Video Games As Art: God Of War Reminds Us What Games Can (And Should) Be

Oh my God (of War), you have to play this game.

Author’s note: This review/opinion piece contains minor spoilers, but no major ones.

Once in a while—not often, but once in a while—a game comes along that completely shatters my +10 Armor of Grumpiness About Video Games and renews my hope that someday, the video game industry will consistently produce amazing, incredible, powerful works of art that I can’t stop thinking about for weeks.

One of my favorite things about writing for GrownGaming is the fact that I get to write about whatever I want, how I want, when I want. I write for other gaming sites too, which is great, but in most cases, I have to keep up with the latest trends and write about the most popular keywords. If I really want to write about a game that came out six months ago, but that I’ve only just gotten a chance to play, I’m out of luck—but not here.

GrownGaming also affords me the opportunity to structure articles in uncommon ways, if need be. I was originally going to simply write a review of God of War but realized that something more was needed. I then considered writing an opinion piece about video games as art, using God of War as the primary focus. I finally decided to do a hybrid hackjob and split the difference 50/50. If you’re used to a certain format, bear with me; I’ve done it this way for a reason.

What is Art?

A contentious question if ever there was one. Ask a thousand people what art is, and you’ll probably get a thousand different answers. I’ve written a whole bunch about this topic alone, and it’s impossible to make my full case in any fewer than 10,000 words, but here’s the TL;DR: art is a recreation of the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.

You may be asking yourself what the hell that means. It means that a book, painting, sculpture, or video game, in order to qualify as art, must clearly condense and express what the artist believes to be most important about existence itself. In other words, what are the artist’s most fundamental beliefs about life, the universe, ethics, beauty, and humanity?

Whether something is good art or bad art is a separate question from whether it’s art at all. I believe that the subject, not the medium, is the first place to look when trying to figure out whether or not something constitutes art. Again, that’s a separate and highly complicated question, and it’s not the one you’re here to read about; I’m only providing a little context so that, going forward, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

God of War’s Value Judgments

As a franchise, God of War has had a varied and colorful evolution. I’ve played most of the main series games, but I was never crazy about them. Kratos always struck me as rather immature; sure, he’s got legitimate reasons to be mad, but not “murder absolutely everyone in the entire hemisphere” mad.

In terms of values, what exactly were the older God of War games trying to say? It’s hard to be sure; I’m not convinced that the writers even know, at least not fully. Some themes are fairly obvious: revenge is usually a bad motive, power is corrupting, and, uh… think twice before you kill your dad? If we’re being honest, the early God of War titles were never about the narrative. The story was mostly an excuse to set the player up for wildly violent hack-and-slash combat (which is fine—I’ve said before that games don’t need to be art in order to have value).

However, games that do have strongly written stories that emphasize the nobility of the human spirit are so, so much better than games that don’t (all other factors being equal). Games that are just flat-out fun because they have slick mechanics and a rewarding core gameplay loop are a great thing; far be it from me to tell you not to throw some cash at them.

But a game that inspires you with a burst of hope when you’re feeling down, makes you seriously reconsider a belief you’ve never questioned, or even permanently changes your life is something special. Art—real art—has nearly infinite power to fuel your soul, to reinforce (or challenge) your most cherished values, and to remind you that, on the whole, human beings are actually pretty great (despite what many of them might say or do to the contrary).

So, what does God of War have to say, in terms of ideas of real substance? A lot, in fact. Three big things are quite clear by the time the credits roll:

Free will exists; people can change, both for the worse and for the better;
Love and logic (emotion and reason) are not mutually exclusive;
Good is powerful, and evil is impotent.

All three of these are things that the world in general desperately needs to hear and come to believe, especially that last one. Evil people triumph only to the extent that good people consent to being victims. This is a lesson that Kratos has long been overdue to learn, and it’s incredibly impactful to watch him begin to finally understand it as he struggles to teach his son to be better than he is.

Okay, but You Still Haven’t Told Me Much About the Game

God of War is so different from its predecessors that it’s hard to believe they all belong to the same canon. (That’s a good thing; God of War absolutely could not have been nearly as outstanding as it is without making a lot of big changes.)

Kratos is not a good man (half-man, I suppose; he’s half-god, too). He’s killed a lot of people, and many of them didn’t deserve it. He’s been ruled by his emotions his entire life, letting his understandable and justifiable rage over the murders of his wife and daughter drive him to commit less understandable, unjustifiable deeds. Killing has been his first-line response to any perceived slight for so long that he’s almost completely lost touch with humanity (his own, as well as other people more generally).

But Kratos is not totally irredeemable—not yet. He recognizes that his rage creates more problems than it solves, but as God of War opens, he still hasn’t figured out what to do about it. He has a ten-year-old son that he’s barely even seen; he’s dedicated the last decade of his life to Shaolin-monk levels of solitude, trying to learn to control his anger and practice less lethal methods of problem-solving.

When Atreus’s mother (Kratos’s second wife), Faye, dies of a mysterious illness, father and son abruptly realize that they now have nobody except for each other. Kratos is ill-tempered, stone-faced, and vehemently opposed to having fun. Atreus is curious, adorably energetic, observant but hasty, defiant but desperate for his father’s approval. Needless to say, it’s an awkward and volatile pair of personalities.

Faye’s final request was for her husband and son to scatter her ashes on the highest mountain in all the realms. Kratos and Atreus both loved her dearly, in very different ways. An unshakeable commitment to honor her last wish is about all they have in common, but it’s enough.

Kratos’s greatest fear is that his son will be unable to survive the brutally unforgiving Nordic landscape (and its pantheon of pissed off gods); he seems to care about little other than teaching Atreus to fight. Atreus wants to show his father that he’s strong and capable, but he also just wants to be a kid sometimes. He misses his mom like crazy but is afraid to show it for fear of his “weakness” being criticized.

In its first ten minutes, God of War already has more nuanced, fleshed out, believable characters than most games ever turn out in 30+ hours.

When I first started the game, it was late at night—after 10 P.M., I think. I had intended to play for about an hour before going to bed. I finally retired when the sun was coming up, and let me tell you—I never do that anymore. I’m over 30 now, I work long hours, and it’s much harder to stay healthy and rested than it was in my 20s. I’m a total hardass about being in bed by 11 and eating plenty of vegetables.

Kratos and Atreus both hooked me so fast and so completely that I just couldn’t abandon them after only an hour. I consider myself fortunate that I started God of War just before Christmas when I typically have little work for several weeks anyway; it consumed me for every waking moment until I finished it.

How’s it Look?

I barely care about graphics. If they’re stunning, then great, I appreciate that, but I give little weight to visuals when scoring video games. For the most part, great graphics can make a game better in my eyes, but “bad” graphics rarely hurt it.

I can’t remember the last time I paid graphics anywhere near as much attention as I did in God of War. It’s a ridiculously beautiful game, but there’s a reason that matters to me in this case: it makes the evolving relationship between Kratos and Atreus much more powerful.

Atreus is usually filthy, and he makes it a point never to cry in front of his father—except when he can’t manage it, and his tears trace relatively clean paths down his face, reminding you that this poor kid spends most of his life outdoors, not even knowing where his next meal will come from.

Simply stunning uses of color and lighting make the enormous world of Midgard a real treat to look at, which, again, mostly matters because of the pair’s role in it. It’s a gorgeous, silent, eerie, mysterious place. Kratos and Atreus have only the vaguest idea of where they’re going and are even less sure about how to get there. They don’t know any more about each other than they know about the giant stone face spewing malevolent black smoke from the foot of the mountain.

Everything is foreign and uncertain, including and especially the nature of any relationship father and son might ever have after the woman that held them together is gone—but there is hope, and beauty, and a real, if distant, promise of a better future.

(As a final anecdote about the game’s visuals, you should know that I never bother to take screenshots of console games, but I came away from God of War with 247 of them. Enjoy some of my favorites peppered throughout this article.)

Sound & Music

Kratos is voiced by Christopher Judge, and Atreus is voiced by Sunny Suljic. Prior to playing God of War, I had no idea who either of them were. After playing God of War, it’s difficult to resist a (mildly alarming) temptation to track them both down and deliver handwritten letters of appreciation and gratitude that totally aren’t creepy.

There are good, great, and outstanding voice actors. There are also phenomenal voice actors, who outrank even the outstanding ones on this scale that I’m just making up right now. To make you love the characters they bring to life, voice actors not only need to excel at their craft when they’re alone in a recording booth, but they also need to click with one another on a pretty personal level.

Judge and Suljic clearly got along swimmingly, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. Nobody could have delivered performances as consistent, heartfelt, and wide-ranging as the two of them did without being deeply in love with the project they were working on, or without having a great deal of appreciation for one another’s talent and company.

Other characters are voiced nearly as well, which still puts them all firmly in the “outstanding” range of the scale. Most games have at least one character that I can’t stand to listen to, but every single voice actor in God of War really brought their A-game. My hat’s off to all of them.

Composer Bear McCreary is just as much a master of his craft as the voice actors are of theirs. Large portions of God of War are mostly or totally silent, which lends so much more gravitas to the pounding drums and deep horns that accompany the game’s most breathtaking set pieces. Similarly to how I rarely take screenshots, I also rarely buy video game soundtracks, but I didn’t hesitate to drop another $11.99 for this one.

Gameplay

No matter how much God of War has changed since the PS2 days, it wouldn’t be God of War at all without fast, brutal combat. The old games were basically all combat, which is appropriate, given Kratos’s character and motives. Much like the Spartan demigod himself has finally begun to mature, the newest game’s combat seems to have realized that less can be more. Taking long walks through the forest, keeping one eye on Atreus as he picks flowers and chases rabbits, is just as enjoyable as the fighting—even more so, in many cases.

Battles rarely drag on for very long, even on higher difficulties; you either git gud or die quickly (or drop the difficulty to “Give Me a Story,” which the game never punishes you for doing). Whereas earlier series games seemed to revel in throwing ever-larger crowds of cannon fodder at you, God of War opts instead to send fewer, more intimidating baddies. A diverse set of upgradeable combat skills, combined with weapon parts and armor set bonuses that often fundamentally change the flow of combat, work together to once again drive home one of the game’s more basic themes: think before you act.

The Kratos of days gone by would typically decapitate first and ask questions later not bother to ask questions. Kratos 2.0, while just as brutal as ever, learns to temper his fury with caution and strategy, and even occasionally asks a question you’d never expect to hear from him: “Should we fight at all?” Often torn between shielding his young son from the horrors of killing and needing his help to survive, Kratos can call on Atreus to loose arrows at specific targets, summon spectral animals to aid them, or revive him (one time) if he falls in battle.

Atreus is far from a simple combat mechanic disguised as an NPC; as his skills grow, so does his confidence. When his self-assuredness takes an ugly turn toward cockiness after an important plot event, his combat performance drops off sharply—he’ll charge recklessly into melee range, miss more shots with his bow, and even ignore Kratos’s orders.

It probably goes without saying that I was both mad and annoyed when Atreus started being a little jerk, but not because he sucked in combat. I was mad and annoyed because, dammit, he was doing so well, and now he’s endangering himself and his father—both physically and in terms of their gradually maturing relationship—by letting his emotions get away from him. As his combat skills continued to reflect his maturity and mood, I often couldn’t decide when to smack him and when to hug him, and that, my friends, is stellar game design.

God of War features a plethora of side quests and collectables, but once again strikes a perfect balance by making them both interesting and easy to ignore. Without question, the main story is the real draw here, and if you don’t have a ton of time, just focus on completing it. Most side quests function as independent mini-stories that manage to add little tidbits of depth to Kratos and Atreus that, while fascinating, aren’t critical to the main plot.

(That being said, if you only do one side quest chain, make it the one centered around the Valkyries.)

Finally, I can’t in good conscience close out this section without mentioning the set pieces and cutscenes. There are a lot of both. Badly done, either can ruin an otherwise great game, but these are not badly done. The entire game is presented in what’s known as a single-shot camera style, meaning that not once does the camera ever cut away, even to another character in the same scene. Kratos and Atreus are almost always visible on-screen, even during some of the most dramatically intense set pieces I’ve ever seen.

In other games, battles with special mechanics or cinematic elements often feel tired and overused—thrown in just because that’s how things are done nowadays. Nothing about God of War’s set pieces is overdone or unnecessary. When Atreus brings down a dragon by using a large crane to slam its head around so Kratos can jump into its mouth and rip its teeth out, there’s no sense that this is being done purely to appeal to a gamer’s “cool factor” (though it certainly has that effect). They’re doing it because that’s the only thing they can think to try against such a gargantuan opponent, and within the context of the game’s universe and mythology, every moment of it is totally feasible.

At the risk of repeating myself, the cutscenes and set pieces, like everything else, are basically perfect.

Okay, You’ve Made a Strong and Handsome Case, but is God of War Really THAT Good?

Yes. A thousand times, yes. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and in all that time, I’ve awarded maybe ten games a perfect 10/10. Well, here’s #11.

God of War isn’t great because it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, because its sound design and voice acting are incredible, or because its gameplay is a perfect blend of challenging, rewarding, and surmountable. It’s not even great (primarily) because it’s got a fantastic script that makes it impossible not to care deeply about its two main protagonists.

It’s great because all of those elements work together seamlessly and support one another thematically. It fully understands that the very flawed, but very human and endearingly noble characters driving the action should be front and center. Where so many stories emphasize the fact that human beings are flawed, as though that were the most important thing about us, God of War chooses to focus on how great we can be.

Kratos has done a lot of bad things. It may be impossible to redeem himself fully… but maybe it’s not. One thing’s for sure: he will do everything in his considerable power to help his son make better choices than he did. Great power does indeed come inseparably packaged with great responsibility, and surprisingly, God of War never once hints that power, in and of itself, is a corrupting force.

Time and again, Kratos lectures his son on the importance of using power wisely. He never tells Atreus that power overwhelms an individual’s better judgment in all cases; rather, he makes it abundantly clear that regardless of how much power you have (or don’t have), you still decide what to do with it—and you can make good decisions. Gods can fall, mortals can achieve legendary feats, and in both cases, it’s the choices they make that are ultimately responsible. Not fate, destiny, your genes, your environment, money, sex, or “human nature,” but free will and free choices. Your life is what you make of it.

I find it incredibly difficult to convince people of that (but worth the effort). Maybe God of War can get the point across more effectively than I can.

God of War is the Best Possible Representative of Video Games as Art

If you follow me on this site, or on any of the others I write for, you know that I never write gaming-related articles as long as this one. I didn’t even get paid to write this one. I wrote it because I truly believe that God of War is more than an incredible video game—it’s a work of art that can change your life for the better, or at least make you think.

Few things are needed more sorely in the world today than media that shows us the wonderful, inspiring, heroic things that humans can achieve. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that depression and suicide rates are climbing at about the same rate and in the same places that nihilism can be found rearing its head in books, movies, and music. People need good things to believe in. More specifically, people need to believe that (almost) no matter how badly they’ve screwed up, they can make better choices, turn their lives around, and find real happiness—and that they deserve to find happiness, without needing to justify it as subordinate to the happiness of others.

That’s what I meant 3,000 words ago about art representing the artist’s value judgments. As a whole, the incredible team behind God of War believes that success is possible if you work hard enough, and that you alone have the power to wreck your own life, or to make it better. That isn’t to say that you exist in a vacuum, or that things out of your control don’t happen. You can’t decide everything that befalls you, but you absolutely can decide how events will affect you and what you’ll learn from them.

Now, I’ve gone on long enough. Thanks for reading; I hope you’ve gotten something valuable here, or at least a burning desire to go buy God of War if you haven’t already. Santa Monica Studio has made something truly special, and it will stand as one of the greatest video games of all time. They deserve your appreciation (and your money).

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