Wednesday, July 25, 2012

#31: God of War, the Dark Side of Sequels

(Series Spoilers for the God of War franchise. You have been warned.)

The concept of sequels and franchises is a very core part of our industry. Since the development and release of video games is primarily a business, it only makes sense that the head honchos of the field would look for concepts and ideas that could easily spawn sequels, continuations, spin-offs, and the like. Sometimes this leads to great games that the audience grow to love for many reasons. Other times it leads to games that are obvious attempts to grab money without any real concern for quality. Most often, the games released are somewhere in the middle. I say this because this weeks topic is largely about a game that, in my opinion (which I confess is not popular), suffered from continued sequels: God of War.

Before I go into detail as to why I think this, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I do not consider God of War, or its sequels, to be bad games. This franchise demonstrates very solid game design principles. The combat is solid, fast-paced, visceral, and very fun to play. A smart decision was made to break up combat sections with platforming and puzzles (of debatable quality, but most people agree that most puzzles were not bad). They also did, in later installments, a very good job of increasing the sheer scale of each game in terms or both the enemies/bosses fought and what Kratos was doing in the story. From the perspective of a gamer looking for a good time, the God of War games are easily some of the best, but that is not the lens I look at games with. While I always want my games to be fun, I expect much more from them. Games need to have a high-quality plot and story to go along with stellar and interesting gameplay. The original God of War did this very well, the later installments falter on this front in a pretty interesting way. (I am only including the main series games in this article as I have not and probably will not play the side stories for the PSP and the new PS3 game, Ascension, slated for release.)

The first God of War game was an example of superb storytelling in video games. The story of Kratos was a very tragic, relateable, and believable one despite the fact that the player was killing thousands of creatures at a time. It begins with the protagonist throwing himself off a cliff, and we as the players must go through his life to learn why he did this. The story of one man who needed power in a desperate bid to stay alive is an interesting one that most people can understand, even if it is not one that can necessarily be empathized with. Players can comprehend the emotions Kratos feels when he is tricked into slaughtering his family by the very god he serves. We follow him as he abandons Ares and fights for revenge, but it is more about revenge. This is also a story about one man dealing with his personal demons through war. When the time comes to confront Ares, the audience is just as eager to best him as Kratos is because they have followed him and went through his story. And it is a tale of futility. Though Kratos fought and did his best to avenge his family and repent for his sins and his family's death, ultimately he is still left a broken man and commits suicide as he is overcome with grief. When Athena saves him from this fate, we can empathize with the anger and despair he feels as he realizes that he can not find peace even in death because of the need for a replacement God of War. The violence and war that he has grown to love in life are what inevitably cause his suffering and destroy his family, some of the few people that he ever held dear to him. This is an example of a great story being strengthened and told through the interactivity of video games.

The sequel lacked the same strength of storytelling. God of War 2 begins with Kratos learning nothing from his experience in the original games and losing all pretense of grief. He is rampaging across Greece, aiding Sparta (his home country from before his ascension) in its conquest of the other city-states. Athena, desperate to keep him from suffering retribution, warns him that any further transgressions in the mortal world would force Zeus to take action and deliver divine retribution. When Kratos disregards Athena and tells her to go screw herself, the god-king fulfills his promise. Kratos is stripped of his powers and cast into the Underworld. This is where the titan, Gaia, gives him the strength to crawl back out. She tells Kratos to get revenge for Zeus punishing him just like he threatened to do. In order to do this, Kratos must find and kill the three Sisters of Fate and take control of his own thread of fate, allowing him to go back in time and get his powers back. After succeeding in this, Kratos goes back, reclaims his power, and attacks Zeus like the petulant child that he is. The final shot is him riding the Titans to the top of Mount Olympus, preparing to assault the gods in a final showdown.

This plot is much weaker than the original's for one huge reason: Kratos lacks the depth of character his first incarnation had. In the beginning, Kratos was more than just a perpetually angry war machine. The Ghost of Sparta was overcome with grief for killing his family and anger at the one who tricked him into doing it. His mind was constantly occupied with reliving and re-experiencing the memory of his greatest failure, giving him constant nightmares. Even the sex mini-game was appropriate as Kratos was trying to keep himself occupied. In the second game, he became a war machine. The newly crowned God of War spent all his time taking his anger out on the world and taking control of nations. The grieving warrior was completely lost, replaced by this reckless and stupid asshole who is disregarding warnings in order to vent on poor defenseless people. They do not even mention his family or their loss at all in the second game, which is essential to his character and what makes him so fascinating. The whole plot is Kratos getting revenge on Zeus for doing what he said he would do all along. This interesting and nuanced character became so flat and one-dimensional that it was painful to watch, which to me is the ultimate tragedy of the franchise.

The third game did its best to remedy this, which was unfortunately too little too late. The whole plot of the third is that Kratos goes on a rampage at Mount Olympus, killing all of gods and causing an apocalypse. Though Kratos is well aware that his actions are damning the people at large, he does not care in the slightest. Slaughtering Poseidon caused the ocean to grow catastrophic with tidal waves, decimating the people of the coastal regions. Ripping off Helios's head erased the sun and ushered in a literal Dark Age. The evidence was there and he saw the results, but refused to stop. Then, he learned via the ghost of the goddess Athena exactly how he needed to defeat Zeus. He needed to open up Pandora's Box, like he did in the first game, and claim the weapon hidden inside. To reopen the box, he needs to find Pandora and get her to use her power on it. Meeting Pandora reminded him of his own daughter and the circumstances behind her death, bringing back the one thing that makes Kratos an interesting character. This aspect of his character humanizes him and gives him a relateable persona. They made the right decision in this regard and played with it very well.

The back and forth between Kratos and Pandora was interesting since Pandora believes in hope and has an optimistic look on life while Kratos has been beat down so much that he no longer believes in the concept of hope. This comes to a head when Pandora reveals that she has to sacrifice herself to open the box and help Kratos beat Zeus. Kratos is highly resistant to this as he does not want to feel like he lost his daughter a second time. When Zeus shows up to officially join the fight, it was heart-wrenching as the player had to force Kratos to let go and allow Pandora to do her thing. As the box opens and is completely empty, the audience could feel the sheer gravity of the situation that left Kratos and Athena dumbstruck. Athena flips out and describes how Hope should have been in the box. She then realizes that when Kratos opened the box the first time to gain the power to fight Ares, he took Hope instead of the elements of discord that were held in the box. With this knowledge in mind, Kratos goes to fight and defeat Zeus once and for all, destroying civilization while leaving Hope for the world, because Hope is all that matters when disease, famine, and death take their hold on the land.

The best thing about the plot was that it returned to the best parts of Kratos. While God of War is superficially about one man beating up a shit load of people, there is more to it than that. They forgot about the family aspect in the second game and the story suffered for it. Bringing it back in the third was a very smart decision and added to the overall narrative, adding an element of nuance to the character once more and giving Kratos making him more believable. Sadly, this whole theme of suffering and personal repentance is completely undercut by the fact that Kratos is knowingly causing the destruction of life as we know it. They were already on that course by the time that God of War 3 began, so there was not much that they could do to remedy the plot. The ship was already sunk before it left the port, which is quite unfortunate because the writers, who were not the same people who made the original (The sequels were made by an entirely different team.), clearly began to understand the character much more after working with it in God of War 2.

In an oddly fitting way, the development of the God of War franchise follows the plot of a standard Greek Tragedy in which the protagonist is undone by the qualities that make him iconic and great in the eyes of many. People latched onto the violence and rage of Kratos when that was far from what made him an interesting character. This decision to focus on that aspect is what inevitably ruined the character. The writers did not realize what they were doing until it was far too late and the plot was not able to be fixed. It is an important lesson in game development. If you are handed a great and iconic game and asked to make a sequel, take the time to analyze the game on a deeper level and figure out what makes it so great. Look beyond the gameplay and into the plot, setting, and characters. All of this is crucial to game design.

No comments: