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October 01, 2005

Sacrifice: God of War

God of War

Note: this discussion contains plot spoilers not only of the game in question but of a few Ancient Greek plays.

It's almost unheard of that I get halfway through a game¹ and feel the tug of moral qualms countermanding my desire to see it through. I had just such a moment in SCEA's God of War, which I finished shortly after completing Psychonauts a few months back.

I had reached the point in the game where Kratos was encountering the Challenges of the Gods inside of Pandora's Temple. The game had shown me all kinds of savagery -- ripping undead sailors in half, tearing harpies limb from limb, driving my blades into the throats of countless minotaurs -- but I was completely caught off guard when it became clear that Kratos had to make a human sacrifice to continue. I had come to a point where the Gods demanded sacrifice, and that sacrifice was available to me -- a man standing in a cage, at first certain that I had come to rescue him, but soon realizing otherwise, and screaming for my mercy. And ahead... the flames.

Now, I'm not particularly squeamish, but this was a bit much even for me. I paused the game, and I put down the controller, and I stood up from the couch and walked around for a bit. Granted, these were mere pixels and polygons, but that wasn't enough to make me able to overcome my qualms. After all, I was being asked to push a man (albeit a virtual man) helplessly into jetting flames.

It was the tensest moment in the game for me. I had seen scenes of immense beauty, such as the sewer entrance masked by the enormous statue of Athena with its bridge constructed from her sword. Kratos had been bathed in the light of the Gods and granted enormous powers. All that remained was this last shred of his humanity, and soon he would defeat a God.

It was at this point I was grateful for the third-person perspective in games. I could disassociate myself from the horrors that Kratos performed, since they grew from his character, and not from mine. The story was already laid, had already unfolded, had already occurred -- I was just experiencing it.

Because you see, the people of Ancient Greece were almost completely alien to our own sense of morality; they treasured might and strength and honor where many of us believe in self-sacrifice and helping others². Cronus, Zeus' father, attempts to maintain his throne by eating his own children, and Zeus attains his throne by cutting open his father's stomach to retrieve his siblings. And as terrible as their myths were, their entertainments contained similar themes: Euripides' The Bacchae and Medea offer denouements where mothers destroy their children. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus puts out his own eyes. These are brutal events, tragic events, and they flow from the savage, passionate characters who personified the human condition for the Greeks³.

Thinking these things, I came to the conclusion that I could continue to participate in the story, to be the agent that moved the story forward, to participate in the myth just as I had when I read The Bacchae. I could see Kratos not as an extension of myself, but as his own character. While I controlled his moment to moment action, the elements of his story were not mine to take moral responsibility for -- they were his own destiny.

And so, I picked the controller back up and continued. I guided Kratos through a sacrifice of a human being to attain his destiny.

For the most part, I'm glad I did. The story structure of the game was remarkably well-done, with wonderful reversals and a brilliant return to a visual element which I had found stunningly beautiful when I encountered it. In entering the sewers of Athens4, I had crossed an enormous sword into the body of the statue of Athena which held it -- and returned later to wield that sword, having been enlarged by the power of Pandora's Box.

I have a few quibbles, of course: for example, the time Kratos spends in Hell was such a departure from the rest of the game that it felt like I myself was in hell, which brought me closer to the character but not in a good way. And whenever I had to cross a narrow beam or tightrope of some kind, I felt decidedly unheroic -- here Kratos is, up against a God, and yet he teeters and frequently dies whenever walking across something less than a foot wide. This was particularly disconcerting after having finished Psychonauts, where our young hero regularly traipses up and down tightropes without missing a beat or even really slowing down.

But for the most part, Kratos' tale was a remarkable one, and it helped to elevate the straightforward (if highly polished) beat-'em-up play that was the bulk of the game.

A game that makes me stop and consider whether I want to continue due to moral questions is one that I feel I can recommend.

¹... or a film or a book. It happens, but it's exceedingly rare. Usually once I've made the investment, I feel bound to continue. I look at all the games on my shelf that I've started and not finished, and it's usually because something else comes along, not because I gave up on a game. (back)
²For those who are interested in a philosophical assessment of how we got from one to the other, I can recommend Friedrich Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals. Be warned, however, because Nietzsche's analysis is somewhat unflattering of Christianity's moral framework, at least in terms of its origins. (back)
³It's worth noting that Shakespeare also involves a fair amount of brutality, especially in a play like Titus Andronicus but even in tales like The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. It's interesting to me that the most revered writer in English uses his tragedies to externalize the human condition, just as he often does in his comedies, this may be something you see in a post someday. (back)
4Must every game have sewers? I'm fairly certain that sewers were not an invention of the Greeks, though they did have aqueducts to bring their water down from the mountains. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at October 1, 2005 09:23 AM


There's an interesting discussion with the God of War team in mp3 format (about an hour long) at http://www.game-tech.com/GameTechTalk/

Turns out that the European version (maybe only the German version?) doesn't have the sacrifice. It's also interesting that God of War was released in Japan, but Sony didn't publish it there.

Posted by: wtf at October 2, 2005 09:45 PM

Thanks for the link, I'll check that out.

Germany is particularly squeamish about videogame violence. Honestly, I'm glad I don't live there -- I'm happy to have had the chance to get to that point in God of War and have had to stop and think about what I was doing. That seems so vastly superior to simply not being exposed to it at all.

Granted, most people who played the game probably didn't have that reaction. But I'll defend the right of games as free speech precisely because of questions like these. Maybe my post should have been about that.

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 3, 2005 08:32 AM

Testing to see that comments going to be preview only still permits posting. Damn spammers.

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 12, 2005 07:30 PM

God of War sacrificed a goat at the launch.

Posted by: Anonymous at June 3, 2007 08:46 PM