Divinity and Design — Comparing Santa Monica's God of War to Its Ancient Inspiration: The Olympians
Greek myth has been a seemingly endless source of material and debate for game designers, writers, artists, and archaeologists for as long as we’ve known about them, if not longer. Due to the first written accounts of these events being jotted down long after they seemingly “happened”, in addition to there being many sources and interpretations, there is no one true Greek myth to pull on. This licence to expand, alter, and fill in was used by Santa Monica Studios’ development of God of War, adding their own tale to the lot while utilising the existing material. But how far-flung is it, and how do their interpretations differ from what could be considered “canon”? Disclaimer: I do not pretend to be any sort of expert in the field, but this is amazingly fun stuff to talk about!
In this four-part epic, I will look at the Olympian gods most will be familiar with, the order preceding them, the mortal heroes often sired by them, and finally, both the monsters they spawned and the beings forgotten.
When discussing Greek myth, it is hard not to discuss the third order of divine beings, the Olympians. These powerful beings are everywhere in both the game and the stories of old, their flaws and rivalries shaping the very world they rule. In God of War, the gods’ presence is known on multiple occasions, with them either communicating with our hero in one form or another or even manifesting in human form to duke it out. Before I start ranting and raving, let’s get the good ones out of the way.
The depiction of Zeus is very accurate. His powerful old-man look is spot on, and his presence is very fitting for the king of the gods. However, I did feel his personality was a bit too murderous all in all. The Romans, opting to convert the Greek gods to their own, named Zeus “Jupiter”, from which we have derived the word jubilant. While not a goof and absolutely vicious when necessary, Zeus did have a happy-go-lucky side and valued proper manners and guest-friendship (xenia). While it’s understandable that the villain can’t be a happy, nice guy, it’s a shame the cloud gatherer is boiled down to a mad despot.
The depiction of Hera as a wine-drunk housewife is also weirdly spot-on, though maybe a bit too much. The god of matrimony was never quite happy with her faithless husband, often placing bitter curses on the objects of Zeus’ desires. This unhappiness, paired with the constantly failed attempts to keep her husband in check, can be seen as reason enough to make her presentation valid. However, I think it's disingenuous to depict Hera as weak and reliant on others, as she is herself a very powerful and, literally, regal being!
Poseidon gets an honourable mention, as his presence is not quite as potent as the others, having his oceanic might be dashed onto the rocks by our lovely smiter of gods, Kratos. He basically looks like Jason Mamoa, and I am here for it. He also uses hippocampi, i.e., water horses, in his battle with the erstwhile god of war, which is appreciated!
Another honourable mention goes to the god of tricksters and fools, Hermes! He is very much the high-energy prankster you’d expect him to be, always quick with a quip and even faster on his feet. His design, however, is slightly puzzling, as three things do a Hermes make: winged sandals (talaria), a funny helmet (petasos), and a double-snaked staff (caduceus). Out of the three, the Santa Monica Hermes has the shoes. And they mess them up too! The whole idea of the winged talaris was to give the mercurial god the ability to fly and zip about as he pleased. In the game, it is the shoes that give the speed, not the god. This is understandable in a game mechanic sense, as Kratos already had wings, but it’s still a far departure from the original myths, in addition to the missing helm and staff.
Helios is a weird one. I’ll be touching upon this point in many beings to come in one way or another, but Helios, the Sun, IS A TITAN. In the original Greek myth, Helios was a Titan whom the affable Zeus decided to spare and forgive, having the Titan assist in, and later take charge of, pulling the chariot of the Sun across the sky each day. Why they decided to make a prominent Titan a regular Olympian, in addition to basically replacing someone else, is a baffling decision in my mind. This is doubly odd, as the Titans themselves are a very visually distinct race! But, odd heritage aside, the look given to Helios is fine, though somewhat plain. He’s basically a dude in shiny armour and is relegated to flashlight duty fairly quickly.
Hephaistos is one of the more disappointing renditions in my mind, though not so much in terms of design, but in terms of backstory. In design terms, he’s pretty spot on. A swarthy man with a gift for the forge, a creative intelligence, and a deformed body. Though in the original myth, he was much more kind and likeable, we can pin that on the whole “corrupting evil” thing God of War III Remastered was going for. No, the big deal is how his body became deformed and battered. In the original Greek myth, Hephaistos was the very first child of Hera and Zeus, meant to become the perfect child that would surely show Zeus how grand a wife Hera was. However, when the baby came out as a swarthy and misshapen thing, Hera cast the infant down from Olympos in disgust. On his trip down, the poor god was beaten and injured by the fall. He got his revenge though and was finally accepted into the Pantheon and even married Aphrodite! His tale is one of acceptance and the perils of shallowness. In the game, however, his form is the result of being pummeled half to death by Zeus, which… I just don’t get it. I suppose it’s to emphasise the Cloud Gatherers' worsening madness, but still. It spits in the face of the original.
Ares is a weird one as well. In terms of looks, he’s pretty dang good! A fearsome giant clad in armour and laying waste all around him, burning hair and beard ablaze. However, a lot has been added to the god’s sphere of influence than is needed. To start with, he has control of the dead and raises an army of monsters and warriors to fight Athens in God of War. While the warriors can be attributed to the god’s intermittent role as a death god, the monsters are another matter. I can understand this being another case of needing things to fight, but I’d argue the enemies could have just been another faction of Spartans just as well. There is also another, somewhat larger, issue with both his design and the forces he commands, but we’ll get to that.
Athena is another odd one. She is absent for much of the games, but her depiction as a voice of reason is pretty apt. Additionally, she is shown as devoted to her father Zeus, which is also true in the Santa Monica adaptation! As we see little of her, there is not much to say beyond this, though SPOILERS her heel face turn at the end of God of War III is weirdly both in and out of character. All of the gods are "human" in the way that they are flawed. In this way, Athena's sudden tyrannical notions make sense, especially when combined with the corruption the gods face. On the other hand, it felt sudden and cheap.
Aphrodite is a god I have little to say about, honestly. She shows up a few times in the games, usually offering power or advice but otherwise staying in the background. However, in God of War III, she is reduced to lying in her bed in a weird room somewhere, just… chilling. Bad enough is the departure from the very spiteful and fiery god who did unspeakable things to people for the simple act of not having enough sex, but all she does is give some backstory and offer… a minigame. Shame on you, Santa Monica. Oh, and fun fact: she’s actually a Titan too, and all the gods are her nieces and nephews.
Hades, the last of our Pantheon, for now, is another one I disliked. In the game, he is a fat butcher with a metal helmet and claws on chains. He works with Zeus and even hangs out on Olympus, both things the mythological Hades would not do to save his life. Game Hades is taunting, uses brute force, and is generally pretty bland and, for whatever reason, portrayed as ugly! In the original myth, all of the gods, even the WINE GOD, are bodybuilders and runway models, and Hades is often depicted as having a dark charm of his own. The Hades of myth is also comparable to the Lucifer of the Christian faith, as he too can be wily and cunning when the need demands it, though also succumbing to the faults and failures the Greek gods are known for.
And there you have it! What do you think of the differences and are there any I missed? Let me have it in the comments and look out for part 2!