God of War: Ascension highlights some of the main problems that I have with prequels in general while also demonstrating why video game prequels are especially annoying.
This post contains spoilers for the God of War series.
I love the God of War series. I've played all the games multiple times and on various difficulty settings. By my rough estimate, I've written over three-thousand words specifically about the games, and I've probably made reference to them in dozens of other columns. Despite my fandom, God of War: Ascension is proving to be a challenge and not in the sense that I'm having a hard time beating the enemies (it actually feels easier than most of the other games). It is challenging because the game constantly reminds me about how much I dislike prequels, especially in video games.
As is the case in non-interactive media, prequels often muddy a story's overall plot. The classic examples are the Star Wars prequels. They're almost a cliche, but for good reason: Why wouldn't Obi-Wan ever tell Luke about midichlorians? Why would the imperial Moffs sass Darth Vader about the Force when they are clearly old enough to have been alive during a time when Jedi roamed the galaxy? Did everybody forget about Qui-Gon?
When enough little details pile up, they start to distract from the consistency of the overall narrative. No one ever mentions the time that Kratos killed the furies or talks about how there used to be elephant beasts roaming around the world. Because the core trilogy has such a clear plot, the prequels are put in a tough narrative position. They are meant to be part of the experiences of Kratos overall, yet they were never mentioned in the story's main series.
God of War's plot might not be the most revolutionary story ever told, but it has a certain ancient Greek appeal: bickering gods, lots of sex and violence, and a simple, yet dramatic plot. Kratos' story is Aristotelian in its simplicity and execution: his hubris causes great personal tragedy, which then leads to a massive struggle with an immensely cathartic payoff that ultimately doesn't really leave anyone all that happy.
By the end of God of War 3, you've followed Kratos through the death of his family. You get to participate in destroying the entire pantheon of gods and then you end Kratos's life with your last action in the game (well, until the inevitable God of War 4, I suppose). The point is that it is difficult to get too invested in Ascension's story and characters because I already know how the story plays out on a grand scale. There is little-to-no character development, so every conflict takes the form of a huge monster and an intense fighting sequence. They're all visually gorgeous and clever from a gameplay perspective, but there's never any question about how things will turn out. As cool as the Hecatonchires is, it's not as intense as interactively obliterating Zeus, the king of the gods, a figure Kratos has been chasing for years (and also happens to be Kratos's dad, of course).
In addition to the narrative problems that prequels create, they also tend to clash with the interactive and iterative nature of video games. The "abili-tease" of having to relearn all your combinations and magic from one sequel to the next requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, but a prequel stretches the concept past the point of absurdity. Mechanical systems like stamina meters and weapon upgrades are continually being tweaked and in many cases improved. Unfortunately, this gradual evolution actually manifests as devolution when the series is arranged chronologically. The fact that Ascension brings a more free-form QTE system than God of War 3 is jarring from a narrative perspective. Why wasn't Kratos using his full range of skills when he needed them most? Was he getting forgetful in his old age?
Granted, these critiques are fairly nit-picky, but the concept of the best way to tell game stories is only going to become more important in the coming years. We're reaching the point when franchises are starting to span decades, which means designers need to think about how their systemic stories are going to match up with their plots. Refining mechanics and improving game engines with each release is a great goal, but nonchalantly plugging these enhancements into any point in a series' timeline hurts the sense of cohesion within a game's broader universe.
One obvious solution that many developers have already found is the "reboot" concept. Instead of being beholden to a particular story arc, characters like Lara Croft have been reimagined in new contexts that still pay homage to the spirit of the original games. It's a concept that seems to work particularly well with characters who are part of a broader mythos, such as Batman. The Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions of the Caped Crusader are definitely different, but they share common touchstones that explore Batman's obsession with justice from different angles.
At this point, why not make Kratos's story more similar to the ancient Greek myths with their tendency to be reinterpreted by different people at various times and locations? It's time to turn God of War into a concept instead of a series, to reinvent Kratos in different times, various cultures, and in situations that don't even acknowledge the existence of the Kratos vs. Zeus trilogy. Doing so will let the series grow in unexpected directions and solve the prequel problem. Plus, nerds like me will never have to wonder why Kratos seems to forget his combat training between every game.