God of War Lessons

Let me start by saying that the latest installment of God of War is one of the greatest games I have ever played. And by the reactions on some of my favorite gaming outlets, I am not alone. Just as Game of Thrones has accumulated fans across all genre preferences, there seems to be something about this new take on an old popular series that distinguishes it amongst the pack, and transcends people’s typical gaming biases.

About halfway through the game, I realized something even greater: God of War is perhaps one of the greatest movies I have ever seen. More specifically, it is one of the greatest cinematic recreations of mythology. While novels and comic books inspire some of the most award-winning and highest grossing films of all time, mythology seems to be an Achilles’ Heel in the adaptation-happy town of Hollywood. Time and time again, films like Gods of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Clash of the Titans, to name a few, have taken some of the richest stories and characters in human history and reduced them to little more than emotionless, culturally inaccurate, CGI money-grabs.

So, what can Hollywood learn from this action-packed, mythologically based game that succeeded where so many movies have failed? Let’s talk about it. And I’ll keep it as spoiler-free as possible.

Respecting the Source

God of War is Nordic as fuck.

I really can’t think of a more eloquent way to say that. This game lives and breathes Norse mythology. The story doesn’t waste any time trying to make Norse culture more palatable to those less familiar, or if it did, it did so in a way that neatly wove into the appropriate context. Cultural accuracy and the act of respecting an ancient culture is perhaps one of the most glaring sins of Hollywood when it comes to adapting these great mythical stories.

Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings are so offensively white that it would be funny if it wasn’t so infuriating. The casting is an absolute joke and I honestly wonder who their audience was supposed to be. However, I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising in a society that has long imagined a religious figure from the Middle East to be a fair-skinned brunette in fashionable sandals. But I digress. While God of War may not fall into the same issues of race, being based on the predominantly white Nordic culture, it is the way that the game honors that history that should make it required playing for any studio wanting to make a movie about ancient cultures.

What makes God of War so special is it’s juggling of inclusivity and exclusivity with its content. Almost like Easter Eggs in a Marvel movie, diehard mythology nuts will feel appreciated, while everyone is still able to enjoy the overall story. There were multiple scenes and references in God of War that went over my head. With only a base knowledge of Nordic culture, those moments weren’t for me, while my husband, a walking encyclopedia of Norse mythology, was delighted.

God of War hit on something very important when handling stories that are not only from ancient peoples, but actually defined their cultures for centuries: it made me want to learn. These exclusive moments did not hinder my enjoyment of the game, but actually made it feel more special – I found myself asking my husband to elaborate of them. By the middle of day two of our initial play-through, one of my husband’s massive Norse Mythology books sat between us, with many chapters bookmarked for reference so that I could further my education on the subject. Any story about a specific culture can and should be an opportunity for others to become well-rounded on peoples other than themselves. To do anything less is a disservice.

Story First

I bought the new God of War because it was another God of War. I played all of the others, so pre-ordering the next installment was more muscle memory than anything. It wasn’t until the game loaded that I realized, “Holy shit, this is the most beautiful game I have ever seen.” The graphics are so insane that it made me want to check my credit limit and see about that new 4K TV and Playstation 4 Pro. Perfectly accompanying this is a stunning musical score that transports you to another world in a way most often associated with fantasy heavy-hitters like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

Still, it is not the scenery, nor the music, nor the incredibly smooth game mechanics that have set this game so far apart— it is the story.

Second to the cultural inaccuracies, Hollywood’s biggest misstep when handling these grandiose stories is a lack of proper, emotionally weighted and relatable narrative. While an integral part of modern movie production, CGI alone does not a story make. It is a lesson that Hollywood seems to understand in some respects, but became willfully ignorant of in others. Like the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, or even the Oscar-winning film Gravity, which was almost entirely shot in front of a green screen, God of War’s graphics aid and support the narrative. In most movies, special effects only really provide the when and the where, but not the who or the why, which ultimately leaves the audience with the feeling of “Why do I even care?” These myths have been passed down for centuries, and we owe them more than treating them like cinematic peacocking.

Remember, these stories that we treat as myth now were once religion. People lived and died by these tales, and frankly if any of these ancient worlds could see what we were doing to their legacies now, they probably would have let the world end long before Hollywood was ever founded. God of War has a smart approach. It takes this rich pantheon of gods and monsters and creates a very human and very simple story that works within the culture’s bounds. There are encounters with Valkyries and Gods, the World Snake and a particularly chatty severed head, and yet the core of the story is one us mortals know all too well: grief. Kratos takes his son, Atreus, on a journey to lay to rest the ashes of his late wife on the highest peak in the realm. The mental obstacles they face far outweigh the supreme beings that stand in their way, as they try to navigate loss and love and build a relationship from the fractured pieces.

The emotional monologues throughout the game, though few and far between, are an actual pay off as your connection and investment in these characters grows, as opposed to the paper thin declarations of love and honor that feel forced into the computer generated chaos of what Hollywood feels is an ‘epic story.’ God of War proves that humanity exists even in the most fantastical of places, and the most inhuman of characters. The end of God of War was deserving of the time and effort it took to get there, and the plot twists and character arcs left my jaw on the floor and tears in my eyes. That is an epic tale.

Once More, With Feeling

God of War has previously been a hyper-masculine bloodbath, full of lust and rage…and I ate up every second of it. It was the 300 of video games, and I say that with love to both. Hacking and slashing your way to victory is one of the cornerstones of the franchise, so when the announcement was made that Kratos was going to be accompanied by his young son, a question mark hung in the air like a dark cloud. Was Kratos going soft?

Yes. In a way. But how could a game about the god of war be fun with all of these pesky feels floating around? As it turns out, God of War proves that not only can you have an emotional and sobering story, but that the investment in these characters’ arcs makes the action that much more exciting. Though many a Hollywood film have proven this concept to be true already (the recent Avengers installment for example), it is a concept mostly lost on this recent swath of mythology based films.

The success of 300, itself a combination comic book and ancient history adaptation, was a catalyst for the Hollywood trend of adapting or creating action films set in ancient times, with legendary creatures and violent battles. However, no film in this lane since, not even it’s own sequel, has ever been able to match it in popularity. The films that followed 300 took from it the idea of interesting, special effects driven battle sequences, but left behind its central themes of honor and duty in the face of war, which is what really gave the action it’s weight. Like 300, God of War understands that without weight, a badass fight between hero and beast is nothing more than a gimmick.

Dying in video games is an all too common occurrence, especially in a game that is as difficult and has as many enemies as God of War. But unlike its predecessors in the series, this installment more eloquently uses the story to intensify the button-mashing action and the high body count. Watching Atreus long for his father’s affection following the death of his mother is already heartbreaking enough, but once you get into the meat of the game and find yourself losing battles, your personal affection towards Atreus and his plight turns what would normally be considered a simple nuisance in gaming into a tearjerker.

Once you die in battle, and you will die plenty, the game camera lingers on Kratos’ body as Atreus screams and pleas for his father to not leave him alone. As devastating as it is, it makes you fight that much harder because you don’t want to orphan this already grieving child. While watching Kratos lay waste to any number of Nordic beasts with his massive axe, and his proficiency for ripping a werewolf’s lower jaw all the way to it’s navel is really bloody cool, Atreus gives it purpose.

Striving for a Masterpiece

Fleeting are the days of believing that feelings are weaknesses. People want to care. It is no mystery why the latest of God of War is being called a masterpiece, just like it isn’t a mystery why people love Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Without that connection these attempts at fantasy action are forgotten faster than their “state of the art” CGI becomes dated, and when you are dealing with stories and characters that are not only a testament to the place that story-telling holds in human history, but actually define entire cultures of people, there is simply no excuse to strive for anything less than a masterpiece.

Especially if they ever get around to actually adapting this series for the big screen.

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