“To be effective in combat, a warrior must not feel for his enemy. Close your heart to to their desperation. Close your heart to their suffering.”
These are the words spoken by an aging Kratos to his son, Atreus, not long after setting off on their journey in the new God of War. Atreus, a coddled and sickly child, had never traveled far from home, but circumstance dictated that the pair climb and murder their way across a land filled with angry gods and monster. The resulting journey forces Atreus to grow up quickly, but it also begs us, the player, to close our own hearts to decades of videogame violence.
It’s convenient, then, that our hearts have been closed for decades.
God of War has always been about one man and his bloody quest for vengeance – with an emphasis on bloody. The games revel in the gratuitous violence that comes with disemboweling gods and a blatant disregard for human life in a world occupied by flesh-hungry monsters. But the new God of War seeks to lend weight to all the killing. A sense of morality. But it’s too little, too late for that.
We’ve fallen so far down the blood-soaked rabbit hole that now even the most violent of protagonists are wondering if we’ve gone too far.
In many ways, the discussion about videogame violence ended in the ’90s after Mortal Kombat found itself at the center of discourse. Since then, we’ve been shooting, stabbing, crushing, dismembering and pummeling our way through corridor after corridor of faceless enemies, never once stopping to question our actions. How many wives and husbands have we widowed? How many children have we orphaned? Who cares?
Given his legacy, it seems ridiculous that Kratos, of all people, would suddenly grow a conscience and attempt to impart this wisdom on us. But perhaps that irony is a product of where we find videogames in 2018. We’ve fallen so far down the blood-soaked rabbit hole that now even the most violent of protagonists are wondering if we’ve gone too far.
I loved my time with God of War. It was a beautiful game with a surprisingly touching story that caught me off guard with how personal it felt. But I think that’s part of what makes the violence stand out so much. One second Kratos is hacking the jaw off of an ogre, and the next he’s chastising Atreus about killing when it isn’t necessary. The entire experience makes for a confusing intent on the part of the developers. This has been explored by people more articulate than myself, but suffice to say that the mixed messages are not lost on me.
For too long videogames have relied on violence to convey a message. For too long our only interaction with these worlds has been through guns or swords, but rarely through touch and feeling. We are seeing more and more variance in what it means to tell a story, but most of it is happening in the indie scene. Recent hits like Night in the Woods tell masterful stories without a single drop of blood. It’s time for triple-A studios to follow suit. As the medium grows, so does the need for varied stories. God of War is good, but perhaps it is a relic of a bygone era in videogames.