A new God of War game has arrived. It’s a signpost of maturity for the video game industry, but it’s also a symbol of problems that still persist.
For seven games, an ash-covered man with chains fused to his forearms battled his way through the Olympian pantheon in a gleeful parade of blood, sex, and weapon upgrades. Ultra-gory deaths, orgy mini games, and the character walking away from it all like nothing mattered, were all staples of the franchise.
It seemed right at home in the video games of the 2000s. The God of War franchise was consistently high rated and each game’s hyper-violent, brash nature was indicative of normalized industry trends established in games like Postal 2, Manhunt, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
So, it was something of a surprise when Sony unveiled the revamped God of War during its 2016 E3 press conference, showing an older, chiller Kratos and his new son, Atreus, navigating a new land with a new host of gods that he will probably destroy.
Even more surprisingly, the new God of War game has added more than a son; it interweaves a kind of narrative that never existed in the franchise before. Kratos now has to contend not only with monsters and gods, but also with taking care of a newly-motherless son that he has barely known. The story explores his new responsibility and how little his previous life of debaucherous revenge prepared him for it. Story beats show him wrestling with emotion, trying to master his impatience with a child, and teaching his son valuable lessons like a parent should.
God of War is the biggest release of 2018 so far, in terms of hype, mindshare, and most review scores. Considering that a game of this stature has such themes of maturity in it says something about the state of the industry itself. Maturing themes seem to be a trend in contemporary “AAA” game development. Similar ideas are also found in a few recent big name releases like The Last of Us, as well as a host of smaller, independent titles.
It seems only natural that developers would imbue their games with the same life lessons they’ve learned.
An obvious reason for the shift in tone is the age of those developing these games. Edging away from previous game decades’ trends, many developers are parents themselves now. It seems only natural that developers would imbue their games with the same life lessons that they have learned.
Corey Barlog, the director of the new God of War (as well as the director of God of War II), has gone on record as saying this is the most personal game he has ever made. Now a father himself, he admitted to The Telegraph the differences between this game and the previous ones, calling the old series “the college years.”
And that’s an excellent analogy. Looking at console generations like you would the consciousness of a generation, you can see the original Nintendo Entertainment System as an introductory toy of sorts. When the Sega Genesis burst on the scene to rival the Super Nintendo, its messaging seemed perfectly crafted for the hip, angsty tweens of the early ’90s.
Following this to its logical conclusion, you can see how trends in the industry somewhat followed this line of maturity, through the “college years” of the 2000s into this brave new, slightly more mature, world.
It’s a good thing for an industry that has struggled to be taken seriously as a cultural hobby and as an art form unto itself. Many connotations and stereotypes still exist about the arrested development of gamer culture. Even though the new God of War has plenty of violence for the bloodthirsty, the story of Kratos wrestling with the emotional difficulties of parenthood is a potent olive branch to the culture at large.
However, for all the new game can champion in terms of artistic sensibilities and austere adulthood, it still contains many red flags that epitomize continued flaws in the industry as a whole. Because, in the end, God of War is still a story about an angry dude violently killing things with his sharp tools. It’s still dripping with masculinity.
“[B]ringing back Kratos after a decade of being a raging pile of toxic masculinity to start a new journey at the expense of yet another woman… shows that the writers/designers making these games aren’t actively working to get rid of that hypermasculinity from games,” Shawn Alexander Allen, a video games writer, designer, and developer said.
“Dressing it up in the guise of ‘sad dad’ who has the need to bottle up emotions, to treat his child with harshness and distance, who has the inability to ever really atone for any of his selfish murder spree is just terrible.”
The inciting incident that sets God of War’s chariot wheels in motion is the death of Atreus’ mother/Kratos’ significant other. Such an important character, who is mentioned often through the story, is never even given a face, let alone a voice. You only see her still form, wrapped in ceremonial fabric, ready for the pyre. For a game, for an experience based completely around the death of a woman, she is given almost no actual presence in it.
“If you fridge a female character, someone’s going to call you on it,” Anna Megill, narrative lead for Remedy Games, which developed Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, said. “Obviously, there’s still room for Mario and Spyro in games, but look at Lara Croft. The new Tomb Raider games have a depth and humanity that weren’t present in the older games.”
“Queer and trans people dragged games kicking and screaming into maturity.”
This is symptomatic of an industry that still needs adjustment. Shifts can be seen in games like the reboot of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted: Lost Legacy, but for the majority of modern games, especially those at the AAA tier, basic gender representation is a long way off.
And then you have the reliance on violence inherent in the God of War franchise, including the new game. This trope has always turned some people away from video games, and as the user base expands, violence becomes a mechanical crutch. It’s a proven approach, but it also limits the range of people who might want to interact with a game.
“Violence in games is often the most shallow, uninteresting kind: physical violence, gore, a man putting a bullet in another man,” Anna Anthropy, DePaul University’s game designer in residence, said. “I’d like to see more games about systemic violence, about structural violence, about struggling against unaffordable health care and gentrification. There’s so much more nuance we haven’t explored.”
And then you have the issue of race representation in God of War and beyond. In the newest game, Kratos is voiced by Christopher Judge, a black actor, but the character’s race has always been — perhaps purposefully — unclear. It’s certainly an ongoing fact that people of color are extremely underrepresented in video games. This new game does little to advance not only those people, but other cultures in the world.
“Give black actors more than a voice,” Allen said. “If you were rebooting something, and you wanted a fresh look, they could have modeled Kratos after his voice actor. Also, please use other mythology… I’d like to see stuff set in Babylonian mythos, in Pacific Islander mythos, in North American indigenous mythos, that isn’t exploitative and dismissive, but driven with the same weight of importance, without the slightest bit of irony that brings us a game like the new God of War.”
We can blame money, of course, for much of this. While Sony might have gladly signed off on a God of War evolution, it’s tougher to imagine its executives signing off on the franchise doing something ‘drastic,’ like replacing its hero with a heroine. At the end of the day, Kratos is a commodity. And while liberties could be allowed in the story, it’s easy to believe the franchise gatekeepers wouldn’t want to stray too far away from the comfort zone of those who bought previous God of War games.
“I’d say that risk is costly,” Megill said. “Few companies can afford to gamble on innovation, so they stick with what they believe is a proven formula—and a proven audience. Risk aversion makes you cling to the belief that female-led games don’t sell as much as male-led games do… Obviously, games like Horizon: Zero Dawn disprove that.”
“I’d like to see stuff set in Babylonian mythos, in Pacific Islander mythos, in North American indigenous mythos, that’s not exploitative and dismissive.”
And some of those fears of alienating fans have crept up in forums and tweets as a few diehard fans of the old series rail against a more contemplative Kratos game. But, for his sake, Barlog doesn’t think developers should be anchored by audiences who are resistant to change.
“It’s a weird thing I’m experiencing now in the sense that there’s this resistance sometimes from people who love what we do, games, they love to consume games — but they also have some weird judgment that games shouldn’t be allowed to [insert whatever],” Barlog told Mashable.
“Anybody who participates and loves this sort of medium should never think like that. It’s not something that has limiters on it, right… It’s that we should approach everything with respect, with a sense of, you know, earnestness and a true sort of understanding of the gravity and the weight of it.”
In the end, it’s a chicken and egg scenario about who has driven the games industry toward this slow march to maturity. The age of developers and the business matters, but so does the gradual expansion of representation.
“Queer and trans people dragged games kicking and screaming into maturity, and games like God of War and publishers like Sony are capitalizing on the important work they’ve done,” Anthropy said. “Would God of War exist without [queer dating simulator] Dream Daddy, and would Dream Daddy exist without queer romance games like We Know the Devil?”
And so the young industry does seem like it continues to grow, gradually widening its net to include more stories, more characters, more ways to play. God of War, which is a true accomplishment of game design, certainly denotes easing forward on the gas pedal. But the whole industry needs to be sure that it’s not constantly staring into the rear view mirror.