So I’ve Finally Played God of War III

Some miscellaneous thoughts to justify starting the year off mostly just playing video games.

This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for God of War III.

Sure, this plague/Stupid Apocalypse, coupled with my Dad doing himself a debilitating injury, has been the utter dog turds to my mental health, my capacity to write, my desire to watch films, my crippling loneliness and depression and anxiety, and my waistline…  But you know what it has been good for, besides forcing me to finally accept my non-binary finery openly in many spaces?  Video games!  Admittedly, like, 10 months later than everyone who decided “screw this awful terrifying reality, I’m just gonna play my backlog til it’s safe to come out again,” but I have finally gotten there.  I am now working through my backlog.

As repeatedly (and seemingly obligatorily) mentioned every time I’ve posted something about gaming these past few months, I used to be really into video games but grew relatively apart from them as the (I guess now) last generation stretched onwards.  Some of this was due to gaming itself moving more towards live services and bloated AAA sandboxes that I, for the most part, am not wholly interested by.  Some was due to my changing tastes, either preferring focussed narrative experiences or tightly-designed quickfire gameplay loops to the days where I could easily drop 20+ hrs on a bloated Naughty Dog story or get really into online gaming.  And, yeah, some of that was due simply to there only being so many hours in the day; the vast majority of them taken up by movies, music, or writing about movies and music to a degree where I just couldn’t sink into new games.  When I’d play, it would primarily be comfort classics from my youth on prior-gen consoles or just Rock Band 4.  My PS4 got significantly more use as a YouTube launcher.

At least this plague is finally making the £399 I initially spent on this five-and-a-half years ago belatedly worthwhile?

Even at the start of the pandemic, I didn’t change those habits.  The raging unchecked depression found a way to curdle everything self-care-like into “you’re wasting your life, why aren’t you bettering yourself or being productive?” so gaming stayed as merely logging into Rayman Legends every few days to keep ever so slowly chipping away at the godawful platinum trophy grind.  But, then, I finally got off my arse following literal years of yelling from friends and played Marvel’s Spider-Man, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 and Fall Guys dropped soon after I finished that, and I picked up Crash Bandicoot 4 for my birthday and all of that led to the backed-up dam finally bursting.  I’ve been setting up that backlog, making sure never to keep more than three major games in rotation at any one time so that I actually see shit through to the end before moving on, and knocking them down post-Xmas.  It’s been going well!

Downside: that gloopy damaged depression part of my brain which has been conditioned to treat all media consumption as work I must do something with lest I be a terrible layabout has insisted on overlong write-ups of almost all games I do finish in order to justify spending so much time on them instead of some nebulous more-productive thing like “looking for a real job.”  So, that’s why I keep vomiting 4,000+ indulgent rambles at you.  Because the overthinking self-worth part of my brain insists so and I still don’t have the software or acumen required to just make a video essay like everyone else on the Internet does now and which would suit these pieces significantly better.  Of course, I don’t always have enough thoughts upon finishing a game to flesh out into a proper-length structured piece and said overthinking-insecure-writer subsection of my brain refuses to let me just properly blog like functional writers do; they must be detailed properly-constructed argument pieces which build to a legitimate conclusion, dammit!  You can see the dilemma my brain has found itself in.

So, every now and again for however long I keep pushing games out and don’t have to re-enter civilised society, I’m gonna sorta-WIBW certain game post-mortems.  Sometimes solo, sometimes pairing up two recently-completed games I have thoughts on but not enough thoughts to make a decent individual article on, and trying to do an actual bloggy post instead of a proper deep-dive.  Some pair pieces might be linked together by a theme, but usually probably not.  We’ll see how this goes!  There’ll definitely be at least two more of these cos I also finished Titanfall 2 and Donut County in the last month, have one episode of the Spider-Man DLC left to complete, am near the end of Saints Row IV Re-Elected, and are varying percentages through Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game and Telltale’s Batman.  After that, who knows!  I’m moving within the next month (more in next week’s WIBW) so trying to get anything I’ve started finished before then, and we’ll see if this burst of energy sticks with the new status quo.  For now, video games!

God of War III

The last time I played a God of War game was, fittingly, about 10 years ago when the God of War HD Collection released for the PS3.  I picked it up, powered through the original and thought it was cool as tits!  Even have the trophy for climbing the spiked column in Hades without taking damage that everyone seems to have trouble with for some reason.  (Anyone investigating my trophy list, I completed God of War II on PS2 and just never got around to replaying the HD version.)  Despite really enjoying my time, however, I never actually bothered to pick up the also-then-recently released God of War III.  In fact, I went the entire generation, and this entire generation when copies of it were lining CEX shelves for tuppence a pop, without even once feeling a desire to finally give it a shot.  No particular reason, mind you; it just never pinged my radar hard enough.

Even when God of War PS4 – oh, how I hate this stupid naming distinction; at least the new Hitman trilogy never actually had games named solely Hitman, Hitman 2, or Hitman III before these ostensible sequels – came along and racked up acclaim from every which direction, I had no inclination to check more entries in the series out.  Of course, now I have excuses of money, time, shifting tastes, mercury in retrograde, etc., but fact remains I jumped off after those first two games.  When the remastered version of God of War III went on PS Plus in mid-2018 to hype up the rebootquel, I downloaded and then, like so many PS Plus games, let it sit untouched on my hard drive for years.  Still, it seems that aforementioned dam-breakage and enforced downtime have supercharged my curiosity because last month, when I went to grab DOOM Eternal at my local Tesco for £15, I also impulse-bought God of War 2018 for that same price.  After all, it was dirt cheap and this would finally spur me onwards to wipe God of War III off my to-do list.  Can’t play the newest one until I’ve caught up on the story, right?  And pre-rebootquel GoW games have a reputation for being mindless cathartic spectacle, so this should be fun, yeah?

Weirdly… no?  I actually found God of War III to be a massive bummer and not all that much fun during my time with the campaign.  And what’s most bugging me is that such a response seems to be simultaneously completely intentional and also not?  A lot of that is down to potential – brace yourselves for that phrase everyone hates and has been overused to the point of even academic backlash – ludonarrative dissonance, the disconnect between the story being told and the gameplay supposedly telling it, yes.  But I also think it may more be a combination of competing visions from competing departments mixed with mediocre writing trying to punch well above its weight.

(Last warning for people who want to but are yet to play God of War III.  I gotta spoil basically the whole thing.)

So, the story of God of War III is explicitly about the selfish, dehumanising and destructive consequences of vengeance and paranoia.  By this point in the saga, Kratos has succumbed entirely to the nihilistic single-minded pursuit of remorseless vengeance against the gods of Olympus who abandoned or outright betrayed him.  His humanity fully stripped away, his rage incandescent, his focus absolute to such a degree that no part of his quest is bringing him even the slightest semblance of joy.  He’s always been a prick, even back at his most sympathetic in the first game, but he’s now become a full-on monster.  Even more so than in prior entries, anyone or anything which stands between him and his goal is getting, at best, brutally murdered, damn the consequences.  There’s a bit in Poseidon’s Chamber where you come across one of the god’s captured sex slaves, free and protect her for five minutes, then tie her to a crankshaft whilst she screams in agony as her mangled body clogs up the wheel lifting the gates which were blocking your exit.  Not exactly a new development in Kratos’ life, granted, but it’s still gratuitous and thoroughly unpleasant to have to watch and hear with all the power the then-PS3 could muster.

This, of course, is largely the point.  You are playing as a monstrous killing machine with no regard for any life besides his own, and even that’s only out of a desire to see vengeance delivered.  And even more so than in prior titles, characters in-universe and the game makers designing it are determined to remind you that Kratos, and by extension the player, suck for doing all of this.  Each god killed releases a destructive disaster upon the mortal world below – Poseidon floods the planet, Hades releases millions of dead souls with no place to go, Helios blots out the sun, etc. – that the game’s gallery of villains will be more than ready to chew you out over whilst the carefully-composed fixed cameras paint horrifying tableau after horrifying tableau at regular intervals to remind you of what you have wrought.  If that seems too subtle even with the power of the PS3, accompanying bookstands will be sure to make it perfectly clear for the dunces in the back whom is truly responsible.

Kratos never seems to take any pleasure in the relentless killing and dismemberment that follows him wherever he goes – this is why I refuse to use the word “sadistic” because Kratos is not, by definition, a sadist even when his methods appear to cross into sadism – his vengeance is hollow and unsatisfying.  Any chance Kratos is given to meaningfully help someone, he sets it on fire or crushes it underfoot or stabs it repeatedly for health orbs.  And the final twist, that he unintentionally turned the gods evil when he opened Pandora’s Box at their behest right back in the first game, is meant to go full Greek tragedy and render the entire series poetically all for nothing.  You are a monster, look what catastrophic damage your desire for mindless ultra-violent fun has caused.

But at the same time… the moment-to-moment gameplay is still God of War.  It’s violent and traditionally fun and spectacle-laden and aiming for jaw-dropping cool.  It’s the right mix of mindless and deceptively tactical to make battles chaotic in the fray and satisfying to overcome.  The extremely gory violence, even I in my jaded 26 age occasionally found myself going “oh, Jesus” at some of these kills, is framed in much the same way, aiming for cathartic squirming reactions like at a cult cinema staple rather than true repulsion.  And the presentation of these big climactic coup-de-graces, particularly in the comically epic score, doesn’t really undercut that inherent satisfaction when besting a challenge to the extent it should (e.g. Hotline Miami).  For all that the story is about underlining in giant gold marker that Kratos and the player are monsters, the gameplay is instead about re-enforcing their awesomeness at every turn.  And that disconnect causes a real queasiness in me that doesn’t seem wholly intentional.

Maybe it’s possible to get around this with more nuanced or just plain better writing but it’s… not great.  I hesitate to try and centre my critiques around allegations of a juvenile masculine bro lens, because God of War kept the same head writer for the entire series prior to 2018 and her name is Marianne Krawczyk.  Yet that’s kinda what a lot of the writing feels like; sophomoric and surface-level.  Characters are supremely flat and almost entirely devoid of sympathetic traits – the two closest are Hephaestus, whose attempted betrayal of Kratos is the only genuinely moving plot beat in the whole game, and Pandora, who immediately loses points for being a child McGuffin meant to repeatedly and clunkily yell the other message of the game over and over again in her 30 minutes of screen-time – which means the tragedy doesn’t land because I have no reason to care about any of these cunts.

For as monstrous as Kratos is, the gods are arguably worse which creates troubling subtext about dealing with corrupt oppressive authority figures even with that last twist.  None of the very late game plot turns are earned at all: Pandora is a cheap McGuffin whose death means nothing, the message of hope being what makes life worth fighting for is barely supported by the text up to and after that big moment, and Kratos’ heel-realisation similarly doesn’t jive with the character we’ve spent 10+ hours controlling.  And, in general, the game doesn’t have many different ways to explore its chosen themes other than just throwing more and more self-serious devastation in the player’s face, where they want to deconstruct traditional Greek mythology ideas of heroism (rooted in conquest and struggle regardless of the ethics) but with a repetitive surface-level presentation.  It mistakes escalation for depth which, in a game whose tone takes itself so extremely seriously with the few splashes of humour coming from the occasional ironic kill, makes pushing through somewhat dispiriting.

Which is a shame because God of War III is otherwise still really solidly-designed from a gameplay and mechanical standpoint.  Even more than it being a game from a decade ago that was iterating upon two games which started another five years earlier on different hardware, it feels very old-school in terms of structure and design.  With the bookstands, prevalence of fixed camera-angles, mixture of light puzzling and (mostly dogshit) platforming with hack-and-slash combat, often circular level structure that never feels like backtracking, I was most put in mind of my beloved MediEvil.  Even if the platforming is still pretty terrible – all but maybe two of my deaths were due to the platforming fucking up, usually during a setpiece – at least the combat is significantly improved from that comparison.  I played through on the easy difficulty option, partly for time and partly cos I tried the opening 10 mins on normal and barely scraped through so could read the writing on the wall for later, and it’s perfectly-tuned on that setting to be manageable yet still fully engaging.  Enemy types are sufficiently varied that it requires actual skill and management to keep on top of everything rather than just cheesing one combo over and over (which I remember being an issue on normal in the first God of War) whilst, aside from the rare satyrs, still being fun to fight.

The game looks fantastic even today.  The remaster job by Wholesale Algorithms isn’t particularly flashy – for example, many character animations in cutscenes are noticeably pose-to-pose rather than fluid in a way that doesn’t seem to be an intended creative choice, and you can see pieces of up-rezzed textures lacking true detail which betray origins on less-powerful hardware – but in fairness they didn’t need to do all that much.  God of War has an excellent visual design that’s subtly stylised even whilst it looks to be aiming for photorealistic power and has caused even those PS2 originals to still look great today; III just amps that sweet-spot up.  Much more of an effort by the original devs at Santa Monica Studios clearly went into those fixed-camera angles which do a phenomenal job at artfully drawing the player’s eye towards where they need to go, providing clarity and control during tough action sequences, and balancing those with lavish scale and spectacle.  Genuinely, I wish more games would try fixed-camera angles again.  When pulled off this well, the storytelling capabilities actually enhance the gameplay; it’s the big thing I’m bummed God of War 2018 chose to ditch.

It runs mostly great, I didn’t notice any major framerate drops, although I found a good number of frustrating bugs during traversal and one point in the labyrinth where the game soft-locked during a minotaur QTE that occurred on just-fired spikes which forced a restart.  The combat’s well-balanced even if the last weapon given was frankly useless.  Despite the flatlining tone, the game is otherwise very well-paced between outright spectacle and downtime.  God of War III is, on a technical and most of the design level, a really good and often great game… but I just never really had any fun with it.  That major disconnect between the tone of the barely-serviceable story and the base gratification of the power-fantasy gameplay kept overriding any bursts of positive emotion.  Trying to lose myself in the mindless fun of the gameplay was constantly undermined by the one-track accusatory story, and I couldn’t really wrap myself up in the story because it wasn’t particularly well-written despite its efforts to hijack everything.  The recent Hitman trilogy – where the overarching story is this deadly serious conspiracy thriller, but the gameplay is basically a wacky comedy and yet both sides not only coexist alongside but intertwine affectingly with each other – this is not.

For me, this is best embodied by the customary sex mini-game about two-thirds of the way through, this time with Aphrodite.  Every God of War game beforehand has a gratuitous optional sex mini-game at some point where successfully completing the QTE gets you a massive bundle of the red orbs required to upgrade your weapons.  The first time the game gave me the option to partake, I turned it down assuming that it was a trick question since, y’know, by this point all of the gods have actively tried to murder Kratos so maybe this’d lead to an avoidable battle of some kind.  When rejection led to a huff from Aphrodite and the portal to the next story beat opening uncontested, curiosity got the better of me and I reloaded to see if anything different would occur.  Surely it wouldn’t just be a straightforward version of the sex minigame at this part of the narrative, right?  Turns out… yeah, it was just a straightforward version of the sex minigame with a big bundle of orbs at the end and the exact same lines afterwards from if you rejected her.

What pushed the scene into embarrassing absurdity, however, was how it’s depicted.  Prior GoWs, to get around simulated sex certainly leading to a major ban from retailers and ratings bodies (since sex is 12,000x worse than ultra-violent dismemberment as we all know), would pan away from the sex to a nearby piece of furniture whilst the QTE progressed.  III technically does the same, but instead of a pot the camera rests on the two half-naked female servants Aphrodite was having sex with prior to Kratos’ interruption.  They, with chests sticking right out into camera so you can get a full view of their simulated nipples even with the usual GoW screen-filling button prompts, proceed to give rapturous commentary as you progress, extolling Kratos and by extension the player’s sexual prowess the whole time before being so moved by Aphrodite’s climax that they start having sex themselves as the camera pans back to Kratos.  You get why this feels even more incongruous and icky than usual, right?

I feel about God of War III the same way I do at this point about the works of Zack Snyder.  I get what they’re going for, they have a strong grasp of striking aesthetics and technical competency, and I see why other people love them.  But, more than their both being detrimentally fixated on juvenile nihilistic concepts of coolness that undermine their best ideas which aren’t even developed enough to justify the humourless borderline-pretention they slather over the non-action segments, they’re not for me.  I don’t belong in their world, I’m already dead, crushed under rubble.  I am curious to see what on earth the rebootquel ends up being like, at least.  The ending of III certainly seems like it’s trying to be the first-page entry on How to Torch Your Franchise and Run, but maybe that’s good in the long-run.  We’ll see at some point in the future.  Maybe before the year’s out.  Maybe even in the form of too many fucking words!

Next time: Titanfall 2 and Donut County, the latter of which was meant to be bundled in with God of War III as a fun contrast but, as you can see, I am truly incapable of brevity.

Callie Petch can’t love enough for the both of us.

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