Having come late to the garden of gaming delights, I’m dropping in on some series at the end of a very considerable history, quite oblivious to its presence in the creative and design decisions that made the game I’m playing. The Assassin’s Creed series is one I got in on early—Assassin’s Creed II had a Mac port, so I’ve been replaying that, and then playing all the subsequent entries. I haven’t been writing about them, as I’d just bore myself, but when I get to Origins I’ll do some kind of a survey. I’ve just finished Assassin’s Creed III, which I’ve been playing alongside the spectacular latest entry in the God of War series, and this has afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the technical achievement of the latter game.
ACIII was very well received on release, for its visual quality, for its gameplay, for setting a new standard in open-world design, and for its narrative elements, so it offers a reasonable benchmark for the six years that elapsed between its release in 2012 and God of War’s in 2018. The most striking thing for me is that in every comparable area, the standards God of War adheres to, and by implication that players expect of AAA games, are considerably higher than in ACIII. Of course a knowledgeable historical comparison could only be offered by someone who had played the earlier games in the God of War series, and who had been playing other comparable games along the way, but that’s my impression, for what it’s worth.
Clearly we would expect considerable technological improvements in six years, in terms of the graphics and gameplay in particular, and also in terms of world design, which is continually expanding to fill the literal and metaphorical space afforded to it by improvements in hardware and software tools. But the difference in the characters between the 2012 game and the 2018 one is far deeper than the extraordinary models and motion capture found in God of War. What had looked like a broad cast of interesting, well-realised characters in ACIII (according to its reviews) was unable to bear the comparison when I played both games side-by-side. The acting was so wooden that by about halfway through the game I was guffawing every time the playable character opened his mouth—and in fact, every character sounded as though they were reading their lines from a card, completely out of context.
Given my limited exposure to AAA games over the years, I would never have expected anything else, and I was quite happy with the storytelling in a game like, say, Dragon Age Origins, which has the clunky, menu-driven dialogue common to most videogame RPGs. But since I started playing PS4 games a couple of years ago, I have come to understand how much things have changed: the standard of acting and directing in the best videogames is no longer any lower than it is in TV or cinema. Dialogue in games can be delivered with the same degree of conviction and fluidity as in any other medium, so when it isn’t, the obvious question to ask is ‘why not’? Clearly game developers weren’t waiting for the technology to develop, they just didn’t think they needed to bother. The way the dramatic elements of ACIII and God of War compare to one another is like comparing Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood with Martin Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas. Cory Barlog is clearly a game director who can be bothered.
I’m not saying that God of War is a benchmark work of dramatic fiction. It’s a silly, macho, hack-and-slash, sword-and-sorcery romp. Its world is an extremely male one, although its sole (living) female character is well written and well performed. It’s about a very violent man trying to guide his son towards a warrior’s prowess and a sense of responsibility, and as far as that goes, it’s extremely well done. The duration of a AAA game is exploited, so that the central relationship can develop slowly, as in a TV series. The way that both protagonists see themselves and the world is plausible—they act on the knowledge that actions in this world have consequences, which is true of very few fantasy settings in literature, let alone videogames. Christopher Judge and Sunny Suljic, who play father and son respectively (both voice and motion capture) have the kind of chemistry that actors can only achieve working together, rather than recording their lines in different times and places so that they can be put into the mouth of a character whose body reproduces somebody else’s movements.
The key relationship in the narrative is also key to the gameplay. This is what makes God of War a truly excellent game, a great example of the videogame as an emerging medium for narrative fiction. Gameplay and story are not two separated things, but are fully integrated at every level of the game. Kratos, the demigod warrior who has been the hero of the series has all kinds of moves and weapons, but he can’t win a lot of the fights on his own: he needs his son Atreus shooting arrows, and jumping in to hamper and harass his enemies. The square button (the game is a PS4 exclusive) is allocated to Atreus, and is usually used to trigger his arrows. Many games have had problematic mechanics around AI companions, but in this case it’s seamless, although the player doesn’t control Atreus’s movement. The combat and movement in general have an incredibly visceral physicality, unlike anything else I’ve played. When Kratos swings, you feel it connect.
Every other aspect of the game is executed to the same impressive standard. The loot, crafting and upgrade mechanics are very well designed. I speak as someone who finds those aspects of most games extremely tedious, and my eyes rolled when I first realised that the game uses the colour-coded loot/equipment tiering system made ubiquitous by Blizzard (which they lifted from an ASCII Roguelike called Angband). But although I could have done with less of that, I found the system easy enough to navigate. The upgrade paths feed well into the gameplay, and make sense in the context of the story, while the game avoids what is, for me, the bane of every RPG, the grind of having to loot each defeated mob, and then continually running out of inventory space because you’re not interested enough to work out what you’re meant to do with all of this ludicrously named rubbish. And I have to concede, it was fun to see Kratos’s gear getting steadily more bling as the game progressed.
There’s a lot to this game. I usually make it a habit to fully explore the side-quests and the territory before I progress the story too much, but in God of War there were whole areas that I didn’t even clock until I’d played through the plot (Niflheim and Muspelheim, if you care). The setting is Norse in inspiration, with Kratos a Greek god in exile, but it’s completely daft in execution (in a good way). Aesthetically it looks like a reasonably convincing stab at what might result if Norse culture superheroes started building large structures and machines without reference to the primary-world histories of architecture and design. It’s dazzlingly beautiful, in any case, and although purists might be upset, it makes imaginative use of its source materials, both visual and mythological.
I haven’t even really mentioned that this is a third-person, puzzle-solving action adventure. There’s a lot to say about this game, because it is an absolute tour-de-force. If Red Dead Redemption 2 set a new standard for open-world RPGs, this had already done it for the action adventure. It’s also a kind of manifesto for strong narrative game design looking to the next generation of consoles. If there is ever any question that gameplay might be compromised by an increasing contemporary emphasis on narrative, God of War stands as an answer. It isn’t just that it does it well, it’s that it does it as one thing. Like the lyrics and melody of a song, neither means anything without the other.