It’s still entirely normal for videogame characters not to have arcs. They tend to have secrets instead—often secrets kept from them as well as from the player, by deceit or amnesia or both. But that’s no arc. It’s just a flat character being in essence two flat characters: first the one, and then, post-reveal, the other.
Remember the film geek intelligencia rightly losing its collective shit over Nightcrawler a few years back? The audacity, the bleakness, the boldness of having a protagonist who doesn’t grow or change! A character who gives the story its arc by means of a fixed set of qualities, unaltered, unalterable, crystalline. Of all the quicks in videogame storytelling, the quirkiest might be that it’s a medium wherein that kind of protagonist is the norm.
In the new God of War, that norm gets broken. Kratos has secrets, sure, but not from us, and he and his son Atreus both have actual factual character arcs. Things happen to them in the plot, and so they change, and their changes illustrate the game’s themes. Simple as this sounds, it might be the main reason that the game has been so rapturously received.
Well, OK, the main reason is that the reviewers doing the receiving are almost uniformly in that sweet spot of (a) having fond memories of the older God of War games and (b) now being dads. This new God of War is made to measure for the class of writers capable of bestowing those perfect tens and whatnot. (Which is not to suggest that the game is pandering to such folks cynically, mind you: That same nostalgia-and-fatherhood sweet spot applies to the game’s main creative voices, after all. And because the game is so successful at turning Kratos into a real-ass character, it’s easy to forget how audacious that notion is: Kratos, heretofore just a muscly, glowering conductive material for plot-convenient wroth, the emptiest of empty vessels, now has a fucking arc).
And to be absolutely clear, a character with an arc isn’t inherently better, or better for storytelling, than a character without one. Lou Bloom sure as hell didn’t need one in Nightcrawler, and As Film Crit Hulk pointed out at the time, Lou Bloom is hardly an anomaly in that regard. But protagonists having arcs is a near-ubiquitous convention of narrative cinema that is often conspicuously absent from—let’s sidestep terms like “AAA” and just say videogames that are extremely expensive to make. That absence is notable specifically because such games tend to borrow vigorously from conventional narrative cinema in other, flashier ways.
Case in point, as you’ve probably heard, God of War’s developers bumped the lamp something fierce, and the whole game is presented as a single continuous shot. Exploration flows into combat, which flows into dialogue, which flows into Quick Time Events, all damn-near seamlessly. The camera tracks Kratos and his foes as they punch their way over open snowfields and onto the back of a dragon and then down to the ground below. The game takes one of the most exalted flourishes in cinema, the fancy oner, and extends it to feature legnth—or rather, to roughly ten times the length of an especially long feature film, and maybe twice as long as that if you stay for all the sidequests and endgame shenanigans.
There are, of corse, narrative films that sustain a single shot and a single take, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock’s philosophy major murder romp, Rope. But Rope is basically a play, filmed. It has plenty of interest in its camerawork, but doesn’t rely on scope or sweep or spectacle—and even so it has to cheat its one-take rule, zooming in on a character’s back for a moment so that a new reel can get loaded into the camera. It’s a small story.
God of War wisely revolves around a core cast of nine people, and builds its story on a hard kernel of family drama (which allows it, like Half-Life 2 before it, to thrive under the considerable restrictions that come with never cutting to some other time or place or point of view), but it’s not small by any traditional measure. It’s still a lot closer to Infinity War than Rope in terms of the fantastical images it’s stringing together, and so far no one has tried to do an effects-heavy cosmic warfare blockbuster in a single continuous shot. Until someone tries pretty exactly that (as someone inevitably will) God of War stands apart, not as cinema exactly, but as a closely related and juiced-up cousin to cinema, a sort of hypercinema.
And yes, God of War does trip over its own dick somewhat in its commitment to this single stylistic choice. The camera is usually tight on Kratos, likely because what we’d call a subjective camera in movies is simply the standard in a third-person action game, which means that this camera has to be extra subjective—and those tight frames don’t serve the demanding, one-on-many combat especially well, nor do they do the minute-to-minute cinematography any favors when two characters are simply standing in profile talking, blurred and jangled by unmotivated headachey wobblecam.
And is standing around in a fast travel room or walking across a fast travel tree really that much more dynamic than a load screen while you fast travel? Sure, this way there’s dialogue while you wait, but the much-mocked elevators in the first Mass Effect did about the same thing in about the same way.
And yet, all of that just highlights God of War’s devotion to the fancy oner. It’s fixated. It’s committed. When games like God of War fixate on some aspect of cinema, they don’t just honor them. They amplify them. They celebrate and fetishize them. And they go to stunning, audacious places as a result. The game’s fancy oner fanaticism is what allows it to be so disciplined in its longform storytelling, and so coherent and vivid in its airy hub-and-spoke level design.
Accordingly, the character arcs in God of War aren’t merely present. They’re central, to everything from Kratos’ weapons (no spoilers) to Atreus’ shifting relationship to the notion of adventure and the meaning of godhood. (Again, no specific spoilers, for now). This is a story about fathers and sons, and how it can take several generations for a family to recover from a truly shitty patriarch, or from a truly toxic, battle-to-the-death relationship between a father and his son. (The game has less to say about brotherhood and motherhood, and when it tries to throw in those related themes it really trips on its own dick—but we’re setting up sequels here, and that means planting thematic seeds for the next game’s harvest).
So the game’s whole world revolves around Kratos’ rising understanding of the ways he has failed (and was failed) as a son, and the ways he has failed (and might yet succeed) as a father. When Kratos realizes that his approach to parenting needs to change for the sake of his son, the game’s tone cracks open, becomes exposed, raw. The goddamned sky turns red, and Kratos is visited by visions as he drifts home in a maybe-magical boat strewn with flowers, and the dead rise, and having returned to where he started, he descends, alone, into Hell. Midgard melts and burns and crackles and contorts around Kratos’ horrific realization that his son has fucked up because he himself has fucked up even worse, and that he has the power to set things right, but that setting things right will mean reconciling the man (and the son, and the god) that he was with the father he now wants to be.
Subtlety is overrated, you know?
God of War is overflowing with enthusiasm and pride in its character arcs, and yes, in the very fact that it has character arcs. It’s alive with the possibilities of them. It thrums with energies a universe apart from rote, Save The Cat blockbuster movie plotting, even if the basic contours of the plot resemble nothing so much as that.
You’ll find more playfulness and experimentation with the actual form of videogames in the intricate repeating patterns of NieR:Automata, or the radical unfussiness of Breath of the Wild—but God of War is an equally compelling example of what makes games such a vibrant medium: exuberance, invention, craft, and old formal tricks from other media viewed with fresh, wide eyes.