The Case For A Very Violent Scene In A Very Violent Video Game

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."


    Not a good sign when you have to justify the violence in your own game before its released!

      Definitely not a good sign at all... I don't like where the media are headed these days with their violence-bashing. It doesn't bode well for future games being as violent as I want.

        I read your comment then looked at your avatar. Brilliant, just brilliant.

    I hope the developers ignore these anti-violence crusaders and just release the game they want. God of war would not be God of war without the over the top violence.

    It's a game I have always shown my mates parts of when they come over, they laugh and often go and buy it afterwards. Maybe stick an R rating on it or something if people are really worried. I would be very disappointed if they changed the type of game it is.

    I don't buy many games on the playstation but keep one just so that I can buy the exclusives like this.

    I'm getting sick of all the anti-violence being pushed by the games sites nowadays. I get that a game doesn't need to be overly gorey to be good... but sometimes I do want to punch someones face into musch, or disembowel, or pull an elephants brains out. There is plenty of room in the industry for games of all types, stop trying to change the violent ones.

      Also, per the Penny Arcade strip there are certain expectations of God of War.
      Quote: "It's not the sixth sense, man! You can't spoil it. Kratos kills everybody. The end."

      Pretty much this. If I want to stab virtual elephant brains, why can't I?

    So your the guy that cheered and applauded in the audience then.

    I don't mind gore, Diablo 3 felt bloody and awesome (and short and buggy and designed to require you to use real money to progress), but there is a difference between your hits having an awesome impact and gross out violence. God of War 3 was bloody but there were a few bits in there that went a bit far, but it was mostly pretty awesome. I don't think the envelope needs to be pushed any further though, it's already really gory.

    Also, big difference between God of War and The last of us. The Last of Us is gritty and realistic. God of War is made up violence, gore for the sake or gore. The type of violence shown in that game is of no way representative of real life like the last of us is.

      Yes, that's exactly the point that Hewitt was making. “I think if it were an actual elephant, I think that would be ghastly."

      Are you agreeing with him?

    No violence no sale... for GOW anyway. It would still be great but I'd just be thinking... there could have been so much violence and it would distract me from having fun.

    For me, it was too gory and there is no way I would want my kids once grown up to play something that is so violent and actually take pleasure in repeatedly stabbing a virtual character. I'm sorry but I see something very wrong with that picture.
    Violence in video games is not something new, however there are degrees of what is deemed acceptable and was is not. The problem is there is no one to moderate what is acceptable and what isn't because each individual person has their own view.
    My view reflects what I said at the beginning regarding my kids.

      I find the older I get the less tolerant I am of violence but as a kid the more violent the game / movie the better, so maybe it's also an age thing?

    I love blood and gore! But few rainbows here and there doesnt hurt!

    I think violent games, in context, are absolutely and completely fine. You know going into Ascension that it's going to be violent, and therefore you shouldn't be surprised when it is.
    It's when the violence becomes the product where it's worrying - I have no problems watching Cannibal Holocaust, for example, because the violence serves a purpose - contextualizing a comment the filmmakers were making on the primal nature of humanity. However, when I saw Saw 7 (or 3, 4, 5, and 6), the over-the-top violence, reveling in it for no other reason than to put bums on seats, I a little disturbing. I watched the sequels knowing the story would suck, but that they'd up the ante on the death scenes. So what does that say about me? I still watched them, and if (when) they make Saw 8, I'll probably watch that too.
    Violent games are fine so long as the violence is in context - and as far as I'm concerned, God of War wouldn't be the same without it.

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