Midway through God of War III, the buff and surly protagonist Kratos is scaling along the outside face of a building when he happens upon a man. He's perched precariously next to a window, crying out for help. Saying nothing more than a grunt, Kratos bashes his head against the wall and pitches him off the ledge.
A remastered edition of God of War III comes out this week for the PlayStation 4, five years after its original release on the PS3. Except for a touch of extra polish, the new release is identical to the old one. There aren't any new game modes or extra features that come along with it other than some visual touch-ups that add increased resolution and a smoother framerate. That's not a bad thing, because God of War III was already a great game when it first came out. It still looks incredible -- even better than before, though only by a very slight margin. And God of War's combo-heavy combat is as weighty and satisfying as it ever was. But compared to wide-ranging, open-world games like The Witcher III and Batman: Arkham Knight that it now competes for attention with on my PlayStation 4, God of War III seems tiny in comparison. Claustrophobic, even.
That's not a knock against God of War III. Because, really, the way it makes you feel trapped as a player is the true genius of this game. In a physical sense, playing through the single-player campaign is claustrophobic because its levels are far more tightly-framed and self-contained than the missions in, say, The Witcher or Arkham Knight. But there's another way the game makes you feel trapped. It forces you to do increasingly disturbing things without ever giving you the option to choose a different path. Like that scene where you throw a man off a ledge:
Did Kratos have to do that? You might find yourself wondering as you watch him hurl a helpless and, for all you know, innocent bystander to his certain death. Probably not, no. But it's not like the game gave you much choice in the matter. He's standing in your way, and the only way you're allowed to interact with the man is by pressing the circle button. A large icon for the PlayStation controller button appears above his head when you get close enough to him. In other games, the symbol might genuinely mean "interact with." But over the course of three games in the series, God of War has taught its players that pressing the circle button means one thing, and one thing only: it's the way that you initiate one of Kratos's brutal execution moves. You know, stuff like this:
God of War III is a series of increasingly fraught and violent moments like the one that ends with you throwing a man to his death. No matter the obstacle you're faced with, no matter the enemy who stands in your way, you can always press circle to make Kratos punch its face in. And while indulging in his standard recourse might have been fun, even liberating in the first two God of War games, it's begun to feel claustrophobic by the third act. Like you'd want to do something, anything other than continue to wreak havoc on whatever and whomever stands before you. But you lack the means to do anything more peaceful.
Despite the epic scale of its mythical backdrops like Hades and Mount Olympus, individual levels in God of War III aren't actually very big. There are corridors to walk up and down, and occasional open areas to give you some more breathing room to fight in. But even the most visually-breathtaking levels don't offer you much in the way of free-ranging movement. Climbing up and down the body of a titan in one spectacular sequence, the game still ends up depositing you in a series of restrictive passages and then tells you to solve some objective before you can advance to the next small corridor to repeat the process anew. The unique genius of God of War III is how it uses this type of repetitive stop-and-start gameplay to tell a uniquely personal and unsettling story about its main protagonist.
When God of War began on the PlayStation 2, Kratos was actually a pretty sympathetic guy. In the original God of War, he pledged his life in service to the gods of Olympus to atone for murdering his family. The only reason Kratos killed his wife and child was because Ares, the original god of war, had tricked him into doing so by whipping him into a blind frenzy during battle. Even killing Ares was an act of revenge -- something we as the audience could understand, even empathise with.
WARNING: I start spoiling parts of God of War III's story at this point. Stop reading if you haven't played yet and don't want to find out what happens!
What is left to motivate Kratos to keep killing after not one, but two games where he tears every conceivable icon from Greco-Roman mythology limb from limb? God of War III makes comically ridiculous attempts to justify its protagonist's endless hunger for violence. The game begins with Kratos ascending Mount Olympus on the back of Gaia, the earth-mother cast down by Zeus and the new regime of gods. He says that he's out for revenge. But revenge for what, exactly? Looking back at God of War II, the main offence Zeus committed was trying to stop Kratos (at that point the bonafide god of war himself) from waging a war with his old Spartan buddies -- killing him and stripping the guy of his godly powers in the process.
Is trying to keep the peace, and doing so forcefully, really a punishable offence for the king of the gods to commit? No, of course not. That's his friggin' job! But Kratos doesn't care. The reason he kept fighting in God of War II and why he tried to help the Spartans wage war in the first place was because he was still haunted by the memory of murdering his family. In his view, Zeus slighted him by denying him the pleasure of once again trying to satiate his infinite bloodlust. Killing more people isn't just to distract himself from his torment; it's the only thing Kratos knows how to do.
Despite being such a bombastic game, I've always found God of War's story surprisingly moving for the way it looks so unflinchingly at human weaknesses. The narrative attempts to keep giving Kratos new reasons to pick up his trademark twin blades might seem silly. But if you look at them from the right angle, they reveal a tragic aspect of the game's central character. After accomplishing his one understandable goal (revenge) in the first game, Kratos can't just change his ways and become a normal guy again even if he wanted to. That's not how suffering from post-traumatic stress works. He's still trapped by his own pain, his own psyche, his palpable self-loathing.
I wish that Sony had redone the first two God of Wars to go alone with this HD Remaster, because Kratos' character arc only really shines through when you get to experience his original journey. By the beginning of the third game, he's transformed into the villain. The game tries to deny this by introducing you to Pandora, a small girl that, unlike every other character in the game, you actually have to keep alive. She talks of hope, saying it's the one thing that sustains you when all else is gone.
It's a touching sentiment, one that God of War III does its best to reaffirm at the end of the game in what is a major story reveal moment. "Hope" is actually a magical force that Kratos unleashed when opening pandora's box -- first to give himself the power to kill a god, then to impart upon the human race to help liberate them from the gods who rule over them. But it's hard to take the game's positive messages seriously, coming as they are after hours of Kratos brutalizing each and every Olympian God in turn. He gouges out Poseidon's eyes:
...tears off Helios's head:
...severs Hermes' legs from his body:
...and finally punches Zeus in the face until all that's left is a mess of blood and scrambled tissue.
Does it feel triumphant to do something like cut off Hermes's legs -- to chase down a man bleeding and begging for his life?
Plenty of games let you play as a bad guy. God of War III did something far more bold: it let you embody someone who's doing contemptible things, leaving it up to you to decide if that makes him a contemptible person. Playing as Kratos started to feel uncomfortable. That's the whole point. It's supposed to offend you, leave you feeling like someone imprisoned by a set of dark compulsions. There's a reason why the game's boss fights all seem to end with one Olympian god or another cowering in fear of Kratos:
You're the thing to be feared now, the one before which everyone trembles.
What's incredible about the interactive executions in God of War III isn't their sheer gratuity -- though that's certainly impressive. It's the fact that Kratos continues to mete out these punishments even as it becomes more and more clear that he's literally tearing the universe apart while doing so. Killing Poseidon, for instance, causes the world's oceans to rise up and flood the entire globe. Decapitating Helios, meanwhile, blocks out the sun, casting the world into permanent darkness:
And yet he doesn't stop. He can't stop, it seems. And neither can you. The gods he kills keep reminding him that he's only hurting himself and the rest of humanity by disrupting the natural order of things. But he's far too self destructive to listen.
When you best Zeus in the final boss fight, there isn't any room for diplomacy. No way to demand he kneel before you and surrender, even if Kratos wanted to show his merciful side. All there is is another circle button to be pressed:
God of War III makes a brilliantly subtle shift in how its controls work in this memorable final sequence. After teaching you over the course of three games that all you need to do is press a series of buttons in the right order to kill something, God of War suddenly poses a disturbingly dumbed-down version of its own killing mini-games. It prompts you to press circle to punch Zeus:
...and keep pressing circle to keep punching, even as your vision clouds up with blood:
The game never tells you to stop. Instead, it takes a step back and allows you to continue following its orders. Just to see if the game really meant it, I tried to see how long I could keep button-mashing Zeus's face this time. I clocked in at more than five minutes:
That's more than five minutes of staring at a blank red screen, hearing only the weighty wet slaps of my fists' impact and Kratos's occasional grunts.
So many self-styled subversive or self-aware games beat players over the head with the message that they're bad -- explicitly reminding you, like BioShock or Spec Ops: The Line do, that you're not always performing noble deeds. God of War III does something far more profound. It waits until its very last second to test you, to see how long you can take listening to Kratos in his violent, orgiastic glee before it officially grosses you out. Because you're not only listening and watching. You're the one inflicting so much senseless pain.
And then, once you've had enough, Kratos impales himself with his own sword:
God of War III tells you that in doing this, Kratos is releasing the magical "hope" power and bestowing it upon mankind...making him akin to a super-aggressive version of Prometheus, only with feelings instead of fire. But who is even left to receive this hope? Kratos looks out over the world and says that everything is in ruins. It's almost as if he kills himself simply because there's literally nobody else to kill.
It's upsetting to play through the experience of someone with such a darkly obsessive world view. But that's what I love about God of War III. After indulging its audience's taste for over-the-top violence for the first two games in the series, the third one turns the camera around to focus on Kratos himself and show us, in detail, just what he's been reduced to. He's not a man anymore, not a fully-fledged character. He's bilious rage incarnate, "the physical equivalent of a scream," to quote the poet David Wojnarowicz. I've never played another game that had the courage to look so nakedly at the consequences of all its violence.
It's amazing to see a game born and bred on ultra-violence have the guts to try and push its seasoned players beyond their comfort zone, to see just how much of this gratuity they're willing and able to take. Despite the endless speculation about the future of God of War, and the anticipation for how incredible such a game would look and feel on the PlayStation 4, I almost wish the series could have just ended there -- with Kratos finally feeling like he's run out of things to kill.