God of War: Guilt and Penance in Ancient Greece

June 23, 2005 By Glenn Turner

"You've got to be kidding me. They're not going to make me do that."

Normally when I murmur those words to myself, they're in regards to a ridiculously difficult, convoluted or simply intimidating gaming moment. You might think I muttered it while playing David Jaffe's God of War when I found myself confronting a second five-story pole of rotating spikes to ascend. Maybe you'd suspect I shouted it during the final boss battle. Either way, you'd be wrong. Instead, it came about when I was steering Kratos, an ex-Spartan with blades permanently burned into his arms on a vengeance mission to kill Ares, the God of War, down a hallway littered with cages containing still-living Spartan soldiers. At first, my thought was 'run to the end of the hallway, find a lever that will lower the cages to the ground, then run back and rescue them.' Well, I was halfway right.

Upon arriving at the end of the hallway, I found a long-dead soldier laying next to a letter stating that the tasks the Gods ask of us are too horrible to commit. I pick up the lever, barely glancing at the small plumes of fire coming out of the hallway's dead-end and head back towards the cages. Upon hearing one trapped soldier's plea I quickly realized that he would not be leaving that cage.

"You've got to be kidding me. They're not going to make me do that."

When I arrived at the cage, Kratos solemnly stated to the soldier: "The Gods demand a sacrifice from all of us." Reluctantly, and with a slight sigh of resignation, I began pushing the cage back towards the end of the hallway. The soldier pleads to me, nervously asking why I'm not helping him. Enemies start crawling out of the ground, looking for a fight. I push the soldier over to a crevice to keep the cage from sliding away and dispatch the monsters, all the while hearing his exasperated shouts during combat. When I had finished with the inhumane creatures, I push the cage a bit further towards the hallways' end. More enemies appear, I repeat the pattern and again, beating them off and resuming the trek to the end of the hallway. It seems as if the soldier's screams get louder with each step towards the end of the hallway. I want to avert my eyes with each utterance from his mouth, but I can't do that and continue keeping the enemies at bay. We finally reach the end and we're alone with the lever, the portent fire torches and that corpse laying on the floor. I drag the cage towards the torches so that the soldier is positioned precariously near them, walk over to the lever and, after a bit of hesitation I put my full force against it. The torches orient around the cage and fire, scalding the soldier's body while he screams out in pain inside the cage. Both the cage and his body fall through a newly opened hole in the floor, the wall opens in front of me and finally, I'm allowed to advance and turn my back on the act I just committed.

While there are many games that allow me to inflict pain on innocents, such as the notorious Grand Theft Auto franchise, Fable, even Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, these games leave such ponderous ethical dilemas as 'Should I beat up that old lady and take her money?' or 'Should I shoot that dog?' up to the player. You're not forced to take these morally divergent paths, they're merely actions that you can opt to do and, ultimately, relatively insignificant roles in the greater scheme of the game. God of War robs you of this choice - it forces you to commit several atrocities, and each time you think it can't get any more appalling, well it does. Kratos, a mortal who has become disillusioned by the lord that bestowed him amazing combative powers is on a quest of vengeance and redemption upon realizing the countless numbers of people he's slaughtered in the name of personal conquest, in the name of his God, is something to feel guilty about, something to regret. In order to pay penance for his sins he must destroy his maker, Ares, so he sets out on his quest to lay his demons to rest, to no longer bear the wraith of the Gods for his injudicious choices.

It's here that the line blurs between Kratos and you, the person behind the Playstation 2 controller. Ever since Kratos takes up his attempt at redemption, he seems to be utterly unfazed by any act of cruelty. Sure, this is a 'by any means necessary' mission against inhuman armies, but honestly, did he really have to callously throw that ship captain down the Hydra's throat? Sure he was a bit of a coward, running away from the monster in fear but he could have had a family! Kratos shows no repentance, doesn't bat an eye during any of these distasteful advances towards his goal, he's a sinewy mixture of grit and determination. Apparently, the rest is up to you. You don't get rewarded for doing what's right, you merely progress by following instructions and solving puzzles. That doesn't mean that your actions are justified, or that you should feel good about them but that they are what they are: one more step towards the end of your quest. The rest is up to interpretation and speculation.

Doug Lowenstein (president of the Entertainment Software Association) recently remarked: "We need games with better stories, more interesting and complex characters; games that keep you up at night wrestling with whether you made the right ethical or moral choices." While God of War may not keep me awake at night, it certainly does place the player in some ethically grey situatons. However, will most players even pay attention to the morally questionable situations? Take for instance the following alternate description of Kratos's sacrifce, culled from a God of War GameFAQ:

"So, go over to the lever underneath them and a cage will drop down. So, the twip [sic] in the cage says "save me" and like, Kratos says "the Gods damand [sic] a sacrifice, from ALL of us" and the guy in the cage is like "NOOOO!!!!!" Hah! I laughed at that. ... So, drag the whimp [sic] up the hill and kill the undead along the way, take him into the room with the fire tortches [sic] and drag the cage to the dark square infront [sic] of the lever. Pull the lever and the man dies! Yay! He was getting annoying anyways, I mean, who would be afraid to die from fire? Anyone? Huh?"

Or the following from another GameFAQ:

"Now be a man, pull the lever and burn the flesh from him [sic] bones."

And Gamespot's guide completely neglects to mention that there's a soldier in the cage at all, treating the entire object as one non-descript item.

Couple this with the numerous times I see casual gamers playing Grand Theft Auto who immediately want to start shooting up the city, running over every pedestrian in their vicinity and I have to wonder if ethical decisions will ever be deliberated over by the majority of gamers. Perhaps in-game morality is just viewed as petty rules for most gamers. Do granny-killing GTA players think 'if it's an action you can execute in-game, it's a-ok'? If so, I don't see better stories or more complex characters driving ethical quandaries. In fact, the only way to instill a sort of moral imperative towards game players might be to actively make it difficult to execute actions that conflicts with the in-game character's ethics, or the world's moral rules. Imagine a system similar to Knights of the Old Republic's Dark/Light side, where your actions would determine the moral compass (and abilities) of the character you were playing, but with an immediate, gameplay reaction and a pre-defined moral stance that will react with or against your action. Want to mug that innocent? Your character may hesitate, even try to fight your button pressing but, in the end if you're really determined to mug them, then you will and your character will mature with those actions.

Of course, it's doubly questionable as to why one may want to induce guilt and regret in a game. I'd like to hope that game developers have aspirations above merely creating a 'fun' or 'scary' game, that they desire to evoke more complex and deeper feelings within not just our gut, but our minds too. The ubiquitous 'games to make us cry' objective is all well and good, but going beyond that would force games could cause us to reflect on past gaming experiences and deliberate over our future gaming actions, our in-game lives and outlook. Isn't that the goal of any art? While a sense of compassion may not have been what David Jaffe had intended when he created God of War, I'd be lying if I said I felt nothing as I dragged that solider down the hallway to his doom. Despite that, I continued playing - all the way to the end, never outraged or disappointed in myself enough to cease playing, but then again I had also just solved a 'puzzle', I could revel in the glory that this sacrifice allowed me to dive deeper into the game, and get one more step closer to redemption. But is there redemption for the gamer in a pre-rendered ending?

If this article is any indication, there is nothing but the pangs of a guilty conscious after the credits roll. This was not the first time I've had such conscience pangs after playing a game, and it hopefully will not be my last. I welcome these moments in gaming and find them ten times more valuable and memorable than an exceptionally timed kill or victory, as such experiences resonate deeper than the temporary thrill in pushing blocks into place. Games are able to recreate a world that follows its own rules, and the dissonance of our personal ethics systems combined with those in these worlds (as well as those of the actual characters we're 'controlling') is a veritable moral playground for gamers, where we can take ethical quandaries deeper than those explored in films, books, any other media. Instead of merely watching someone make the choice 'I'd let my wife sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars', we can have a game put you in a desperate financial situation where you're forced to re-evaluate prior moral stances, then attempt to act in what you see as you and your family's best interest - even if it potentially means sleeping with Robert Redford. Would such a game leave me feeling guilty for my actions, like when Kratos sent the soldier to die at my request? Would I end up feeling pride for my choices? Either way, when a game affects you at that level you know they're onto something interesting and provoking.

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#1 TrueTallus Jun 23, 2005 03:56pm

Those kind of moral dimensions really do add a lot to a game. Some of my most though provoking memories video game memories stem form situations where I was led to question my own moral compas, like feeling terrible after jokingly telling Rio in Llifeline to shoot a corpse and hearing her horrified and disgusted repremand, or feeling truly aweful for not helphing an old restaunt owner from being harrased by thugs in Way of the Samurai because I didn't want to risk being killed and loossing my sword permanently. WotS in particular had a bunch of interesting situations that had genuine wieght to them because of its strict no reloads permanent death penalty system.

#2 D. Riley Jun 23, 2005 05:14pm

Your post is total bullshit.

Nobody besides me played Lifeline.

#3 Glenn Turner Jun 23, 2005 05:59pm

TrueTallus wrote:
Those kind of moral dimensions really do add a lot to a game. Some of my most though provoking memories video game memories stem form situations where I was led to question my own moral compas, like feeling terrible after jokingly telling Rio in Llifeline to shoot a corpse and hearing her horrified and disgusted repremand

Ah yes, I've heard that Lifeline has some great moments in it. I mean, that's great that the main character actually does react against your wishes when it's something she finds appalling or distasteful. Of course, I suppose that sort of reaction is typical of adventure games (which seems to be the most common descriptor concerning Lifeline), but most of the time in adventure games the distaste expressed was in reaction to forcefully limiting the number of options the player has available to them. But I'm rambling.

And don't mind Mr. Riley, his mind is broken from too much Final Fantasy Tactics. He did a fine write-up of Lineline though.

#4 D. Riley Jun 23, 2005 06:08pm

Let's see YOU beat the game using only Mediators! HUH?!

It's true though, you shouldn't mind me. Ever. It's nice to see a 'fan' (maybe?) of Lifeline that can put together a cogent sentence about the game beyond "I want to touch Rio's boobies" or "I said sex and she yelled at me. Hehehehehe."

As far as moral quadaries go, I'm such a videogame pussy. I keep trying to be the darkside in Knights of the Old republic, but I'd chicken out at the last second and choose the good choice. In Deus Ex I would always knock the terrorists unconcious instead of killing them, because those men had families!!

#5 TrueTallus Jun 24, 2005 03:34pm

Lifeline was something alright. I think I nearly died laughing reading your write up about it. It really was frustrating... but the cool parts definately made up for it. Kinda like the King's Field series. And I find I have same problem with being evil in bioware rpgs. I finished Jade Empire recently and couldn't even imagine the cold uncaring heart nessecary to get the evil ending.

#6 D. Riley Jun 24, 2005 04:28pm

You and I should start a Lifeline fanclub. I need to buy that game again. I loved all those little questions you could ask her.

Didn't so much like her wasting my health options on a regular basis.

I need to get God of War. It irritates me like sin that peccaui beat this game before I even played it.

#7 R. LeFeuvre Jun 25, 2005 03:52am

I felt sorta bad when, in Space Quest 3, I shoved a 9-foot ladder down Roger Wilco's pants and he pitifully said "Ouch".

Sorry, it's all I got. You were forced to take it!


#8 Benedict Jun 25, 2005 01:36pm

At this point, I feel like I'm obligated to make some nerdy, overly-semantic statement or correction about Greek mythology which is completely devoid of humour. However, I'll just say that I find that most video games with morality systems thus far have been far too simplistic and childish to be of anymore worth than a novel in which you skip to page 133 if you want a character to do one thing or skip to page 152 if you want him to do another.

#9 hobbie Jun 26, 2005 03:11am

I feel detached from the real world when I play video games, similar to reading and feeling like a part that world. I don't mind doing stupid/cruel/pointless/idiotic things in a game, knowing they have no real world consequences. It's almost like an outlet for my bad side, a source to vent my 'bad voodoo'.

#10 Stilgar Jun 29, 2005 06:41pm

For me in video games I like to choose the "light path" and only diverge if it offers some large benefit, usually financial. In KOTOR I'd be willing to threaten or kill somebody if it would save me a fair bit of money. Likewise in Fable I killed the sister without thinking twice - after all, I wanted that sword. And I usually find that the easier way is worth it.

#11 Anonymous Aug 21, 2007 12:28pm

your making may to big a deal out of this. Its just a game! and a rally good one at that, but just lay of. noone would do wat they do in grand theft auto in real life! just get over yourself.

#12 Anonymous Oct 5, 2008 11:38am

dude...its jus a game at the end of the day...ppl are bright enuf to no tht this is jus an in game world...a virtual world...not nethin real...they have the brains to distinguish between whts moral n ethical in the real world and whts not...and plus this game is based on ancient greek mythology in which human sacrifices were accepted...in a way...we are livin thru thos experiences through the game...nno use voicing bullshit about the game...