Saturday, February 7, 2009

god of war and greek mythology: the pseudo-academic wankery of a classics major

a logo placed in the sky by the gods The Judeo-Christian god is generally depicted as an all-knowing, all-seeing being, in complete control of the entire universe. He’s omnipresent, and he’s got no flaws - he even knows about his mistakes ahead of time. Compare this to the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods – petty, jealous, often warring, sometimes surprised and always thoroughly human. Humans with lightning bolts and sexual powers.

Its depiction of these gods is one of the things that makes the God of War series fit in so well with the long-established mythological canon - they would be right at home among the squabbling gods of the Iliad. Of course God of War misses out on some of the subtleties. God of War knows nothing about subtlety. God of War is a game in which the average human being has about thirty-two gallons of blood coursing through his or her veins – it’s about as subtle as It’s Pat: The Movie. Still, for games that started at the word “badass” and worked their way out from there, God of War and its sequels fit surprisingly well with the universe in which they take place.

Think Athena’s revelation at the end of God of War 2 was surprising? Kratos isn’t the only human in the Greek world with a god for a dad. Zeus got around so much that it’s a surprise there was anyone who wasn’t his son. Achilles was the son of Thetis, a minor goddess but a goddess all the same. Hercules has the son of Zeus thing going on too. There are more, but my Greek poetry is all the way across the room on my bookshelf and I can’t be bothered to look up more examples. Godly parents? Yawn. Ignoring the fact that having the end boss be your dad is the most overdone twist in the book, Kratos hardly stands alone here.

Next, Kratos’ character. He is thoroughly unlikeable from a modern perspective, and he’s utterly unsympathetic. He killed his own family while blinded by god-given bloodlust and he’s a little upset about it, sure, but that’s about the only event in two games that humanizes your protagonist, and the games’ creators don’t go to any lengths to make it seem like Kratos had more than a passing interest in his family in the first place. There’s not much emotional content here, and Kratos’ eagerness to kill anyone or anything that looks at him funny doesn’t help matters.

Consider, though, that most of his mythological peers are also kind of dicks. Achilles’ dickishness knows no bounds – he starts the Iliad by getting mad that someone took his girl, then stays mad on the sidelines as his comrades and countrymen die. It takes the untimely death of his best friend/manservant/plot device/quite-possibly-homosexual-partner Patroclus to get him back into the fighting, and then when he does kill Hector (who is survived by his perpetually-sobbing wife and their baby), he drags the guy’s body around behind a chariot for a few days before handing Hector back to his father. Achilles is sort of a jerk, you guys, and while Kratos is more of a jerk on a much larger scale, he’s still not without precedent.

If you’d like to talk unsympathetic, also consider that Odysseus boned every chick between Troy and home, which sometimes made it hard to believe him when we see him crying about his distant home and hearth. “Oh I am so sad about my wife hey baby if you stop turning my men into pigs I think we could get something started here.” That is a pretty loose definition of fidelity, especially when you consider that your wife has been sitting at home being all chaste for nearly twenty years. Jerk!

What about Kratos’ flat, single-minded personality? Mythology is chock full of those! Odysseus just wants to get home, Medea was always going to kill her own children, and no matter how hard Oedipus tried, he was always going to be that weird guy who slept with his mom. Maybe he also made a mean gumbo or played the guitar sometimes, but we don’t know anything about that – Greek myths are nearly single-minded in their construction, beginning with a single line or even a single word and ending only when that one particular end is tied, even if one of the loose ends left behind was the iconic finale of the Trojan War. The Iliad is about the anger of Achilles, and that’s where it begins and where it ends. The God of War series began with Kratos’ desire to escape his mental torment, and one can safely assume that by the end of the last entry in the trilogy, he will finally find that peace.

Having spent an entire post talking about Kratos’ similarity to other mythological figures, I’ve got to say that I don’t believe the people behind God of War did most of this on purpose. Watch the documentaries and interviews on God of War 2’s bonus DVD, and you’ll see lots of concept artists and coders and game designers doing what they do best, but they rarely seem to have much knowledge of their source material – at best, you get the same sort of simplified popcorn Classicism that made movies like Troy and Gladiator so hard for aficionados to sit through. Scouring the games’ credits for anything resembling a Classical consultant brings up nothing.

So, no. I doubt anyone at Sony was trying to make Kratos a believable part of the established mythology when they started in on God of War. Still, as in other media, it’s fun to sit here at my desk and read things into stuff based on the most tenuous examples and evidence. Truly, games are becoming an academic media!