Sing, O Muse, of a man of twists and turns, driven off course time and again. Of hacking and slashing and blowing shit up. Of a man who tears enemies in half and twists off their heads. Of saturnine goatees. Of blood red tattoos. Of a moon pale man. A psycho, a murderer, a ghostfaced killer.
Sing to me of Kratos.
Kratos is the main character in the single player action/puzzle game, God of War (2005). He’s a Spartan commander who has lost everything, including his sanity, to Ares, the Greek god of war. Kratos is, in short, a cold, vengeful bastard and players must do cold and nasty things to complete the game. I had avoided God of War because of its brutality and sex minigames. Playing it on my ancient PS2, what surprises me most now is not how enjoyable the game is or nice the game mechanics are, but how relieved I am that Kratos is a vengeance-crazed killer.
The game is indeed violent. Players are rewarded for their controller mastery with squicksome moves that tear a gorgon’s head off or blinds a cyclops. And players can heal Kratos by killing innocent people. The cut scenes revealing Kratos’ story are filled with blood and pillaging. The only thing that seems to reach him in his single-minded rage is a group of endangered women. Probably because he has been driven into deicidal madness after Ares tricks Kratos into killing his own wife and daughter. Tragic heroes do it to themselves through blindness. And in his way, Kratos is a tragic hero, though Medea and Oedipus have very different finishing moves.
And, yes, as an aside, there is a sex minigame. It irritates me less than in other games where lady parts don’t just titillate, but obstruct gameplay. Lara Croft has crotch-blocked my platform-jumping and puzzle-solving too many times. The minigame’s sex isn’t very mature, is easy to avoid (don’t interact with naked ladies) and is less intrusive to me because it’s contained and has some narrative justification—Kratos seeks solace (Hit “O”).
Like Kratos, I have done terrible things in games, things I don’t feel right about. I’m good at games where violence is a solution. I like problems that can be solved by hacking, slashing and smashing. I might not laugh at danger, but I will cackle while hitting ▵ ▵ □. I might not be Alpha, but I am sure as hell Omega. I’ve played co-operative games with friends where we were ostensibly morally upright heroes saving everyone from a nigh-unstoppable evil—by killing everything in every room, forest, castle, mine, cavern and abandoned government facility everywhere and then looting them. I have killed dogs and wolves for what turned out to be no reason but experience points and felt like crap.
So it’s not that Kratos helps me express my own inner ghostfaced killer. It’s that no matter what I did in other games, the character I played was good and I could tell from AI characters’ reactions, cut-scenes or a stats screen clearly glowing, “Good.” Seeking solace in my own nascent madness, I created stories to cope with the disconnection between how my character is presented narratively (hero) and how my character behaved (reaving sociopath). I decided my character was attacked everywhere on sight because the monsters, zombies, wolves or Silent Hill fetishists had heard about my hero: kill or be killed. The monsters were avenging the loss of their monster friends. I got to the point where I wanted to design a game called “Goblin Hugger,” where players receive treasure by asking that goblin over by the tree nicely. If players attack the goblin, it reappears covered in band-aids and other monsters are mad.
But kawaii is apparently not the only solution. God of War shows that there’s also going with sociopathy. Horror and disgust are dramatically legitimate feelings to evoke. Aristotle considered gore a cheap trick in tragedy, but Roman playwrights like Seneca used it extensively to create catharsis. In Classical Indian aesthetics, it’s the bībhatsa rasa reserved for stories with elements like Vishnu’s lion-headed avatar tearing out intestines.* In my less sophisticated aesthetic world, I exclaim, “holy shit!” when Kratos must burn a man alive to solve a puzzle.
God of War has the same trajectory as a lot of games—kill enemies, solve puzzles—but the impetus is different and I think that’s important. Its narrative is built around the fact that Kratos is a vengeance-crazed killer. Other characters even flee him on sight. He’s the nasty solution to a worse problem that requires a deicidal madman. In the end, I’m troubled by the brutality, but in an oddly dispassionate way because, frankly, it’s a relief. I don’t feel crazy anymore since the character I play is—and everyone in the game knows it.
*yes, I am abusing my education.
This month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter with each editor writing about something outside their usual domain. This week Carol Borden writes about games. She can normally be found here.