God of War II is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful God of War for the PlayStation 2. The game’s release comes at an interesting time, in that the recently released PlayStation 3 is struggling in adoption rate and in the critical success of its first batch of games. In that sense, it may seem odd that Sony has seen fit to release God of War II for the PS2, though the decision does make sense for a variety of reasons. For one, Sony consoles are notoriously difficult to program for, and by developing God of War II for the mature PS2, particularly given that the first game looked and played so well on the same console, and that this title does not stray far from the path forged by its predecessor, development focus has been well-placed in the level design and story of the game. What comes of this is a very accomplished sequel to an already great game.
Releasing a triple-A title like this speaks to Sony’s promise to give the PS2 a full 10-year lifespan. Whether or not they deliver on that promise remains to be seen, but releasing God of War II for what could now be considered a previous-generation system is a good start. Other reviews have discussed God of War II well enough with respect to the normal sorts of video game rating criteria — it looks, plays, and sounds great. The story is engaging and intense. There seems to be no need to expound on those facts any further than that. Rest assured, God of War II is extremely fun, and fans of the first game owe it to themselves to play the sequel. Rather, I’d like to discuss the franchise’s approach to adult content in the context of the current state of the industry.
Seldom have there been more violent games than God of War and God of War II. These games also have more than their fare share of sexuality. Why, then, have they not been subject to the same scrutiny as other franchises? The original Mortal Kombat, now tame by comparison, received far more criticism and attention. That said, I remember vividly being stunned the first time I saw a fatality in the arcades, and perhaps in the span of many years, the fervor has faded. Certainly Mortal Kombat blazed a trail in terms of quasi-realistic (and particularly gruesome) violence in a game. So perhaps part of the reason that the God of War games haven’t been controversial is simply that the times are different. It may be that the bar for when to get worked up over how a game might be affecting our children is a little higher than it used to be.
Which brings us to Grand Theft Auto. Indeed, we could discuss Rockstar Games in general, since aside from Table Tennis and Red Dead Revolver, nearly every one of their modern releases has had some measure of media (and sometimes political) scrutiny. But certainly the most influential and popular of their franchises is the 800 pound gorilla that is the Grand Theft Auto series. Part of what makes those games so fun, aside from their having popularized the “sandbox” style gameworld, is the element of cartoony realism to the mayhem at hand. I can’t go into the street and start shooting passerby, stealing cars, driving into other vehicles, and generally causing severe chaos without serious consequences, both legally, emotionally, and physically. But in this game, I can do all of that, with relatively arcadey physics and no real consequences. That is why the protests over Grand Theft Auto are particularly loud, while those over God of War are relatively nonexistant. God of War is too far removed from reality. Is someone going to go rip the eyeball out of a cyclops and say a game made them did it? Certainly not.
If this is true, then in an effort to make a game that scratches the violent action itch of many a gamer, David Jaffe and the other minds behind God of War made a brilliant choice of locale. Certainly, religious texts of many faiths are filled with fascinating tales and bloody conflicts. But to single a practicing religion out for story fodder would be disastrous. Picking the world of Greek mythology, on the other hand, provides nearly endless possibilities for interpretations of stories, with almost no risk of offense from a religious standpoint. Further, as alluded to earlier, the game takes itself so seriously, that it comes off a touch tongue in cheek. It doesn’t have a sense of humor in the way the the Grand Theft Auto games do. Those games make you giggle while inducing mayhem by tapping into something puerile (a notion reinforced by the talk radio programming, advertisements, and signs in the game). On the other hand, the God of War franchise is as over the top as an action movie. There’s no point in warning you not to try this at home, because you can’t. The smiles and glee that come from playing the game come from it’s sheer intensity, as opposed to a wacky sense of humor that makes the violence more palatable.
For these reasons, in addition to the fact that it’s a remarkably fun game, God of War II and its predecessor are worthy of discussion. They’re prime examples of how to make a game well from the ground up, from the choice of source material all the way through development and marketing. At this point, all the franchise legitimately needs to worry about is overload. With a newly announced entry for the PSP along with a third in the home console franchise due for the PS3, hopefully the developers will be able to continue to deliver high quality experiences. For the time being, however, these are some of the best and most interesting action games being produced.