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Show, Tell and Use; Or: Why I’ll Eventually Get Around to Playing God of War At Some Point In the Near Future

I haven’t played God of War yet, but I know I should, and not just because it’s one of the most critically aclaimed games for the PS2. The fact that a major debate is running over the merits of its sequel, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the arguments of who wrote the better issues of Spider-Man (correct answer: sorry, Stan Lee, but Gerry Conway’s the one who realized the most interesting thing Gwen Stacy could do was die) whether George Lucas deserves more or less credit for Empire Strikes Back than Irvin Kershner (correct answer: I don’t care how much you dislike the prequels, but at least they’re not RoboCop 2) or whether Virgil’s Aeneid truly outshines Homer’s Iliad  & Odyssey (correct answer: Dante’s Comedy owns both their epic poetry spouting asses, bitches). It’s on that last example that I probably take the most amount of pause, though, because of what I’ve read in the past about God of War. Being a lifelong fan of Greco-Roman mythology (or, as we like to call ourselves, avid Ovid readers) I couldn’t help but notice something a bit amiss whenever I read about the game’s hero taking on the Hydra, Medusa or the Minotaur, to say nothing of Ares himself. Almost as immediately as my interest had been piqued, I swore off the game entirely, because in my book it had committed the most cardinal of sins, one for which there could be no forgiveness in even the most merciful reaches of my Roman Catholic heart, and one for which I would always rue the sound of its title and carry its legacy within my breast with a bleak and cloudy hatred:

They fucked with Greek mythology.

Now, it’s not the first time it’s been done, obviously. Adaptations of the Odyssey have come and gone, nominally staying faithful to the tenor of Homer’s poem while making alterations now and again. Largely I enjoyed the Armand Assante version done by Hallmark Television, but I always shook my head to think of how they had to straighten out its flashback driven in-medeas-res storyline (especially sad, seeing how popular Pulp Fiction’s narrative flip-flops were at the time). Every now and then somebody thinks it’s up to them to make a story about the Trojan War, the most recent example of which was the utter abomination which was Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, which pretty much ripped apart the Iliad of everything that made it the Iliad. It displays a complete lack of respect to the antiquity of classic myth to make such unthinkable changes as Agamemnon being killed by Briseis (he’s supposed to be killed by his wife, Klytemnestra, after he gets back from the fucking war in revenge for sacrificing their daughter in order to get Artemis’ premission to go to war in the first place), the length of the war shortened from years to seeming weeks (I guess Odysseus will get home in time for tea in their version, for sure) or the lack of any homoeroticism between Achilles and Patroclus (though somehow that found its way into the cinematic portrayal of Sam and Frodo and nobody complained). Finally, I don’t even have to mention the shit that’s been pulled with the story of Hercules (but I will anyway: which version’s less relevant to mythology, folks? The Disney flick or the Kevin Sorbo series?).

The point is that I care deeply about mythology (as anyone who’s read my “Labyrinth” proposal could probably tell) and don’t want to see it screwed around with. In that sense, I’m like somebody who refuses to see a movie based on a book I’ve read a thousand times. In this case it’s worse, however, because God of War isn’t based on any actual story from antiquity (unless you want to point out the chapter where Edith Hamilton talks about how the story of Kratos and the two topless chicks was found on some piece of pottery at Pompei), but is instead merely inspired by mythology. It reminded me too much of the games that have been made of The Godfather– who wants to play as an anonymous thug working for the Corleones when I can just pop Coppola’s movies in the DVD player and watch the likes of Brando and Pacino for myself? It wasn’t until only recently that I started considering giving God of War another chance, not because of the article we’ve been assigned to read, but because my movie viewing habits of late have been focusing on one rather unexpected series of films:

James Bond.

Yeah, it’s because of Casino Royale. I was happy to see a Bond flick that finally had something to do with the Ian Fleming books, again. Bond’s a character that’s been made iconic by the likes of such films as Goldfinger, Dr. No, Live and Let Die, etc., but largely most of the films haven’t had much to do with te original novels they’re based on. In the Roger Moore years, especially, it seemed as though they’d done little more than to borrow a book’s title and invent an almost completely new story for it. While I grew up thinking highly of Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of the character, I always thought it was sad that he never got to star in any movies that were actually based on one of the books or short stories. However, I decided to look at the first Brosnan Bond film (which also happens to be the first one directed by Casino Royale handler Martin Campbell), GoldenEye, and found it to be really remarkable in its own right, not because it tells a James Bond story, but because it in essense uses the James Bond story archetype to tell a new story of its own, putting an ironic, post-modern swing on the whole enterprise.

And that, my friends, is when I realized I ought to think twice about God of War.

Again, I haven’t played the game yet, but I’ve gotten used to the fact that just because it isn’t telling mythology doesn’t mean it can’t use Greek mythology in order to tell its own story. We always talk about story and narrative in terms of telling and showing, but hardly ever in using, which is particularly interesting because (allow me to make one of those grand sweeping statements about the state of the medium that I’m not entirely sure I agree with myself, people) using stories is exactly what games do in terms of communicating narrative, at least so far. Cut-scenes and background information in games isn’t using the interactive tools in order to convey its narrative– it’s using sets of pre-existing medias’ tools in order to do so. They turn story into a creative resource on the same level as any other. Save for moments in which games tell their tales themselves through action the player is made to do themselves, choices they’re presented with and situations they’re forced to face, games don’t show or tell stories in the same way other mediums do, properly. Using a story in a game is similar to using an anecdote in a movie, play or novel, to that extent, in that it is additive, rather than essential.

Could it be, then, that explicit storylines themselves are inherently ungamelike (at least until stuff besides running around and shooting is made interactive)? The most important story any game conveys is the narrative arc the player undergoes while experiencing it for themselves. Every gamer goes through their own sets of inciting action, climing actions, climaxes, resolutions and denouments– while their avatars’ stories can be no less compelling, aren’t ours the more essential to the fabric of the game itself? All that being said, while I do find the prospect of playing God of War far less morally suspect than I did in the past, when I do eventually fork over the 15 or 20 bucks it costs to buy it nowadays, I’ll still carry upon my person a hefty dose of hearty salt with which to take a grain or two when I sit down with the game, because no matter how well crafted an experience it is, no matter how loose restrictions are for the medium’s narrative methods and no matter how much we all my play at show, tell and use whenever we engage in rhetoric, it will always be guilty of that most unforgivable of curses, for which I will never remove this rule from the palace of my intelect:

Never, and I mean never, fuck with Greek mythology. At least not while I’m around…

4 Comments

  1. Charles wrote:

    The things is Bob, as a fellow lover of the Greeks, the fact that God of War messes with their mythology is something that never bothered me. This is because the idea of a canon, of sacred texts, is something that the Greeks themselves didn’t have much use for. David Jaffe and his team don’t fuck with mythology anymore than Homer, or Aeschylus, or Ovid did in their times. Because these stories were created in an oral tradition, their events and characters would change from telling to telling. The Illiad, though some person at some point who has come to be known has ‘Homer’ did sit and actually write it down, is at its core a hodge-podge of many different legends passed down from singer to singer. Trying to reconcile the Orestia of Aeschylus and Electra by Sophocles is impossible, even though they depict the same events.

    You have, however, struck on something that is very clever, and that is that games ‘use’ storied in a different way than other media. The at the center of the Ludology vs Narratology debate, and the subject of one of Charley’s earlier posts, is the idea that anything non-interactive does not belong in a game. As you point out, things like cut-scenes are things that games ‘use’, just as they would other elements such as sound or textures. While it is correct to say that while watching a cut-scene you are not playing the game, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong in the experience. What I would say is that while elements like these are ‘un-play-like’, or ‘illudic’ if you will, that doesn’t mean that they’re ‘un-game-like’. I think as designers we should be careful about limiting our options.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    That’s a good point about the maleability of Greek myths since their original times, but even so there was always a sense of some kind of continuity. What David Jaffe did isn’t strictly the same as Homer, Ovid and Virgil, etc. There’s a comparison to be made, no doubt, but reconciling Aeschylus and Sophocles is very different from reconciling the idea of Kratos killing Medusa, rather than Perseus. I’ll allow that I have a tendency to take things way too seriously at times, though in my own defense I’m not always sure whether or not I’m actually taking myself seriously or simply getting lost in what was originally supposed to be self-depricating humor. Frankly, I can’t always remember whether I’m being sarcastic or not, especially when it comes to mythology.

    As for “un-game-like” stories– I’m just concerned with how much we’re willing to make interactive in our narratives. It’s something I’m working on, of course, as it’s a problem game designers haven’t really cracked yet. I like the non-playable qualities of certain games, like Metal Gear’s cut-scenes, because they can lend a certain cinematic feeling in the same way that lighting and composition can lend a painterly quality to film (I’m thinking especially of how people likened “Passion of the Christ” to Carravagio, to talk about comparing small things to great). Still, games need to aim for the goal of making more of their narratives as playable as possible, if only because there’s a wealth of potential just waiting to be brought up if certain chances are taken.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  3. frank wrote:

    So, can someone explain the end of Casino Royale to me? Was Bond castrated or just made impotent?

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    Neither. Lake Como has excellent medical facilities.

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

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