Video games are serious now. It’s no longer enough for AAA video games to have sleek graphics, hours upon hours of playable content, and innovative game mechanics. They also need top-notch voice acting, cinematic cutscenes featuring real actors performing in motion-capture suits, and a compelling story with all sorts of character development and narrative arcs and emotional beats. This is how you end up with long trailers for highly anticipated games that don’t feature any actual gameplay:
If your taste in games is roughly similar to mine, this has mostly been a positive development. For as much fun as loot-grinding and first-person shooting can be, sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and indulge in all the trappings that a certain type of prestige video game can offer. Whatever your opinion is about whether video games can truly be art, it’s hard not to appreciate the ambition that goes into the creation of games like Uncharted, The Last of Us, and Tomb Raider.
But even the most artfully crafted video games are still video games, and that has always led to an odd dissonance within them. If the goal of these games is to create something that combines the entertainment value of video games with the storytelling capabilities of movies, then the disharmony comes from the fact that these endeavors often feel like video games stuffed into movies.
What I mean is this: The experience of playing all four Uncharted games is the experience of getting to know and care about the games’ protagonist, Nathan Drake. Through various well-made cutscenes you get to see his character—a rakish artifact hunter with a quick wit and a heart of gold (okay, it’s not the most original character ever)—fully fleshed out in affecting and meaningful ways. You are also pulled out of those cutscenes and given control of Nathan Drake so that you can murder literally thousands of enemy humans with a vast arsenal of guns. This has to happen, of course, because this is a video game, but it’s extremely hard to reconcile the charming rogue that the game presents on one hand with the mass murderer it presents on the other.
There’s always been a division between video game protagonists as they exist as a vehicle for the player’s actions and as a character in the story, and even the subtlest ways in which this division manifests itself have continued to trip me up. Even something as simple as a character’s outfit or appearance inexplicably changing during the transition from gameplay to cutscene has bothered me:
These are perhaps minor quibbles to have about a video game, but meaningful ones nonetheless! Anyway, the reason I bring this all up is because the new God of War game has come along, torn these quibbles from my hands, and smashed them to bits with a glowing frost axe. In doing so, it’s created the most satisfying gaming experience I think I’ve ever had.
Much praise has already been heaped on God of War, and specifically the fact that the game consists of a single tracking shot which transitions seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene. There is no division between the Kratos who is controlled by the player and the one who isn’t, because the game literally never separates the two. Not only does this have the effect of never jostling the player out of the narrative, it allows for the action of the game—the classically raw video-game violence—to flow seamlessly into the storytelling elements.
I haven’t finished God of War yet, but I recently completed a sequence that had my jaw on the floor. (We’re about to get into to some spoilers here so be warned.)
A few hours into the game Kratos is tasked with traveling to the Norse underworld and removing the heart from a big troll-like monster (I know) so that a forest witch can use the heart to cure Kratos’s son of a mysterious illness (I know). Anyway, what proceeds is a standard video-game boss fight, the conclusion of which would have been a place for most games to transition into an expository cut scene.
Instead, the camera stays tight on Kratos as he finishes off the troll in spectacularly bloody fashion, and immediately falls into a state of blood-soaked weariness. The player then watches Kratos climb onto the troll’s chest, slice him open, and struggle to remove the heart. Then, for a moment, Kratos places his hand on the troll’s chest, almost in a gesture of apology.
What the game is trying to tell the player here is that Kratos has reached the point in his narrative arc in which he is really goddamn sick and tired of living a life of ultra violence. This is an exceedingly difficult thing for a game called GOD OF WAR, in which the player is encouraged to smash and dismember various monsters in opulently gruesome fashion, to pull off in any convincing way. But it works here because the lack of camera cuts doesn’t let the player get away with separating the violence from the story.
I felt queasy and a little sad as I watched Kratos murder and then cut up the big beast because the game wouldn’t let me take a back seat during this scene. The character I manipulated through a gory fight was the exact same character feeling pain and regret in the aftermath of the fight, and that’s because there was no cutscene to eject me from the narrative and absolve me from the consequences of the violence while a shiny motion-captured version of my character advanced the story. There was just action and narrative, existing in tandem and complimenting each other as they almost never do within a video game, making me feel really awful about killing a troll beast from Hell. It’s hard to think of more meaningful praise for a video game than that.