Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kratos and the Camera

My latest PopMatters post is up and it's about my old friend, Kratos.

Now that I think about it, this is the second PopMatters post in a row in which I tackle a "silly" game from a "serious" perspective. I didn't purposely line up my posts to be complementary, but I do think that both this recent post and the Vanquish piece have inadvertently revealed one of my core beliefs regarding media and criticism. Simply put: criticism of a cultural artifact should not be limited by said artifact's perceived social status. Rigid cultural hierarchies are stifling, but that's a post for another day.

I'm fully aware that the God of War games are in many ways big, dumb action games. I'm also well aware that they are not necessarily the epitome of the "character-action" genre, as fans of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden would remind me. All this being said, God of War is a series that has always done an excellent job of communicating its themes through its plot, aesthetics, and rules. Like the ancient Greek myths themselves, God of War is rife with copious amounts of violence and sex. But if you look carefully, you'll find that the series' fixation on violence is more than skin deep.

Countless thousands of words have been dedicated to games like BioShock, Braid, and Passage; games that "make you think." All of these games are excellent, and do merit reflection. However, thinking is an activity, one that can be performed in the context of any game, not just the ones with a capital "M" Message. True, God of War makes for some bombastic good times, but it also demonstrates a unique dedication to communicating the violence's utility and cyclical nature within the game's world. God of War's aesthetic, narrative, and ludic pieces fit together in such a way as to immerse the player in the Kratos' savage existence.

One of my pet peeves is people's use of the word "consume" in relation to the art they experience. The word carries terribly passive, disposable connotations: rather than considering, responding, contemplating, or enjoying something, you're just ingesting it with little thought as to what it contains. If you're dedicated to the gastric-intestinal metaphor, why not use the word "digesting?" At least it implies you're examining the component parts of a work and gaining something something nutritious in the process. With games like God of War, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of simply consuming media uncritically. Familiar themes and impressive graphics make it easy to engage at superficial level and move on without examining the entire package.

As a famous Greek once said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I argue that the same thing holds true for games. Blasting robots in slow motion in Vanquish or triggering the "Shit yeah!" audio cue in Gears of War offers frivolous moments of fun, but that does not preclude those games from being the subjects of deeper analysis.

Fortunately, you can have it both ways. Games like God of War offer the catharsis that comes from immediate action as well as long term intellectual stimulation. You just have to slow down and look for it.


  1. Its exactly this kind of taking pop culture seriously that gets us labelled as 'thinking too hard' or whatever other quips are thrown our way. Its a pain to negotiate with it sometimes, but I commend your efforts ;)

    Speaking of media consumption, if you aren't familiar with this, check it out. Especially point 6:

  2. Actually I've been meaning to ask you about your experience writing with PopMatters. I'm currently trying to sort out a few possible avenues for publication in less academic outlets, and thought of what you guys post on that site. Has it been a good experience? Worth the time it takes? Feel free to shoot me an email if you'd rather talk there than on here.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Adam. Embarrassingly enough, I haven't read much Barthes, but I suppose there's no time like the present. Thanks for the link!

    Look for an email from me about PopMatters stuff soon.

  4. Don't feel embarrassed on my account. I don't generally spend a lot of time reading older theory, but the stuff Barthes was thinking about seems to match up with videogames really well, even if I don't agree with it all 100%. I don't agree, for example, that an active reader 'kills' the author, but that there is a renegotiation of terms.

    The article in the link is pretty short, but I've referred to it multiple times over the last few months.