Blood Pixels

In an era defined by personal technology and scale, the opportunity to control a God isn’t particularly unique. Considering we can order pizza and track its journey to our doorstep with nary a word spoken aloud, in many ways we all play God at one time or another, controlling and ruling over our small dominions. With the same greasy fingers one uses to order up a lip-smacking Meat Lover’s, one can control a virtual Greek God named Kratos and hack-and-slash (H&S) his or her way to victory. To understand the average American man-child and the hidden wonders of 3D third-person console platform games, God of War is as good a place as any to start.

The third in Santa Monica Studios’ God of War series, GoW III starts in media res as Kratos, a Spartan warrior, is climbing up Mt. Olympus to kill Zeus. The plot of God of War III is insignificant, as like so many video game plots, it exists to facilitate continued action, with cut-scenes written and inserted around the game, the chief objective being to garner slack-jawed “whoa, awesome’s” from the cave-dwellers firing it up. The God of War story-line is largely forgettable, serving more as a vehicle for endless and repetitive battles and puzzles than offering a nuanced, engrossing “story”, though not for lack of trying.

While the game-play mechanics have been ported from the previous installment, the developers utilized Playstation 3 hardware to create high-quality environments and sprites for the player to explore and/or destroy. The improvements in graphical output are evident immediately, in the opening sequence in which Kratos climbs the Titan Gaia attempting to climb Mount Olympus, and the game does not cease to amaze at virtually every turn from thereon out. While a familiarity with video game aesthetics and the logic of the H&S platform genre can enhance appreciation, even your little sister might note, walking by the TV, that the game looks really good.  To call GoW III  a prodigious exercise in scale is to avoid acknowledging its jaw-dropping precision- SIE accomplished the impossible, in terms of vastness and visceral size and scope of game environs. This makes sense, given that Santa Monica Studios is a subsidiary of Sony and the God of War franchise is a flagship title for Playstation.

Which is to say, GoW 3 was an event. Developed over the course of about four years on a budget of $44 million, the game’s graphics and attention to detail should put any and all questions about video games and aesthetic value to rest. SIE Santa Monica’s GoW III- led by game director Cory Barlog before he abruptly resigned eight months into production, replaced by Stig Asmussen- built upon the best parts of the franchise to construct a near perfect third-person platformer with beautiful environmental designs painstakingly rendered. Whether the ornate Greek architecture, overgrown with vines, or Hades- a flesh and muscle-lined cavernous nightmare- SIE showcases mind-blowing particle and water graphics and physics, with innovative use of blended normal mapping. The attention to textural detail shines through in every frame, in the visceral dismemberment of foes as well as the rare moments of respite, when Kratos (you) finds himself standing in a reflecting pool, the moonlight seeping in through cracked columns and marble slabs reduced to rubble.

The mechanics of play are a highlight, and they were revamped and updated to reflect the more robust system capabilities. Combat works on several levels, one of which is a fine balance of slaughtering  hordes of enemies and a nuanced array of attacks available, and with with every weapon- only possible through the developers’ exceptional attention to detail and time. The Chains of Olympus, Kratos’s iconic weapons throughout the franchise, offer extended combination attacks involving all manner of whirling destruction and grappling etc., punctuated by occasional QTE execution combos for larger enemies. The result is a masterful blend of styles that feels at once cinematic and beyond cinematic, an opportunity to dance to the beat of one’s own internal appetite for destruction, whatever that Rorschach test of decision-making might reveal about the player.

Kratos complicates his quest for vengeance through acts of increasing hypocrisy and hubris. Terrence C. Carson, the voice of Kratos, is a central element of the games’ narrative success, though through no fault of his own Kratos isn’t an appealing protagonist. On that front, and several others, the game is brought down like one of its own monsters- the gratuitous pornographic nudity notwithstanding. The storyline is rife with cliches and filler- the character Pandora is notably disposable. In one segment, Kratos stumbles upon a lesbian threesome, and must satisfy Aphrodite in a button-mashing sex mini-game (GoW contained the first pornographic sex mini-game I’d ever seen). In those respects, it becomes a parody of the “sex and violence in video games” debate- it is unapologetically savage in nearly every respect.

The utter barbarity of Kratos’s actions is a rather surprising and negative addition within the already muddled plot, as he betrays every character he meets and seems to relish stepping on the hands of his few remaining allies as they dangle from various cliffs. There’s a corny nu metal-like Xtremeness to his (your) actions, a nihilistic video game brutality that is best enjoyed by 14-year olds with garlic bread grease dribbling down their chins. It all blurs together into a stream of high-res graphical violence and puzzle solving, though, and like gore in cinema, Kratos’s violence does have an aesthetic quality of its own, a statement regarding our willingness to play through acts of cruelty for a larger narrative payoff- in this case, stellar state-of-the-art graphics and gameplay. The blood is an aesthetic tool, a sign of life.

At this point, it’s hard to argue that violent video games have been entirely innocuous. Their societal effects depend on a person’s upbringing and mental health. Similar to criticisms thrown at Eminem, Odd Future and Game of Thrones, the hyper violence of GoW 3 is heightened in its simplistic barbarism. Not only does Kratos look to destroy all of the Gods, but he does so in vicious fashion, beheading and disemboweling his way to Zeus. There’s an artistic statement hidden somewhere in the putrefied guts and corpse piles left in Kratos’s wake, but it isn’t “life is tough, sometimes you have to break a few skulls”. The underlying suggestion seems to be rather more cynical than that: redemption is impossible and life is nothing but one tragedy after another in a long string of tragedies destined to play out on the cosmic harp of meaningless cruelty.

Despite the boatloads of carnage, there is catharsis in pushing “O” and tearing a zombie warrior in half. The gameplay mechanics perfect a fantastic engine developed by Santa Monica Studios with the original God of War for PS2. A wide variety of interchangeable weapons and magic spells allows each player to bring a degree of individuality- I preferred using the Nemean Cestus once I acquired them from Hercules (voiced by Kevin Sorbo). Others might prefer the Chains of Olympus or Blades of Hades. Really, the game requires smooth button-mashing and a general understanding of the different attack and block moves- many fights towards the end are extremely difficult simply because of the sheer number and dispersion of enemies. For any gamer familiar with the hack-and-slash elements of third-person combat, the options for killing sprites are multitudinous, and in an almost Zen-like way, becomes hypnotic and frequently satisfying.

The God of War trilogy occupies a unique, blockbuster place in gaming and male violent fantasy entertainment. In many ways, it has succeeded where countless sword-and-sandal and fantasy films of the past 10 years have failed- creating an immersive story arc and personal stake for the player. Kratos is vastly more memorable than most of the other bare-chested warrior-heroes in recent entertainment- but he’s been relegated to the rather unfortunate demographic that buys and plays extremely violent third-person platformers, an unseemly crew. Though it has a weak plot and repetitive fighting, GoW III empowers Kratos (you) to look up at the endless heights and depths of Mt. Olympus, Hades and the Labyrinth and march him forward towards and into and through an “epic” sensory experience- a fitting word, as it is one that is so over-used among ‘gamers’.

The success of the God of War franchise is no fluke, nor is it an indicator of the declining tastes of the market- it is a work of art with as many surprising twists of logic and moments of pure precision as Daedelus’s labyrinth. Its misogyny and formulaic faults are worth straining to ignore in order to appreciate the jaw-dropping results of a team of expert designers and writers and countless others firing on all cylinders, building software beyond mathematical imagination. The cultural stigma around video games, even within open and liberal individuals, seems to target the consumptive, sedentary nature of the medium and the pointless Sisyphean violence; God of War III crushes the skulls of those who doubt whether video games are works of ‘art’. They are, and GoW III is.

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