To explain why the titan-clobbering epic God Of War III gave me the yawns, I have to tell you about this game I just discovered named Tumblin’ Monkeys.
It’s a board game for young kids, and like most kids’ games, it’s partly a toy and it’s largely based on luck. It’s played with a big, hollow, plastic palm tree. The players stick skewers horizontally through the tree, as randomly as possible – remember, this is kids setting it up – and then they take a bag of 30 plastic monkeys and pour it into the open top. Everyone takes turns removing the sticks that hold up the monkeys, causing them to fall to the ground. Whoever makes the most monkeys fall is the loser.
When you start the game, the primates clot at the top in a big lump, like leftovers choking a garbage disposal. Every turn, the monkeys may fall, either one by one or in huge clumps. If you’re careful, you can minimize the damage, but get stuck with a bad turn and you have to eat some monkeys. The whole design is inelegant, and that’s the point: it’s capricious, chaotic, and hilarious.
In fact, it’s capricious in a way you rarely see in video games – which brings me to God Of War III. To borrow Soren Johnson’s dichotomy, the game has a theme that’s at war with its mechanics: it looks like Clash Of The Titans, but it plays as gentle as Zelda. And roughing up the gameplay would have gone a long way to fixing the problem.
Kratos feels rage. That’s the essence of his brand: he’s angry, he wants vengeance, he kills gods, he eviscerates centaurs. Everyone and everything pisses him off. Grrrrrrrrrr! His constipated anger-puss graces everything from the game’s box cover to the back of the special-edition PSP. And God of War III is where the rage pays off – where he brings the fight to Olympus and wipes out polytheism.
Except nothing in the game enrages us. Yes, the backstory sets us up for vengeance, but the experience itself is polished smooth and gracefully paced. Big battles are followed by quiet searching; tricky puzzles are placed between the spectacles, making us work our brains before we mash our buttons. The fact that Kratos plummets from Mount Olympus to Hades and has to journey all the way back again helps to explain why the game is so long, but why does he stop for everything but a picnic and a crossword along the way?
In other words, the game is paced for a living room lizard, not an enraged Spartan. Which makes sense, because we aren’t supposed to relate to or sympathize with the Spartan in the first place. God Of War III deliberately distances us from the star. When Gaia is climbing up Mount Olympus, the camera pulls back so far that Kratos – who we’re still controlling – is just a tiny blade-swinging figure almost camouflaged on her arm. In other scenes, his diminution trivializes his rage: when he’s fighting a much larger foe, he comes off as an angry Chihuahua, overcompensating for his size. And of course, there’s that first boss fight, where the camera actually switches to the perspective of Poseidon – right as Kratos is beating him to death and plugging his thumbs into his (our) eyes. Okay, we get it: we are not Kratos. Kratos is not a character to identify with but a fascinating object to watch and control, not unlike Q-Bert.
But even without a bond to our protagonist, Santa Monica Studio could have delivered the thrill of a good rage. What Zeus did to Kratos, the game could do to us. Think about how you feel when you’re angry: you’re frustrated. You’re thwarted. You feel harm and you can’t predict or stop it, and it keeps up until you finally lash out – to take control of your circumstances, by beating everything around you into submission. Ask a three-year-old about tantrums, and you have the essence of rage.
God Of War III’s gameplay could have been more volatile, and your actions, more destructive. Think of Canabalt: the fact that the terrain is random may seem unfair – how far you run depends on which buildings you’re given, and how well you can handle them – but the unfairness works because jeez, it’s a game about the end of the world! Or Left 4 Dead, where the AI director pretends there’s no method to its madness – and until you get used to it, it’s genuinely nervewracking. As for my new household fave, Tumblin’ Monkeys, it isn’t an angry game, but it is an exciting one, because you’re never sure when a big clot of monkeys will come crashing down on your watch. Replace the palm tree with Mount Olympus and the monkeys with the classical Greek bestiary, and get a bunch of toddlers to help with the level design, and then you’ll have a game that’ll get a rise out of you.
Chris Dahlen writes about games, music, pop, and tech, and he’s the editorial director for Kill Screen Magazine. You can find him online at @savetherobot, or drop him a line at chris [at] savetherobot.com.