Games

Undressing Kratos

If you want a man to represent brutality, in the end you're going to end up taking his clothes off.

A few years ago I wrote an essay about nudity and near nudity in the design of various video game characters, both male and female, and what that signified about those characters' vulnerabilities and strengths. I briefly touched on the very minimal clothing (essentially, a loin cloth) of the protagonist of the God of War series, saying that Kratos's "near nudity makes him less than vulnerable. His physique communicates power and masculinity. The appearance of a desirable masculine trait, perfect musculature, makes him clearly stronger [than he would seem if he were clothed], not weaker" ("Boys Get Naked Better Than Girls", PopMatters, 23 June 2011).

More recently, I ran across a video on YouTube, a clip called "Heroic Possibilities" that originally appeared among some documentary videos about the making of God of War on the game's original disc. In the video, Terry Smith, the game's art director, and Charlie Wen, a character designer who worked on developing Kratos, discuss how Kratos's original character concepts included a variety of armor styles, many of which covered the character almost fully. In watching the video, I felt gratified when Wen affirmed something like my own assertions about the importance of the signification of a largely unclothed Kratos, saying:

Every time we put something on [Kratos], Dave [Jaffe, the game's director] felt like, "He doesn't look brutal anymore," and we started realizing that "brutal" kind of related to the primal part of him. So, we did take a lot of time going through that [process of dressing and undressing him], and in the end, we still ended up taking his clothes off.

Following up on Wen's comments about how Kratos's lack of clothing visually connects him to his brutal and primal nature, his strength and his power, Jaffe also acknowledges the usefulness of a lack of traditional clothing to convey Kratos's dominant characteristics:

The main goal for the character in the game was always to create someone that looked really brutal, really nasty, and really violent. Instead of going the traditional route of an iconic Greek hero with a plumed helmet and the skirt, the toga, and the sandals, we wanted someone who really made the player feel like he was able to unleash his dark side. So the idea was always, "How can we make him look more brutal? How can we make him look more violent and impulsive and nasty?" That desire always superseded historical accuracy. So, while you look at this guy and he might not totally feel at home in ancient Greece from a costume standpoint, I think he achieves the greater purpose.

Kratos, as a brutal and primal character, seems quite sensible when thinking about his near nudity. To wear clothing is civilized. To doff clothing reminds one of man's animal nature. After all, brutes don't wear clothing. If you have seen the fully nude character played by Viggo Mortensen in desperate battle with several other nude Russian mobsters in a bathhouse in Eastern Promises (2007), then you probably have a good sense of what I am talking about. Like Jaffe and crew, director David Cronenberg seems to want to emphasize the lack of civilized behavior in this kind of primal violence by visually marking these men in the most animalistic way possible.

A notion of signifying a difference between civilized violence and primal violence likewise exists in the Beowulf poem, when Beowulf declares that he will fight the monster Grendel without sword or shield:

When it comes to fighting, I count myself

As dangerous any day as Grendel.

So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield

To mow him down, easily as I might.

He has no ideas of the arts of war,

Of shield or sword-play, though he does possess

A wild strength. No weapons, therefore,

For either this night: unarmed he shall face me

If face me he dares.

-- Beowulf, Trans. Seamus Heaney

Infamously, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary interpreted this section of the poem as indicating that Beowulf chose to fight Grendel fully in the nude and wrote the scene as such in their script for the 2007 film. Unfortunately, the scene ends up lacking the power of the sequence from Eastern Promises simply because the director has gone out of his way to obfuscate Beowulf's penis in the most absurd ways possible throughout the scene, making it more comedic (much like an Austin Powers sight gag), than primal. Still, though, the principle remains that the monstrous naked savagery of Grendel is met with the decision to match that primal violence by removing markings of civilization and order, like clothing, or in the case of the poem, equipment.

Such imagery abounds in the history of video games to indicate power in the largely unrestrained male body, from Street Fighter's nearly nude wrestler Zangief and the similarly largely naked Blanka to the ripped and stripped down Muay Thai kickboxer Lee Sin in League of Legends. These male bodies are indeed not made vulnerable by disrobing, but instead emphasize their own strength and power by making their nearly bare bodies do the talking.

Such character design romanticizes the body, exaggerating muscle to signify the kinds of qualities that Jaffe wishes his audience to identify at a glance by looking at his character, brutality, power, and an alignment with the primal, rather than the civilized. Such signification is a common way of quickly evoking an understanding of characters in video games. In Batman: Arkham City, Catwoman does not wear spiked heels because they are a practical choice of footwear when participating in hand-to hand combat. The boots, her wiggling walk, and the kisses that she plants on her foes before she puts them down are all a means of romanticizing her body, signifying clearly what this character has represented since her first appearance in comic books in 1940, a woman of sexual power, a power that she uses as a weapon.

But, of course, all of these characters are the product of romanticism, not realism. They appeal and make sense to the viewer because of their simple signification and commonality across time and across cultures. Indeed, the nearly nude Kratos belongs to the tradition of the figuration of the romanticized and unclothed (or unarmed, perhaps) heroes, like Beowulf, King David, Samson, and Hercules. DC comics, ever the comic publisher more interested in characters that are icons than in characters with more realistic "issues" (I'm looking at you, Marvel Comics, and especially at you, Peter Parker) need look no farther than Ancient Greece for figures associated with an almost weaponized form of sexual power, like Circe, the Lamia, or the Sirens, or to the Americas, home of the Vagina Girls of Apache folklore, to find characters akin to Catwoman.

Historicity, realism, and practicality are not the driving focus when it comes to character design that is intended to be emblematic and to drive romantic, not realistic, stories. Kratos does not occupy a game like Life Is Strange or Oxenfree or The Walking Dead, games whose plots borrow elements of the supernatural and the fantastic from horror and science fiction, but whose characters emerge clearly from traditions of literary and artistic realism. Kratos and his body belong to the traditions of romanticism, in which symbols speak broadly to characters' emblematic, not realistic, powers and personalities.

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