is less novel/more staid territory than than game play to discuss or write about critically. I mean, movies, novels, plays are all better vehicles for narration. Narration in video games is usually clunky, at best. God of war is the case in point.

Also, for criticism, games are new. It means new ground, uncharted expanses to be filled with wit, humor and humor of criticism. Hell, we even have to invent the lang for videogame criticism.

And we will. If only we had an art website—eventually—we could deal with this topic more thoroughly.

First, the running debate about plot versus game play. I agree more with matty p that plot has to mean something. Not that much, but games that do plot poorly, it stands out (Call of Duty). Games that do plot well (think Shenmue) are better for it.

As for the plot of God of War specifically, I think Matty P keys in on a central point, that there is no logical character growth for Kratos in the game. He marches around killing people the whole game, so why does he change his mind at the end? There is no logic to it so it doesn’t work.

To paraphrase Morgan Webb and Adam Sessler from X-play, we tend to forgive bad plot for excellent gameplay or forgive poor gameplay for excellent plot. In the case of God of War, the plot is forgiven for entertaining boss battles and impressive visuals.

A piece that touches on similar themes: http://www.killscreenmagazine.com/articl..

What game do you forgive bad gameplay for good plot?

@ Eric – That’s a great question. Off the top of my head… The original Mass Effect had an element with regard to a vehicle that was tedious, it’s sequel had a mining element that was annoying and in no way rewarding, God of War (the original) was little more than a button masher, Heavy Rain had tasks that seemed to simply be in the way of moving the story forward, Resident Evil as a series won’t let your character move and shoot at the same time not to mention in the early incarnations required hunting for puzzle pieces to progress, and in Infamous the non-story missions tended to be very repetitive. But the best example is the game (Enslaved). It’s a marvel with regard to story telling, but the gameplay was widely regarded as too linear (go from point A to point B while destroying/protecting C using only one available path) and said to be a button masher much like God of War.

Choose a gaming website that ranks games on story, gameplay, graphics.

Try (Gameinformer’s) website. Most critics will evaluate the story/plot and how either praise or condemn it. Look at the “entertainment” portion specifically for the linked game.

I will admit, that you are correct in that most critics, as stated in the evaluation linked, will tend to crush a game for gameplay more than for story. That said, 7/10 was way too harsh for Enslaved.