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God of War is what a ‘mature’ game looks like in 2018

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Kratos has grown up with us, kinda

God of War - Kratos and Atreus walking through the snow SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

We’re in a strange moment of pop culture, where the characters we grew up with are still here, but they’re taking part in stories that feel more grown up and relevant to our adult lives. It’s why we care about an Iron Man that has PTSD, and why the past few Superman movies have turned into reactionary tales about the dangers of immigrants.

And now we have the latest God of War, a game trying to deal with some deep feelings about parenting.

This shift is fascinating to watch, especially if we look at the genesis of the series since it began in 2005.

“The real high concept for me was taking Clash of the Titans and merging it with Heavy Metal magazine,” David Jaffe, the director of the first God of War, said at the time. “What I liked was the kids stuff you get with Greek Mythology; monsters and giant set pieces and the fantasy. But then I liked the idea of taking that and sort of merging it with the sex and the violence and more of the adult stuff.”

This was a serious action game for serious people, dammit. And it was a reaction to what Jaffe saw as an overly “safe” society.

“I haven’t really seen that vibe, not only in games, but it used to be such a prevalent theme in books in the ’70s and ’80s and in movies and things like that,” Jaffe explained. “But lately — at least in America — things have become so politically correct that I was really jazzed about doing what was more a throwback to that more animalistic, kind of brutal Conan The Barbarian kind of vibe.”

And it worked. The game launched a franchise and became known for sex-based quick-time events, nudity and ridiculously brutal violence. It was a glorious, shrieking spike right to the skull of the average player in 2005, when the market was seen as very young and very male. God of War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t safe. It was, for lack of a better word, mature — or at least what teenage players thought was mature.

And now those players are in their thirties, and they want very different things out of their entertainment. The creators of the games we grew up playing want to deliver those experiences as well.

“I kind of gave [Shannon Studstill, vice president of product development at Sony Interactive Entertainment] just the early, early, early version of the pitch, which was, that I feel like I’m so different from when I made God of War 1 back in 2003,” God of War director Cory Barlog told Polygon in a recent interview. “I feel like having my son sort of changed a lot. And the fact that my dad and I sort of wrote the first draft of God of War 2, and here I am kind of taking on that role of a father. There’s something interesting about that part of the journey, and perhaps Kratos might be ready for that part of the journey.”

Which is why 2018’s God of War feels emotionally richer and more intimate than the previous games. It’s not about fixing every problem with your fists and your blades — although you fix many problems with your fists and your blades in the game — and even the camera was set up to give you a sense of connection with the characters.

If the original God of War was about sticking it to political correctness with boobs and violence, the new one can often feel like the result of long, grueling therapy sessions. It’s amazing as an action title, sure, but it’s upfront about being a game for people with daddy issues, by people with daddy issues. Hitting that X button over and over to make sure Kratos has sex doesn’t have quite the same appeal to the target market anymore; they’re now older folks who are trying to figure shit out.

There’s also still a narrow range of people who get to tell stories on canvas this large — which is likely why mothers seem so absent in big-budget games — but charting the progression of seemingly adult games through the eyes of the God of War series gives us an interesting look at how games have evolved, and how they’ve stayed the same.

The God of War series tends to feel like it’s working hard to look and feel mature, and the latest game is a fascinating snapshot of what “mature” seems to be for 2018. If we refuse to let go of the characters we loved as children or teenagers, at least in some cases, they eventually grow up with us.