God of War Illustrates How Games Can Overcome Their Midlife Crisis

God of War

There’s a scene at the beginning of the new God of War where Kratos kneels down to put his head against a tree right before chopping the ever-loving fuck out of it.

It’s a good scene as he sits there, slowly letting his anger build, knowing that if he were to ever lose control, he’d be right back where he was at the end of God of War III. Which, if it isn’t clear, isn’t a good place to be.

The tree, by the way, is turned into firewood for a pyre. I won’t go into much more detail, but it’s all rather important. It’s also, funnily enough, very different from the opening scenes of previous God of War titles. A franchise built on the sort of ridiculous scales of spectacle that only video games can provide, the series’ different openings have only grown in absurdity. When the series made its debut in 2005, its penchant for blood-soaked gorefests was still pleasantly palatable. After three games of Kratos screaming his way through Greek mythology, however, people seemed to grow tired of the Ghost of Sparta’s familiar razzle dazzle.

Where can a game go after the end?

It’s in the place in between familiar retreads and complete revivals where God of War: Ascension found itself in 2013. Like many other franchises in the world of gaming, God of War: Ascension struggled to find its identity after the series’ main story arc had concluded in God of War III. The Greek Pantheon all but smashed into mush, where else was there to go? The answer, unfortunately, was nowhere special. An admittedly satisfying title in its own right, Ascension failed to live up to is monumental predecessor. Ultimately, it felt more like one of the many handheld God of War spinoff games rather than a substantive main chapter.

It happens to nearly every large video game franchise after their stories are all but wrapped up. Sometimes it takes three games, other times four, but the number of titles in a franchise isn’t what’s important. Sooner or later, every series hits the brick wall of middling adulthood. In a sense, this is their midlife crisis.

For God of War, it has come out the other end a much stronger game. Taking elements from other successful first-party Sony titles, the new God of War is great. A satisfying breath of fresh air that takes a good, hard look at its own bloody roots. It’s also more than that, helping define what the series looks like for a new generation.

Devil May Cry’s ‘Midlife Crisis’

Not every video game franchise is so lucky. Devil May Cry comes to mind as an example, for instance. Say what you will about the games individually, since I know there is still some contention towards the quality of some of them. What’s plain to see, however, is how after the much-beloved Devil May Cry 3, Capcom seemed at an impasse. The game’s follow-up, Devil May Cry 4 (which I like a whole lot, I might add) introduced a new protagonist. Older fans seemed mostly disinterested in the new direction, and the game failed at courting a new audience. After years of silence, Capcom revealed a series reboot. Developed by a whole new studio, Ninja Theory – who were most known for the PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavenly Sword — DmC: Devil May Cry took things in an even more drastic direction.

I’ll be frank: I hated it. The game’s mechanics were actually pretty fluid and the new Dante controlled fairly well, but there’s something about a complete change in aesthetics and tone that just pulls me right out of the experience. Sometimes, drastic changes can work in your favour, like how God of War dropped Mount Olympus for the less explored Norse mythology. Though pulling off such a feat is hard to do. Since we haven’t seen a new DmC game, I’d reckon Capcom didn’t think the venture was worth further investment.

From God of War to Gears of War

I could go on and on listing game franchises that have failed to break through this imagined midlife crisis. Halo, Killzone, Splinter Cell (sort of)… and god, don’t get me started on Sonic the Hedgehog. What’s been more reassuring, however, is the games that have been getting things right, like with Gears of War 4.

Gears of War 4 follows on from Gears of War: Judgement. I’m not a particularly big fan of Gears of War as a whole. I remember loving the first game when it came out, but my fervour over the whole enterprise fell off quickly. The Gears of War games’ trademark machismo was hard to stomach after a while and, although Epic tried its best to bend with the curve, Gears of War 3 felt like the end of an annoyingly brutish trend. There was still gold to mine, of course, and a fourth game was made. Judgement, developed by Polish studio People Can Fly, wasn’t received as well as its predecessors.

It put the Gears of War franchise in a pickle. It was a pillar among first-party Xbox exclusives. Whether people liked it or not, the series helped identify Microsoft’s brand. Rather than leave it be, Microsoft had to turn this perception around. Lo and behold, when Gears of War 4 finally released in 2016, most were pleased.

Sure, Gears of War 4 didn’t light the world on fire like God of War seems to have recently. It did, however, present a different alternative to the tried and true formula that the series had been known for in the past. Much like God of War, Gears of War 4 took a look at its past. In some ways, it’s a meditation on everything that’s come before.

A new generation

The protagonist of the first three games, Marcus Fenix, plays a pivotal role in Gears of War 4 as the new protagonist, J.D. Fenix’s father. Their father-son relationship is at the centre of the game’s narrative and helps provide a springboard for where the franchise can go in the future. We could keep drawing comparisons between the two games, but I think you get the point.

I tend to look at video game franchises as living, breathing things. Some games evolve and change upon every iteration, like Final Fantasy, which helps make every title feel fresh and new. Others continue to try and perfect their own blend of ingredients, like Mortal Kombat. For most, they all arrive at the same crossroads. When players have grown tired of their attractions and their goodwill is almost all but run out, there’s an important transition they must make if they’re going to survive.

A few have shown their ability to change like Resident Evil VII, and God of War makes me feel like the trend is growing. Games that are able to positively reinvent themselves for a new generation means nothing but good things for the industry, and of course us players. Maybe one day we’ll end up getting a good Sonic game after all, but that’s probably wishful thinking.