What Game of Thrones didn’t learn from Mass Effect

What Game of Thrones didn’t learn from Mass Effect

As I watched the final episode of Game of Thrones, I felt a sinking sense of ‘eh’. The episode was like a lot of season eight, at times visually impressive (Daenerys’s speech in front of the Unsullied,) occasionally rewarding, (Sansa becoming Queen of the North, Jon finally petting Ghost!), but also confusing (wait, why is Arya leaving to explore?) and often muddled or unsatisfying (Jon stabbed Daenerys real quick, and Bran?). Ultimately, I felt, well, not much of anything. And as the week went on and I struggled with GoT’s rushed finish, I started to feel flashbacks to the ending of another epic that was near and dear to me, Mass Effect.

GoT and Mass Effect might be separated by medium and genre, but the two share some surprising connections. In Mass Effect, the player character, Shepard, must amass an alliance of fractures alien species to face a greater threat, the mysterious Reapers. Much of the later seasons of GoT were focused on Jon Snow’s struggles to build an alliance of the warring Westeros kingdoms to fight the mysterious Night King and the White Walkers. Both GoT and Mass Effect were huge, beloved franchises that focused on a massive cast of characters that fans got invested in and both had trouble sticking the landing, for largely the same reasons.

Mysterious Villains

The original Mass Effect pulled off one of the best, most satisfying twists I’ve seen. It’s revealed that the villain, Saren, is being controlled by his ship, Sovereign and that Sovereign isn’t a ship at all, but an ancient, near unfathomable life form. It takes an entire fleet to kill Sovereign and they just barely pull it off. The game ends revealing that Sovereign is one of thousands of Reapers, a race of synthetic beings that arise once a cycle to destroy all organic life.

The first game did a lot to establish just how devastating the Reapers are. I remember having no idea how Shepard was going to beat them. Likewise, some GoT’s best episodes and moments helped to establish how much of an unstoppable, inevitable force the White Walkers were. Hardhome showed how futile fighting the dead was, and season seven showed how effortless the Night King could bring down even one of Daenerys’s dragons.

The Reapers and the White Walkers were mysterious, powerful and terrifying. Both wanted to wipe out all life and the audience desperately wanted to know more about them. Who made the Reapers? What was the Night King’s deal? And in the writer rooms of both Bioware and HBO, no one had any idea how to actually beat these unstoppable monsters.

Both the Reapers and the White Walkers fall after a brutal final stand in their respective stories, to plot conveniences. The Reapers have an off switch, the Night King is a final boss, beat him and you win the game. The answer to both the Reaper and White Walker problem turned out to be unsatisfying and did a lot to sap both the Reapers and the White Walkers of their menace and mystery.

A Massive and Beloved Cast

ME and GoT had a problem that most franchised would have killed for, a huge cast that people loved. Mass Effect 2 basically put the problem of the reapers on hold to tell a side story and shove even more characters into the mix and it was the best game of the series. GoT was at its best in the early middle seasons where it wasn’t clear if anyone would survive and you clung desperately to your fav.

Perfect little character moments became memes. Favorites developed and the creators listened. Tormund’s role expanded and his crush on Brianne, a throw away joke, became a full-on love triangle (kinda). Garrius and Tali both became romance options. Everyone was having fun, shipping their favorite couples, hoping the character they hated died and that their favorite would get more screen time; then came the ending.

A massive and beloved cast means that you have to give everyone a detailed and satisfying end to their individual story and that is just not going to happen. Mass Effect 3 seemed to pick squadmates out of a hat, side lining some of ME’s beloved cast and introducing new characters like the roided up Vasquez that nobody asked for (he was voiced by Frieddie Prince Jr and I actually liked him by the end). Some characters got little to no time and their endings felt unsatisfying because of it.

Game of Thrones whittled it’s cast down almost arbitrarily at the end, moments that should have felt immensely satisfying, like Cleganbowl, felt very ‘meh’. Some characters like Missandei were done away with for very obvious plot motivations. Both ME and GoT also spent time introducing villains that did nothing and nobody liked. Looking at you Euron Greyjoy and Kai Leng, seriously you two could be the same person for all the impact you had.

Rushed

This all leads to same poor conclusion. In both ME 3 and GoT the plot took over, the pacing picked up a maddening tempo and both rushed, fumbling to the end. You could feel them running out of budget, time or interest and just trying desperately to get it all done. Characters did things that didn’t make sense because they had to be at X place because the plot said so. Moments that both should have been building to like Jon stabbing Daenerys and Shepard selecting the fate of the universe, felt hollow and forced. The excitement that fans had been feeling for years, petered out and turned vicious, there were online petitions, hate mail, cupcakes!

It’s unfortunate, because I actually don’t think that ME 3 and the final season of GoT are bad. Rushed and unsatisfying at times, sure, but they have their moments, points where you remember why you loved the series to begin with. I also believe that both had an Icarus problem, they flew too close to the sun. ME 3 was never going to be able to resolve all it’s threads and beat the Reapers in 3 games, they needed a fourth one for that. GoT too needed a full season just to give the White Walkers a satisfying end and probably another season after that to make us believe that Jon would go so far as to actually kill Daenerys and that Daenerys was really a tyrant, or at least to muddy the waters better. Instead it got one little small season to do both.

For both series it’s interesting how the questions that drove most of the plot and fan speculation turned out to be the least important part. It never mattered what ending Shepard chose, or who sat on the iron throne. In both series, it’s hard to move past the ending because so much of the story was building to–something. We’re now left wondering what do we do with the rest of it? For GoT fans feeling let down, ME might have answer, you let go of the ending and you focus on what you loved in the first place…or you bake cupcakes.

Telltale and Choice

Telltale and Choice

Last month out of seemingly nowhere, Telltale games announced that they were shutting down. Like many gamers I was stunned. While far from its height of relevance after releasing the amazing Walking Dead Season 1, the studio was still working with some of the biggest properties out there: Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman. They had also inked a deal with Netflix to make a Stranger Things game. They seemed to have carved out their own niche in the industry, a bridge between TV and video games.

The internet has been a buzz of blame and think pieces on the closure. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has a well-researched, scathing take-down where he levels the blame at the company’s technology, stale game design and poor working conditions. The working conditions argument is Kuchera’s strongest. It’s depressing to see that Telltale suffered crunches and poor management. But some of Kuchera points, while well argued, feel overly harsh.

Telltale’s engine did feel wobbly, creating stiff character animations and bugs, but Bethesda has been using a version of the same janky engine since Morrowood and people still eat up their games. And I’ve yet to bump into a video game where character animations make it all the way through the uncanny valley. Even the Witcher 3, a god damn masterpiece and my favorite game of all time, has some awkward animations and character model. Any game that’s going to be as story focused as Telltales is going to have issues.

Kuchera’s game design argument is even harsher and I feel like it ignores a depressing truth. Telling stories in video games is hard, making storytelling the sole focus of your game is even harder. And to be fair to Telltale they did try. I played three Telltale games, The Walking Dead Season 1, Tales of Borderlands, and Batman Seasons 1 and 2. And did all three games have a similar vibe? Sure. Where they as Kuchera claims, cookie cutter knocks of the Walking Dead Season 1 with choices and twists I saw coming miles away, no, not at all.

The Walking Dead Season 1 was bleak, shocking and touching. Tales of Borderlands was far better than it had any right to be, hilarious and surprisingly emotional. I would have been happy if the Borderlands series dropped the main games and continued as a Telltale series. Telltale’s Batman did some of the best reinterpretation and deconstruction on comics most reinterpreted and deconstructed character (even wrote a post about the first season). To say the games were all boring, retreads is just unfair.

If Kuchera’s argument is less that the games themselves were all cookie cutter and more that Telltale’s choice system often felt the same regardless of the game you were playing, that I can see. Looking back, I only remember a handful of choices I made in any of the series and very few of the choices changed the outcome to a season. But choice in Telltale game wasn’t about changing the story.

In the moment, while playing a Telltale game, choices felt important. They spiked the drama, gave weight to the scene and helped immerse me in the story. Deciding whether or not to cut Clementine’s hair didn’t save anyone, but it helped establish a bond between Clementine and Lee. Choice was a mechanic, an action to help tell the story rather than a means to change it.

The more impact a studio gives to particular choice means the more work they have to do. A big enough divergence would mean creating two or more wholly different stories, different games even, that might sound exciting, but that means that most players will only experience half of the work a studio puts in. And the more changes you have and the more radical you let those changes be, the less control you have over your story and characters. You might easily end up with some very unsatisfying narratives.

From Mass Effect on, we’ve debated the naked ‘choices’ we bump into in narrative heavy games. Players try to weigh the value of them, becoming upset if they realize their ‘choices don’t matter’. But in truth these choices, never matter. Sure, they might mean that one character lives while another dies, or that you get a good ending as opposed to a bad. At best they are divergent points in the narrative, giving a slightly different journey, but one that will eventually lead to the same end. The player is like a switch operator at a station deciding which ‘track’ the train will go down, but there’s only ever so many tracks.

What Telltale understood best was that choice isn’t about how the story reacts to the player, so much as how the player reacts to the story. Choices often effected dialogue and a particular scene rather than the aggregated season. You choose to be cruel or kind, serious or brooding and other reacted. Your choice was the emotion, not the outcome. You were engaging with the narrative and not deciding it. Telltale was far from perfect, but I’ll miss them and their use of choice.

An Ode to Spider-man

An Ode to Spider-man

Insomniac’s Spider-man game releases on Friday, and I am very much feeling the hype. So, in honor of everyone’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, this week’s post is an ode to Spider-man.

Spider-man was the first character that I loved. I discovered him as a kid when I was dealing with my own sense of identity. He was nerdy, but funny, shy in his personal life, but also a hero in a colorful costume. His conflicts went beyond super villains, and into the mundane. Doing the right thing was hard for Spider-man, not because the moral decision was tough, but because putting on the mask and fighting crime often meant sacrificing something that Pete Parker wanted.

I was bad at time management and expectations as kid. I loved reading and writing and was generally considered a ‘know-it-all’, but I only had okay grades. I would read other subjects in classes that didn’t interest me. Even in the ones that I did like I turned in assignments late or not all. The year I graduated high school the history department didn’t give out an overall achievement award like the other departments. One of my history teachers pulled me aside after the awards to tell me that the history teachers all agreed I showed the most interest and knowledge in the subject, but they couldn’t give me the award because of my grades.

Suffice to say I got a lot of ‘wasting potential’ speeches just like Peter Parker. I felt deeply ashamed after every one. I didn’t have the excuse of great power or great responsibility but seeing a character that I knew was smart and heroic get the same lectures and have the same reaction was powerfully relatable. It gave me hope, maybe I wasn’t a dumb loser, maybe there could be something special about me too, maybe I was more than my disappointments.

And Spider-man knows about disappointment. The character has always been made great by his defeats. Running off to stop the Green Goblin means leaving Mary-Jane alone at the dance. Throwing away his costume to win her back means people die. Self-less or selfish Spider-man loses. It’s super cathartic to read a spider-man story when you’re feeling down. Pete Parker suffers unlike any super hero out there. Yes, he deals with melodramatic trauma, but he also has normal sucky things happen to him like losing his job or disappointing the woman who raised him.

One of the best examples of this is Amazing Spider-man 617. The story is actually focused on the Rhino, meant to reinvent the character from one-note villain to real person and it delivers (seriously, it’s one of my favorite single issues ever, nearly ten years later and the story is still with me). In the issue, absolutely everything goes wrong for Spider-man. He’s not able to keep his promise to the Rhino, he’s not able to protect anyone. He does everything he can, and he still fails, people die. The story ends with Peter Parker in the unemployment line. It’s grim.

And yet despite this constant barrage of failure and depressing situations Peter Parker is one of the most upbeat super heroes around. He doesn’t brood. He copes with humor, he’s hopeful. Unlike Batman who faced similar trauma and obsesses over it, Spider-man focuses on what he still has, not what he lost.

Part of that has to do with his origins. Spider-man is older than Batman when Uncle Ben dies, a teenager rather than a child. He also feels complicit. Guilt motivates him at first rather than vengeance, but it’s more than that. Peter didn’t lose everyone, he still has Aunt May.

Now if written (or drawn) poorly Aunt May comes across as an embarrassingly anachronistic grandmother, or a plot device to pile on guilt and conflict. If done well she’s Peter’s family; someone who he wants to make proud and who loves him. Aunt May humanize Spider-man, her being there doesn’t let him brood over his loss. She lost just as much, they help each other cope, they have to be strong for each other.

Failure and family are what makes Spider-man unique amongst super heroes. People don’t love him because he got bit by a radioactive spider, but because he’s us. He’s balancing a thousand different obligations, needs and responsibilities. He’s trying to make it in a tough city, find love and stay close with family. He does his best, he fails, he jokes about it and he keeps trying. He’s imperfect, but there’s something special about him, something others only get a glimpse of. And when we need him, when we really, really need him. He’ll be there.

Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

It’s a hectic time in my life. I’m in a middle of a move, work is going through some major changes and the summer has been busy. I was in dire need of some comfort, so I started another play through of the Witcher 3, my favorite game of all time.

Considering all the praise lavished on Witcher 3 when it launched that might not seem like a controversial pick. But I’m a lifelong Zelda and JRPG guy. Before the Witcher 3 either Persona 4 or, the forever classic, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was my favorite game. I couldn’t even make it past the first hour of The Witcher 2, the combat was confusing and unintuitive and nothing about the world grabbed me. Even when I first started playing the Witcher 3 it took me sometime to get into it and care about the wolverine-esque Geralt of Rivia.

But then there was the side quest with the noon wraith and the well. It broke the standard ‘talk to person A, kill x number of things, return to persona A’ side quests I’ve been playing all my life. The Well quest was detailed, invoking both folklore and forensic science. There was a mystery, a tragedy to it. Other characters would mention the events around it, and not just as clues to where the quest was, but as something that was in their village’s shared history. The whole game was like that.

I’ve had hours long conversations with my roommate, a game developer, about the Witcher 3, trying to figure out what makes it so special to me. It’s very similar to a lot of other open world RPGs; there’s stats and inventory management, fast travel, a HUD, combat that becomes repetitive and easier the higher you level up. It’s definitely a video game, but when I’m playing it, it feels so much more immersive.

The Witcher 3 is like reading a book, like reading a book when you’re twelve and everything is exciting and powerfully engrossing. Yes, the bones that Project Red was working with, the Wicther Fantasy series, gave them a detailed and fascinating world. Yes, they polished the hell out of the thing. Yes, they picked a smart way to structure their story with the hunt for Ciri. All those things can make a good game, but a special one?

What is the secret ingredient behind it all? It’s difficult to say, and even after all that debating with my roommate and three play-throughs, I still don’t know exactly. Most people say it’s the complex side quests and while they are truly amazing, I feel like they are part of a bigger design maxim. A maxim that echoes from every detail in the game: ‘make it a real place.’

Almost everything in the Witcher 3 feels real and not a digital playground where I grind and fight bosses. Just look at the open world. Velen is a war torn no man’s land. Armies glare at each other from across the river, ghouls roam battlefields eating the dead, deserters become bandits and villages are full of refugees. As you get closer to Novigrad things quiet down as the war has yet to touch it.

Novigrad’s surroundings are idyllic, with rich farmers and estates and just as you would logically assume, the land around Novigard is safer than Velen. And yet you head towards Novigrad in the middle of the game and start out as a low level player in Velen. You move from danger to safety rather than the other way around.

It feels like world building rather than gameplay is driving the design. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t secrets and dangers around Novigard, but they make sense in the context of the world. The dangers are tucked away, more hidden. Gangs rather than bandits, drowners near water rather than ghouls and nekkers roaming where-ever. If it doesn’t make sense for an enemy type to be in a location based on their lore, they’re not going to be there, even if that enemy would present a greater challenge to the player.

The Witcher 3’s goal is ‘world first’ and it’s that design that makes the side quests branch and change and not have neat endings. They move like stories and not check lists. The world functions like a world and not an amusement park. Consequences are unforeseen, characters are complex with grounded motivations. You pick a point on the map and start moving, the winds howl, barren battlefields slowly give way to muddy swamps and the trappings of a video game disappear as the story grows lusher. Like an old paperback with a cracked spine, the Witcher 3 is a game I’ll always return to.

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?

God of War and Norse Mythology

God of War and Norse Mythology

****Big Spoilers Ahead*****

The new God of War isn’t just about Kratos’s redemption. It’s also an origin story to one of the most mysterious characters in myth, Loki the trickster god. At the end of the game you find out that Kratos’s wife, Faye, was a giantess that received a prophecy about a child and the end times and left the giants to go make that prophecy a reality. Kratos reveals that Faye wanted to name their son Loki not Aretus.

To those familiar with Norse myth, or marvel movies, that reveal might seem sinister, but it’s not presented that way. Rather it’s a heartfelt moment. Aretus discovers a part of his past, the giants. And Kratos and Aretus finally say goodbye to Aretus’s mother together.

Aretus, the Loki of God of War, seems like he will be a very different figure than the Loki of myth, but maybe not that different. Mythology is meant to be reinterpreted. Stories often have multiple endings and shifts in relationships between characters. Each retelling is a new adaptation building on the bones of the old. And there are enough gaps in myth and ways to view Loki’s actions to make him into a sympathetic character. And the new God of War  has already shown that it knows how retell and re-frame a good myth.

One thing that the original God of War series got right about mythology is that the gods are jerks. The amazing Myths and Legends Podcast (cannot recommend enough) calls Zeus mythology’s ‘greatest monster’ and the God of War series dug into that. In Norse myth the Aesir can be just as bad, especially to the giants, who while not exactly benevolent, don’t deserve all the tricks and murdering that the Aesir inflicted on them.

The new God of War casts the giants in a sympathetic light, even making monsters like the World Serpent into polite allies. It accomplishes this by simply telling the actual myths. Throughout God of War you travel the Lake of the Nine listening to Mimir, your friendly served head and guide. He tells Aretus different Norse legends, but from the giant’s point of view, making the Aesir the antagonists rather than the heroes.

In other ways God of War expands upon ideas already in Norse mythology like Freya marrying Odin even though Freya was Vanir (a different ‘tribe’ of gods.) I don’t love God of War’s reinterpretation of Bladur, but its exploration of his invulnerability makes him more complex. Baldur’s immortality becomes a curse, he can’t die or feel pain, but he can’t feel anything and rather than be grateful to his mother Freya for the gift, he resents her. Also Bladur gives you the biggest hint that Aretus is really Loki pre-end game. Freya freaks out when she sees the ‘green’ arrows that Aretus has. I knew that Bladur dies from an arrow made of mistletoe and leapt out of my seat with an ‘oh damn!’ at that scene.

Loki himself is a figure ripe for this kind of re-framing and exploration. In myth he’s not an Aesir or a giant, though he is connected to them both. Loki hangs out with Odin and Thor, an outsider as much as core member of Asgard. And his tricks help the gods as much as they hurt them. He doesn’t become a true villain until Ragnarok when his monstrous children with a giantess: The World Serpent and Fenrir the wolf, are destined to kill the gods. Loki himself kicks off Ragnarok by orchestrating Baldur’s murder.

In God of War Aretus-loki (Areki? Lotus?) wounds Baldur with a mistletoe arrow by mistake. He does so in an attempt to save Freya from Baldur who is set on killing her. Aretus is presented as less a trickster and more as clever. He’s good at languages and riddles and can work magic unlike his Dad who just brute forces his way through. Aretus does have a bit of Loki’s mean streak, though he apologizes and learns from it.

The God of War version of Loki is probably going to be closer to the God of War version of Tyr. There’s not a lot myths involving Tyr. He’s the Norse god of war and loses a hand to Fenrir in order to bind the wolf. God of War uses the gaps in Tyr’s myth to expand the character. He’s the anti-Kratos, a god of war that isn’t violent and aggressive, but rather one that decides ending wars should be his role. He becomes something of a diplomat god and works against the Aesir to save the giants before disappearing.

Aretus-Loki will probably grow in the next God of War games in a similar way. He will be clever and tricky, but not wicked. He will be molded by myth, but not shaped by it, becoming a unique character all his own. But he will still owe something to the Lokis of myth and pop culture that came before him. A reaction to them, a retelling, the way myths are meant to be.