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August 2, 2018

On God of War and Narrative Transparency


Let me jump ahead of any comments and say this: when asked by my brother what I think of God of War (2018), my response was “Yeah, s’pretty good.”  Admittedly my concentration was split at the time since I was in the middle of an enemy skirmish, but it seems like a pretty apt descriptor.  I’m still not going to call it GOTY 2018 yet, or slap a 10/10 on the box; that said, it’s a good game that’s a worthy addition to any gamer’s collection.

There.  Now that I’ve made that clear, I’m at a much lower risk of ruffling tail feathers with my next statement: boy, the devs did not even try to hide their intentions with this game.  There’s pulling back the veil, and then there’s using a veil made of saran wrap.

But that might not be a bad thing.  Well, except when it is.


…Except when it isn’t.



Like I’ve said before, I had a bitter experience with The Last of Us -- and Naughty Dog in general -- so I’ve been wary of more than just GoW4.  Thanks to The Chronicles of Joel Grumpybuns: The Zombie, The Beard, and the Shotgun, I’ve been skeptical of every game that suddenly decides to jam in fatherhood and/or children (or youths in general) that you’re forced to travel with and protect.  

For as much love I have for video games, I don’t trust the medium in general to put out the best narratives -- especially since it’s likely they’re only adding in fatherhood as a way to superficially chase mature themes…which is a fancy way of saying “That one game did it and was successful, so we should do the exact same thing and we’ll get equal or greater success.”

Having put some more time into GoW4, I can confirm once again that it’s vastly superior to TLoU -- or if not that objectively, then certainly in my opinion.  Presentation aside (it’s PS4 vs. PS3, so outside of art direction the comparison is a bit unfair), the gameplay is much more satisfying and the story is much more interesting.  And of course, Kratos over the course of a few hours > Joel Grumpybuns over the course of his entire game.



Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut…


For as much as it has going for it, GoW4 has the same problem TLoU has, as will any other game that tries to ape the fatherhood subgenre.  Just as I would have liked it if I could have played as Ellie in that game (while axing its dad), I would like it if I could play as Atreus in this game…although in its defense, Kratos’ presence is much more appreciable than I would’ve expected.  It’s still not quite enough to make me wish I could breach the dimensional wall and enter the world where Atreus is the undisputed, playable lead.

I care more about the BOI’s story than Kratos’ story, and even a little more than the main story.  As I’ve said, it doesn’t feel like I have the full picture of Atreus’ family situation, or his life, or his trajectory outside of fulfilling his mother’s last wish.  Despite that, the glimpses I’ve gotten of it have gone a long way toward making me understand and feel for the character in a way that I haven’t with Kratos.  That’s not to say the god of war is a whirling cesspool of suckitude this time around, but to me?  The disparity is clear.


I just said it.  Kratos is the god of war -- or if not that, he’s a god.  He’s got superhuman strength, endurance, regenerative powers, weapon expertise, magical ability, presumably some form of an extended lifespan, hunting expertise, and a Devil Trigger.  He’s an unstoppable killing machine, placed into a situation (and a world, and a medium) where being a killing machine is just aces.  I’m not saying it’s impossible for him to face challenges that push him to his physical limit, but that physical limit has got to be sky high.  And when you raise the threshold for a character’s struggle…well, how are they supposed to struggle physically, which is a key component of countless stories?

Kratos starts out strong and only gets stronger, with most of his foes thus far being hordes of the accursed dead given new anti-life.  He’s on the same axis as Joel Grumpybuns, relative to their respective worlds; the “hero” of TLoU was an accomplished, ruthless smuggler who pulled triple duty as a marksman, craftsman, and pugilist.  He knew virtually everything he needed to in order to be the badass father figure to Ellie, just as Kratos is to BOI.  The only vulnerability they have -- at least on the surface -- is one of emotional deformity.  They have trouble emoting, expressing themselves, and connecting with anyone outside of a VERY limited circle.  Inevitably, their character arcs feature them learning how to open up, and become more thank pro killers.  I get it.  But that doesn’t make it interesting in its own right.  If anything, that makes it kind of trite, don’t you think?


There are so many interesting places you could go with BOI as the main character and Kratos as the mentor in the background (well, more so than he is in the actual game).  Yeah, you’d lose the ultra-violence and feeling of overwhelming power as you hammer dark elves with a clothesline from hell, but in exchange?  

Speaking purely from a gameplay perspective, imagine how it’d be to play as the small, weak, sprightly child instead of the hulking deity.  You’d feel the pressure and panic on a more intimate scale, knowing full well that you’re in over your head.  And when you progressively develop your skills and become more than just Super Saiyan God of War Super Saiyan, your growth will fell much more genuine.  Impactful.  Earned.


Not to go off on a tangent, but I get the sense that this difference in approaches is part of the reason why My Hero Academia has made the waves it has.  Is All Might a fun, cool, badass character?  Sure.  But there’s a reason why he’s not the main character.  While it’s not impossible or foolhardy to focus on him (assuming the execution is top-notch) there’s infinitely more to be gained by having the audience follow along with Midoriya on his journey.  

Going from zero to hero is essential so that we can see and feel every last crest and trough on a character’s journey.  Knowing that we have to bear witness to someone who has no choice but to break his body almost every time he wants to use his powers creates an impact not often seen in the anime world.  Could we have gotten to more high-spectacle entertainment if we just jumped to Green Naruto having full mastery of One for All?  Sure.  The same goes for what we could’ve had if All Might was the undisputed lead.  But in the long run, we’d be poorer for it.

I mean, granted, My Hero Academia still ticks a lot of boxes by virtue of catering to the shonen demographic extremely hard, which means it commits its own narrative sins.  Still, it’s the mark of a good story if you can move forward in spite of its faults.  And you can with that series and this game.



Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut…


Okay, real talk?  Whether you like, love, dislike, or hate the game, can we all just take a minute to agree that GoW4 only exists to wring sympathy out of an audience?  The whole turnaround from Kratos the murderous, vengeful psychopath (with a suicidal streak at one point) to Kratos the sullen, remorseful, no-nonsense but still deceptively-chill father figure is blatant.  It’s egregious.  It was a measured, calculated design decision bred to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic -- a sign-of-the-times reboot to increase his marketability, in the same way that DmC tried (and failed) to reinvent Dante into Donte.

And what did the devs decide to do to show Kratos had changed?  To prove how much he’s reformed, or is at least trying to?  Slap a son on him and let it rip.  It’s so brazen and transparent, I can’t help but laugh.  Atreus’ addition is such a cynical attempt to boost appeal (in every sense of the word), and the fact that he was the answer they came up with despite millions in resources and a wealth of prestige says a lot about the state of the industry.  He’s small, he’s weak, he’s formerly sickly, he’s alone, he lost his mom, and I swear to God there was one cutscene where they doubled the size of his eyes to make his crying face tug harder at the heartstrings.  It’s like each copy of the game has sympatheticchild.exe baked in to overclock PS4s for maximum emotional torque.


I mean, seriously.  The mother’s dead from the get-go with no explanation (yet) as to how she died.  Because of course she is.  And Kratos is -- and has been -- emotionally distant so that when he does inevitably start to develop a stronger, more intimate bond with his son, we can all go “d’awwwwwww” and say “Look, he’s not a monster!  See?”  Or “Now he’s a real character, not just a blatant, wish fulfillment power fantasy!”  Because of course he is.

I mean, let’s just ignore the fact that Kratos is effectively -- if not literally -- a deity with a herculean physique.  And let’s sidestep the fact that having to protect a young charge with a(nother) badass male lead is just a different kind of wish fulfillment, offset by the occasional grounded-in-reality tutorial on hunting or fighting -- masculine activities, naturally -- but buttressed by the fantastical feats of strength, ability, and general prowess committed throughout.  Other than that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the game…well, except for the fact that it’s so unabashedly naked and transparent in its goals.

I can get into GoW4, but there’s a part of me that can’t.  I am enjoying the game, to be sure; if I were to read that rant above out loud, then I’d do it in a jovial, if mocking and sarcastic, tone.  But I have to be honest here.  Because the game is so obvious, heavy-handed, and transparent in what it’s trying to do -- at least at this point in the game -- there’s always going to be a divide between my two selves.  Full immersion at this stage is impossible because I’m too busy laughing at the sheer audacity of the setup and execution.


It’s not something I can fault GoW4 with (completely); it’s just that the game has helped reinforce a basic fault with storytelling in general.  In the end, no matter how much the creators’ technique or vision tries to shine through, art and fiction are illusory products.  As soon as you see and understand what’s behind the veil -- as soon as you can spot the machinery that keeps the whole thing going -- then the magic isn’t quite as pure as it was before.

And yes, this is true of the anime world’s golden boy (of the moment), My Hero Academia.  As sympathetic as Midoriya is, it wouldn’t surprise me if his creator found a way to genetically engineer and splice together what he thought was the most sympathetic protagonist ever.  He was born without superpowers!  Feel for him!  He just wants to be a hero!  Feel for him!  He’s taken years of verbal and physical abuse from bullies and detractors!  Feel for him!  He gets superpowers that could potentially kill him through a single use!  Feel!  He’s socially awkward and nerdy!  Feel!  Feel!  FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!

It’s very obvious, and once you see the numbers that comprise the world, you can’t suddenly pull out of the rabbit hole.  But there’s a saving grace for GoW4, My Hero Academia, and all good fiction: you can be as transparent as you want as long as it works.


I don’t need to spend another 2500 words telling you that MHA works.  I could, but I won’t.  There are no pretensions about what the series is trying to do, no matter how much it masquerades as “the hero must overcome the obstacle of the week”.  In exchange?  The execution of its ideals -- the dark work of the machines inexorably linked together -- is top-notch stuff.  The goal is to have you feel for Midoriya, and it works.  Repeatedly.  You don’t know how many times I’ve gotten misty-eyed within the first half-dozen episodes alone.  (“You, too, can become a hero.”)

Nothing in GoW4 has made me misty-eyed yet.  Despite that, I’m more or less content with how things have gone so far.  BOI exists for a specific reason, yet overcomes his role and programming to become someone I’m hoping gets his happy ending.  Kratos may be one of the least likable characters in gaming history, but he’s still putting in the work to be more than just a toy for the players to swoosh through the air.  And on top of that?  He’s more than just another sad dad.  In fact, his overly serious and stoic nature may be a key strength of the game, in that he’s got no tolerance for the shenanigans around him.  His brusque, gruff nature ends up making him perfect to play off of.

I’ve seen pictures comparing him and BOI to Hank and Bobby Hill, and the comparison is…apt, to put it mildly.


To be blunt, GoW4 is not the perfect game.  Not to me.  Then again, it doesn’t have to be perfect.  All it had to do was overcome its faults, and it did exactly that; it’s an intriguing title that wears its inspirations and intentions on its sleeve, yet manages to be more than just a clone of TLoU.  I’d even argue that the student has become the master.

Right now its greatest sin is that it’s obvious in what it’s trying to do -- and depending on how you look at it, that’s hardly a sin at all.  Plenty of stories and plenty of creators have very obvious objectives in mind.  If we start hammering one story for its transparency, we have to hammer them all.  The only ones that need to feel the touch of a mashing metal mallet are those that are transparent, and nothing else.  From where I’m standing?  GoW4 is in no danger of that happening.

…That said, I’m still sitting here hoping that I get to play as the Witch of the Woods someday.  Maybe that’ll be a DLC campaign?  I hope so.  She’s pretty cool.

Failing that, I’ll also accept a King of the Hill character action game.  For obvious reasons.


Dibs on Rusty Shackleford.

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