I like God of War: Ascension. It's a violent video game. I've got nothing against that. I like a lot of violent video games. I "get" where a lot of in-game violence comes from: games need to feel interactive; letting me control one character and eliminate another from the screen is still the most easily-comprehended — and enjoyed — act of video game interactivity.
I also like seeing images of attractive people. I prefer female figures, but there's capacity for physical beauty in any kind of person. Or place. Or thing. Or Greek deity.
Sometimes beauty is just that: beauty. Sometimes, it's sexualised. That kind of beauty is meant to appeal not just to the eyes or the heart but to the loins, to tap into something primal, to turn us on.
What makes me uneasy, what feels — my opinion! — gross is when these two things combine, when a game sexualises some of its characters and then lets you bash their heads in the ground and rip them in two. That's when it feels weird. That's when I wonder why I'm being asked to have fun with this. That's when I start wishing that vivid violence and sexualised content wouldn't mix in video games in the manner they do in God of War: Ascension, not when there seems to be no other point than asking me to have fun with it.
Lighten up, you might say. Or, I don't like it either, you might say.
Let's make sure we're all looking at and talking about the same thing. (There will be God of War: Ascension spoilers below.)
God of War games take place in a version of the world described in ancient Greek myths. In these myths the gods are violent. And they are constantly having sex. The gods wreck lives. They sleep with relatives. They seduce. They rape. They don't necessarily wear a lot of clothes. Sex? Violence? They're all about both, often in close proximity.
God of War games are actually mostly about violence. The sex is minimised. The bias toward violence is in the name of the game. We're playing as a human, Kratos, who would be the god of war. His own sexual escapades have been limited to one mostly offscreen sex scene per game. That's one more mostly offscreen sex scene than most games have, but it is just the one.
In fact, if there's a sex scene in the new God of War, I never found it in the 10 hours it took me to complete the game's solo campaign. What I did find, early in the game. was a harem scene. It establishes what longtime players have known: God of War games may not have a lot of sex in them, but they have a lot of bare breasts.
Take a look:
What do you get out of this? What I get out of this is that, in Ascension's world, buxom = attractive = alluring. Not a stretch. Much of society is down with that equation. Genitalia isn't a part of it. Not in these games or most others.
As uncommon as breasts are in games, below-the-belt nudity is even rarer. Hence this void between Kratos's legs, as seen in Ascension:
Or is he wearing underwear? It's hard to tell:
The harem scene, the game's first heavily sexualised moment, is a trick. It's an illusion cast by one of the evil Furies in the game. (Yes, the game's bad guys are female; but I wouldn't read much into that. They've been male in the other God of Wars).
Here's what happens next in the harem scene, in a cutscene you don't control:
Kratos is an angry character. The very first game inflects that anger with the sadness and regret Kratos feels for killing his own family. I've played all of the console and PSP God of War games, and I believe his longing for his family is cited in each of them. In Ascension that longing is at its most tender. Players briefly see a Kratos who has reason to hope for a reunion with his wife — who, I believe, we've always seen clothed in these games. Most of the time, though, Kratos isn't moping. He's murdering.
As God of War players, we're asked to act out that rage. Most of us do it, I would assume, without rancor. We're not mad at the Furies or at the many gods and beasts and enemy soldiers we have Kratos kill. We may well commit these acts of violence as a chess player eliminates a pawn or queen, with our mind on strategy, not fury.
But God of War games, to their credit, remind us with more and more vivid graphical detail, that the violence that occurs when blades meet flesh is not pretty. Its colour is mostly red, and, in the imagination of the series and in the animations of Ascension, guts spill from opened torsos, brains bulge from uncapped skulls.
The game's violence is brutish and primal. We see gore. And we see breasts, big breasts similar to what we see in Ascension's harem scene. Breasts code some enemies as female. Here's one, as she's killed by the player-controlled Kratos:
Let's talk about this last one, as it puts all of the game's issues with violence against sexualised female characters in one nutshell:
- She's a snake lady — a Gorgon — who is trying to kill Kratos. Killing her, in the context of being a mythological Greek Spartan warrior, feels appropriate.
- If we accept that godly creatures don't have to wear clothes and that it might be really weird if monsters did, then the the snake-lady being topless is a fair visual design decision.
- There might be a double-standard in that we never see Kratos's most sexualised body parts, but it's not like we could see any of the Gorgon's below-the-waist reproductive organs. She's a snake down there. For her part, at least, we only can discuss toplessness.
- The interactivity of this kill is actually an advance for the series, as the trademark God of War executions are now mapped, more interestingly, to analogue sticks and buttons, not just buttons. That enables players to make Kratos dodge this Gorgon's final, desperate counter-attacks, while slashing at her to finish her off.
- The richness of detail here is partially a byproduct of technology. This game is on a PlayStation 3, which can show details of hero and enemy bodies that simply couldn't be shown in older games. Note that Grand Theft Auto 3, on the PS2, didn't even render characters' fingers separately. In that game, everyone had flesh-coloured mittens for hands. With more horsepower comes, simply, more body parts.
- That finishing move doesn't just split her head. It cuts her breast. Violence against both of those body parts is disturbing. But one's the norm in games; one is not.
As Kratos, you'll kill everyone.
Have a look at Kratos going after some of the enemies who read as male in Ascension:
The male enemies are ripped apart too. The element of sexualisation is absent. No knives to the groin, for example.
What to make of this?
For some gamers, I imagine, what we see and do in this game is no big deal. Those Greek myths were this violent, this sexualised. For some, there may well be entertainment in the subjugation or humiliation in sexualised females, although I'd like to think that's not who the game's creators were designing their game for.
When I've discussed the series' violence with them, they've been nuanced, championing the context of the milieu and the aspects of it as a game over simple thrills about gore. I've not spoken to them specifically against the violence against female characters bit, something I hope to do in the future.
For me? I find, in this game, the intersection of two ideas that don't comfortably co-exist. Games have been getting more violent, often as an expression of the interactivity possible in their combat systems. And game characters' bodies have become more and more believably — if not realistically — shaped. The abstract avatars of before are replaced with detailed bodies. Straight lines and polygonal shapes have been replaced with curves and fine details.
So we have a game that presents a form of feminine beauty that associates exposed, large breasts as beautiful. And we have a game that wants us, after many other battles, when we reach the last Fury, to stab the final boss of the game.
That leaves us with a game that literally provides us no good place to stab the game's final boss, no good place to do an action that, of course, should look unpleasant, because, hell, it's about killing. We probably should feel something when we pretend to kill. I just don't know if what we've got here is progress. Maybe? Maybe it's gender-balance. Maybe it's a step into a future when simulated violence against virtual men and women is equally nauseating. Maybe we are marching progressively into a moment when of course she could be chainsawable, because we live in a world where women now can serve in combat in the US armed forces.
Where, then, can we stab the game's final, sexy boss?
Spoilers for that end-boss battle... if you're willing to watch, then, ponder, if this is what progress looks like.