Why God Of War Is A Better Family Drama Than Any Oscar Movie

God of War is about a Greek demigod who slaughtered his entire pantheon in a blur of rage and revenge – sort of like Kill Bill, but bloodier.  But that’s in the past – now he’s settled down with his son, grieving because his wife has died, and he has to take his kid, who he barely knows, to the top of the mountain to scatter her ashes.

Oh, and he has to kill about a thousand people on the way.  You don’t get anywhere in videogames without slaughtering people.  It’s like Chinese kung-fu films where you can’t get a tuna at the market without exchanging a flurry of blows with the fishmonger; the violence is built-in.

Which is weird, because the game is violent and ridiculous and over-the-top, complete with quicktime events where you literally rip someone’s shoulder off and stomp their face into jelly.  But the story….

The story is deep and affecting, because you have this man who only speaks in violence.  He’s old, wrinkled, scarred.  Words are unfamiliar territory for him – and though most of what he says involves telling his young son not to ask questions, when he speaks it is with a slow pause, like some rusty engine starting up slowly, because he has not mastered the art of translating emotions into words.

He’d left all of that skill to the mother, who is now dead.  And the son respects his father, but also fears him, and does not understand him, and there’s this complex dance between them as the son tries to be a man but knows instinctively that he does not want to be this man – but he won’t get his father’s approval unless he becomes his father.

Which is, ironically, the last thing the father wants – but he can’t see how his efforts not to speak of his bloody past are grooming his son to become another brutal killer.

This is, in its own way, more affecting than any Oscar family drama.  And I don’t say that as someone who disdains Oscar family dramas; for the last twenty years my wife and I have watched every one of the Best Picture nominees as a winter ritual, and Moonlight remains a brilliant, affecting film.

But God of War has an advantage that Oscar movies do not: it is a videogame.

It takes advantage of the medium brilliantly.

Films, by their nature, are handicapped because they cannot be boring for too long or they lose most of their audience.  So they have to compress humanity down into beats and scenes, because all a film has is dialogue and actors to keep your attention. Every scene has to be interesting, even if it’s slow, and most of them have to advance the plot.

So one scene becomes the stand-in for a lot of repetitious scenes.  We open on a kid eating cereal in a shitty-looking apartment, making himself breakfast and getting himself ready for school, and the camera pans to the mom passed out drunk on the couch and we go, Oh, this is how the kid wakes up every morning.  And if he goes to school, and bullies shove him around, we go Oh, this is what a typical day at school for him is like.

But movies don’t deal well in typical.  If the entire story was the kid showing up at school on Monday and getting bullied, and showing up on Tuesday and getting bullied, and showing up on Wednesday and getting bullied, and showing up on Thursday and getting bullied, and admit it you’re already skimming this sentence because you know Friday’s coming, he’s getting bullied, when’s the change?

Films and novels consist of interesting moments, and if those moments are repetitive, we lose the momentum.

To compensate, films have gotten very good at showing you the one scene to show you what the baseline is like, before moving on to the next scene where they show you something different.

But what they’re not good at is that real-life sense of tedium.  That repetitious sense of waking up for the seventh day in a row to find that your mom is still passed out on the couch, and you’ve had this same conversation with her about needing to drink less a thousand times, with all the variations, and there’s no forward movement because that’s who she is and she can’t be anything but that, but you still have to have the conversation again anyway.

You know what makes videogames interesting, though?

They’re more than just story.

As noted, videogames can be interesting when they’re not telling stories, because they can disperse the story across puzzles and battles.  In God of War, yes, I’m talking to my kid – but to get up the mountain I also have to slaughter these draugr who want to kill us, and then I have to row the boat across the lake to get the gatebreaker chisel, and then I have to figure out how to get through the door to the next challenge.

And in between, Kratos and Atreus talk.

And the talks are pretty much the same.  Atreus, the kid, wants to know what’s going on – he’s ten, he’s curious, he’s hopeful.  Kratos, the dad, fears all of this curiosity will get him killed, quiet down, focus on battle.

Which means there is a staticness to those conversations that, emotionally speaking, you experience in real time while movies have to short-hand.

I’ve spent twenty, maybe thirty hours with Kratos and Atreus.  And there’s been some progress – but honestly, I want to shake Kratos because I get Atreus’ frustration with his dad first-hand.  I’ve seen that wall of manly bravado keeping his son at a distance when all Kratos wants is emotional connection, and I’ve watched him do it for long after it’s become apparent to everyone that it’s not working, and it’s monotonous and sad and dysfunctional but because – like real life – there’s other shit to do, it’s not the whole of who they are.

This bad relationship of theirs is a background noise in a very real and visceral sense.  In most movies, that relationship would have to be front and center because you only have two hours, you have to have movement.  But in thirty hours of game, there’s probably been two hours just of repetitive emotional beats grinding in just how relentlessly not working their dynamic is, and yet that repetition is not boring because in between them I’m also smashing trolls.

Which isn’t to say that movies can’t gain an emotional beat from repetition.  Of course they can, and do, and cinemaphiles will point out movies that accomplish it.

But what I am saying is that the emotional effect of the game is deeper because you spend more time with it.  Because when Kratos finally does start to change, even if that change is a finger-sized crack in a glacier-sized mound of machismo, it has a profound impact because you’ve spent almost four days of work shifts in close shoulder-to-shoulder proximity with this dude and after this much time you weren’t sure he could change.

(Even if you knew that, like movies, the plot would of course depend on him changing.  It’s never about what’s inevitable in stories, it’s how you feel when those moments arrive.)

Roger Ebert infamously said that videogames couldn’t be art, but movies aren’t books and videogames aren’t movies.  Movies are good because they find strengths that books don’t have, and vice versa. And one of the strengths that videogames have that movies don’t is that the appeal of videogames is only partially in the story.  Which means that a clever writer can drag out the question of “Will they or won’t they?” to an absurd extent that would be an Andy Warhol-style grind in cinema, and yet have it work emotionally.

In that sense, videogames can mirror life.  Because life isn’t just interesting emotional beats.  You gotta go to work, you gotta run errands, you gotta grind.  If all you had to focus on was evolving your relationships, maybe you’d get better at it, but there’s always something else to do that distracts.

The “game” part of videogames, in God of War, is that something else that distracts.  Kratos and Atreus aren’t connecting because they have war to distract them. Their endless incompatibility isn’t coming to a head because the grind of levelling up calls them – maybe they’d fight, but honestly, they’ve got a greater task.

Which means when they start to connect, it’s powerful.  It’s art in a way that Ebert couldn’t conceive of because he couldn’t connect with the game portion.  But if you can, there’s a drama here that’s revelatory in its own way, and it is stellar, and I recommend it if only to show you what games can do when they’re taken off the leash of trying to be merely cinematic.

 

 

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