Disclaimer: It is difficult to convey God of War's importance to me without writing about key elements of the story. If you have not played or finished the game, and you're concerned about spoilers, please do not read this piece.
Seriously, the first paragraph is about the end of the game.
I have provided you with ample warning.
Please do not make this awkward for both of us.
Kratos stands atop the highest peak of the nine realms, his weary eyes scanning the vast horizon, a beautiful valley rendered bleak by the corpses of giants strewn about. Though his hands—crevices etched deep into his skin, weathered by the foul misdeeds carried out over a millennia—have brought death to thousands throughout his existence, in this moment he will use them to put to rest a person whose death was not his responsibility.
The boy standing beside Kratos unties the pouch his father gave him. He holds it out to Kratos. "Father?" he says.
Kratos looks to the boy. A pause. "No," he says. "We do it together." He places his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "Son."
The boy reaches into the pouch, pulls out a handful of his mother's ashes. Kratos reaches in and pulls out a handful of his wife's. The two open their hands and let the wind carry her home.
As I watch, tears coalesce in my eyes, and I am rendered incapable of speaking by the lump that has formed in my throat.
This is the moment where I realize God of War has done something truly astounding.
I've been playing video games for 30 years. Growing up, games would light a spark within my imagination that was impossible to extinguish. I'd lose myself to them, enveloped in their worlds. Whether I'd become a space pirate in Freelancer, or a gnome with a thirst for adventure in Everquest, or a demigod in Morrowind, games fed my desire to escape my own reality and lose myself in another.
But in the last third of my life, I've noticed a distinct shift in how I perceive them. They're no longer portals into other worlds, but mere distractions from the real one. Perhaps it's an age thing. Maybe decades of experience have shifted my perspective in subtle-yet-substantial ways. Maybe my imagination doesn't fire quite like it used to. Maybe routinely inundating myself with video game stimuli over the years has exposed me to the reality that I am staring at carefully crafted systems, art shaped to the specifications of my machine to provide an optimal experience, gameplay loops refined and refined and refined to ensure their longevity. All of this the result of millions of lines of code, written by people who need paychecks, commissioned by large companies who want money. My money.
Holy fuck, is that a cynical take, but there's some truth to it. Don't get me wrong, games are still my primary form of entertainment. They fulfill a need within me I cannot satisfy with any other medium. I love them. But instead of taking each new game at face value, I now compare them to all of those I've previously experienced. Mirror's Edge Catalyst combines the exhilarating experience of free-running on the rooftops of a sprawling metropolis from Mirror's Edge with the open-world activity grind we've become used to in games like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry or The Division or, okay, basically anything Ubisoft puts out nowadays. Bloodborne is Dark Souls with quicker, more aggressive combat, infused with the shitty poetry I wrote as a teen. Red Dead Redemption is like Grand Theft Auto meets having your kneecaps shattered and now you have to just crawl everywhere.
Games almost never instill a sense of wonder and excitement in me anymore. Instead, I look for what will give me my fix. I know the genres to fall back on. I know what clues to look for early in their development cycles as I read the previews. I know which developers to trust, and which ones will have to earn my trust. I'm not necessarily looking for the new experience. I'm looking for the best experience. I don't have the time for anything else. Video games are a commodity. I grind them down and move on once they're of no use to me. I'm at a point in my life where games do not surprise me anymore.
God of War surprised me.
It's not the perfectly honed combat that surprised me. It's marvelous, yes, the way you hack away at draugr with a satisfying kathunk, thwock, crunch of your axe. It's delightful, the way it feels to throw the axe and embed its blade into the chest of a distant foe, only to telekinetically rip it from their body and watch it return to your open hand like motherfucking Thor. It's magnificent, even, how the combat begins to feel like a dance. Seamlessly switching between abilities, dodging incoming attacks, and wielding different weapons to take down a single ornery Valkyrie is exhilarating. It’s combat that nearly holds its own against the likes of Bloodborne and Dark Souls. Christ, it's just wonderful and worth playing the game on the merits of the game part alone. As a refinement on the games that preceded it, it's nearing the pinnacle of achievement.
It's not the beauty of the game that surprised me either. There's no denying God of War is stunning to see in action. It never once fails to impress. Animations, lighting, characters, environment. It is a finely crafted piece of pure art in its entirety. Hands-down, easily one of the best looking games of this generation. It captures an incredible sense of wonder and immense scale by keeping your perspective so close to Kratos, and using carefully planned moments to shift that perspective to help you take in the full environment around you. A fantasy world that is wholly engrossing, beautiful, and imaginative. It's a technical achievement that we'll use as a benchmark for the foreseeable future.
None of those things surprised me. I could see all of it in the previews leading up to its release. The care and polish was palpable. There was no question in my mind that it would meet my expectations. I expected to slash and smash enemies in a satisfying display of vigor and violence. I expected to find myself hooked by loot lust, greedily hoarding every last item I could find to reach my character's full potential. I expected to marvel at a constant barrage of visual treats. I expected a good video game.
I never expected to be completely, utterly engrossed in the journey of Kratos and Atreus, swept up in emotional whirlwind which would linger long after I completed it.
Yes, what truly surprised me about God of War was that I actually gave a shit about its story.
Quick aside: there's a full piece swimming around my head about just how much I dislike video game stories. They are, with exceptions few and far between, mostly terrible. Not just bad stories, but bad stories, badly told. This is not the time to dive into that, but it's worth establishing for context. A game's story capturing my attention is a feat unto itself.
And God of War represents the oddity of the video game world: a good story, good...ly-told.
It's a story fully aware of itself, its history, its missteps. It recognizes the immaturity of Kratos' past as a relentlessly violent, vengeful bastard fueled by bloodlust, and it sets out not to rewrite history, not to atone for it, but to grow from it. This is the product of a team of people who themselves recognize their own growth and maturity and who've infused that into the story they've created.
The connection between Kratos and Atreus drips with authenticity. That this is true in a game where you fell dragons, are swallowed by a giant serpent, and tear the world asunder in the midst of a bloody brawl between literal gods, is incredible. And it's accomplished by deeply rooting the relationship of father and son in humanity. The world, the creatures, the plight of the immortal. All of that is grand and fantastical. The connection between a man trying his best to instill goodness into his son while shielding him from his worst sensibilities, and the son trying to prove himself to his father only to be continuously met with indifference—that's human.
And the game is built in service of that story, rooting your own perspective impossibly close to those of the two main characters. The way the camera follows them the entire time and never strays too far from them, an epic, sweeping single take that feels flawless and magical and immersive. The way the quiet moments in between epic battles is filled with banter that expands upon their personalities. The way you start to see a stubborn man's selfishness slowly chip away to reveal his true self underneath. The way you see a boy learn what it means to use great talent responsibly and earn the respect of his teacher. The way you see the bond between father and son immeasurably deepen. That's where the video game façade of God of War dissipates and reveals itself as something far more special. A tale of overcoming the grief of your past, your present, and building the strength to take on the future. Not a future alone, but one intertwined with the strength of your loved ones.
God of War fully immersed me in a story that felt relatable.
I do not have children, nor do I have any desire to have them. But I do know what it feels like to have a broken relationship with your father that feels impossible to mend.
I do know how it feels to give it your all and for your success to serve as a reminder of how much further you still have to go.
I do know how it feels to desperately try and impress people and finally get the recognition your heart has longed for.
There are multiple moments where my heart leapt in anticipation of Kratos putting his hand on his son's shoulder, only for him to pull away at the last minute, denying his son the comfort he sought in the wake of his mother's death. These subtle gestures—a father's inability to find the strength in himself to be vulnerable, the thick carapace of shame and masculinity rendering him emotionally absent—are heartbreaking.
And the game thrusts you into hours upon hours of slowly, arduously watching the veil of prideful grime wash away, until you're finally presented with the purity of their relationship. Father and son learning, growing from each other. Recognizing their common connection, standing on top of a mountain, watching the ashes of the woman they loved drift off into the heavens. The things that drove them apart for so long now bind them.
And the man, with a single, simple gesture–placing his hand on his son's shoulder–fills my heart.
I've waited my entire life to experience what God of War gave me: a true, emotional connection to the characters I was playing.
God of War is the best game of 2018. Full stop. No explanation needed.
God of War is also easily one of the best experiences I have ever had with a video game. One that I will never forget. One that I will spend the next thirty years hoping to see again.
But even if that dream is never realized, this journey alone was worth it.