Thursday, May 17, 2018

Prose, Poem, & Power: Sony Santa Monica's God of War

Kratos (left) and his son Atreus (right) in Sony Santa Monica's God of War. (Photo: Sony)

Until this year, Sony Santa Monica’s God of War series was the 300 of popular games, like Clash of the Titans as envisioned by a drunk Michael Bay. Its focus on hyper-violent setpieces, which grew increasingly epic in scale as the series wore on, was appropriate for the time in which it was released, and for the audience that eagerly lapped it up. But in 2018, that kind of brainless uber-masculine power fantasy doesn’t really fly anymore. Despite its tendency to constantly shoot itself in the foot in terms of meaningful progress, the industry has indeed grown up a little bit, and so have the people who play – and who make – this sort of triple-A action-adventure fare. If it had any ambitions about competing critically and financially with the best we now have to offer, a new entry in the God of War series would be forced to grow up as well.

Director Cory Barlog and his intrepid development team faced this challenge head-on, revealing a new direction for the brand at E3 2016 that abandoned the fixed-position bird’s eye camera and arena-brawler combat God of War was known for, instead embracing a more cinematic over-the-shoulder camera and a story-heavy presentation that would focus on the relationship between aging series protagonist, Kratos (Christopher Judge), and his preteen son Atreus (Sunny Suljic). Moreover, the Greco-Roman pastiche that had defined the aesthetic of the series – in which Kratos of Sparta was the literal god of war, bent on viciously murdering the entire Greek pantheon – would be replaced by a Nordic setting, and a more grounded, less cartoonish approach to that region’s mythology. It was clear from the early game footage that Sony Santa Monica was interested in capturing the tone (and the critical acclaim) of games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, intending to earn the emotion of its intense combat sequences through a focus on nuanced storytelling, rather than reveling in gore for gore’s sake. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental pivot for an established brand, and I was deeply skeptical that Barlog and his team, including writers Matt Sophos and Richard Gaubert, would be able to pull it off.

God of War, to my surprise and delight, succeeds where so many other games fail, creating an experience that feels whole and purposeful and focused despite the countless roadblocks that stood in the way of that outcome. The game begins deep in the wild, snowbound forests of primeval Scandinavia, where Kratos gathers wood for his wife Faye’s funeral pyre. He and Atreus have been charged with fulfilling her final wish to scatter her ashes from the highest peak in the realm, and so the two embark on this journey together – a reluctant, gruff, inexperienced father hiding his past from the son he barely knows, and a fierce, intelligent son as desperate for his father’s approval and love as he is to discover his own identity and purpose. Kratos carries Faye’s remains in a pouch on his belt, and a token of her ferocity on his back: her cherished weapon, the Leviathan Axe. Much of the game’s combat and puzzle-solving revolve around the use of this weapon, which Kratos can throw at enemies and objects in the environment before recalling it to his open hand, like Thor summoning Mjolnir back into his grasp. (Since it’s so central to the experience, the animation for throwing and recalling the axe has been lovingly, painstakingly executed; it’s a joy to behold the axe zipping through the air, embedding itself in faraway targets, wriggling and ripping free, and spinning back into Kratos’s hand – an action that floods your veins with adrenaline and never stops feeling satisfying, no matter how many times you do it.) The combat, which was previously like a sort of Devil May Cry-lite combo-based brawl-fest, has been boiled down to its essence, locking the camera behind Kratos and centering every encounter around that beautiful, perfect axe animation, chaining together simple actions and decisions – light versus heavy attacks, point-blank versus long-range, dodge versus block – into fluid expressions of brutal martial prowess. Atreus’s sense of awe at his father’s savagery and skill is mirrored by your own growing expertise as a player, and both help tell the story of a father hiding an extremely bloody past from his son. Atreus begins as a trembling, undisciplined hunter, taught by possibly the universe’s foremost expert on killing about how and when – and more importantly, why – to strike at one’s enemies. He becomes one of the most effective companion characters in the gaming canon, able to help you in combat without ever diverting your attention or hindering your actions, and this marriage between the growing relationship of father and son and the real-life RPG progression as you enhance their abilities (as well as your own technical skill) remains organic throughout the  journey.

God of War's brutal, beautiful combat system in action.

It’s that commitment to narrative engagement at every level of the experience that I think separates God of War from so many other games. As a narrative designer, whose job is to decide when, where, and how dialogue will occur over the course of a player’s experience, I was constantly flabbergasted at how fluid and natural God of War’s dialogue feels, and how beautifully integrated the characters and story were with the world they inhabit. The physical structure of the game is a sort of “hub with spokes,” fixated in a central area with branching paths that lead outward in all directions – very much like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, one of the best-regarded adventure games ever made – and in every corner of this world, there are delicious nuggets of story to discover. The bespoke linear areas that lead outward from the central hub each act like a complete side-story, offering narrative detail that expands on the Norse mythology of the realm or develops the bond (or tension) between Kratos and Atreus, always intertwining with the overall plot structure in meaningful ways. There are plenty of puzzles, enemy encounters, and treasure (upgrades, armour, etc.) hidden in the nooks and crannies of Midgard to satisfy players who are greedy for tangible rewards – but story is more often the true prize.

The way God of War’s story and world are presented, in a visual sense, is nothing short of spectacular. That the game has gorgeous visuals almost goes without saying nowadays – it’s a bit like noting that a multi-million-dollar blockbuster film has convincing CG effects – but Sony Santa Monica have made some truly remarkable technical achievements in the game’s overall presentation. The scale and size of the experience, which stretches across mystical realms into the darkest depths and the tallest peaks, to the edge of existence itself and back, is very much in keeping with the traditions of the series, and never fails to inspire the same sort of awe that the best fantasy fiction does, from The Lord of the Rings to Breath of the Wild. The game’s integration of real-life mythology, like everything else about it, is much more highly evolved than the previous God of War entries, taking natural liberties with these ancient Norse stories and characters while still finding ways to capture their timeless mystery and magic. But it’s one particular detail (which many players are unlikely to even notice unless it’s pointed out to them) that defines the pacing of the whole game and represents Sony Santa Monica’s most impressive technical achievement: the camera. God of War’s action is contained within a single camera shot, unbroken except in death and the occasional flash to white when transitioning to a specific area. This means that all the game’s cutscenes flow organically out from gameplay and back into it, ensuring that the emotional weight of story scenes is maintained once you regain control, and preserving a continuous sense of immersion that few other games can match. Like Kratos and Atreus, you get no rests on this journey, no loading screens or other interruptions that invite you to disconnect from the game’s world and refocus on the real one.

And to Barlog, Sophos, and Gaubert’s credit, you never want to. It’s my belief that some of the best-received narratives in popular games – The Last of Us being a frequently-cited example – are remarkable simply because they exist at all; the bar for storytelling, narrative artistry, and personal expression in games is still so low when compared to other media like film and literature that when a game comes along that has a structurally sound story, with functional character arcs and at least a modicum of emotional engagement, it’s cause for celebration. (I’m exaggerating, of course – the work of developers like Hideo Kojima, Amy Hennig, Yoko Taro, Ken Levine, Fumito Ueda, and many, many others is proving that games are powerful vehicles for challenging and beautiful art – but they’re more often the exception than the rule.) God of War’s narrative aspires to more than rote functionality: it’s full of nuance and humour, with characters that grow and change as the tale progresses, brought to life by actors who craft subtle and multilayered performances. The game always prefers a quiet exchange of dialogue to a titanic boss encounter, never missing a chance for a resonant emotional moment where the other titles in the series might have favoured a fight scene instead. To give a single example: it’s often Atreus who acts as the guide through this mystical world, since both Kratos and the player are strangers in it. His mother taught him the tales of the Norse gods and monsters that become so central to their quest, and, being a curious and intelligent boy, Atreus lapped them up, eager to regurgitate them for his skeptical father – giving the game’s writers frequent opportunities to expand their world’s fiction while keeping it grounded in the emotional stakes of the plot. Every conversation about Norse mythology is really a conversation about Mom. That kind of subtext is a rare gift in this medium, which too few games in the triple-A space bother to prioritize.

Kratos and Atreus share a moment in one of God of War's continuous cutscenes.

(An aside: I was concerned by the apparent fridging of Faye, her death being the inciting incident that kicks off a plot about father and son – hardly a unique or representative story structure – but I was pleased to discover that this had been accounted for. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that the agency in this story is really hers; she is the guiding force throughout the entire adventure and, by story’s end, is cemented as the most centrally important character. Not to say it wouldn’t be nice for maternal stories to be more prevalent in general – why not a mother-son, or mother-daughter tale? – but I was relieved that Barlog & co. don’t fall victim to this particular lazy trope.)

The only criticisms I have to level against God of War are annoyances, easily swatted away like the inconsequential irritations they are: corners were cut in terms of enemy variety, so towards the late game it’s common to be fighting the same foes you’ve fought many times already; and small details like the fact that you can’t kick a chain-rope over a ledge without Kratos immediately jumping onto it can add irritating wrinkles to otherwise smooth traversal and puzzle-solving sections. These are mere blips on the radar, though, more problematic because they momentarily remove me from the game I can’t stop playing and thinking about than because they’re fundamentally game-breaking issues. God of War is one of those experiences that gets me thinking about why certain games, like this one, feel special – why they, and not other games, inspire that wonderfully addictive feeling that makes you thrilled to sacrifice your leisure time at their altar. There’s some sort of ineffable x-factor at work, a “more than the sum of its parts” feeling that I think must come down to the harmonization of every design element – a prioritization of the game’s core vision in every detail that is the result of being unwilling to compromise, even when it seems most necessary to do so due to time, or budget, or technical restrictions, on the ideas that birthed the project in the first place. God of War inspires me in the way few games do. It constantly made me shake my fist at the designers, full of furious admiration that I hadn’t thought of these things first. It’s the type of experience that can only be crafted by a team united by a shared passion for the thing they’re making together – which I can attest is always an arduous, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful journey, like the one undertaken by father and son.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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