Over the last few weeks I’ve been pecking away at one of this year’s mega monolithic greatest-of-all time contenders, the sequel/soft reboot God of War. It is a sumptuous visual repast; I have grown fat and sluggish indulging on its richly textured take on a mythical Norway of Ye Olde Mythological Times. The resolutions are high. The surfaces, glinting. The pixels, many. The main menu screen–looking all the world for an up-rezzed PR bullshot of a snowy wood–breaks away into the player’s control immediately, declaring, “Yes, this is how the game really looks, and yes, it is purdy.” We’ve come a long way in visual design.
Interaction design, perhaps not so much. From the very outset, this is a game about stoically burying your magic axe into things to solve problems. Kratos, the eponymous Deity of Destruction chops a tree under the direction of the player. Harken, ye: The axe is life, the axe is love. The axe is for chopping trees. The axe is for chopping wolves. The axe is for chopping the nasty undead. The axe is for chopping the nasty not-dead-yet. The axe is for chopping puzzles. The axe heals all wounds, mends all tears.
The axe is everything because violence is everything. It is the fundamental grammar of the medium. As sentences and paragraphs make up literature and scenes make up film, violence is the essential component of videogames–whether it is present or not. Take a look at any list of the “greatest” videogames of all time, and you’ll find a definite pattern. Each one is, in form and content, in poeima and logos, violence. And even if there does happen to be a game on the list in which violence is not the primary mode of player praxis, it will nevertheless be defined by violence in some way: either by its looming threat to annihilate the player, the background on which a story is set, and even its controversial decision not to allow the player to engage in violence (a thing that causes many gamers to deny that it is a game at all).
There are no other stories to be told in games or by games. Or, rather, that is an genuine position one could hold without naivete of the genre.
There are exceptions, obviously. There are visual novels, for example. But these are little more than choose-your-own adventure comic books developed for screens so readers can experience the pleasures of mediocre voice work and eye-eating blue light. They’re also largely and laughably pornographic, and there is a comically sad firestorm every time a localization team decides to tone down the sexualized depiction of teenagers that is so rife in this Japanese-dominated genre. They are, then, not only adapted mutations of another medium, but products that exchange one target appetite for another. But what about Candy Crush, you say? To that I can only ask, do you not hear the anguished cries of Willie Wonka?
There is putatively a great narrative to God of War. Kratos, our Suzerain of Sacking, has lost another wife to that inexorable rascal called mortality and so sets off with his son to fulfill his wife’s final wish: to scatter her ashes on a very tall mountaintop. (Believe it or not, this is not the first game where Kratos is motivated by the death of his spouse.) It’s even very snazzy: the visuals, again, are lovely. The voice-acting is pretty good, and much of the dialogue between father and son is well-written. The camera never cuts away (save at player death), making for a continuous intimate shot of, uh, Kratos’ enormous, leather-clad lats as he cleaves his way through mountains of monsters and bandits. (Videogame makers often have no idea what to do with their cameras, as if ignorant of a century-old art dedicated to that very thing, and even lauded titles like The Last of Us suffer from dull, perfunctory camerawork, so this is a notable development.) There is tasty coating of story here, a tale of struggling to be a father, of dealing with grief.
But it is only a coating. This is a game about violence. This game is violence. The bulk of the player’s time is spent axing things. That is what the player is empowered to do. The development of Kratos’ relationship with his son is epiphenomenal; it happens incidentally to the murder sprees. It is window-dressing to the real story, which is the player’s Sisyphean task of chopping infinite enemy hordes to bits, and the filling of experience bars and navigating of menus that empower it all.
And that is dull, so very dull. I called it quits ten hours in. I left the Chief of Chopping and his kind-hearted-but-still-murderous son somewhere in what I assume to be the Mines of Moria. Yes, this game is called God of War–what else should I expect? A good point–but I am already God of War. I have been for many years now, in every game I play. I am the vengeful divine, boiling with Old Testament wrath. It is the only thing I know how to be in games. It is all that they let me be. They sell me beautiful worlds to fill with blood. I dutifully trod the winepress.
Hey. Now that’s an idea. God of Wine. That’s what I really want. No, not the Third Eye Blind song. I want a triple-A blockbuster videogame with incredible visual and audio work about a minor deity of viticulture who embarks on an epic journey with his progeny to sample the fruit of the paradisal terroir of various wine regions in the Mediterranean. No killing. Just sailing, ambling, eating, drinking. Perhaps some good reading. We needn’t even kill the wife to have any narrative motivation! She can come along, too.
Ah, but only if. No, we must murder. You know the saying: When in Rome—or Greece—or Norway—kill everything in sight. The gods of videogame design demand it.