Whether you like exploring story-rich environments as prisoners on the lam, immersing yourself in a role-playing game developed in-part by a powerhouse Japanese animation studio, or singing sea shanties with your friends on the hunt for buried treasure, 2018 truly offered something for everyone. 2018’s varied slate of games stood out to me as the most diverse field in recent memory, and yet, I can’t remember a year where the Game of the Year winner was so clear-cut.
The first God of War game debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2005. Considered a masterpiece at the time, the game is now a relic of its era, complete with button mashing, outrageous gore, and a protagonist capable of only one emotion—revenge. (What do you mean revenge isn’t an emotion?) Over the course of two sequels, franchise hero Kratos (a demigod and Spartan warrior) had next to no character development (unless you consider getting even angrier a development). Eight years after the release of the third game, series developer Santa Monica Studio flipped that narrative on its head with the fourth major installment, God of War (2018).
In the original trilogy of core God of War installments, the story began with Kratos overwhelmed in battle as he cried out to Ares, the Greek god of war, for help. Kratos promised to serve Ares for the remainder of his days if the god of war agreed to save him. Ares obliged, and Kratos became a slave to the whims of the gods. Soon after, the gods, ever fickle beings, tricked Kratos into murdering his wife and daughter. As punishment, he was forced to adhere the ashes of his dead family to his skin. Enraged by this treatment, Kratos eventually set out to murder the entire Greek pantheon, including his father, Zeus. Kratos bounced around from one Greek mythological staple to the next, including Pandora’s box, the underworld, and Mount Olympus on his quest for vengeance. (Video game stories were a little different in 2005, okay?)
Meanwhile, the 2018 sequel shifted mythologies, from Greek to Norse. The game’s inciting incident is the death of Kratos’s second wife and the mother of his son. Prior to her death, Kratos promised to scatter her ashes on the highest peak in the nine realms. Though mellowed by age, Kratos is still quick-tempered and sullen. The journey to the highest peak tests his patience and his stubborn son Atreus’s ability to listen to his father’s guidance. Both are forced to harness their resilience to survive the trip and co-exist afterward without the woman who tied them together.
Gruesome deaths, boisterous anger, and melodramatic storytelling defined God of War’s original trilogy. The industry, like the gamers who fuel it, has evolved. This led Santa Monica Studio to reimagine the game for a new era, but few could’ve predicted how drastic the transformation would be. Instead of button mashing brutality, God of War’s combat requires mindful strategy. Enemies types are varied and each has its own assets and vulnerabilities. Instead of a screaming match between gods, God of War focuses on an intimate father-son relationship. A spat between Kratos and Atreus may not pack the punch of a battle between gods, but it delivers far more emotional resonance. Instead of a crusade against those who have wronged him, Kratos is out to fulfill the dying wish of his wife. God of War is a coming-of-age story for some and a quiet musing on how parenthood can change a person for others. Odin, made uncomfortable by Kratos’s presence in the nine realms, is out to kill the Spartan, but this is a far cry from the soap opera of the PS2 classic.
The gaming industry issues such an unwieldy slew of new releases every year that it can be difficult to pinpoint the precise moment in time or game that inspired the change. Indie games, blockbusters, and mobile games have sway on industry trends. With that said, blockbusters typically leave the biggest wake because of the sheer number of eyeballs on those products as compared to an indie. Thanks to the action movies of the early aughts, one bothersome industry (and entertainment-wide) trend, was the use of austere, gray color palettes and depressing settings. From what I can tell, 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was one of the first game to trade bleak, drab corridors for awe-inspiring landscapes. Thanks to Skyrim (and many others like it, I’m sure) every vista in God of War is jaw-dropping. Gone are the sepia-filtered worlds of days past.
Above all else, God of War is a practice in restraint. The fourth game in the series trades the wild, swinging camera of its predecessors, for a fixed, over-the-shoulder viewpoint. In a small industry revelation, the camera never cuts. Because of this, God of War is the most immersive, cinematic experience I’ve ever had in a video game. The question of what to do with the camera has long stumped game developers. For third-person games like God of War, the camera tends to serve as a stark reminder that you’re playing a video game. Shoddy camera design is also a hindrance for combat. God of War seems to have solved this to a degree. Games with untethered, lurching cameras will now feel archaic compared to Santa Monica Studio’s industry-changing decision.
The game pairs its unrivaled visual design with first-class acting. Controversially, Santa Monica Studio replaced long-time Kratos voice actor Terrence C. Carson with newcomer Christopher Judge. Atreus is voiced by Sunny Suljic (Mid90s, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). The Judge-Suljic duo is entirely believable as a father-son team beginning to realize that their quest may have them in over their heads. Tensions build slowly as the Atreus becomes fed up with his aloof father’s discontent, lack of faith in his son, and silence. Kratos becomes disgusted by his son’s impatience, bubbling anger, and failure to listen. The mid-game acquisition of the mediating Mimir (Alastair Duncan), the storytelling disembodied head of the world’s smartest man (it’s a long story), fleshes out the world and adds comic relief.
The sound design is equally inspired; Kratos roars as his Leviathan Axe tears through the reanimated undead Draugrs, whizzes by the nimble Dark Elves, or splinters the skull of a massive troll. Nothing is quite as satisfying as launching the frozen, magical ax at an enemy and, (to reference another Norse weapon) Mjolnir-style, call it back to you. The weapon rarely boomerangs back to you without shredding another foe. Only then will you hear the gratifying thud, signifying the weapon’s return to Kratos’s hand. Like the games that preceded it, God of War does not shy away from ruthless violence. However, the viciousness is motivated by survival this time, not the hate-fueled revenge of previous games. Somehow, the ferocity is easier to stomach that way.
Although God of War could easily be defined by its spectacular set pieces or thunderous boss fights, for me, it’s the moments of tranquility that separate the game from its competition. Much of the game is spent exploring the Lake of Nine, a vast lagoon in Midgard that allows players access to all nine realms. Players will trek through the region (with Mimir and Atreus in tow) via rowboat. Atreus, searching for some form of entertainment, will beg Kratos and Mimir to tell a story. If Mimir obliges, players are usually in for an eloquent, captivating tale revealing the nature of a Norse character, place, or event. If Kratos obliges, players are usually in for an abrupt retelling of a well-known fable, where Kratos will explicitly miss the point of the parable. The fact that God of War makes time for lore-expanding or whimsical moments like this cement the game’s place as a once-in-a-generation experience.
God of War isn’t just my favorite game of 2018—it’s my favorite game of all time.