Square-Enix, and more specifically its subsidiary Eidos, have done video games a great service in 2012. The publisher’s upcoming games, namely Hitman: Absolution and the Lara Croft origin story Tomb Raider, have fueled an ongoing dialog amidst players, developers, and the media regarding gender and sexual violence in video games. The makers of these games haven’t always behaved well—Tomb Raider creator Crystal Dynamics’ retreat, claiming its game did not depict an attempted rape, was the sort of immature act of corporate cowardice that keeps an industry from retaining hard-earned respect. They have at least got people talking about how casual misogyny is a problem in video games and all entertainment. It’s not a new subject, but it is one that needs to be continuously and vigorously addressed.
Sony Santa Monica, the studio behind God of War: Ascension and other games like Journey, is one of the many studios changing its development habits in the wake of Square-Enix’s myriad controversies. God of War: Ascension game design manager David Hewitt told IGN that he and his team have reconsidered depictions of violence against women in its game of ultra-violence.
When asked if there are lines protagonist Kratos won’t cross, he said there most certainly are. “[The] team has a set of rules that define those sorts of things very clearly. There’s nothing about [the combat] that he’s enjoying. There are some things we’ve pulled back from,” said Hewitt, “I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women—the team’s been pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully. There are certain things that carry a different kind of resonance that we don’t want to get into. This isn’t about statement-making in that regard. It’s about fleshing out the character.”
Hewitt’s statements are especially strange in light of the fact that the core of God of War’s story is a condemnation of spousal abuse. The designer even acknowledges this in the interview. “[Kratos] was tricked into killing his wife and family. He’s literally covered in their ashes during every moment. His motivation is violent, bloody revenge, and the milieu of mythology puts us in this distant, exaggerated world.”
God of War has to depict violence against women in order to tell its story. The controversy surrounding Hitman and Tomb Raider is about using depictions of violence against women as exploitation, to provide a cheap thrill, not because they’re trying to tell a quality story. Sony Santa Monica is in peril of making the same mistakes as Crystal Dynamics if it goes too far to avoid controversy.
Sony Santa Monica hasn’t been a champion of gender equality in the past. God of War III director Stig Asmussen told me in an interview in 2010 that the only reason the sex scenes in the series are in the game is because they make Kratos “The Man.” Hewitt and the team should be applauded for wanting to at least make its violent game contextually sound, but it should not be afraid of subject matter because it wants to avoid controversy.