You will hear the ever-harsh Kratos bark "boy" at his son approximately 100,000 times over the course of God of War's adventure. Whether you mainline the story or get lost boating across the islands of the game's hub-like lake, Kratos will always be mean to his son Atreus, and Atreus will put up with it and even snap back sometimes. The atmosphere is darker than the series' past, more somber. Occasionally the environments brighten up, but mostly it's desolate forests and snowy mountains where seemingly only two dwarves, some wayward spirits, and a witch share the land with you. And a constant onslaught of enemies, of course.
If this sounds familiar—this dour tone, this surly father figure, this extreme swerve for a well-established series—it's because we've played this game before. Maybe even dozens of times. And it's only the latest installment of the trend that's fluttered away from the small screen onto an interactive one: the prestige game.
If you Google the phrase "prestige TV," you'll find yourself face to face with dozens of thinkpieces lamenting the television trend. Prestige TV, most succinctly defined, has been the most recent era of television shows that have higher-than-average production values, mature themes, and usually a familiar face or two at its forefront. They typically have asshole anti-heroes at their center. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad were early landmarks in the prestige TV era, and the trend has only grown more crowded in the years since. At its best, prestige television challenges convention and propels the medium forward with artful direction and superb writing. At its worst, it's Westworld—a once-campy film remade into a grim and gritty HBO series, offering the appearance of depth without any of the substance.
Video games been trending in a similar direction in recent years. If you look particularly at Sony's recent triple-A offerings, you'll find they have a lot in common. They all chase Naughty Dog's pizazz for self-serious narratives. They're all mighty technical achievements, whether it's accomplished in a sprawling open world or a linear one with setpieces galore. For some odd reason, they almost all have crafting too. Even Microsoft's Gears of War 4 saw a refreshed, more diverse crew at its center and a bitter, older Marcus, though the dour-ness wasn't quite as heavy as, say, a former action hero past his prime re-outfitted as an asshole dad in a rowboat.
In the 2015 article "The Unbearable Darkness of Prestige Television" for The Atlantic, scholar Elizabeth Alsop writes, "This new solemnity could be seen as a sign of status anxiety: a byproduct of both serial television’s desire to disassociate from its soapy origins, and genre programming’s striving for cultural legitimacy." Video games, long weighed down by being associated with child's play things and having the vibrancy to match, are in a similar position. Triple-A games (and prestigious indie games too) are grasping for legitimacy, to be considered wholly as "art," and shedding all the whiffs of immaturity they once had. That is, minus an acceptably dry joke or two.
And often, God of War feels like a checklist for prestige-aligned video games. A gruff, horrible-but-trying-to-be-okay father figure as the star? Check. A mostly muted color palette? Check. Slower, more deliberate combat? Check. A self-serious tone that's a complete 180 from the original series? Check check check. It's an interesting game to contrast with another of Sony's offerings: the upcoming Days Gone. When Days Gone was announced, social media and the press seemed to collectively groan at the idea of another austere zombie narrative like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead.
And yet, when a grimmer Kratos made an appearance in a tonally similar setting, the world lost its shit. The only reason the new God of War was notable was because, well, it was God of War; only now prestige-ified. Kratos was a proper dad again, and it didn't seem like he was destined to murder his kid again and be stained with even more ashes this time. Kratos, and God of War as a series, was "growing up."
"I think Kratos in his original incarnation reflected how we viewed things and the time period," director Cory Barlog told us in an interview before God of War's launch. "The time period had not a lot of anti-hero icons, and it kind of began something in a way. Over time, though, things change. They need to change. I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago. I don't think he should be either." Changing, in this case, means taking God of War more seriously. To make it a prestige game, a game that's worth $60 despite not being a service to play for infinity. The new God of War, consequently, is a carefully crafted experience with a beginning and a firm end. It's a prestige game with mature themes and high-production value, through and through.
A Change of Tone
The prestige game has been a trend for awhile now. Nearly two years ago, Uncharted 4 traded in the campy Indiana Jones-style adventuring for a more sullen Nathan Drake. It was self-indulgently bloated in length, retconning in a long-lost brother to tidy up Drake's character arc for the series. It was a long ways away from the series' roots, and yet, the game was widely praised by critics and players alike: some even called it the best Uncharted game to date. In being a muted, less bombastic sort of action game, it was thus somehow deemed better than its predecessors. The game's follow-up though, last year's Uncharted: Lost Legacy, was a pleasant return to form, showing that it's possible for prestige games to balance both the fun of the old games and the somberness of its later entries.
In God of War, as with Uncharted 4, this tonal shift is readily apparent. Over the course of the game's campaign, the awe-inspiring, massive bosses of the series' past are nearly all gone, with only the occasional set-piece to remind you of what once was. There's a big serpent buddy who pops in to give the sense of scale that you remember from Kratos' mindless hack-and-slash days. Y'know, before he got tired and grumpy after moving to a new mythology. It's a humbler look at the troubled Kratos, with his renewed voice actor Christopher Judge emoting the grumbling and bitter man well. While the game has great candid encounters between Kratos and Atreus—from Kratos being a horrible storyteller and his son roasting him for it along a boat ride, to the two sharing a drink during a rare moment of quiet—the pace of it all is off. It's slow and uneventful with the most thought-provoking moments front-and-back-loaded, even as the combat changes for the better as the game marches onward.
Prestige television, similarly, has started feeling formulaic. For every "prestige" show that breaks the mold, like this year's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story or last year's The Young Pope, there's a True Detective or Westworld ready to dive into expected territory again. In The AV Club's "Not Prestige, Not Trash: The Rise of Mid-Reputable TV," writer Noel Murray argues that mid-tier shows, such as the whole swath of The CW's library, are proof that prestige television isn't necessarily the end-all, be-all of television. Viewers may be just as pumped for a new episode of Riverdale as they would when then next season of The Crown drops on Netflix—arguably even more so with the former.
Meanwhile, with video games it feels like the history of prestige-minded media is now repeating itself in the triple-A space. In following the familiar formula, big budget games are chasing BAFTAs and Game Awards and eyeing landing on the top of as many Game of the Year lists as possible. And lately, the formula's worked—even if it's a largely conventional one. We feel like we've played these games before, but it doesn't matter because this particular one is shiny and new. For television and movies, we face the same dilemma as we repeatedly watch Emmy-bait HBO shows and political biopics around Oscar season year after year.
This isn't to say that prestige-minded video games are inherently a bad thing. When God of War hits its peaks, it soars. The refreshed vision for God of War works on the mechanical level; combat, while not as mindless as its predecessors, only grows more satisfying as the game progresses. (Even if the biggest foes you're facing are usually just another element of troll or ogre, with not much difference by way of the exhilarating bosses of the series' origins.) When the game wrestles with its own mythology and how it parallels strained parenthood, it's genuinely enthralling. (Even if those moments are few and far in-between.) Kratos struggling with learning how to be a good dad is a journey worth seeing.
And then it's weighed down by the prestige game checkmarks. The bloated game boasts not having a single cutaway during its entire runtime, with a close third-person camera hovering on Kratos with some annoyingly shaky camerawork at times. The "no-cuts" throughline quickly loses its effectiveness because players still have to pull up a menu whenever they desire to equip something new or use up some experience points. Players, too, are shown fantastically detailed environments, but are met frequently with loads of invisible walls. It's as if Gandalf is holding up a staff and saying, "You shall not pass this ledge Kratos," when realistically, Kratos could totally jump down from this ledge and onto the snowy bank below. God of War, like a bewildering plotline in Westworld with no character development, wants you to look at but never tangibly (or emotionally) engage with its intricacies. It is specifically designed in this way, where no finicky player is seemingly allowed to mess with it in turn. It is designed with concrete intent.
There will be dozens more prestige games in the years to come. Days Gone, Shadow of the Tomb Raider (continuing the legacy of the renewed, gritty Lara Croft), The Last of Us: Part 2, and Ghost of Tsushima are all gazing up at the prestige video game tag. I imagine once E3 rolls around, we'll see more of the prestige-like games up developers' sleeves as well. (Who will be a sad dad next?) There's no real telling if God of War might actually be an even better game if it loosened up a bit, shed some of its loot-based bloat, and recaptured some of the sillier essence that made so many players fall in love with the series in the first place (maybe dropping the misogyny though). And it's likely that we'll never know, because prestige, asshole anti-heroes, and those beautiful particle effects are what sells. This is our future, for now.
But anyways, call me when there's another Riverdale for triple-A video games like Until Dawn.