15 years later, God of War is still one of the best feel-bad games ever
From power fantasy to power nightmare.
God of War begins with a man ready to give up.
Kratos, a former champion of the gods, claims they have abandoned him and leaps into the ocean. It's a moment that immediately evokes the hallmarks of Greek tragedy, a trinity of doom, destiny, and deity conspiring to lay a man low — almost certainly due to his own hubris. It’s a striking start to what would very quickly pivot to one of the most memorable power fantasies in video games.
Even fifteen years later, the original God of War (released March 22, 2005) is impressive in how it executes its vision of power. It's a Kanye West track off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but with minotaurs, possessing a slavish devotion to violent hedonism that you have to just stop and admire even if you find it reprehensible today. The only reason it doesn't belong in a museum is that it's too narrow-minded in its pursuit of pleasure, overly committed to the catharsis of male rage and little else.
In video games, few things feel as good as violent rage. But take away the blood and guts, and all you're really doing is solving spatial puzzles in real time — there are obstacles standing between you and your goal, and if you push the right buttons, you can delete those obstacles. The more sensory feedback you give the player, the better this power of deletion feels, and few things flood the senses like cartoonish depictions of dismemberment and gore.
This is the glue that holds God of War together, even as it holds up as an achievement in synthesizing every good action game idea of the time – its free-flowing, fluid combo system, the wide lens of the cinematic camera, its show-stopping boss fights, and just-hard-enough puzzles make it a masterpiece of momentum, and violence is the gasoline that fuels its engine. Brutality infecting everything, puzzle solutions and combat mechanics are doled out with heaps of viscera, like the Medusa head that's forcibly ripped from its body and carried around for later use.
It's also present in the game's asides, like minigames where players could have Kratos brutishly have (offscreen) sex with women for heaps of power-up orbs, underlining the fact that the game's strengths and weaknesses were one and the same: the power fantasy of unmitigated male rage. Even taken to a cartoonish end in the story of a man who desired to murder the God of War himself, this could only be satisfying for so long.
As God of War moved beyond a single game to become a franchise, this tension became the most interesting thing about God of War. As the franchise grows, so does Kratos' rage — he goes from wanting to murder one Greek god, to wanting to murder all of them, to finding an entire new pantheon to slaughter. And as his rampage continues through God of War III, Kratos begins to tear away at the fabric of existence itself — each god, no matter how contemptible they are, keeps part of the world in order. Kratos' slaughter of Helios sentences Greece to eternal darkness; his vengeance on Hera means all flora dies with her.
Throughout the God of War franchise, the games continue to feel so good to play, even as Kratos becomes more and more monstrous, turning even on those who support him in his mission. Over the course of that initial trilogy, God of War goes from power fantasy to power nightmare. The cathartic violence of the first game gives way to the genuinely disturbing — God of War III has you behead Helios with Kratos' bare hands. They're remarkably nasty, feel-bad games.
They're also harder to justify and redeem the more developers try to do just that — 2018's God of War reboot is a show-stopping action game but a poor attempt at a satisfying redemptive arc for Kratos, reckoning with the franchise's violence but not its maleness. The characters who suffer most in the game's small cast are, as they often are in God of War, women: Kratos' wives, whose deaths or disappearances fuel his adventures in both the original trilogy and the most recent game, or Freya, the only woman in the cast of the 2018 God of War, who must endure great loss in order for Kratos to achieve his mission.
Like a lot of series that are so successful for this long, God of War is now in conversation with itself as well as its audience, a game about an older man compelled by parenthood to reflect on his past made by people doing the same. The conclusion to the game suggests that another cycle will soon begin, with another pantheon for Kratos to lay waste to.
In some ways this is cowardice. God of War III has already shown us what ultimate vengeance achieves. (Spoiler: not much.) But if there must be another game — and of course there must — then let it be one that doesn't treat Kratos as redeemed. Let it be one that makes the harder choice, one that doesn't ever really stop reckoning with the ruthless violence of games past.
The sheer satisfaction of God of War games is still incredibly alluring, even after all this time. Action games, however, have moved on, marrying expressive, kinetic violence to characters that are more interesting, complicated, or ridiculous than Kratos could ever be. The B-movie cool of Devil May Cry's Dante has birthed a stable of successors, from the winking weaponized sex appeal of Bayonetta to the existential android angst of Nier: Automata. Next to these, the original God of War, while still accomplished, feels crude and brutish, a game of its time.
But what an impressively nasty time it was.
God of War Week is Inverse’s celebration of all things Kratos, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the first game (March 22) and the 10th anniversary of the third (March 16).