For this entry I want to dip into the issue of first impressions vs. reality when it comes to player characters in games. That is, the specific character or characters the player manipulates using their controller. For this purpose we will be looking at two very prominent titles of the last few years, Grand Theft Auto 4 and the God of War series. Let me preface the body of my article with a definition of the term protagonist, “A protagonist is the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, video game, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy. (emphasis added)” Additionally consider that the player’s desires are not the same as the player character’s desires.
The Grand Theft Auto series, by its very name, leads many uninitiated to believe that the player’s character will be a deviate, criminal human being lacking in any morality. The steely faced Niko Bellic of Grand Theft Auto 4 in the accompanying picture would lead the unversed player to assume the same. Happily, this is not the case. Niko Bellic is a Serbian war veteran of the Yugoslav Wars, motivated by nationalism as many youths were. He committed and witnessed many atrocities, culminating in a member of his squad, Darko Brevic, selling Niko and his companions out to the enemy for money. Niko was one of three survivors, including Darko.
Wandering the Adriatic as a smuggler for nearly two decades he is eventually drawn to America by his cousin Roman’s coaxing, the latter claiming he has made it big in the States. Niko also sees a chance to hunt down Darko, who he suspects is in the United States. None of this is revealed at the game’s opening, only through dialogue and cut scenes shown as the story progresses (We never heard Niko’s inner monologue, because our inner monologue is his). Upon arrival in Liberty City (a fictionalized version of New York City, steeped in both parody and satire of American materialism and living), he finds that Roman is scraping together a measly existence as the owner of a tiny cab driving company, indebted to loan sharks and under the thumb of local Eastern European crime bosses. Thus Niko begins his hunt for Darko and his journey to find the “American Dream.”
To put it without much fanfare, Niko Bellic is presented in the game as a logical, down-to-business, relatively decent human being. He has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor which never becomes overbearing, helped along by an excellent voice actor, Michael Hollick. He distains from drug use, collateral damage of civilians, and strongly dislikes organized crime. Mind you, this interpretation precludes that we only consider the central story, and its missions, as pertinent to the character of Niko as a whole. If we include the side missions, like the assassination assignments, Niko becomes a much more sinister figure. Likewise, if we consider sexual and deviate activity in the game, going to strip clubs, picking up prostitutes*, running over pedestrians, to be extraneous to the central storyline, which I am arguing that they are, Niko Bellic’s character is not compromised. These elements of the game exist because the majority of the GTA audience expects them to be, and the developer must acquiesce to what sells.
Consider also that because this game is a crime thriller and a satire of American society, virtually everyone Niko interacts with is either overtly cliché, a complete slimeball, or both. Politicians, actors, lawyers, criminals, bodybuilders, Rasta’s, rappers, strippers, crooked cops, junkies, the cast goes on and on, with Niko Bellic numbering amongst the few sane people you will come across in GTA4. He alone seems to be immune to the materialism systemic to everyone in Liberty City. Niko Bellic is, and I can’t stress this enough, the Other, the outsider. But ironically, he , the foreigner, is the character which we empathize with the most, while the denizens of Liberty City, the people which should be the most similar to us, seem anything but. You kill a lot of people in this game, make no mistake about it. But in the hyper-satirical world of Liberty City, Niko Bellic has no other choice. It’s a jungle full of monsters, and survival is paramount.
The God of War series centers on the trials and tribulations of Kratos, a fictional Spartan hero of old. Big, virile, angry, sexualized. He’s good at yelling, fighting, and intercourse. Removed from the context of the God of War games, he seems appropriately epic for an action title about Greek mythology. But given the nature of the story and his actions in the games he is pretty damn villainous. I would go so far as to suggest that the player character is, in this case, an anti-hero turned antagonist. In GoW 1, Kratos pledges his life to the services of the Greek war god Ares in return for sparing his life in battle. Kratos performs admirably but one day ends up slaughtering his wife and daughter in a fit of generic rage. So he decides to get his revenge by killing the god of war, asking Athena to aid him in this task. He also asks her to rid him of his recurring nightmares of his slaughtered family. Compounding this is the fact that Ares is randomly attacking Athens in (giant) person just for the heck of it.
Kratos hunts down pandora’s box, an artifact of tremendous power, and uses it to kill Ares. The gods proceed to make him the new god of war. He finds out life in Olympus is not what he expected. Which leads to the events of God of War 2, wherein Zeus, being a jittery s.o.b., is worried that Kratos is going to pull the same number on him that he pulled on his titan parents. He tricks Kratos and removes his divinity. Stripped of his godly powers, Kratos journeys to the isle of the Fates, where he ultimately meets, and kills, the Sisters of Fate. Getting convoluted yet? Kratos uses the threads of fate (taking the form of a massive baroque loom) to travel back in time, nab the titans from the brink of defeat, and rocket them forward to the present. The game closes with Kratos astride the shoulder of Gaia, one of many titans scaling Olympus to destroy the gods once and for all.
GoW creator David Jaffe stated that the series ends up explaining why, “There aren’t any more gods” (paraphrased). GoW 2 closes the book on the series with the implied destruction of Olympus. The forthcoming God of War 3, made internally at Sony without input from Jaffe, is essentially a cash in on a cow they don’t want to stop milking. I am not considering the possible implications of three in this piece, because I do not assume they will significantly alter the final outcome of the series.
The primary enemies in the GoW games consist of various Greek monsters and beasts which can be dispatched in a variety of gory ways. Additionally, a large number of human characters are met by Kratos, and usually destroyed. Take the ship captain in the beginning of the first game. Dangling in the throat of the dead hydra (recently killed by Kratos) he holds the key to the nearby wrecked ship which must be entered to continue. Kratos picks up the man by the wrist, nabs the key, and drops the fellow back into the gullet of the creature. In GoW 2, Kratos must open passage across a chasm in the Temple of the Fates by forcing an acolyte to read an incantation on the stone, and then smashing the fellow’s head upon it (blood sacrifice). Vigorous presses of the square button accomplish this gruesome task. Kratos has zero tolerance for anyone standing in the way of his two revenge quests, and a flippant disregard for anyone not immediately useful to him.
As it is, what gives Kratos the jurisdiction to kill the gods themselves? For all he knows, the existence of gods may be holding reality together. By what right is Kratos able to determine whether or not mankind still needs deities? He is thus making the decision for either a religious world or one of imposed atheism (lacking a better term for a world where the gods have been killed). Kratos could have just walked away from the whole matter in both GoW1 and 2. Maybe go live in a nice house on the shore of the Aegean somewhere. His revenge against Zeus, and by extension the concept of gods, becomes the mad quest of a sociopath. Kratos clearly relished the position of god of war due to his frenzied revenge quest in GoW 2. Kratos is thusly revealed for what may be the most traditionalist aspect of Greek mythology in a series of games about modern twists on Greek mythology; he is an impulsive, short sighted, violent, lusty, angry man-child. He is, in other words, just like his source material
Note that I make no claims as to the quality of either game as a game in this post. Nor to the quality of the writing, or to how interesting the story itself is. Which both are. I, personally, find the God of War games to be generally more fun to play than Grand Theft Auto 4. David Jaffe stated that the central tenement of a good game is that it must be entertaining to play, or else it is not a good game at all. No matter what story it might expound. I agree with this sentiment, but the story is there, and it begs to be grappled with, despite the creator’s intent.
*Often cited as the most poisonous portion of the GTA titles, acquiring a prostitute proceeds thusly: Drive up to said prostitute. She gets into the vehicle. You drive to any secluded area. The car rocks and shakes, your character and the prostitute sit or interact, fully clothed, and cheesy intercourse dialogue that sounds like something out of an Saturday Night Live skit emanates from the speakers. Like most everything in GTA4, it is intended to be satirical. Turn on most t.v. networks after nine o’clock and you will see far more risqué material.
~ Bryce Mainville
Pierce Arrow Blogger