[1 April 2010]
While Playing God of War 3, my eyes kept skittering away from the big TV screen to the bookshelf in the corner. There sat a hard back copy of William Vollmann’s novel, Europe Central. I kept thinking to myself, I’ve seen this story before somewhere, or at least I’ve felt this way before. As Kratos threw aside all care and decency in his quest for violent vengeance, and Zeus and the other Olympians showed gargantuan disdain for anything but their own desires, the revelation hit me. This game is just like Europe Central!
OK, OK, I admit that on the face of it, God of War 3 is nothing like Vollman’s epic novel. That book is all about introspection, narrative experimentation, and the horrors humanity is capable of. God of War 3 is really all about the eye-goggling visuals, wild quick-time events, and over the top design. Maybe they’re more alike than I thought now that I put it that way. Both focus on style as much as they do substance. The difference is, Europe Central clearly means for the reader to feel just awful about everything that transpires on its pages. I’m not sure what feelings God of War wants me to have.
Europe Central is about World War II (another sequel!) and focuses on the lives of real historical figures from both the German and Soviet sides of the war. We get portraits of sympathetic victims within both regimes and details about the monsters and banally evil functionaries who made each totalitarian titan work. All through these vignettes I kept thinking the same thing: “Damn, these guys are all such assholes. I wish there was some way they could BOTH lose.” All through God of War 3 I felt the same thing, even though I assume I’m supposed to like Kratos (what with me being him and all) or at least somehow sympathize with his cause. But I didn’t. I wanted him to die. I wanted ALL of them to die.
So in this strained metaphor, Zeus would be Hitler and Kratos would be Stalin. By Godwin’s Law, I’ve already lost this argument, but bear with me for a paragraph. This game pretty much assumes you know why Zeus sucks because of his actions from the last two games. He’s the big bad, the force that everyone is trying to defeat, which makes him Hitler. So Kratos, the Titans, and Athena’s ghost all get together to take him down. Athena’s ghost is clearly pre-Pearl Harbor USA, sending material aid to the allies already in the war. The ancient Titans are obviously Great Britain, the ebbing Empire whose glory days are gone. And Kartos is Russia, the tireless fighter who does all the hard work but at a terrible cost to his own people. Except his people are the other other mortals, and every time Kratos wins against the Olympians, bunches of mere mortals die. Often, like Stalin, Kartos just kills innocents because they happen to be in his way. Oh, and the Flame of Olympus is obviously the Atomic Bomb. Except this is an alternate history where Russia gets it first and uses it on Berlin. Or something.
It’s not a perfect metaphor by any means, but it does convey my general sense of distaste for Kratos and most of the characters in God of War 3. The question I’m asking today is, does that matter? Does a video game hero need to be like-able for the game to be fun? Clearly not, because I thought this game was plenty of fun. But I also know I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more if I’d actually been rooting for one side or the other. There’s a moment in the game where you have to literally cut your way through an erstwhile ally because Kratos is in a snit and just full of himself. If the game had been any less fun than it is, I might’ve stopped there. But since God of War 3 is in fact a technical marvel that’s awesome to behold and hella fun to play, I soldiered on.
It doesn’t help that there are some sympathetic characters in there, like Hephaestus. He actually reminded me of the pitiful portrayal of Shostakovitch from Europe Central: a gifted artist forced by fear to produce for a tyrant while other jerks sleep with the women he loves. Sure he’s more than a little nuts, but he’s someone I liked spending time around. What about a game with him in it? The mad inventor making cool inventions to take on those oppressive Olympians. Or the depressed Russian composer busting out tunes like Eddie from Brutal Legend and taking down a Stalin-esque demonic overlord. Those are heroes I can get behind. I just wanted Kratos to shut his arrogant, jerky mouth.