Having been living in 2018 for a few weeks now, I can tell you that history research is still as boring as it always has been. Pouring through dusty and magnificently dull text books, scrolling through line after line of dubiously edited and grammatically suspicious online articles, and navigating the spider’s web of links on Wikipedia turns research into a formidable challenge upon anyone’s stamina.
By contrast, playing video games is, bar the occasional rage-quit, fun. There’s a host of video games out there that have something interesting to say about the history of homo sapiens, our myths, beliefs and cultures. To restate its remit, that’s what Playing With History is all about. Picking out these tasty titbits of trivia and displaying them for you on a silver tray like some sort of overpaid maître d’.
With the latest in the God of War series due out in a few short months, it seemed a good idea to take a closer look at this homicidal mythological maniac and discover what we can learn from playing his games.
Ancient Greek myths, and the gods, heroes, monsters and mortals that inhabit them, are dirty and gruesome. This perception has changed of late, as they’ve seen a great deal of sanitisation over recent years in a wide array of media, from the pearly white smile of Disney’s Hercules to Sam Worthington displaying all the charisma of a brick with nice hair in Clash of the Titans. In these versions of the myths, the goodies are good, the baddies are bad and everything is wrapped up with a neat bow by the closing credits. In God of War, on the other hand, the gods, heroes, monsters and mortals that Kratos carves up on his quest for revenge are utterly grotesque. And this is much more in keeping with the original stories.
Take Hercules, for example, or Heracles, to use his original Greek name before those pesky Romans absorbed him into their culture. This was a hero born out of, to put it politely, an illegitimate affair – rape, if you want to put it more bluntly. Zeus, king of the gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, liked getting some with all those pretty mortals hanging around the place and he would use any illicit means within his formidable powers to achieves this; be that transforming himself into a swan for a spot of gentle bestiality or, as in this case, turning himself into the woman’s husband so that she would be tricked into bed with him. That’s what happened to Alcemene when Zeus pretended to be her husband Amphitryon, who has actually away from home fighting in a war. From these beginnings, Hercules wasn’t always ‘heroic’ in his behaviour.
He murdered his music teacher, Linus, with his own lyre because he was critical of his string plucking skills. He later murdered his own family in a maddened rage, which was why he had to seek redemption by performing those twelve labours – the clean version of him having to prove his godliness is pure cinema fabrication. He also murdered King Eurytus of Oechalia and wiped out his entire family because the aged king wouldn’t let him marry his daughter. He even had time for a fun bit of genocide, as he mercilessly hunted down the entire Centaur race for having wronged him.
No Greek hero is all bad though, and he performed a number of good deeds, vanquishing monsters throughout the known world. Yet, his intentions behind these triumphs always seemed to be in appeasement of his own ego and because he could, rather than questioning if he should.
That’s why, when Kratos finally catches up with Hercules in God of War III, the characterisation of the demi-god is spot on. In this version of the myth, Hercules is wracked by jealously and envy of his brother Kratos, who he views as being Zeus’ favourite. Kratos became the God of War making him famous, Hercules’ theory goes, whilst he was stuck fulfilling meaningless labours such as cleaning out the Aegean stables and stealing an apple. Taking everything we know about Hercules’ ego, his unstoppable power and his pursuit of fame, had a character such as Kratos turned up in the original myths, then perhaps this is the version of Hercules we would know of today. Bitter, angry and unproven.
Then there’s Theseus, slayer of the minotaur. He crops up in God of War II and decides to block Kratos’ path to visit the sisters of fate. This is clearly a very bad idea for Theseus, as people getting in Kratos’ way tend to have their arms ripped off and then get slapped with the soggy ends. Theseus comes across as a total villain and henchman of Zeus, but was Theseus really so villainous in ancient myth? The answer is a resounding yes. Again, within Theseus is the dichotomy of good and evil that features in all Greek Heroes. On the one hand, he founded Athens and on the other… he kidnapped underage women. Theseus and his sneaky companion Pirithous, were genuinely known and heralded as ‘great abductors of women’.
They hatched an absolutely insane plot to steal themselves a couple of wives. Theseus chose Helen (that’s right, the one with the face the would later launch a thousand ships) and they kidnapped her with the intention of keeping her until she was old enough to be married. Classy.
Pirithous, for utterly bonkers reasons known only to himself, decided he wanted Persephone as a wife. Why he didn’t think this was a bad idea, considering that Persephone was the wife of Hades and a goddess in her own right, is beyond me. Anyway, the result of their crime was that they both ended up being transmogrified into rocks. So, don’t feel too bad that Theseus’ fate in God of War II was to have Kratos cave his skull in with a door.
Now, in God of War IV, it will be the turn of the denizens of Norse Mythology to feel Kratos’ wrath. Which gods, monsters and heroes will Kratos be killing off this time? That’s precisely what next month’s Playing with History will be exploring. I’m sure you can’t wait!