Watching God of War Ragnarok Is More Fun Than Playing It
I don't think playing games is necessarily the best way to enjoy them anymore.Games Features
God of War Ragnarok has arrived and with it the usual clamor for the hottest new thing. Everyone is rushing to play through it, and conversations online have grown from a quiet whisper to an overpowering roar as folks have been picking away at it. Soon enough, I’m sure it’ll explode and every detail of the game will be spelled out in big bold letters everywhere and everyone will dissect what they thought of the gameplay and the visuals and the story and the characters and the twists Kratos’ latest journey takes. I’m sort of excited to take part in some of those conversations too, though decidedly not all of them, because I’ve decided I probably won’t play the game. I enjoy watching it too much to play it.
God of War Ragnarok is the latest in a series of games that have been spectacles for as long as I can remember. The end of the original God of War had Kratos grow to kaiju-sized proportions in order to do battle with Ares himself. God of War 2 famously begins with a battle against the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant gold statue you get to butcher. And God of War 3 sees Kratos scaling Mt. Olympus atop Mother Earth in order to wage his final campaign against the Olympic pantheon. Killing Poseidon literally drowns Greece. Suffice to say, God of War has always wielded spectacle to make arresting sequences. And that carried over to the Norse saga that began with 2018’s God of War, which shifted the scale to a more intimate level—like the superpowered brawls players had with Baldur— and leveraged a more advanced and involved camera that at least succeeded in making it an interesting game to watch. In retrospect, though, maybe it was playing God of War that soured it for me, because for as long as I can recall, I’ve loved being a spectator to those games more than anything.
I’ve never loved Kratos or the things he’s spent the last decades doing. Kratos’ coldness and sheer brutality were never tenets that resonated with me. How that manifested—namely goring everything and everyone with a pulse in Greece—never particularly endeared me to him either, or made him seem cool. He’s just been a big asshole for seemingly ever and a symbol of unrepentant, indiscriminate violence, and somehow that’s turned him into an icon. And though God of War’s combat has always been exemplary, it’s never really won me over, since I’m not someone who even really cares for most third-person action games. This means that the act of actually playing the games has always felt forced and alienating. And with their latest evolution, the God of War games have also become bloated beyond belief. So as you’re perhaps beginning to understand, there’s precious little about these games that has ever actually enticed me beyond the sheer sight of it all in action.
Watching these games feels like a radically different experience from playing them, and the former feels dramatically better. For example, I no longer need to embody Kratos, which, not for nothing, is deeply relieving. While it isn’t true of everyone and every experience, I need to resonate with a videogame character in some part, even if only to understand their conflicts and perspectives. Chalk it up to how I’m wired, but not having to occupy his boots and be Kratos lets me sit back and enjoy his characterization and journey in a different light—a light I’ve enjoyed many a television show or movie in. Getting to watch others play God of War Ragnarok also frees me of the frustration of having to play it. I no longer need to try to acclimate to a series of systems that just don’t work for me, allowing me to just enjoy the sights and sounds of the game. And boy are there a lot of those.
While watching my friends take on Thor early on in Ragnarok, I was constantly struck by the look of it all. The way the camera closely follows you two as you careen through the sky is admittedly impressive. The storm that seems to gather as you work through the phases of the fight lends the fight a tempestuous ambiance. The moment Kratos’ Leviathan Axe and Mjolnir collide in midair is appropriately epic. However, the fight sprinkled throughout these scenes fell short. It seemed rote and familiar, a standard boss encounter with style that failed to be much else or to shake things up. It looked amazing, though, and this realization stuck with me for as long as I watched the game: God of War Ragnarok’s a grand visual statement wrapped around a game that’s merely serviceable.
This isn’t the greatest surprise because modern prestige games lend themselves incredibly well to being enjoyed as a spectator more than a player. PlayStation’s stable of heavy hitters—the God of Wars, Uncharteds, and Lasts of Us of the world—have especially looked to other mediums, namely television and film, for inspiration on how to “mature” their storytelling, lifting aesthetics and themes from “prestige” drama without much consideration for how it disrupts the flow of a game. A lot of people, myself included, have joked that this has transformed these titles into “sad dad” games, where a morally conflicted man works through his feelings while also accepting his role as a paternal figure in a younger character’s life. This genre, if you’ll allow me to call it that, typically places greater emphasis on story, sometimes at the cost of how it actually plays. These games are also vehicles for—you might’ve guessed this much—graphical power. God of War Ragnarok realizes vistas and characters in unbelievable detail in order to be a strong visual storyteller. But while it is awe-inducing to walk over to a cliffside and take in the sights, I’m finding I don’t need to have a controller in my hand to enjoy that moment.
The game wants the player to witness these sights and be slack-jawed more than they want my character to be. The story twists and turns in order to impress all of us at home, not Kratos. The cinematography of God of War, including the “one-shot” shtick, is a technical feat that projects advancement and progress rather than nuance. I can hardly think of a sequence that leveraged the momentum of such a technique that wasn’t more or less a cutscene, meaning I had little to do with its magic. God of War is not the only series of games guilty of these faults, but it is the latest in a line of them propagating these tenets. And every one of them has pushed these games further away from what I look for these days, meaning that more than ever they just fall kind of flat to me as gameplay experiences. I get more from watching them than playing them; why go to that effort, then?
Games like God of War Ragnarok just aren’t my cup of tea, especially if I have to play it myself. So why shouldn’t I treat it as a huge showcase and spectacle meant to be enjoyed second-hand, just like some hot new show on HBO Max—a streamer currently hyping the upcoming TV show based on The Last of Us, a game that always wanted to be a TV show. Sometimes I sit and think about what exactly I get out of playing these games besides busywork and my mind comes up blank. Other games both big (Red Dead Redemption 2) and small (Celeste) have managed to wring stories and experiences that have lasted in my head and heart from their marriage of gameplay and story. God of War Ragnarok, for one reason or another, feels like a Frankenstein game whose ends were sewn together unevenly, leading me to question how they support one another to reach similar heights. And I’m afraid I can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, though I’m more than happy to hear someone out who might have what I’m looking for. In the meantime I’m going to sit back and enjoy the view while somebody else does all the work.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.