God of War: Art With a Philosophical Edge (SPOILERS)

God of War: Art With a Philosophical Edge (SPOILERS)

As promised in my God of War review posted earlier this week, I wanted to write an in-depth treatise regarding the subject matter, the philosophy behind the narrative and the message it portrays, as well as my simple admiration for this sprawling canvas of majestic, passionately created art.  So be warned!  Major spoilers for God of War lie ahead as I’ll be tackling many plot points in Kratos’ latest tale and I go deep into the human story behind this game.

But first, I want to share a little background about where I’m headed with this.  I’m a stalwart advocate for the work these developers do to be recognized by the public as a true-blue art form.  As one crosses the generational divides, games are viewed by varying perceptions.  My parents’ generation is the generation that typically views video games as no more than a black hole for time that could have otherwise been used “constructively” or put towards constructive pursuits.  In a word, it’s childish.   Many friends and associates of mine that fall between my parents and I in age tend to view video games solely from an entertainment aspect.  To many in this generation, games are simply a hobby or a stress reliever.  Most of these people were already teenagers or adults when Pong, Asteroids, Super Mario Bros and the like were mainstream in the video game market.  For this group of people, that mindset is understandable as these games were certainly only created from the basis of being entertaining and fun.

My generation and forward, however, see video games as something much more.  The nostalgia of growing up from a young age with games as an entertainment source has morphed into an entirely different beast along with the fundamentals of the gaming industry.  Of course, entertainment is still a key element for gamers and game developers alike.  But somewhere around the latter part of the 90’s, we started seeing the emergence of developers and producers who dared to bring additional dimensions to the table.  This was of course aided by newer and developing technological feats.

With that being said, I will never forget the first time that I was so genuinely enthralled, moved, and emotionally stunned by all the elements of a particular game.  It was the fall of 1999 and I was in my seventh-grade year.  I had just barely acquired my very own TV for my room.  The TV was a meager 17” box of metal, glass, and circuitry.  But it got the job done.  I was ecstatic as this meant I could now put my Playstation in my room.  Happily, I carted the console up to my room, set up a makeshift entertainment center using stackable plastic storage crates, plugged the console in, and booted up the latest game in my possession.  Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t actually own the game, but a friend had lent it to me after cruising through it himself.

After booting up the game for the first time, I almost instantly knew that I wasn’t playing any ordinary game.  Opening with the cinematic of an operative gliding through deep waters accompanied by the haunting serenity of Irish singer Aoife Ni Fhearraigh’s voice in the song “The Best is yet to Come”, I realized that I was about to embark on a precarious, yet thrilling journey steeped in mystery and drama.  A short moment later, the character known famously as Solid Snake would shed his wet gear and begin his epic infiltration of an island compound so noteworthy in the history of the medium, that a majority of gamers would recognize the island compound by name: Shadow Moses.

For the next couple weeks, I followed Snake’s exploits on the island every day after school as Snake was tasked with the duty of taking out a rogue faction of the special forces unit, Foxhound, from manning a nuclear capable bipedal weapon.  Espionage themes aside, this game soared into the grounds of artistic ingenuity.  Snake encountered twists and turns in his own story as he learned the nature of his own background as a clone as well as his connection to the villain, his biological brother.  The genetically engineered members of the Foxhound unit were also fully realized characters so multi-dimensional that I felt a connection despite their short screen time and villainy.  The portrayal of those characters was such that even though the player may have never learned detailed specifics, it was apparent that these were living, breathing characters with stories, emotions, and personalities shaped by major events in their lives.  As I, the player, ended each of their lives I felt the weight of snuffing out a piece of history and preventing the individual from fulfilling his/her purpose.  The writing, at the time, was a masterwork and revolutionary in the space of video games.  When I completed the game, which resulted in the death of Liquid Snake, Solid Snake’s brother, from a genetic failsafe virus called Foxdie, I was left emotionally stunned.  As the credits rolled, “The Best is Yet to Come” played in full this time bringing everything full circle.  I sat back and took it all in.  If you ever found the translation to that song, you’d know how appropriate it was in driving the story’s purpose home.

Even as a wild thirteen-year-old, I questioned the implications of the story.   What did all of this mean for Solid Snake and his future? I also received the message, believe it or not, regarding the notion of forging our own destinies.  The world in which drastic genetic experimentation and human cloning is not one we live in thanks to moral principle coupled with strict regulation.  But what about genetics?  Solid Snake learned, and was told, that he had a role to play and that he was born into and engineered to be in the midst of conflict.  Additionally, he was told he, too, was likely destined to bear the same fate of his biological brother.  But the takeaway was that our history, including those who came before, as well as something as integral as our genetic make-up don’t define who we are as people and who we can become.  These things don’t dictate the paths we choose to blaze.  This theme was apparent in just about every character arc from Gray Fox, Snake’s former ally presumed dead but ressurrected as the cyborg ninja who rejected his own programming, to Otacon, the brains behind the nuclear weapon who turned it all away when confronted with his own conscience.  After finishing the game, I couldn’t get it out of my head for quite some time.  It’s a really inspired piece of storytelling that engaged me on a level that I had never known before, and that is something monumental given the fact that I was only thirteen years old.  That’s an age where most things went far above my head, and I really only looked for the next shiny object or game to play.  The ability for Hideo Kojima and his team to masterfully use all of the artistic tools at their disposal, which included the soundtrack, the narrative and dialogue, the visual art design, and the gameplay, was like forging a device to contain my emotions, cradle them like a football, and take them in whatever direction the team wanted to run.  I was invested and along for the ride.

Fast forward almost two decades, and here we are.  I’ve had another deeply satisfying and emotional experience played out in the form of a video game.  God of War was everything it promised to be and so much more.  Even with the hype surrounding the title’s release, I wasn’t fully prepared for what was about to transpire.  And that, my friends, is the mark of a great storyteller.  It’s one who takes the audience places they aren’t prepared to go subsequently searing the moment in their mind as a permanent fixture or memory.  God of War is remarkably unforgettable to say the least.

Throughout seven entries prior to the newest release (not including a mobile game, God of War: Betrayal), the famed character of the series, Kratos, had brought his own world in ancient Greece to heel with the proper recipe for destruction: a dab of divinity from his father, Zeus, and a boat-load of rage and hatred. This was all aimed at the gods who denied him everything including his own wife and child with their orchestrated deaths, a childhood with his brother, the promised escape from his own nightmares, as well as the promised godhood in Ares stead, the former God of War. When all was said and done, Kratos destroyed the entire Greek pantheon of gods by hunting them down and viciously murdering them one by one. This culminated in the death of Zeus, Kratos’ own father. The result of this destruction was the end to an entire land.  Many of its inhabitants, who were innocent in this whole affair, were collateral damage. Unintended death was a by-product of Kratos’ rage and desire to see his vengeance through to the end.

As those who had played latest title for PS4 know, the story fixates on sins, regret, redemption, and creating a better future.  Kratos finds himself several years older living in a foreign world (ancient Scandinavia/Midgard) where Norse deities rule the day.  His demeanor is still as bullish as one would expect, but it’s tempered with a sense of control and wisdom that comes from many years of experience.  There’s also a well of grief that Kratos draws from reminding him of his original life of chaos and destruction and cautioning him to steer clear of it.  Despite being of divine parentage, he is more human in this tale of a world-wearied man who’s experienced and committed the absolute worst that life in the mortal realm has to offer.   After a lifetime of having nothing left to lose, Kratos is now in the vulnerable position of having something precious that can swiftly be lost to him not only by physical means, but also in spirit as well: his son, Atreus.  He is infinitely now so much more relatable and I’ll explain what I mean.

My own father has a very strong, leadership type of personality as well.  He’s a man of few words and little patience for bull s**t.  It’s a type of character that is born out of experience as my dad was one who had to forge his own path and learn how to live life largely on his own terms.  In essence, he learned at a young age how to take care of himself and find whatever it was that he was looking for in life all on his own.  I, on the other hand, had the fortune of having two parents who were ever present in my life.  They challenged me to think for myself, but still helped me along my path.  With that combination, I’m a bit more like Atreus in personality.  Like the character, I’m curious, fascinated by stories, myth, and legends and am a freethinker, many times out loud.  I attribute this to the fact that I didn’t have to focus one-hundred percent of my energy on obtaining what I wanted in life because I wasn’t doing that on my own.  My dad, on the other hand, doesn’t mess around with the things in life he might deem as nonsense.  Movies, games, music and various forms of entertainment were always low priority on my dad’s list.  That’s not to say he didn’t participate in any of that, but it is to say that is where those things stood when it came to his overall goals in daily living.

Does any of this sound familiar?  I saw so much of my relationship with my own father in Kratos and Atreus it was almost silly.  Granted my father knew me much better than Kratos knows his own son.

But if I were to imagine Kratos teaching Atreus how to drop the plug from an oil pan underneath a C1500 Chevy pickup truck without spilling oil everywhere or having it run down his arm, I could imagine Kratos with the following dialogue: “Boy, flick the plug counter clockwise, pull your hand away fast, let the plug drop on its own, and be sure I’ve got the pan positioned right to catch the stream, but only when I’m ready.”  Atreus spins the plug to loosen the plug but goes a step too far and hot oil begins to leak rapidly and run down his hand.  Holding the plug as the hot oil scalds his skin, he jerks the plug away with oil jetting out everywhere splashing the garage floor as Kratos quickly positions the oil pan.  Irritated, Kratos would shout, “What are you doing!?  You’ve made a mess!  ONLY DROP THE—.”  He pauses for a deep breath, “only drop the plug when I tell you to drop the plug.”  Yup, I can definitely see that scenario not being too different from one that I might’ve experienced as a ten or eleven-year-old.

That’s where the similarities stop of course, as my dad never had the experience of rage-killing the people who wronged him in life.  Kratos has a deep, cavernous closet with plenty of skeletons to fill it.  He associates godhood with the violently selfish plight he once embarked on to quell his need for vindication.  Anger, vengeance, and selfishness were a stable of the gods and was cyclical all the way until their final destruction.  It’s obviously clear that Kratos wants to move past his sin and shame.  So much so, in fact, that he shuns every opportunity to even broach the subject with his son for much of the game.  I love the physical manifestation of this course that Kratos takes.  The symbolism ties in perfectly with regards to our own humanity, and I’ll explain.  Shame, regret, and wrongdoing is never something we can move past until it is confronted.  If you were to think about guilt, perhaps, for something you had done to someone else, that guilt never really dissipates until you acknowledge what you had done usually by the mere apology you might make to the individual affected (a base example).  Tucking away our wrongdoings leaves a wound that’s liable to fester and cause more pain down the road.  The human brain is fickle and has a difficult time dealing in grey areas (pun not intended).  The mind likes absolutes and tackling your guilt head-on helps formulate that absolute.

But this goes one step further.  As humans we only improve as a species when we learn from our past.  We must know where we came from in order to know where we want to go.  As Americans we have proud moments in history, and we also have deeply shameful moments.  Let’s take the tough topic of slavery in all of its forms, a scourge that really has been suffered by many groups of people throughout history.    Imagine, for the sake of an experiment in thought, two children who were born into our world.  One child never learned his/her history or of the slavery any ancestors may have perpetrated.  The other child was, in fact, taught this history as well as the shared view by his/her teachers that slavery was, in fact, wrong and evil.  Which of these two children would actually have a better shot at progressing our society moving us away from even the threads of those times that still exist such as marginalization, inequality, etc?  The answer is obvious.  Atreus’ lack of knowledge about where he came from is physically killing him in this game as Mimir explained that his illness is onset but his actual divinity clashing with his belief that he is only mortal.  This is the symbolism I spoke of, and it’s a great parallel.  Kratos had to set his pride aside in order to preserve his son’s future.  It was important for Atreus to not only learn of his genetic nature of godhood, but also learn from his father’s past.  “Be better” is a phrase Kratos uses, but Atreus can only know how to be better by knowing the context or baseline he’s starting from.

The moment Kratos reveals his greatest sins to his son, is also the moment he ceases another (Baldur) from stubbornly and destructively heading down that road.  As I said in my game review, Kratos is certainly no pacifist in the newest God of War.  However, he is a person whose eyes have finally been opened, in part, thanks to the innocence of his own son.

Baldur’s bitter hatred towards his mother is rooted in her desire to control her son by keeping him safe.  As we learned, she placed a type of curse upon him that freed him from feeling in order to eliminate any potential pain he might endure in life, as well as an imperviousness to death.  This did not sit well with Baldur.  From his viewpoint, his mother stole from him a century or more of life not fully lived by not being able to feel both the pleasures and pain that come with actually being alive.  That, in itself, presents an entirely new set of ideas about the correlation between a parent’s attempt to protect/control a child and the possible strained relationship and resentment that may cause from the perceived lack of trust on the child’s part.  In the end, who does that serve?  The child, or the parent?  It’s obvious here that restraining a child from experiencing life, even the hard parts, is a selfish venture for the parent even if it stems from good intent.  It’s, yet, another human lesson learned.

God of War
God of War Screen Capture

But I digress, Kratos knew what the result would be if he let Baldur kill his own mother for the curse, as he saw it, that she set upon him.  It would be countless more deaths and it’d be unpredictable as to when it would ever end, if at all.  Kratos made the clear-minded choice, not out of rage or hatred but out of experience and a desperate need to see such cycles be broken, to head off lifetimes of anguish and despair with the snap of Baldur’s neck.  Visually, it was a lesson to his son once again to be better than Baldur was, and more importantly, than Kratos was.  Atreus was, rightfully, stunned by his father’s admission to patricide following Baldur’s death as well as other countless murderers of “many who were deserving, and many who were not.”  The only question left on Atreus’ mind was to ask if having such power only doomed a being to repeat the cycle of violence and greed.  Swiftly, Kratos consoled his son in the knowledge that free agency was a virtue that could be wielded to change the course of history.  Powerful stuff.

The ideas behind this game were inspired by the real-life son that the game director, Corey Barlog, had near the early stages of this game’s development.  The art that comes from the true purity of our every day life is, quite honestly, some of the most captivating pieces of art because it’s always relatable on some level as I’ve just shared through my own various connections.  I, also, have a four-year old son, and I most certainly want him to be better than I was and currently am.  One of my biggest regrets was not following my passion in life as a writer and settling for what I see now as the “safe choice” for a career.  There were multiple factors that led me to making the choices that I did, but for a long story short, I feel the pain of regret, lack of purpose, and diminished value one might feel when engaging in a pursuit not befitting of his/her nature.  I do seek to change that bit by bit.   But, it becomes much harder to do with a full-time job and family.  My hope for my son, is that he can do better.  From an early age, I will share with him my greatest regret, and encourage him to pursue his passions.  We only better the world by living out our callings in life, and that is my hope for him.  That’s the beauty of a story like the one in God of War.   The lessons that are taught can resonate with many at different levels.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. God of War is a masterpiece in storytelling.  That’s not just in words and actions, but also in the music, the realizations of the characters and the world, and the actors who brought these characters to life.  But most importantly, it’s a story about humanity in an otherwise inhuman world.  And it’s humanity that connects us.  So with all of these things combined, the development team created something so ground-breaking that it will not ever be forgotten.

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