10th May2018

Opinionated: God of Woe… The Melancholy of Kratos

by Rupert Harvey

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SPOILERS AHEAD.

God of War is what happens when you take a lot of great ideas established elsewhere and throw a bunch of money at a hugely talented team – in this case, Santa Monica Studios – with the purpose of putting those ideas into a coherent whole. Sometimes the best games are like this: nothing mechanically new under the bonnet, but so exquisitely refined and thoughtfully constructed that they become the new gold standard.

God of War resonates with me personally because it brings to mind two of my all-time favourite games. One is familiar to anyone with good gaming taste: Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was lauded on its release last year, and went on to sweep the board at the Baftas. The other comparison, which I could never shake from my mind as I skipped merrily into Helheim, is Creative Assembly’s underrated last-gen oddity, Viking: Battle for Asgard.

Wait, what? Battle for Asgard was a hell of a game but also a shell of a game. It was simplistic and half-baked in a world of complex open-worlds, and its technical issues were the stuff of legend. But consider the similarities: the satisfyingly weighty-yet-heightened physics; the nonsensical skills unlocks; the maze of cave networks connecting semi-open zones; the wielding of dragons as WMD; the hierarchy of henchmen prowling the plains; the simplistic switch-flicking puzzles; the impressive range of smashable upgrade chests; and of course its affectionate gene-splicing of classical mythologies. If only they could have found a way to shoehorn in some of Viking’s colossal battles.

But I only raise the Viking comparison as a covert appeal for a remaster of that game (as if). What’s really special about God of War 2018 is its ability to tell a story through character, without compromising its gameplay. Balancing that trinity – story, character and fun – is a Herculean (Kratossian?) task. Kratos has in the past been a character of, shall we say, limited depth. What’s impressive about this incarnation is not only that he feels like a real human (okay, godly human), but that his character trajectory is truly unusual.

It’s standard practice for male heroes to be angry. Enraged, even – and often because of the death of a family member (see: Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max, Max Payne et al). But rather than the death of Kratos’ wife simply being an excuse for a handy rage meter, it’s the trigger for a hitherto unseen and unfelt softness in the game’s hero. The literal story has he and his son ascending the hard, black, impenetrable mountain of grief (the same metaphor we saw in Matt Makes Games’ peerless Celeste). But this is juxtaposed against the inner journey of Kratos: a deep dive into vulnerability. It’s a physical ascent juxtaposed against an emotional descent.

This is where the single-shot conceit comes in. God of War never “cuts”, except when fast-travelling. It was something I initially dismissed as a gimmick. But then I reached the moment when we see Kratos alone for the first time, without his son. Alone on a boat. Alone for the first time with his grief. And I was brought back to that first sequence of Hellblade, with Senua in her boat, and the way the “camera” fixes on her eyes, her lost eyes. We know director Cory Barlog won’t cut away from Kratos, so we’re given no place to escape to, just like Kratos hasn’t. It’s powerful, meaningful, and crucially, unskippable.

God of War has too much invested in a mass audience (I shudder to imagine its budget) to take the risks Hellblade did. Santa Monica Studios could never bring the same synergy between its protagonist’s mental state and the core gameplay the way Ninja Theory managed. But what they could do was borrow its melancholy mood; its sense of inescapable psychic assault; a little of its sensory intensity; and the same jarring opposition between the outer action and inner existential horror. And for that they deserve all the plaudits they’ve received.

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