Dispatches, Epilogue; Or: The Captains and the Kings Depart

Now that I’ve given myself some time, I’ve been able to more or less collect my thoughts on God of War so that I can reassemble them into a much more appetizing appraisal of the game. While I was in the midst of writing these pieces, originally, the feedback I’d gotten was valuable, but everybody seemed to believe I was genuinely disliking the game as a whole. Perhaps my style of criticism tends to focus on the negative aspects of the game, but by no means do I believe its faults outweigh what it has going towards its favor. GoW is a good game, probably a great game, and quite possibly the best expression of what this particular genre of beat-em-up action-adventure titles has to offer in the 3D era. It is not, however, the absolute masterpiece that many of its supporters have made it out to be, especially when it comes to certain key elements of storytelling. Narratively, Jaffe’s work is both appropriate and appaling, while mechanically it is both infuriating and inspiring. Just like any of my favorite games, films, books or deities for that matter, God of War is full of contradictions, and its in those moments where the game is in conflict with itself that it shines brightest, often. However, it’s important to note that there’s something far more dangerous and dissapointing that a creator can stoop to, and unfortunately it is that condition which defines pretty much all of GoW’s most grevious drawbacks.

The problem with God of War isn’t the contradictions– it’s the compromises.

Now, compromises are all a part of the creative process, naturally. Based either on availability of materials, the personalities of those involved in the collaboration or the demands set by those in charge of distribution and their own audiences, artists have always had to contend with negotiating their visions with the realities of others. In the realm of games, compromise most commonly tends to areas of gameplay and aesthetic which are either tailored to make a title more evenly fit into the mainstream, or to make things easier for gamers, and oftentimes these mandates are one and the same.

Kojima, for example, makes a lot of compromises by presenting the majority of his stories through non-interactive cinematics. Since there doesn’t yet exist a cohesive way to make dialogue part of the gameplay itself (at least not until the fruition of my brilliant master plan which is bound to revolutionize the medium, guarantee me success as a universally recognized genius and make me a multi-millionaire), cut-scenes like these are more or less the only way that a designer can tell an elaborate storyline without having to invent draconian new methods of mechanics which would by their very complicated nature demand limited and restrained storytelling practices in order to properly educate players on how to use them. Likewise, Ueda made several aesthetic condescensions from the strictly minimalist Ico when stepping up to the more populist Shadow of the Colossus, inserting HUD, a brief tutorial section and gameplay clues where there once were none. Many of these elements might have been unnecessary and detrimental to the game’s overall cohesive elegance, but they proved effective in the end at the task of bringing in a more mainstream audience of both players and critics, prompting Ueda and the rest of TeamIco to receive the accolades they so richly deserve.

Jaffe, on the other hand, is different. While he makes aesthetic compromises left and right, his game’s basic qualities are already so definitively mainstream that they aren’t really worth mentioning– would you really expect a beat-em-up like this to be told without HUD, fully rendered cut-scenes and the like? No, the more pressing matter in his case are the mechanical compromises he makes, as the choices he makes in them and the sets of assumptions they stand for show that while, as an artist, he possesses a vast array of finely honed tools in understanding the content of his medium, he still has much to gain in the way of maturity if he is to fully appreciate the context his games occupy, as well.

As everyone probably remembers, my biggest complaints with the game came from two things– the lack of proper design for much of the game’s non-combat puzzles and the frequency of flow-breaking interruption instructions. The former is a problem which effects only certain areas of the game, creating headaches out of what ought to have been very simple tasks by clumsy arrangements of physical elements in the environment. Jumps are often too long for a player to make without pinpoint accuracy, a task made difficult by a camera system which usually goes out of its way to pick the most photogenic view of the scene, rather than one which might communicate more information to the player. Block puzzles, while simple enough, are far too often placed in between heart-pounding action sequences, bringing the game’s spellbinding pace from an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride to a snail’s crawl of unengaging busywork. Scavenger hunts, while mechanically sound, frequently fail to register at times due to the lack of proper set-up of their elements.

While many, if not most, of the areas compounded by these faults are redeemed by stunning set-pieces which validate the long amounts of tedium which go into producing them, the very fact that such inefficiently crafted mechanics remain in such an otherwise finely honed game remains inexcusable. To a certain extent, it feels as though Jaffe were performing longterm design with his eye a bit too far onto the horizon– while the effects he creates are astounding, the causes which go into making them happen usually aren’t too thrilling. His concentration lay in the moments that would be built up by long hours of gameplay, yet the gameplay itself isn’t always given the proper amount of attention. Pandora’s Temple presents both the best and worst symptoms of this crisis– time and again, he presents methods of how to solve sets of problems before they arise, thus making the action of practicing the techniques one uses tricky at best. Oftentimes, this kind of procedural design pays off well– showing us the key before showing us the door is a very nice inversion of the status quo of dungeon lay-outs, and does a good job of highlighting the degree to which foreshadowing is involved in such game construction. The best examples of these moments occur either when Jaffe tests already perfected gaming tropes such as the scavenger hunt or the block puzzle, with correct timing as to the game’s overall structure– as long as he bookends all his thinking traps together, the game doesn’t suffer. Unfortunately, what usually happens is he’ll add far too many skirmishes and mini-bosses along the way, fearing that players will grow tired and bored of solving puzzles when what they want to do is fight. Instead, the opposite occurs, and the rhythm they produce is halting, stilted and repetitive– by allowing too many fast-paced fights to go between slow-paced puzzles, the contrasting styles of gameplay cancel out much of the effect they might’ve had on one another without the competing flavors.

Jaffe might’ve done well to look more closely at the example of Ico, title that GoW otherwise imitates admirably in its winding, interrelated knot-work of paths. Ueda’s game succeeds at being dominated by puzzles because of how few and far between its combat situations are– quick-witted fights punctuate the series slow, thoughtful procedural design in their rarity, rather than percussively droning it out by constantly chiming in at the wrong time. If, on the other hand, Jaffe wanted balance, he could’ve followed the example Miyamoto set in the Legend of Zelda series, which properly weighs and counter-weighs fits of combat and puzzle-solving together, so that everything occupies the same amount of time at different parts. In terms of music, Ueda is a jazz musician, content to play unassumingly for a while in order to save his flourishes for the climax moments, while Miyamoto is a more traditional pop-composer, orchestrating all avenues of tone, note and pitch into swelling harmonies in which nothing in particular ever stands out in order to make everything stand together.

The effect Jaffe produces, however, is one based on dissonance, and feels more like abstract, experimental songs, though that’s probably not what he intended. Jaffe’s style is to stitch together different sets of equally stimulating challenges so that the player is always engaged in truly taxing problems. Kojima probably does this best, and the reason is his different sets of gameplay tend to be linked themselves, and interrelated based on their very foundations– the suspense of hiding goes hand-in-hand with the panic of getting caught and the thrill of escape, cyclically leading back to hiding once again. Jaffe’s different gameplay have no such interrelation– while he repeats the same loop over and over again of fighting for long stretches, followed by banging your head against the wall to find your way out of a room. The effect it produces isn’t so much of driving in circles as it is of finding one’s self stuck in a traffic jam, inching up every so often only to put on the brakes at the change of a light, leading the player with no other recourse but to honk the horn in protest until the congestion clears again.

In the end, this is also what the Interruption Instructions produce. What’s so infuriating is that despite how self-explanatory the gameplay’s systems are–button icons float above characters and areas that trigger special functions and button-press mini-games– Jaffe seems to think that players need to be told exactly what they’re doing, and how to do it. Most of the time this counts as a mere annoyance, as the instructions tell the player they’re about to perform such tasks as kill-functions and door-openings they could already tell they were going to do. Sometimes, however, they kill the moments of surprise seemingly built into the gameplay by spoiling actions the player couldn’t have predicted their button-presses would amount to, but would have performed anyway just to see what would’ve happened. In the end, the interruptions deny the player the satisfaction of their curiosity and barricade the flow of the game’s mechanics itself.

Jaffe ought to know better than this, but in a sense, it’s happening because of how streamlined he wants his project to be, paving his road to Hades with nothing but the best of intentions. Basically, he’s built a great highway and a set of stop-lights which ought to work well as outlets with which to vent violent impulses along the way, but the amount of ideas and objectives he pushes into it clogs the momentum which ought to be maintained, in different forms of combat and puzzle-solving– the quick-thinking Lizard-brain and the slow, thoughtful Ape-brain– throughout the entire piece. All the loud notes are competing for attention, and the next time around I hope Jaffe’s learned to control his instincts a little bit, restraining himself enough so that we can really listen to what he has to say, instead of merely hearing it.

Now, aside from this business about whether or not GoW is trying too hard to make things easy for its players, there’s one specific moment where I’ve said that designers weren’t trying hard enough to play with their emotions, and that’s the Soldier Sacrifice scene. Stephen and N’Gai cited it as a game moment designed to make the player feel guilty. I said that was rubbish, and called it nothing but a bloody block puzzle that aimed more at letting the player feel badass, promoting them to look at the soldier with contempt rather than pity. Charles raised the interesting point that just because the moment isn’t trying to make us feel what the character feels doesn’t mean it can’t be trying to make us feel guilty– creating a difference of morality between the player and Kratos can allow the audience to view the protagonist more objectively than if they’d merely accepted him as their ad-hoc avatar.

I must admit that’s an intriguing idea, but I still believe the sequence tries harder at letting players tap into the cynical anti-hero experience from their own perspective than view their cynical anti-hero with a detached point-of-view, for no other reason than the Soldier Sacrifice is designed to be fun— no matter how much I might complain about the motives, merits and modus operandi of what it means to kill the caged soldier, it still amounts to a fairly satisfying mechanical moment, at least on a superficial level. Certainly it’s more satisfying than the “guilt” moment in MGS3, wherein the Boss’ dying cut-scene breaks out of its cinematic letter-box to inform the player they must press the action button to pull the trigger and assassinate Snake’s mentor once and for all, on the grounds that there’s very little to do in the scene from Snake Eater. Charles is mostly right in calling that moment what it is– it’s a button-press, and mechanically nothing more. I’m not about to let Jaffe off the hook too easily by suggesting that the extra busy-work of the Soldier Sacrifice makes it any more engaging– if MGS3 says to players “Here, press this button,” all GoW says is “Here, drag this box and pull this lever,” which isn’t much better. Still, the more complicated set of interactions builds a prolonged process, and if the outcome isn’t by any means surprising or emotionally challenging in and of itself, at least its inevitable arrival makes for a fine pay-off. If there’s one thing Jaffe does absolutely well, it’s putting on a good show of fireworks– the way up might be long, hard and boring, but damned if it isn’t worth the price of admission as soon as something big, loud and colorful explodes.

Still, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about what I’d asked Stephen and N’Gai before, since neither they nor God of War truly provided an answer– where are the games that make you feel guilty? After finishing Jaffe’s enterprise, I tied that feeling into the sense of nostalgic grief it filled me with, since the game so clearly follows Ueda’s pattern from Ico in so many places, and since his follow-up game wound up competing with the Japanese designer’s magnum opus in so many eyes around the world that its sequel seems to be flipping it the bird in the form of a particularly large public works project in Rhodes. Therefore, I popped Shadow of the Colossus back into my fetishistically slim PS2, hoping to find the shame-provoking gameplay I was looking for in its acts of destruction against majestic, mysterious giants who troubled you none before you came for their blood. Now, while SotC might make the gamer feel sad to watch its statuesque creatures fall from grace and into the ashen dirt, there’s nothing mechanically that sets its battles apart from any other boss encounters, even the ones found in GoW. Really, it’s only due to the exhaustively crafted aesthetics of the project that we feel remorse for killing the monsters– when you get right down to it, they’re so goddamn beautiful you can’t help but feel sorry for being the one responsible for their downfalls.

On the whole, this is part of a larger issue facing games, which addresses how designers create intricate, lovingly made worlds which players take no greater pleasure in than destroying (Somebody remind me who presented an article about that, by the way?). Nevertheless, as I neared completion of the game once again and made my way towards the seat of the final colossus, at long last I did find a moment which uses gameplay itself in order to provoke the player for feeling truly immersive, undetached guilt, during which we not only share the feelings of our avatar protagonist, but also experience separate pangs of our own in our position as gamers, actively participating instead of remaining content to be a merely observant audience. To this moment it surprises me that I didn’t think of this scene sooner, but then again it’s hardly the kind of thing you’d expect from a game based on destroying beautiful things several stories high. Instead, it happens to be a moment about destroying a beautiful thing much smaller than that.

I’m referring, of course, to Argo’s Jump.

Now, everyone who’s played the game knows what I’m talking about (if you don’t, stop reading, go play the game to completion, and then come right back)– in order to reach the dwelling place of the final colossus, the player must get across a long chasm which they cannot reach the end of themselves. Instead, it is only possible to cross the gap by riding the horse into a daring, seemingly impossible leap. What transpires is that the player is safely thrown over the other side to their destination, but only at the cost of the horse plummeting into the pit. Even though at the end it manages to limp back, the effect on the player, at that specific moment at the impossible gap, is one of guilt on both their positions as one whose emotions are likely synced and primed up with their blank-slate avatar and that of a gamer playing a game. In every way, Argo’s Jump is the moment I was talking about, and one which works in ways the Soldier Sacrifice doesn’t even suggest.

First of all, it involves a character we’ve seen throughout the game, instead of only moments before we’re asked to kill it. Argo the horse is the player’s only companion through the agonizingly lonely experience that is SotC, and making a decision which removes that company is a process that cannot be taken under lightly. Moreover, the majority of the player’s sympathy and camaraderie with Argo stems not from cut-scenes in which Wander pets his horse affectionately while they both seem to miss the former’s long-lost love (though those scenes are there)– instead, it comes from the gameplay itself, the way Argo always comes running to the player’s aid if he is called, no matter how far away, the way in which his aid is expedient in navigating the vast, expansive landscape quickly while searching for colossi, and especially the way in which his involvement becomes essential to defeating several high-speed bosses, as it is only thanks to Argo’s fast gallop that the player can gain access to such creatures as the sand-worm or the flying-centipede. Therefore, the player’s attachment to the horse arrives not only in aesthetic terms (which it accomplishes far better than in GoW, anyway), but also in mechanical terms, as well, since the player isn’t just asked to give up a character they feel an attachment to, but also a valuable resource in the game which has proved time and time again to be the most important part of the puzzle. Giving up Argo doesn’t just feel sad, it feels dangerous, because now, for the first time, the player must truly fight a colossus alone.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Argo’s Jump works because it’s an example of implicit design, rather than the painfully explicit Soldier Sacrifice. Think about it– after encountering the sacrifice room and reading the messages on the walls, the player is told exactly what they have to do in order to progress through the game. In the case of SotC, however, all the player is presented with is a jump they can’t possibly make on their own, and one which doesn’t look too easy for even their trusted steed. It forces you to put two and two together for yourself, to slowly realize what you’re supposed to do, rather than merely learn. If Jaffe had kept it at the corpse of the unwilling soldier and his message of “What they ask for is too great,” then it might’ve succeeded, because the player would’ve had to use their imagination to solve the puzzle for themselves. Ueda’s section works so much better because it’s structured as a question the player must find the answer for, without any help.

There are two possibilities here– either you can tell that the jump will result in Argo’s plummet, or you believe he might just be able to make it. Granted, if you’re one of the latter (which I was) it’s far more of a sense of denial you get rather than actual faith. You don’t know with absolute certainty that the jump will prove catastrophic for the horse, but you can certainly feel it’s what’s going to happen, but no matter what a little piece of you might cling to the hope that Argo will safely get across anyway– he’s such a strong horse, after all, capable of extraordinary feats on any number of occasions. If you don’t have faith in him, maybe you feel it for Ueda, instead– he’s such a talented, sympathetic artistic soul, so obviously he’d never put us through the anguish of making us love a character only to take it away (then again, he does bring Argo “back-from-the-dead,” just like Yorda in Ico, as well as Mono, and Wander to a certain extent in this game, proving either that he’s something of a one-trick pony or that you can have your emotionally wrenching character assassinations and eat them, too). In the end, it’s as much of a leap of faith to see if your experiment’s actually going to work as it is to see if maybe, just maybe, our equine hero will save not only the player’s life, but his own.

And when Argo falls, in either case, the sadness is real. If you could see what was coming, you had to be invested enough in the consequences of your actions to feel sorry for what you’d done, an impact which is only deepened, not lessened, by the fact you could anticipate the outcome of the event you were engineering. If you held fast to the faith the inevitable wouldn’t occur, the disappointment can be devastating, even if it isn’t exactly surprising. Who could have thought this would’ve happened? You did, of course, but you went ahead and did it anyway so you could beat the game. Just because Argo comes back doesn’t lessen the severity of what you felt in the moment, before– indeed, it almost gives it a feeling akin to that of Abraham with Issac. The game may not have stayed your hand from the decision, as the angel did, but at least it gave you the happy ending of knowing it wasn’t permanent.

This is a major difference between that and the Soldier Sacrifice– he’s dead forever, while Argo’s only “dead” a little while. However, the fact that Ueda decided to give everyone a happy ending of that is telling. Everybody wanted Argo to be alive, after all, while who gives a damn about the soldier in the cage? Then again, as I said before, that kind of guilt isn’t what Jaffe was aiming for, but rather some kind of detached Charles-style suspiciousness or my own theory of anti-hero badassery. The reason I decide to keep harping on this, though, is because in one area of the dispute between GoW and SotC, I can firmly say that the latter is superior because, at the very least, it knows what it is, tries to be exactly that, and succeeds– Colossus is a post-modern game, in the same way that Breathless is a post-modern film. Goddard said once that the only way to really critique a movie is to make one of your one, and that’s what he did with his debut feature, a sly French re-invention of the pulpy, punchy American film-noirs he grew up adoring. Ueda’s game is very much a critique on the Zelda series, but also of the conventions of modern gaming as a whole. Essentially, by drawing out everything except for 16 boss battles, SotC is a game about boss battles in general.

God of War is very different, as in it isn’t necessarily about anything other than itself– the game doesn’t comment upon the conventions it uses, but instead seeks to improve upon them. In that sense, it represents the kind of game Castlevania should’ve evolved into in the modern console era– it’s the greatest side-scroller ever made, only translated for a 3D audience. There’s nothing in the game that the developers of previous games haven’t already come up with, but Jaffe’s the only one who’s found ways to make those experiences palatable for modern audiences. Devil May Cry is popular, but notoriously difficult. God of War‘s combat is challenging, but its learning curve is easy enough to allow one’s self to be pulled into it effortlessly. Furthermore, its spirit makes for a far more sophisticated experience, one that ultimately is satisfying emotionally and intellectually– it’s a game for both the Ape and Lizard brains, no matter how much the Darwinian side of me keeps hollering for something more nuanced.

In the end, I enjoyed Jaffe’s experiment, and I’m interested enough to play its sequel. I just wish more of the story were made a part of the gameplay, which would have been interesting, though difficult. Something I’ll talk about more later, but I’d like to mention now, in closing– how to you use flashbacks in a game in a manner that makes them a genuine part of the experience, and not merely cinematically spoon-fed backstory?

Expect my next round of play-by-play analysis with Psychonauts: Pleasant Dreams, coming soon, pleasant dreamers. Until then, this is Robert Bruce Maximillian Clark, signing off. Over and out.