The Old Man and the Kid.
Something has been bothering me: A new game released back in April called God of War. Not God of War from 2005, I mean God of War from 2018. They have the same name. Two games with the same name is a problem but that's not the one I want to talk about.
God of War came out two weeks ago for Playstation 4 and the game is absolutely adored by everyone who sees it. I can't sign onto social media or check any gaming websites, even ones that cover Nintendo or Xbox exclusively, without seeing God of War. I don't just mean in adverts either, I mean fan tributes, reviews, other game studios congratulating the game and other types of coverage.
That's all fine and good, because I'm not trying to rain on anyone's success or hard work. I'm just trying to figure out which part of the game this insane praise is directed at. I knew from the day the game was announced that this God of War would be very different from the old ones. The series took a break after the fourth title, God of War Ascension, which wasn't nearly as well received as the previous three games in the series. After resting up for a bit God of War came back with a new look and feel.
To clarify my position on the older titles, I've never really played them. I own the God of War Collection on PS3, which contains the first two games, but I haven't ever really gotten into the series hardcore. I'm certainly aware of it and I've played plenty of games that critics liken to God of War, such as Bayonetta and the two Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games. I'm not a "fan", really, I'm just a bystander. I mention this just to make it clear that I'm not speaking as a fan who feels betrayed by the series taking a new turn.
When God of War released, and I mean the 2005 PlayStation 2 game called God of War, not the 2018 PlayStation 4 game called God of War, I was much more into JRPG's like Kingdom Hearts over a hyper-violent western game so I never picked it up. My friends told me it was fun and the magazines made it sound awesome but it just wasn't really my thing. I have nothing against the series at all, I just prefer colors and characters who know how to smile.
... and who am I kidding? I was 13. My parents wouldn't have let me near it anyway.
What I mean to bring up about God of War, that's the new one from last month, not the old one, is the change in direction that I mentioned. This new entry is far more focused on story and character than the old game is. Kratos, the God of War, is now a much older man complete with sadness-beard. He no longer moves about the battlefield with ease, but does so slowly and using only a battle axe rather his signature fast-paced action and swords that he chains to his arms.
Kratos is accompanied by his son, which the internet would have me believe is named "boy" or "son". I'm not being facetious, I've never come across the kid's name through all the constant chatter and praise. The instant I saw Kratos' son in the reveal trailer I knew exactly how this game would play out. It would be slower, it would be more cinematic, it would have a heavy-handed theme, at least early in the game, of his son experiencing the harshness of the world around him.
I was right.
God of War, meaning the new one, has rejected everything that the series used to be known for. The art direction is completely "realistic" and far more down to earth. The violence has been significantly tamed. The crazed, revenge obsessed protagonist has been slowed and calmed. The character's voice, which since his original appearance in 2005 has been provided by one Terrence Carson, has been unceremoniously replaced. The Greek setting has been exchanged for a Norse one. The once intricate and unique life bars and interface elements have been replaced by a "cinematic" minimalist UI that looks ripped straight from twenty other games. Whether or not the music still has the same tone or if the events of the previous games still matter (or even happened), I couldn't say, but the game's title pretends the previous games didn't happen, so if I was a gamblin' man...
So, to get it straight, in God of War (the new one) we play as a grizzled, bearded old man, an ex-fighter, who must protect a young child while they slowly trudge through endless cinematic cutscenes and slow over-the-shoulder third-person combat. Hold on, this sounds familiar. Hasn't the gaming industry already praised this game to the moon? Last time it was called "The Last of Us".
Take an old but capable man with a dark and tragic past, plop him into a war-torn world and have him escort a little kid around. This is a very popular setup right now, not just in gaming but in all of entertainment. This is also the exact plot of 2017's Logan, the finale of the X-Men movie series. The resemblance this movie held to The Last of Us did not go unnoticed, but instead of questioning whether or not this type of plot is just a cheap and easy manipulation of our human nature, the similarities were parodied with internet memes while the public polished all of those 'The Last of Us' Game of the Year awards.
These two games are praised for their approach to storytelling and rarely ever for their actual game play. Most videos I've seen of God of War (the new one) show the cutscenes and the non-playable segments of the game. If I didn't know better I would have assumed that God of War (the new one) was a CGI movie reboot. Most frequently among the mountains of non-game that I see is a clip of Kratos walking up to a corpse in the aftermath of a battle and pulling it back to reveal his shell-shocked son underneath it.
This is such a popular setup because it reaches your heartstrings with absolutely no trouble. It's hard to write an adult in a way that brings sympathy out of an adult audience. Heck, it might be impossible to make Kratos sympathetic at this point so they needed something else to get the job done. Throw a kid into the mix and now getting people all choked up is the easiest thing in the world. People either know kids or have kids so it's very likely that the vast majority of your audience has an emotional anchor point through which they relate to what they see. The reason The Last of Us has you choose whether or not to sacrifice the little girl to save the world instead of the ancient bitter and jaded man is because nobody would care if the positions were flipped. They'd kill this guy in a heartbeat and talk about the greater good and then mention that he doesn't even have a last name.
It's the same reason that the CGI reveal trailer for Dead Island had a tiny little girl getting thrown out of a window as its focal point rather than a emo teenager, an adult man or another mindless zombie. The only reason anyone talked about that trailer, and by extension, the game, is because everyone who saw the little kid in trouble got emotionally attached and that instantly made the trailer memorable and the game interesting. It has to be good, doesn't it? Look at the scared little kid. This game is super deep and it's gonna be great. Then the game comes out, it's a massive disappointment and the industry pretends that it's learned pre-rendered trailers are cancer and might as well be a School House Rock cartoon for all it says about the game it's trying to sell.
My point is, put a kid in peril and it's guaranteed to make waves.
This sort of thing has never worked on me. If you want my opinion The Last of Us is an awful game and an even worse story. The design document for a third person cover shooter can be written for you by opening Microsoft Word and pressing Alt+Function+F9. Add in a Shift+F6 for 'every zombie apocalypse story ever told' and you've got a Game of the Year on your hands evidently.
After swimming through the oceans of hype for The Last of Us since the day it launched I picked up the PS4 remaster and found a game where plot and game play had absolutely no relation to each other. In fact, each one was an outright detriment to the other. I found a game that was so poorly written that it thought the best way to get me to relate to a protagonist was to go from 'totally fine' to 'dead family and burnt house' in the span of three minutes and then cut to twenty years later. Needless to say it took no time to figure out that The Last of Us owes it's success not to game play but entirely to it's presentation and manipulative use of a small child being killed at the start to get you to care about the story.
The narrative and conversations are so important that when the game doesn't outright halt forward progress for forced exposition, it's constantly limiting your movement speed to ensure that you hear everything. It's also very fond of trapping you in a confined space until you find a ladder to slowly move or a door to slowly open. There is no game here. This is a movie that begrudgingly has some interactivity in it.
Compare this approach to story telling to Kid Icarus Uprising, released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. This game never stops or slows the game play for the sake of storytelling or character dialogue and it's got enough of both to drown in either one. The characters just talk to each other while you play and the game is long enough to accommodate that. They talk constantly. They're never not talking. The game play and the story are that intertwined. Another great example of this sort of thing is Nier:Automata, in which the story and game play are one and the same.
The Last of Us didn't bother. It's too dull to have enough "game play" to fill the plots running time because the plot was the entire focus of the project. They took the climbing and puzzle solving out of Uncharted and called it a day. Naughty Dog has always been great at animation and visuals so a graphically impressive and expressive game was practically a given, but that doesn't change the fact that The Last of Us Wiki has a page on all of the ladders you have to carry throughout the game and another page for the planks you have to move. Ten out of ten.
I have no idea if God of War shares any of these problems. It easily might not in which case it's a far stronger game, but the narrative problems still persist. I don't want to play another game that explores these themes. I'm dead tired of them. I only speak for myself but can't we try something else? Would Nier:Automata have been better received by the gaming public if 9S was an 11 year old and 2B was an old man with a beard instead? Would we applaud and adore a Mega Man Legends reboot if Mega Man was exploring ruins with his kid, his apocalypse beard and tragic memories of his dead wife? This is such an easy out for story writing and I'm left standing here wondering how many more times it's going to work.
My point with all of this is not to call people wrong for liking things or insult people's work. It's to point out that The Last of Us, Logan, and most recently Dad of Boy are all utilizing the same "press for relate-able story" button. While The Last of Us may have gone straight for zombies, the absolute bottom of the creativity barrel, at least it didn't have a beloved franchise behind it.
God of War abandoning everything it once stood beside for the sake of this tired narrative and boring cinematic focus, even ditching the voice actor of an arguable gaming icon for the sake of motion capture, is really sad to watch. It was so focused on going through with every single "gruff man escorting kid" trope that it gave Kratos a second dead wife to mope about. We've done this twice now. The death of his first family is now retroactively cheapened and that tragic death was the character's entire motivation that sparked a trilogy of games.
With all of that said I haven't played God of War, so I openly admit that it's possible that I'm completely wrong and would be blown away by how amazing the game part of the game actually is. I won't know any time soon because the story and presentation are the elements being praised and they look to be the sort that would bore me to tears, while not a word is breathed about the game play from anyone calling it an "early game of the year".
Thanks for reading. Until next time, unless you hate me after reading all of that in which case maybe not. There's a comment section so if you want to tell me how wrong I am please feel free! I write the posts marked (Personal) in my free time though so I may not have the time to reply right away. I'll do my best!