God of War (2018) is what “mature” games look like in 2018. It’s got everything that a mature game should. It has a father struggling to deal with his status as a father. It has a deep love of violence and revels in it to the point of mundanity. It’s low, artistic camera angle forces you to focus only on what is in front of you. It gestures at moral ambiguity. There’s tension between a youngster and the grizzled man who has seen too much of the world to be anything but weary. It even reuses the title without calling itself a numbered sequel. Yep, it’s got it all.
In a way, it shows us how far we’ve come. The “Arc of Serious Games” is increasingly long and curves towards long narrative adventures about introspective characters. Where once story notes were relegated to manuals and liner notes, now they weight down games like the mantles of responsibility developers have found as they start families and watch them grow. Gone are the days of the rock star developers bragging about sports cars.
It’s also a sign that games haven’t come particularly far. God of War is still a game where the most common way you interact with the world is through violence. This form of interaction is only ever discussed twice. Once, early in the journey, Kratos and Son are faced with killing actual humans. Kratos asks his son to stand back as he believes taking a human life is precious. Ultimately, the boy must kill and it shakes him. Later, the boy kills a god and, channeling his inner Nietzsche and Rand, remarks on how a god may do as he pleases.
But for all Kratos’s Darwinian musings on survival he never blinks at the prospect of slaughtering anything that stands in his way. Even in the game’s denouement, no thought is given to what it means to rip the jaw from a beast and peel the skin away from it from neck to abdomen until it dies. In the world of God of War all lives are not equal, some are more valuable than others. To kill a human is to take on a black mark onto one’s soul. To kill a beast is to be a conqueror.
Lives, and blood, shed in the face of accomplishing one’s goals is a mainstay of videogames. It’s a relic of a kind of power fantasy that occasionally borders on, and becomes, toxic masculinity. To be in control in a game is to exhibit violence upon it. Much the way Atreus feels, we too become gods of war as we are only able to impact the worlds we play in by killing as we see fit, mourning as we are commanded to and accomplishing our goals no matter the cost to others.
While the game tries to tell us of heroes come and gone who made war by making peace, we can never do this. It’s good to kill a demon, an escapee from the underworld, a monster. They have no agency and thus we can never reason with them. We can only bring reason to them at the edge of axe. Unlike the heroes we’re told about, we can’t make peace with our enemies, nor can we even try.
And in the name of what? . What rest is given to anyone unfortunate enough to meet Kratos and his son as they attempt to spread the ashes of an unseen, unheard woman? Who will spread their ashes? What of their sons, their fathers? The sky isn’t falling. At the beginning No one is raging against the fading of the light. Yes, to honor the wishes of one you loved is noble, but is it good? Is the quest worth the slaughter God of War tells you it is. The game singularly directs you to accomplish this as if the fate of the world hinges on it. To be a mature game in 2018 is to offer once clear vision of the difficulties of life in a dangerous world, bystanders and minor characters be damned.
God of War is a game that demands to be taken seriously as it lavishly basks in how good it feels to dispense violence. And believe me, God of War does make violence feel very, very good. It’s difficult to be a father and difficult to be the son of someone realizing the difficulties of fatherhood. But it’s even harder to maintain the vision of the bigger picture when the game also demands you be enthralled with the joys of killing, over and over again.
So yes, God of War is a mature game in 2018, but that doesn’t mean much. It attempts to grapple with big, difficult notions that I’m sure come from a place of very real feeling on the part of the writers and developers. Unfortunately, its blood-soaked grasp slips long before it reaches the peaks it has been trying to climb. The game demands you accept the killing of one son as good despite the desperate cries of his mother while brutally slaughtering anything that even sneers at your own. Why was this killing okay? Was this okay? It doesn’t matter, boy.