Sunday, November 18, 2018

RetroDEX: The Timeless Design of "God of War" (2005)

Many games hold up over time. Specifically, many games from the 8 and 16-bit eras, whose usually linear and polished design makes them easy to pick up and play no matter how much time passes. What's truly rare, however, is to find a game so carefully and meticulously designed that not only does it stand the test of time, but outright doesn't really age at all.

This wasn't my first time playing through the original God of War, but my first crack at it on the Playstation 2, over a decade ago, had failed to impress me. I wager I was looking for a different kind of experience back then and my understanding of video games was far less than it is today. This probably explains why in revisiting the celebrated title so many years later, God of War left me equal amounts of satisfied and blown away by its stellar design.

The brain child of Twisted Metal's David Jaffe, God of War is the story of Kratos; a Spartan general, once a loyal subject of the god of war Ares, now on a mission from the other gods to destroy his former master that threatens to engulf all of Greece in the fires of conflict.

Many tend to file God of War under the "spectacle fighter" category (a term coined long after the game's release by popular critic Ben "Yahtzee" Crosshaw), but I would argue Kratos' original outing is a pure example of the "action adventure" genre. "Spectacle fighters" tend to rely on stringing combos together and pulling flashy and stylish moves during combat, making the term a better fit for the likes of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. There is an inherent brutality to God of War that doesn't intend to impress the senses so much as it attempts to connect with something primordial inside the player and become cathartic in the process. Far more importantly, however, combat really isn't as big a focus in God of War as most people might think.

"Action-adventure" is a catch-all term for (usually console) games that don't fit under a specific genre, but the roots of the classification can be traced (at least in terms of popularity) all the way back to the original Legend of Zelda. These were games that weren't built around a specific mechanic (e.g. shooting, punching, platforming, racing), but mixed a handful of them in a grand adventure that the player would engage in. God of War has a lot of downtime and a good amount of it is spent pulling levers, solving puzzles and platforming. Combat is certainly a major ingredient in the game's formula, but it often serves as a spike to pick up the pace. Darksiders is usually brought up as a mix of God of War and Legend of Zelda, but God of War itself isn't that far removed from the fundamentals of Nintendo's legendary series either. It's more streamlined and linear, without an overworld or backtracking, but Kratos' adventure is primarily about overcoming obstacles on his way to Ares; combat is just another tool for that purpose.

The game starts out heavy on combat and simple on puzzles, but the roles of the two mechanics are reversed as the game progresses, at least until the third act of the game and its climax. The big set-pieces and the stellar level design complement the mechanics. The puzzles shine in their simplicity, because they don't break the flow of the game and they feel organic in the levels. There aren't any real head-scratchers and none of them will require the player to backtrack to an earlier point in the game, but solving them and progressing is always a rewarding experience. 

The combat may not be the singular focus of the game, but it's extremely satisfying and that's largely the reason the game is being mis-remembered as a hack-n-slasher/spectacle fighter. The developers realized soon the potential for an engaging combat system and its importance in Kratos' journey and they didn't cop-out. There are combos to string, though the game (almost) never forces the player to and there's enough spells to allow for personalized playstyles through the game's progression system. The final boss, Ares, is a fascinating design choice; depending on your view, he either works very well or he doesn't. The game takes away all your toys and levels the playing field, both frustrating you (because your upgrades have gone to waste), but also making sure you won't fail for choosing the "wrong" upgrades. It's not exactly delicate game design, but it's interesting nonetheless. 

There's little reason in explaining every single mechanic in detail; the point of this piece is why this game remains so impressive even today, when most of its contemporaries are mere throwbacks to the game design of yesteryear.

God of War excels in world building and storytelling; ironic, considering I overlooked the game a decade ago, because I was too blind to read all its little, wonderful touches. The game takes the DOOM (2016) approach to character development. In that game, the "Slayer" (or Doom Marine, or Doomguy) has no spoken dialogue or cutscenes. His character is established through the brutality of his actions. When Sam Hayden instructs him to carefully remove the batteries to stabilize the reactor, he just smashes them, because it's faster and simpler. Very early in the game, when the player enters the first elevator, Hayden says that "whatever happened, all they (the UAC) had in mind was humanity's best interests". At the sound of that, Doomguy eyes a dead body in the elevator and then smashes the intercom. It's a wonderful way to establish the tone of the game (cut the bullshit, get to the point), as well as the character (he doesn't lack empathy, he uses his brutality to get the job done).

Kratos has a voice, he has dialogue and there are a few cutscenes. But all of his characterization comes from his actions in the game. He is brutal, he expresses himself through raw, primal strength; he's half-naked, he's big, he has a jaw the size of a small mountain. His eyes are constantly frowned and spitting fires. But he wasn't always like that. In the flashbacks he's in full armor, a soldier like everyone else. When he pledges himself to Ares, he loses his clothes and he gains weapons burned in his very flesh, forever in chains, a slave to the god of war. That's when the real brutality comes through. Before Ares, he has a family, something to keep him grounded. Once a servant, he is a weapon.

He has skill, but he's not super-human. He is violent, but through gameplay we also understand that he is smart enough to solve the puzzles of the temple of Pandora. His threatening and uncaring demeanor mask his emotions, but we know he's capable of love to another. The only time, in the game, this mask breaks is when he loses his family. Only then do his eyes express a different emotion than anger. He has been a slave, twice, even though he acts as a master.

When Kratos first appears, quickly, the player is introduced to the weakest enemy in the game, allowing them to see the warrior for this weapon that rips enemies apart. It communicates what kind of character Kratos is. Not long after establishing how capable and brutal he is, the game makes it known that he's not just a mindless killer; he's on a mission from the other gods to literally save the world. So, he's a hero, of some sort, but he's not a righteous hero. He's still very much human, however; the beginning of the very second level, Kratos is in bed with two naked women. This communicates that he's still human, very much tied to our world by his own need for affection, even if it's fleeting. It's a great contrast to the end of the first level, which had him take down the freaking Hydra, a massive otherworldly beast terrorizing the Greek seas.

Who is Kratos and what exactly drives him, though?

When he falls to Hades in the last half of the game, killed by Ares, he fights his way out again. He doesn't go through trials, there is no special clause for him that others are exempt from; it's his decision and his strength that pull him back out. At the last part of that level, the camera pans out to a beautiful shot of Kratos climbing a rope to the land of the living, while dozens of others souls fall down into the river Styx. It's a turning point, which re-frames Kratos' entire character. What we had been led to believe was a story of revenge with a violent super-soldier as its centerpiece, becomes a story of redemption for an extremely determined protagonist. He was determined to not fall to the Barbarians when he was merely a Spartan general and he was willing to sell his life and soul to Ares for it. Now, he's determined to win against Ares and complete his mission for the other gods. This one shot does more for Kratos' character development than any lengthy cutscene does for many other gaming heroes in other games. It's not skill, strength or hate that fuel Kratos; it's determination to be redeemed for his crimes.

The longest part of the game is, undoubtedly, in the Temple of Pandora. To find it, Kratos has to follow the sirens, the captivating song of which (likely unintentionally) foreshadow the futility of his quest for forgiveness. Once inside, Kratos' tragic backstory is revealed not only through flashbacks, but through the life of the temple's architect, Pathos Verdes III (whose name is half Greek and half Latin, get your shit together Jaffe). Much like Kratos, Pathos Verdes (whose name very roughly translates to the "suffering fool", or "pitiful idiot") was on a mission from the gods. He was tasked with building an impenetrable fortress to guard the legendary Pandora's Box. In that task of his, he lost his sons and his wife. He was so absorbed in serving the gods that he got (far more indirectly than Kratos) his family killed. The keys to open the doors to the different challenges are his family's decomposing skulls, the monument to the gods that he built is locked behind his pain and loss. Pathos, eventually, lost the will to live after being forced to stab his own wife; also a nice bit of foreshadowing (as the truth of Kratos' past hadn't been revealed at the game at that point) that would be far less subtle in lesser stories.

In this context, the violence is a narrative vehicle in itself. As the story unfolds, it seems like Kratos' brutality doesn't come from hatred, but frustration. Being a tool of war is the only thing he can utilize to complete his redemption journey and he's determined to do it; but he's also lost and desperate, lashing out at his enemies, externalizing the complex feelings of crippling guilt that would send everyone else to an early grave.

At the end, when Kratos finally defeats Ares, he realizes that the promises of the gods aren't what he expected. Not unlike the "pitiful" architect of the Temple, he realizes that the missions he undertook, both for Ares as a general and as a warrior for the other gods, weren't worth the grief they caused him. The gods forgive his sins, sure enough, but they don't lighten their burden. He won't be heading for Tartarus, but he will not ever forget that he slaughtered his own family. He plunges to his death, his redemption journey unsuccessfully concluded; a broken man, unable to cope with his actions, haunted by tremendous guilt.

His attempted suicide isn't powerful, because of the tragic death that awaits the hero; it's powerful, because it's the first time in the entire game (and Kratos' whole life) that the character has true agency. He makes this decision on his own, not commanded by the Olympian deities, not shackled by the desire to war as a true Spartan. It's the first time that Kratos reveals himself to be merely a man, like any other, exercising free will for the first time.

But the gods don't even grant him death; they rob him off his choice, they give him Ares' throne, making him the new God of War. A just reward, or perhaps another form of servitude to the Olympian Pantheon? That remains to be explored in the later games.

On a related note, I had forgotten the scale of this game. I don't know why it failed to impress me back in the day, but perhaps the passage of time brings its own wisdom. We've seen big, impressive set pieces a lot in the years following that game's release, but it's usually a trick for cheap thrills. In God of War, there are wonderful vistas and massive monuments, giving the impression of a great civilization that has existed for a long time and which exists outside of the events of the game. The antithesis between the human-sized Kratos and not only the bigger enemies, but also the very rooms the player explores, give perspective for the scope of the story, the world and Kratos' own quest. The visuals of the game can be humbling and impressive at the same time.

Of course, not everything is perfect; there's some dated controls (dodge-roll on the right stick is just weird) and some timing issues. I discovered that in the HD version, in particular, there are some enemies whose attacks register way before the respective animation finishes (especially in the case of the giant Minotaur in Hades' Challenge, who is near-impossible to beat because of this).

There's some issues with difficulty scaling as well. It's not a hard game, save for a few encounters with specific enemies (the little shitheads with the scepters can fuck off), but the game has a skewed understanding of challenge. With few exceptions, difficulty is determined by the volume of enemies on screen, instead of their AI or strength. This leads to scenarios where encounters aren't hard, but take a long time to beat, making them somewhat tedious.

Another sore issue is some of the platforming, particularly in the latter half of the game. There are certain bits, especially in the escape from Styx, which were clearly not playtested. The climbing pillars with the rolling blades were rage-quit, maddeningly frustrating a decade ago and they've got only slightly better with time and better gaming skill.

On that note, the game also suffers from needless time-based puzzles that can be equally frustrating. They are made to force the player to repeat them at least a few times and they add nothing to the overall experience. The one in Pandora's Temple (the one with the box and the spikes, you know which one I'm talking about), has no business being in the game. You have barely enough time to get through it and that's only if you push that box through a very specific route. There's no recovery chance, a single mistake means reloading the puzzle.

Also, as much as I gushed over the method of storytelling, I'd still cut out a lot of the flashbacks, especially in regards to Kratos killing his family. The parallel with Pathos Verdes was smart enough to communicate this and the game could've just confirmed it through a few lines of spoken dialogue later in the story. This is clearly just nitpicking, though and the storytelling still works really well.

Whatever I say in conclusion must prefaced with this: God of War is not one of my favorite games. New-found respect aside, I usually seek something deeper that will connect with me from my top games and Kratos' first outing had nowhere the same impact on me as a Metal Gear or a Witcher game. I'm not blinded by nostalgia (for a game I didn't even like the first time I played it) or a sense of brand loyalty (I have yet to play any of the other games).

Having said that, I found the original God of War to be a damn-near-perfect game. My opening statement that there are few games with timeless design is not one I make lightly and God of War is certainly a game that just doesn't age. Minor hiccups aside, what the game offers is tuned to perfection, everything Jaffe and co. set out to do they did remarkably well and nearly fifteen years since its original release, the game remains a masterpiece in its genre. More to the point, however, it's a game far smarter than it looks, with far more layers and meat than it has any right to have. It uses the medium's strengths to tell its story and doesn't hamper gameplay to do it. It's so polished and responsive that age simply cannot touch it and short of videogames fundamentally changing at their core in the foreseeable future, God of War will remain as fresh and vibrant as it was the day it was released.

Disclaimer: The game was purchased via PSN. The version of the game in this article is the HD Remaster (released 2010). I don't own any of the pictures used in this piece. 

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