After our hero Kratos wrestles the elephant monster in God of War: Ascension to the ground, he — you — can make him stab the creature in the head. You can make him stab repeatedly. Then, at your command, Kratos slits the head open to reveal the monster's brain.
"That's too much," I blurted out, when David Hewitt, the design director at the Sony studio making Ascension for the PlayStation 3 played the scene in front of me.
I could almost hear his eyebrows arching. Oh? That's too much?
God of War is a series about an enraged Spartan general who becomes an enraged killer of gods and titans. It is the bloodier version of bloody Greek mythology. These games let us virtually stab a Cyclops in the eyeball and rip the heads off Gorgons. When Kratos isn't a butcher, he's kicking blocks to solve puzzles and grunting through extravagant sex scenes (just one of those scenes per game in the five-game series, so far; and, for the sex scenes, the camera mostly turns away).
God of War is a game of violence, played for the satisfying feedback of executing complex combination-attacks and/or for the thrill of ripping the wings off of harpies. It's a series of above-average game design and nasty violence.
Cutting that brain out is too much?
The brain scene climaxes a seven-minute sequence from God of War: Ascension that was first shown to the public last month when it was played live on stage at a massive, live-streamed Sony press conference. The demo, ending in that scene, was cheered.
"I think there's an emotional release in it for people," Hewitt told me. "At the Sony press conference, you saw a lot of broader-appeal, less-violent titles-[such as] Wonderbook and Beyond-and I think that when you got to The Last of Us and God of War Ascension, I think there was a group of people in the audience who were really pleased to see that ‘this is really gamey stuff', 'this is a real experience.' And there was a release. There was an emotional kind of cheer of, ‘Yeah, let's get that elephant's brain out of its head,' which hadn't been the tone of the conference so far."
That sounded plausible. There are many people who love playing traditional console games and who equate traditional games with expressions of virtual violence. They value that violence, because many of the most satisfying ways to interact with a virtual world have involved some sort of act of aggression, conflict or obliteration (see: Pac-Man, Space Invaders and about half the games that ever came after them, for reference). On the other hand, we've got new games showing up all the time that are made for broader audiences and — what do you know? — these games tend to be less brutal, less bloody. Maybe less interactive too.
But this past E3 was the E3 of "too much" or at least the E3 of "maybe that was too much." It was the E3 with all the neck-stabbings and throat–slittings and the one that prompted a designer of a new Mickey Mouse game and an old violence-optional sci-fi classic to say, hey, this "ultra-violence has to stop." Coming from within the gaming industry, the critique carried a different tone. It sounded less like the classic outsider's concern that violent video games might breed real violence and more like the frustration of a creative individual wondering if his peers had decided that the best way to entertain was to let people pretend to disembowel. It was a violence complaint as aesthetic lament.
Hewitt heard about that last bit, about hall-of-famer Warren Spector essentially saying enough is enough with all the crazy violence. Spector hadn't mentioned God of War when he complained. He may not have been thinking about it. Hewitt doesn't think it fits. "There are very realistic games, maybe [with] a war setting, where the violence has a real weight for people," he said. "It's something that relates to things in their families' lives or to things they've experienced in their own lives. I think there's a sensitivity to that and there's a tone set there that we need to be, as an industry, very mindful of." He was talking about games that show modern war, not mythological war. He was talking about the kinds of games that have guns and no elephant monsters. "If you were glorifying violence in that setting, I think maybe that's different. I think some of those concerns carry a little bit more weight for me personally."
In God of War, however, the violence is different. Hewitt would argue that it fits. "I think God of War sits way out on the perimeter. I mean, it's steeped in mythology. It's a particularly liberal take on that mythology, in fairness, but the mythology is brutally violent, tons of fun and this is pushing that even further out in that direction. So, really, the road that we're on with this title — one of the pillars — is that moment to moment release of making you feel empowered. Kratos is a relatively straightforward character in some respects, but he's moving forward towards revenge and will let nothing get in his way. And that's part of who he is and part of the experience you want when you pick up a controller and play a God of War game. "
Kratos is furious in this game, Hewitt reminded me. Oh, he always is, but this time, in this prequel, he has just been duped into killing his family. This might make a man stab an elephant-monster in the head, the argument goes. "Kratos, as a character, has been put through the most appalling things a person can endure insofar as being tricked into killing his family, and into a deal with the devil as far as his pact with Ares," Hewitt said. "This game is the story of him undoing that and finding a way forward to his revenge. He's a little unhinged. His background is that he was a brutal warrior, a Spartan general, and he takes pleasure, release and satisfaction in violence. And I think in this mythological setting, you have these creatures that are a real threat to him in his current state. He's more vulnerable. He gets more beaten up over the course of the game than we're used to seeing, and I think there is a real sense of very kind of visceral hands-on way, taking that violent revenge on those creatures as he fights through for some kind of answers."
I get that Kratos is enraged. He has been in all the God of Wars. I've played through them. I've liked them, except when they've skated toward the extremes of gore.
I considered again the scene I had watched Hewitt play through. Maybe, I suggested to him, this seemed different because it was an elephant? Later, when I re-watched the scene, I thought maybe it was because the elephant-monster wailed, making the noise an elephant might if it was angry… or dying in pain. This would have been different, I proposed to Hewitt, had Kratos' enemy looked not like a mythological, bipedal elephant but like a real one.
"I think if it were an actual elephant, I think that would be ghastly," Hewitt said. "But the fact that this is a kind of a brutal violent elephant wielding a club made out of tusks of other elephants... again it's kind of so far out there in that spectrum it doesn't make me uncomfortable."