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Storytelling vs. Gameplay

Brion

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Nobody ever said that being a part of the most exciting medium of storytelling was going to be easy. Allowing the audience to play a role in your art brings its own challenges as well as opportunities. Video games must have mechanically sound gameplay. Fail that, and a great story might be overlooked.

There is no parallel to draw from another medium; novels, movies, plays and television shows have no comparable mechanic they must master. Video games live or die by whether or not the gameplay and the story are in sync.

There is no simple or set answer for how a developer can marry gameplay mechanics to their story. In an attempt to help illustrate the conflict, I have come up with five rules for avoiding gameplay and story segregation. Each rule will come with an example of a game that is let down by not successfully marrying gameplay to story. Each rule will also come with an exception, and in every single case that exception will be Silent Hill 2 (there is a reason this game is a masterpiece).

Rule 1: Gameplay Must Be ‘Fun’

The hint is in the name. Video games are a kind of entertainment, and thus games should be fun. If they are a chore to play, then a player will likely not bother. Provided they are provoking some sort of emotional response in the player (beyond boredom or frustration), a game can be described as ‘fun’ in my book.

Six Days a Sacrifice, the final installment in the Chzo Mythos saga by famed game critic Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, tells one of the most intricate, inventive, and incredible stories I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing. Unfortunately, it is also an old-school style adventure game. It is plagued with inventory puzzles and an awkward point-and-click interface. It is a chore to play, particularly in its first half as the story builds slowly and quietly. The eventual denouncement is excellent, but the lack of fun in its gameplay means I will likely never play it to completion ever again.

Fun, therefore, is an essential part of gaming. Yet ‘fun’ is a relative concept that does not always line up with the dictionary definition of fun. Horror games employ tension and dread to create an emotional high for the player. This still counts as ‘fun’, and thus does not fail the rule. The premier example of this exception is Silent Hill 2.

Protagonist James Sunderland must also solve illogical inventory puzzles, but the ‘fun’ is not undermined thanks to the constant tension the game employs. Dreading what is beneath a hatch when you finally manage to open it can go a long way to distract you from the insane way in which the game expects you to open said hatch. (The solution involves a horseshoe, a lighter and a wax figurine. I dare you to try figuring it out).

Those three items combined to make a handle. Yes, really.

Rule 2: Avoid Deliberate Frustration

Do not, under any circumstances, think you can get away with deliberately frustrating a player. This goes hand in hand with the ‘fun’ problem just discussed. If a player is not enjoying themselves on some level, then you have failed as a game designer. Do not be fooled into thinking this frustration will be forgiven if you do it for story reasons.

The infamous bottle puzzle in Life is Strange is widely derided for good reason; it is boring, poorly implemented, and utterly destructive to the pacing. However, it is clear what the developers intended. The idea was to have the characters indulge in pointless recklessness while distracting the player from the building tragedy. That way, when the tragedy struck, the player would feel responsible.

This is good storytelling, but it is also horrific game design. It does not matter how strong the eventual emotional gut punch succeeds in being (and yes, it is absolutely heart-breaking, but that is beside the point), it will never make up for the half hour I spent wandering aimlessly around an obtusely designed junkyard as I slowly lost my goddamn mind. The fact that the frustration was intentional is not a saving grace, it just makes the design even more galling.

Silent Hill 2 gets away with having frustrating combat mechanics because of its genre. Feeling powerful is the antithesis of horror. It is fine that James is difficult to control in a fight because that increases a player’s sense of vulnerability. Every enemy, from recurring grunts to boss monsters, can kill you if you are careless. In this case the frustrating gameplay leads the player to fear every threat, thus ensuring that they are still ‘enjoying’ the experience on some visceral level.

Rule 3: Dissonance, Ludonarrative or Otherwise, is Dangerous

When making a game, be very careful about not creating dissonance between your story and gameplay. If the player starts to find themselves at odds with the ‘heroic’ protagonist then any emotional investment is compromised. The developer must carefully consider every action of the player character before shipping a game for sale.

Nathan Drake, wisecracking hero of the Uncharted series, is an unrepentant mass murderer. His body count is in the thousands. The story tells me he is a charming rogue. I want to believe he is a charming rogue. Yet it is hard to overcome his utter (and unintentional by design) disregard for human life.

His lovable persona in cutscenes simply does not square with his sociopathic slaughtering of his fellow man in gameplay. This is an all too common flaw of action games caused by developers failing to consider the reality of the violence being employed by the player character. The challenge is in creating a player character whose role in the story is not dissonant with their actions.

Silent Hill 2 subverts this challenge by making the dissonance deliberate. We start on James’ side as he faces horrors in the search for his wife. The more we get to know him, however, the more we start to feel unease. The dissonance between the player and the player character works because James is not being painted as a hero. Questioning his motivations is the point, not an unintentional side-effect of wanting exciting violence in your game.

Choking someone from behind is not exactly the most heroic moment in video gaming.

Rule 4: A Player Must Retain Control

If a game promises the player is in control, then they must remain so. The cheapest thing a game can do is to steal control away from the player so that its story can continue as intended. Either a game is strictly linear or the player can dictate the story. Trying to do both will invariably damage your game’s quality.

Witcher 3 is ordinarily excellent at allowing the player choices that dictate the fates of characters and countries. Its expansion Blood and Wine is less so. At one crucial juncture in the story Geralt (the player character) is given a handful of days to track down Dettlaff (the central antagonist). Dettlaff has promised to attack the city if he is not presented with his former lover who betrayed him.

Clearly there are two paths Geralt can now take, yet the player does not get to make the decision. The story abruptly jumps forward a few days with Geralt having failed to find Dettlaff. The city is attacked because of Geralt’s failure. This demonstrates a complete breakdown of established gameplay mechanics because the writers needed the city to be attacked for the sake of the story.

Silent Hill 2 gets around the problem of choice by having the plot be 95% linear. The player can only impact the very end of the game through their choices. As the ultimate resolution is usually what people care most about, this allows the writers to dictate their preferred pacing without making the player feel as though they have no control.

A whole host of subtle things you do inform the state of mind of James Sunderland. Examine his wife’s photo frequently and James will end the story devoted. Examine a knife frequently and James will end the game suicidal. This level of subtlety is in stark contrast to the blatant ‘cut to a few days later’ that Blood and Wine pulled.

Rule 5: Justify Your Interactivity

This is the big one. If there is a clear conflict between a game’s story and its gameplay, a player might ask why this story is being told in an interactive format at all. The best way to avoid players asking this question is to ask this question of yourself before you sit down to make the game.

This is a question I really wish David Cage would ask himself. His games (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls) are all styled like movies with minimal interactivity present. There is no good reason for these awkward hybrids to be video games aside from the fact that Cage probably cannot get backing from a movie studio for his grandiose yet also somehow boring ideas. (Incidentally, even as movies these games would still be terrible, as Cage cannot write a cohesive narrative to save his life. But I digress…)

Silent Hill 2 tells an excellent story. Would this story work in another medium? Could it be successfully adapted into a movie, a television series or a novel? Yes it could, the story would still work and the final product would still be worthwhile.

Yet in no medium could it ever hope to be as effective as it is already as a video game. This is the best possible medium for horror because of interactivity. The player immediately relates to the protagonist because, in a sense, they are the protagonist. It is thus far easier to make them fear what they protagonist fears.

Creating empathy is immensely difficult when telling a story. Sympathy is easy, as all it requires is a halfway likable character to befall some sort of misfortune. Having someone actually experiencing the same emotions as the character is hard to pull off, but Silent Hill 2 uses the unique conventions of its medium to do so effortlessly. It unequivocally justifies its interactivity.

There is no other artistic medium in the world that could make moments like this work.

Bonus Rule: Pure Gameplay Is Also Fine

Tetris has no story. Tetris is one of the best games ever made. These two statements do not contradict each other.

A game does not always need to tell a story. It is a unique medium in that it can survive without any narrative whatsoever. Tetris is pure gameplay and no less rich for it. If the gameplay is strong enough (and that is a big if) the game can survive without a single story beat or contextualizing detail.

However, as fun as these things can be, I still see the future of gaming as being a narrative one. Compare Tetris to Portal. Both are pitch-perfect puzzle games, but one also tells a rich and entertaining story. The path from one game to the other was a three decade long process of trial and error. The medium is richer for being able to produce art like Portal when once Tetris was the absolute pinnacle of what could be achieved in video gaming.

And just in case you were wondering, yes, the opposite of the bonus rule is also true. Pure storytelling is also fine. The thing to bear in mind, though, is in that case it stops being a game at all and literally becomes a movie. Gameplay cannot be divorced from the medium, even if storytelling can.

Conclusion

Is it arrogant of me to come up with all these rules of game design when I have never designed a game? Is it not my business to come up with rules to guide people doing a job I could never do myself? The answer to the first question is probably yes, but I would dispute the second question’s validity. Any and all artistic mediums need a thriving environment of critique to sustain themselves. If there were no one around to point out flaws then we could never learn from them and progress.

As I said at the top of this piece, no one ever claimed that making good video games was easy. It requires an enormous amount of technical knowhow and storytelling proficiency. It is perhaps the most challenging medium in which to create something truly worthwhile.

Yet with great challenge comes great potential rewards. Get the right balance of gameplay and storytelling and some random Irish guy will praise your achievements all day long. I am sure this sort of adulation is exactly what Team Silent were after when they sat down to make Silent Hill 2.

In all seriousness, balancing gameplay with storytelling is a maddeningly difficult enterprise. Games like Witcher 3, Life is Strange and Uncharted 2 are all great despite not nailing the landing. It may be that perfectly balancing the two is impossible. That said, even if perfection is beyond us we should still strive to reach it. That way when we inevitably miss there is a decent chance we will have created something great regardless.

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Roleplaying Outside Your Comfort Zone

David

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Greetings readers! I’ve returned to write more about tabletop RPGs. Last time, I wrote about the different, non Dungeons and Dragons games you can play. This week, I’ll be writing about roleplaying. Specifically, roleplaying characters you aren’t used to. But before we begin though, I want to make one point very clear:

You do not have to play in any situation that is triggering, or makes you uncomfortable in any way. Your safety and mental health take precedence over everything. It’s important to always keep that in mind. Particularly if you have an enthusiastic group of people around you. You don’t want to disappoint anyone, and you can end up in situations that are upsetting. You are always allowed to stop and a good GM—a good person—will stop and give you time to recover. Keeping this point in mind, let’s start by answering the first question…

What is ‘Roleplaying as different characters’?

What exactly do I mean by roleplaying different characters? At the most basic, it’s playing as a character that doesn’t share your beliefs or personal experiences.

At first blush, that seems simple. After all, most people have never cast a magic fireball spell before, or swung a sword, or talked to a dragon. The trick to playing as someone different comes mostly from the details however. Start with something simple. If you’ve mostly played male characters before, play a female character. Try playing as character from another culture. If you’ve always played wizards or sorcerers, try playing a character that doesn’t use any magic. It’s a small change, but it’s one that can make a big difference, particularly if you’ve never given it much thought before.

Once you’ve taken these small steps, try taking it another step further. If you’ve always played a character who looks out for the little guy, trying playing an aristocrat. Keep in mind that adapting to some roles will be easier than others. Playing someone who can’t use magic is pretty easy. Learning to inhabit the role of a peasant, or (in the case of people used to privilege) an oppressed minority is much harder.

Once you are used to these smaller steps, the next big hurdle is roleplaying in games that are outside your typical choice. There are many different games out there, and some require more in-depth roleplaying then others. And within the ones that require more roleplaying, there are the ones that are unusual enough that roleplaying becomes more challenging. The two biggest examples for me are Dogs in the Vineyard and Eclipse Phase. Both games have very different themes and goals, but they are alike in the way they challenge the player to think outside their typical comfort zone.

A Dog eat Dog world

Dogs in the Vineyard appears at a glance to be a fairly typical tabletop RPG. It’s a Western, but that’s about its only distinctive trait on the surface. It’s once you start looking closer at the details that you see what sets it apart. The first thing is that it’s set in a fantasy version of the LDS territory of Deseret. Fewer showdowns at high noon and closer to early colonial America. And the characters you are playing as? Holy gunslingers.


The game has you playing as itinerant preachers, problem solvers, and exorcists. Called ‘God’s Watchdogs’, they make a circuit around the various small towns and homesteads in the territory, administering various blessings and dealing with problems as the crop up. Sometimes the problems just require you to talk it out. Sometimes it escalates to gun fights. It’s always the player’s choice to escalate, and that adds to the stress of the roleplaying.

The difficulty with roleplaying in this game is that the characters, by their very nature, are religious. And not just religious, but belong to a religion that follows early LDS teachings. Multiple wives, no drinking, etc. For some people, such as myself, the leap is not that difficult. Still uncomfortable, but not that big of a deal. For other people who may have come from more difficult religious upbringings, casting yourself as the enforcer of dogma is a much higher hurdle to clear. But casting yourself in that role can be important. It lets you see what is attractive about it in the first place and maybe do some good from a position of authority.

Octopus…IN SPAAAACE

Eclipse Phase at first blush is nothing like Dogs in the Vineyard. Dogs is a semi-fantasy western. Eclipse Phase is a sci-fi/cyberpunk/trans-humanist setting set in the future. The basic premise of the game is that at some point, humanity evolved by its own hand. Now considered (and called) ‘Transhumanity’, it was practically a golden age, with people able to choose new bodies for themselves. You could avoid hunger, pain and death forever…if you could afford it.

However, ten years before the game proper starts, the earth is devastated by AI known as TITANs, and they infest both people and machines with deadly viruses. They also kidnap tens of thousands of cortical stacks (Which are what consciousness is stored on in this setting when not in a body) before fleeing the solar system. What’s left of transhumanity has broken into dozens of smaller factions, each competing with themselves. The players generally belong to a faction dedicated to quietly eliminating the greatest threats to transhumanity. You can play any number of different ‘types’ of bodies, with different skills and physical abilities. And yes, you can even play as an uplifted Octopus.

The difficulty in roleplaying in this game comes not from real life problems with organized religions, but from futuristic fears and bodily autonomy issues. The viruses that the TITANs created are still around, and can still twist both your mind and body in grotesque ways. Even disregarding that fact, there is a bias in the game against baseline human bodies. As someone who feels very strongly about bodily autonomy, I have a hard time roleplaying in this game. Some of my other friends however, particularly those who identify as transgender, find being able to to play as something other than their current selves a relief. There’s something for everyone.

Keeping the ‘play’ in roleplay

These are just two examples of games that might have more difficult scenarios to roleplay then others. There are dozens of other games out there, and nearly limitless ideas that creative GMs can come up with that might test your ability roleplay. Like I said at the start of the article: You don’t have to play in something that makes you uncomfortable. People play these games to have fun, and your enjoyment and safety is the most important part.

However, if you are comfortable with the game, and it’s just outside the traditional role you cast yourself as…try it out. If you’ve ever been to California Pizza Kitchen, you know they have a guarantee: If you order something new and you hate it they’ll give you your usual, free of charge. It’s the same principle with characters. Do the opposite of what you’d normally do. Roll for random personality traits. And if you hate it? Play what your comfortable with and have the GM save the old character as a NPC. Good luck and happy gaming!


Images courtesy of Lumpley Games and Posthuman Studios

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First Impressions from Deadfire

Michał

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Hello, readers of the Fandomentals. A week ago, I decided to write a recap of my first impressions of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, once I bought it on Monday. This turned out not to be the case, as bugs prevented me from playing once I bought it. But now the bugs have been patched…so I’m at least able to write about what I’ve played since Friday. There’s a lot to unpack even in this context. I will avoid any actual spoilers, seeing as plenty of people might want to read it to decide if they want to buy the game.

The game is big in more senses than one

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is big in many senses of the word. We’ve got a much larger area to explore than we did in the first game, obviously. And to explore, we need a ship. Which brings with it ship management, finding crew, equipping it… I’ve only scratched that so far, really. I’m still using my first ship with a couple of new cannons. The ship-to-ship combat system is very elaborate, but I can’t say I’ve understood it yet. I’ve only defeated one enemy ship that felt like a tutorial.

The game isn’t quite what I’d call an open world, but closer to it than most “traditional” RPGs. The classic dilemma of following the main storyline or screwing around doing sidequests is certainly there, as is a variety of NPCs to talk to and factions to side with (or against).

But the physical size of the Deadfire Archipelago isn’t all there is to it. Like I expected, multi-classing and subclasses open up so many avenues. Now, of course, our teammates have a limited selection of classes, and only a few of them have subclasses, but it’s still a series of choices as you gather your party.

With so many choices, though, it’s easy to make the wrong one. The game warns you that multi-classing isn’t recommended for new players, and it’s true. Multiclass characters don’t get more abilities than single-class ones – they simply get to pick from a wider variety, in exchange for a slower power growth. It’s the player’s job to make good use of the synergy.

Of course, if you can make good use of it, the effects can be wonderful. Not necessarily powerful, but very fun and satisfying. My main character is a fighter/rogue, specializing as a streetfighter on the rogue side – that means he gets faster and deadlier when he’s flanked, beaten up or both. Setting up situations where that happens and then making sure he doesn’t die is exciting. It really is about trading flexibility for power. A single-class character will pack a punch, but a multi-class one rounds off a party in a different way.

The combat isn’t quite what we’re used to

I can’t say the game has challenged me much so far, though. Or rather, it has been uneven. Most of the time I comfortably defeated all encounters, but then I ran across an area where I had to stay on my toes, use Empower points to refresh my resources and retry the battles. Maybe it was because I was running a somewhat haphazard and sub-optimal team, with two multi-class characters aside from my own character. Or perhaps it was simply a more dangerous area.

Later on, I took on a quest where I couldn’t even scratch the enemies. As it turned out, it was a level 16 quest, with me being level 8. The journal failed to inform me of it as it was supposed to. The faulty difficulty scaling is a known issue that the devs are working on… I hope so is the journal. There is an option to adjust level scaling – I set it to scale only on the main storyline and only upwards.

Challenge aside, the combat is much as it was, but not quite. Gone are daily spells, and non-spellcasting classes have more options on average. Spells take longer to fire off. Various penalties and bonuses have been folded into an affliction and inspiration system, though not all. It’s a familiar but subtly different experience. But it certainly engages me more than the first game’s combat did.

Wouldn’t be an Obsidian games without bugs on release

You’ve seen me mention the journal not working properly. And I can’t talk about the game without mentioning the bugs, I’m afraid. I mentioned up there that I couldn’t play it for a while because of them. That was because Eder’s fate after the first game didn’t import properly; he talked about different things that had happened. For those who consider it important, it might have been enough to wait for the patch. Which, thankfully, helped.

Still some stuff remains unfixed. The biggest one I’ve noticed in my own run is companion dispositions and relationships. They progress too quickly – a new companion gave me a chummy speech about how much he likes me after two conversations where I did something he approved of.

No other companions have professed their deep sympathies to me yet… But another thing happened far too quickly. After I recruited Pallegina again, I got to talking to her about gods. As you may remember from the original game, she’s not very fond of them and is vocal about it. This doesn’t sit well with Xoti, a new companion who is a devout priestess. This plays into the game’s new system of inter-party relationships.

Which is all well and good and interesting. Except for how Xoti started yelling at Pallegina, which ended with me having to take sides or trying to reconcile them… after that one conversation. I don’t think it was supposed to go this way, since Xoti’s lines implied that she’d endured Pallegina’s opinions far too long.

This also applies to romance, incidentally, causing some companions to start flirting with the Watcher as soon as they approval rises a bit. This happened to me as well. I won’t tell you with who… I won’t spoil the surprise. But I do hope they patch it soon to make those relationships more organic. I’m still deciding if I want to romance someone or go with the “leave me alone, people, I have enough crap to deal with” option.

Smaller things

There’s some minor things that I like and those I don’t. I love various shortcuts in map navigation. You can resupply your ship from anywhere in a city, and head straight to a particular building when entering a district. A small but handy quality of life feature.

Crafting got even bigger, and thus I can’t be bothered to even read the list of all the consumables I can craft. Weapons and armor can only be enchanted if they’re uniques – each unique weapon has a list of traits you can add to it.

That would be great if there was anything resembling balance between the number of those. But there isn’t; by all accounts, swords, greatswords and sabres outnumber everything else.  I’ve already found three unique swords myself. Reportedly, the number of unique crossbows is one. In the whole game. They’ve blundered into the same mistake the Baldur’s Gate games once did.

The skill list got bigger as well. While I admit it’s hard to keep track of who has which skills and making sure I’ve got it all covered, it’s a much more real choice than it was in the first game. Having multiple people with the same skill is also no longer redundant in dialogues and scripted interactions, with our merry band being able to help us make them.

All in all, I’m having a lot of fun with this game, despite the rough edges. It’s still the traditional RPG gameplay with a new spin, only the spin is even newer. Even if you’d rather wait some more until more patches come out to fix more bugs, I can still recommend Deadfire, based on what I’ve seen so far.


Images courtesy of Obsidian

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Will God of War Change Your Mind on the Series?

Bo

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By now gamers have at least heard the hype. God of War has received universal praise not only as a great game, but as a contender for the best game of this current generation of gaming. Having spent nearly all my free time since its release losing myself in this game, I can tell you the hype is real. Whatever you’re reading about the game, it’s true. It’s all true. This is a remarkable game in just about every area. One that caught me completely by surprise.

But you’ve heard all this by now. The better question to ask might be whether this game will change anyone one’s mind on the series. Will this latest God of War draw in gamers who did not like previous games? Will it draw in gamers who never saw reason to give the series a shot?

Well, that’s a complicated answer. There are many reasons to think it would. There also exist reasons to think it won’t.

god of war kratos atreus

Why it Will

Make no mistake, God of War makes many changes to the franchise that somehow manage both to take significant steps forward while also retaining the classic feel of the series. The gameplay is outstanding; it’s deep, diverse, epic, and the Leviathan Axe not only lives up to the legacy of the chain blades, it arguably outdoes them. Kratos loses nearly nothing in translation to the new camera perspective. He is basically every bit as quick, strong, and brutal as he was before.

Where previous games were more iconic for the brutality and spectacle of the gameplay than the actual mechanics, this game actually ups the stakes in the complexity of the combat. The axe gives Kratos a variety of gameplay choices. You can slash up close, throw it from afar, use it to freeze enemies, use it to trip enemies, or use it to pin them to walls. Once it’s thrown, you can use Kratos’s bare hands to shatter enemies or just accumulate stun damage quicker, opening them up to God of War’s signature button-prompt brutal finishers.

Atreus also avoids the fears of adding a companion by operating as an absolute force in combat. While he starts off somewhat limited in his capabilities, by the end of the game he has multiple types of elemental arrows with different effects, grapple moves that open opportunities for Kratos, and melee attacks all his own. His response time to the player’s commands are fantastic. He also avoids the fragility issue forcing players to constantly rescue companions in other games. Atreus is a strength of this game’s combat. With some of the tougher fights, and especially on higher difficulties, he is a necessity to success.

These various tactics come in handy against an improved variety of enemies. Previous games certainly had a huge variety of different enemies, but your strategy against these enemies didn’t really vary. You used your preferred combo or two and they carried you throughout the game. Some bosses would require more advanced use of combinations, parrying, and environmental usage, but overall you were blasting through the game with the same couple combos.

This game has fewer enemy types on paper, but they necessitate a greater variety of strategy. Some enemies are immune to the axe and require fists or a weapon acquired later. Some are best handled through stun damage. Others require ranged attacks. You have enemies that heal, enemies that turtle behind shields, and enemies that attack fast and viciously. There are enemies that hide underground and can take a long time to defeat if not stopped.

By the end of the game, when all these different enemy types start mixing together, players will need to switch weapons, range, aggressiveness, and use of Atreus, and often from enemy to enemy. For those action fans who wished for more depth in God of War’s gameplay, this delivers and then some. I’m still not sure you can put it on par with the combat of games like Devil May Cry 3 or Bayonetta, but it’s at least closer than it was before.

Then again, I suppose gameplay probably isn’t the reason a gamer didn’t like or care about God of War before. Most likely what turned you off was Kratos and the uber-testosterone coursing through the game. Between the romanticism of insane violence and vengeance, the absurd sex minigames and nudity, and Kratos’s one-note toxic masculinity, the original games definitely don’t appeal to everyone. To be fair, the first game told an effective story (for the time) speaking against the person Kratos had become. That doesn’t change those elements within the game and it sequels, though.

Have no fear, this new God of War shares little in common thematically or even content-wise with its predecessors. The violence is still there, for sure. It is a hack-and-slash action game, after all. Otherwise the themes, characterization, and content almost feel like a direct response to critics of Kratos’s previous adventures.

Kratos himself is an entirely different person. He’s a man running from the horrors of his past and harboring no desire to return to it. A lot of the super-machismo male fantasy suff has been ditched. Violence and death are actively spoken against. There’s very little romanticism of violence, and a central theme of the story is actively speaking against it. Kratos is definitely still an angry man, but one who has seen the horrors of violence and vengeance and wants to avoid them. It’s a direct rebuttal of his former attributes.

The central story revolves around Kratos and Atreus bringing their wife/mother’s ashes to a mountaintop per her final wishes, and as such they spend the game in mourning. The main plot never diverges from this goal. There’s no violent goal here. Kratos aims aren’t about killing. Yes, he kills a lot, but it’s never the reason he seeks to do anything. He avoids killing at crucial moments. God of War gives the series a newfound maturity.

This maturity also extends to God of War’s past of extreme violence and sexualization regarding women. There are no sacrifices, no sex minigames, no bare chests at every turn. In fact there’s no nudity at all that I’ve seen. I know when people heard about the game starting with a dead mother, they worried we’d get the same vengeful fridging that the first game delivered, but that is not the case here.

The story told never strays from this maturity, either.  It maintains a subtlety unexpected of fans of the previous games. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus drives much of the story, and it is a complicated one fraught with emotional complexity. Uncertainty defines the interaction between the two; uncertainty about being a father, uncertainty about Atreus’s worth as a son, uncertainty about their feelings or shared grief. As the plot develops, the secrets Kratos keeps about his past create a friction threatening their relationship.

This parental theme extends to the main villain as well. Parent/child dynamics are the engine beneath God of War’s hood, not the old standby of vengeance. Santa Monica Studios really nailed it here. They tell a mature, complicated story that hits incredibly epic peaks without ever losing the subtle, personal tensions beginning the journey. This is not your old God of War.

Another problem gamers might have had with the previous games was the use of the Greek mythology. While I love them, they didn’t show much respect for the mythology. They just used the settings and characters to tell stories regardless of the source’s characterizations and such. I loved it, but others may have resented such careless use of the myths. Have no fear, God of War treats the Norse pantheon better. Mostly this comes from a greater commitment to the world of Norse mythology through every step of the world.

As an outsider, Kratos is pretty clueless about this new godly realm he inhabits. This gives the game a chance to teach both him and the player about Norse mythology without crossing into lame exposition. Every step of the game is steeped in old tales and visual lessons that make for incredible worldbuilding. Atreus and another companion tell stories related to the scenery or current events. Translated runes tell you about a location. Hidden shrines provide cool history lessons.

God of War really commits itself to a more proper use of Norse mythology. More than the originals ever did.

This creates a believable, lived in setting steeped in history. One that I had a great deal of pleasure exploring. You explore about half of ten realms, and travel along the branches of Yggdrasil. You meet light and dark elves, dwarves, and gods. You travel Skyrim-esque snowy mountains and fiery cliffs dripping with lava. Every realm is unique and colorful. With all the things God of War does right, the worldbuilding is the biggest surprise to me. I’ve never been more interested in the Norse pantheon.

They do switch the characteristics of some of the realms and play with the characteristics of a couple gods, but these are small issues compared to the overall package, and only for those familiar with their myths.

Overall this is a mature, well-created package that somehow manages to take the best parts of the old games and improve upon a lot of things people disliked. I expect a lot of people who lacked interest in the series will love this one. It’s very much the Resident Evil 4 of the God of War franchise. Just without falling apart at the end like RE4 did.

god of war kratos yell

Why it Won’t Change Your Mind

Unfortunately, there are reasons it may not. Some of these continue old problems, while others are a twist on the old problems, and might be enough to invalidate changes I previously mentioned.

First off is the violence level. I stand by the story not glorifying violence. The gameplay, not so much. God of War very much continues the same visceral violence in its action that made its predecessors famous. Kratos dismembers and decapitates and cleaves in half just like always. In many ways the game has the same issue as a game like Uncharted, where the gameplay’s level of killing doesn’t match the character’s supposed attitude toward killing.

Now, Kratos isn’t meant to be a charismatic good guy like Nathan Drake, but for someone who spends most of the game speaking against violence and killing, he sure does a lot of it. I don’t think the game does anything at all to portray the gameplay violence as anything except cool. There are trophies for each specific method of brutally ending the enemies in front of you.

And sorry to rat myself out here, but it is cool. It’s freaking fun, but others may like it even less than before because of the contradiction of story and gameplay. At least he’s fighting monsters rather than other human beings.

When it comes to Kratos, for all his change in demeanor, he is still a pretty gruff, macho depiction of your typical toxic masculinity. He’s a rough guy who doesn’t show his emotions and can kill things with brutal efficiency. He goes to great lengths to hide his emotions. This isn’t a negative so much as a consistent continuity. There’s no reason Kratos should change completely from the violent asshole of the original games to someone softer and open about his feelings. His portrayal here makes perfect sense with where he should be.

However, many gamers who didn’t relate at all to Kratos may still find it impossible to relate to him. That’s fine. Kratos very much appeals to a certain kind of gamer. Santa Monica Studios did a great job making him a more appealing character, but Kratos will never appeal to everyone.

There’s also the huge issue of the woman inspiring the journey Kratos and Atreus undertake. That is to say, we don’t know anything about her until the final moments of the game. Even then she’s the literal stereotype of the Idealized Mother/Wife. You have no idea what she looks like, no idea how she feels about anything, and even the little tidbits we learn about her past actions treats her more like a symbol than a person.

She really differs little in concept from the dead wife and daughter who inspire Kratos to take vengeance on Ares in the first God of War. So if you weren’t interested in watching a grieving Kratos murder things because of a dead wife the first time, you might not be this time.

It sucks to have this woman who is so central to the plot receive no personality or traits unrelated to being a mother or wife. Anything would have done. The game’s finale eventually reveals some of her motives and life, but it’s a bit too little, too late. The best you hope is that these motives are expanded upon in the next game so she can be more of a character. There is good reason to think that happens, thankfully.

And unfortunately, she represents a larger issue God of War has with women. It’s true they fixed the problems previous games had with immature sex and nudity, but they took the Mass Effect 2 approach to fixing these problems. Namely, they cut damn near all female content altogether. There’s one woman in the entire game. I suppose you can technically solve a problem by eliminating almost all content related to that problem.

(Now, there are 8 hidden Valkyrie fights, and obviously the Valkyries are women. However, I can’t really count optional boss fights as real representation.)

Now, this is a bit of a nitpick. I admit that. The one active woman in the game is a really good, really complicated character. Easily the best in the entire franchise, unless I’m unforgivably forgetting someone. She stars in many of the game’s best scenes and never stops being fascinating. Also, the cast is remarkably small so one female protagonist isn’t some huge offense when there’s only one adult male protagonist and his son.

Still, between only having one living woman and one dead woman who is basically the idealized version of Rose Quartz probably won’t do much to bring in gamers dissatisfied with the representation of women in the other games. Now maybe I just don’t know Norse mythology well, but surely they could have fit more women into the game? Or at least given them lore focus like other characters receive? So many gods, elves, giants, dwarves, and other characters feature in the discovered lore throughout the game. Why not use more of those to mention the Norse goddesses?

Again, this whole issue may unfortunately not be much an issue to many gamers, but for some they’ll find it difficult to care if they didn’t before.  This God of War vastly improved on the games before it, though. I need to make that clear. I can’t say it improved  enough to bring in the audience who disliked the previous games. Kratos still isn’t appealing to feminist sensibilities in any way.

Final Verdict

Overall, I’d expect a lot of people to see the improvements this God of War made over its predecessors and, at the very least, want to try the game. It improves in almost every area. I could complain about the number of boss fights, but that would fall under “reasons you liked previous games but not this one.”

The only question here is really whether it improved enough, not whether it improved at all. And it didn’t just improve, it improved astoundingly. It completely eliminated some of the worst complaints about the previous games in the series. This is a new God of War for a new era of gaming. One that is at least worth a shot.

If you like action games, give this a play.

Maybe you despised Kratos, or the misogyny, or the mistreatment of Greek mythology in previous games. Maybe the gameplay didn’t thrill you like other games of the ilk. Every single one of these issues has been addressed. Maybe you still won’t like Kratos that much. Maybe you’ll grumble about another dead wife with no personality of her own. Maybe it still glorifies violence more than you’d like. I still think every gamer owes it to themselves to try this game.

You have to at least try what is arguably the best game of this generation.


Images Courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment

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