God of War III: Empty Gods

ps3_godofwar3_gow3_box_artNote: This article is one of a series examining the God Of War game stories in detail:
God of War II and The Sisters Of Fate, Will Kratos Live Happily Ever After?, God Of War: What Were They Thinking?, and God of War III: Empty Gods.

Sony Santa Monica's God of War III is a graphical powerhouse, the combat flows well and feels very satisfying, and it elevates the brutality of the earlier chapters of the game with its high-definition levels of gore and dismemberment, but the story didn't rise up to match everything else the game offered. It's not that it didn't wow us with a rendition of what a fight against the very gods of Olympus would be like, because it did. It's that it forgot the real benefit and strength of setting these games in a world of Greek mythology in the first place.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead for all four God of War games.

Throughout the first God of War we learn the story of Kratos told primarily through flashbacks which, over time, show us exactly what Kratos is after and why. We come to care about Kratos and side with him in his quest for two reasons: first, because he was tricked into killing his family – even if he is partially to blame for being blinded by power and his thirst for glory – and second, because Ares was breaking the rules of Olympus by attacking cities favored by other gods. Ares' general style of fighting dirty also helps us side with Kratos. For example, after Kratos finds Pandora's Box Ares kills Kratos with a spear thrown from another city. During the final battle Ares berates Kratos, strips him of his powers, and makes him relive the attack on his family, generally trying to break Kratos' spirit. These are reasons to enjoy when and how Kratos exacts his revenge upon Ares.

God of War II is the story of Kratos determination to avenge his grisly death at Zeus' hands. Zeus pontificates on how he was correcting Athena's mistake by doing this, and remorselessly and ruthlessly puts Kratos down as he kills him and again, sends him to the Underworld. The player can't help but ask why the gods didn't just relieve Kratos of his torment, why did it come to this, and the game immediately opens up with interesting characters.

These characters have conflicted pasts and strong motivations in the story. Gaia feels guilt over raising Zeus, but feels the time of the gods is waning. Perseus, Daedalus, Theseus, and even the barbarian king who bore witness to Kratos pledging himself to Ares all make an appearance and try to stop Kratos so they can get satisfaction for their own individual areas of suffering. Euryale the gorgon wants revenge for Kratos killing the lesser gorgons, her children.

Zeus is a slightly better representation of the gods in God of War II not just in his opening diatribes against Kratos as he drives the Blade of Olympus into him, but also during the final battle. He spends a lot of the battle on foot with Kratos, makes mistakes, leaves himself open to attack (as must happen in any good boss battle) but in the end falls prey to trickery and emotion. When Zeus is surprised at Kratos' surrender, and seemingly a bit touched by it, he shrinks to human size to deliver the death blow. In the final scene where he dodges the Blade and instead allows Athena to die upon it, we see true cowardice. Zeus gets away, but we have learned more about him.

God of War III's chief problem is that we don't really have any new reasons to hate the gods that Kratos is killing. We needed reminders of why we are here – Kratos' rage and vengeance alone are not enough. Visually it's arresting, technically it can be spectacular, but almost every god killed was a wasted opportunity to make us hate the Olympians more and identify with Kratos, letting us back his dark and bloody conquest and its ultimate conclusion. They don't taunt him mercilessly, using their godly powers to get him angrier or upset. They don't play upon his guilt or fear. They don't make him doubt himself, or make him reconsider just what he thinks he's doing. They just stand up, give some basic hot air about how great the gods are, how he'll never win, and then duke it out with Kratos as best they can. As each of them dies in lock-step by Kratos hands we don't sense a growing anticipation or excitement. It has a feeling of inexorability.

Greek mythology survives in popular culture to this day because its stories are about how the gods are like humans. The gods are mean, vindictive, even vengeful – they are not above man the way the Olympians seem to be high up on their mountain in this game. They are down in the thick of things, raising trouble on earth, having children with mortals just because they can – these references to Zeus' philandering are one of the few ways we see this in God of War III.

The other gods in this game, however, are just stepping stones to Zeus. They failed to make us hate them, so their deaths mean a lot less, and are really lost opportunities to elevate the story. We do see glimmers of it in Hades' quick mention of revenge for Persephone's death and in Hercules' jealousy, and probably the most conflicted and therefore interesting portrait of a god and his inner turmoil and emotions came from Hephaestus, but his role ended rather abruptly for what looked like no good reason. Also, we got very little out of our times with Poseidon or Hermes.

Special mention does need to go to the impressive waste of potential that occurred by making Hera and Aphrodite throwaway characters. Kratos hadn't squared off against a female god since Persephone, if memory serves, and these two could have easily given some very interesting food for thought relative to their roles in Olympus, the losses of Persephone and Athena, even commentary on Kratos killing of the Sisters of Fate. Two whole female gods perspectives are basically lost, with only Aphrodite chiming in with a stereotypical “you men and your wars” comment.

Throughout the series the games were most engaging and Kratos was at his best from a dialogue and combat standpoint when the gods were at their worst. I'm hopeful the God of War: Ghost of Sparta chapter on PSP will have more emotional strength to it than this last chapter did, and given how much surrounding material they have to play with and call back (and forward) to, I think a better story in the next game is much more likely.