The first God of War is a pretty fun game on a technical level—button-smash fighting plus physical puzzles that you run around to solve—and it looks fantastic for a Playstation 2 title. However, GoW’s aesthetic appears to be engineered for emotionally disturbed teenage boys. You gain life from slaughtering innocent bystanders, every woman is whiny and mostly naked, and you regularly have to murder innocents to advance the game. GoW is what you would get if you turned a mass school shooting into a video game and then added a mythical twist.
I’m not opposed to violence in video games—probably my favorite franchise ever is BioShock, which involves drilling through magic zombies with a power tool and/or harpooning them to the wall. But BioShock gives you moral agency—the only time you have to use violence is when you’re being attacked by zombies, white supremacists, and other genocidal maniacs. At other points in the games, you must explicitly decide whether to kill innocents or let them live, and the choices you make affect what happens later in the game. The characters in BioShock are complex, with competing, plausible ideologies and conflicting motivations. Love, greed, duty, guilt, anger, madness—these are what move the tragic characters in BioShock.
GoW, by contrast, gives the player no agency. You’re simply playing through a pre-written, hyperviolent, machismo, misogynistic script. There are five kinds of ‘characters’: gods, tough guys (i.e. protagonist), evil minions, human vehicles for boobs, and wimps who get slaughtered. GoW’s world is one where ruthless violence is power, and power is all that exists.
This too-tough-for-basic-decency aesthetic serves no gameplay function—adventure games full of fighting and puzzles are as old as consoles themselves—and the game sure isn’t making any artistic statements. (Apparently critics lauded the game for its ‘compelling’ story when it came out; I am entirely bemused by this fact.) So my guess is that GoW’s growling aesthetic is a marketing choice which allows boys who are insecure about their status as men to pretend that they’re the manliest man of all mankind. As Jackson Katz argues in the documentary Tough Guise, American men over the past century or so have become more and more isolated from typically manly activities (like fighting, striking out into the wilderness, and building stuff); at the same time, depictions of masculinity in film and now video games have become more and more violent and extreme. In other words, as traditional methods of proving one’s masculinity have become scarce, media have compensated with more and more extreme symbolic modes of masculinity. (These modern gentlemen do protest to much, methinks.)
So that’s GoW: impressively competent gameplay within a script marketed to gender insecurity. Like smoking Marlboro Reds or making jokes about homos, GoW is a way for chickenhawks to strut. And that’s too bad, because it really is a fun game otherwise.