God of War 3

Macho men and gory detail make this a fetish object for gamers.

Despite their reputation for excessive violence and amorality, video games, on closer inspection, reveal an altogether more conservative canon. As industry apologists are keen to repeat, few video games are certified 18 and, of those, hardly any are committed to delivering truly sick filth. Even last year's cause célèbre, the "airport massacre" scene from Modern Warfare 2, was preceded by an in-game taste warning, lest our delicate sensibilities be offen­ded by the slaughter of innocent civilians for entertainment. Thankfully, the God of War franchise is untroubled by any sense of restraint, morality or common decency. It is as if, with this intoxicating ride through a hyper-brutalised Greek mythos, HBO had remade Jason and the Argonauts (and employed Hieronymus Bosch as art director). Architecture, animation, atrocity - everything within is amplified and rendered in cinematic detail. Grand Guignol has arrived for the high-definition
living room.

God of War 3 casts you as Kratos, the angriest and least sympathetic anti-hero ever to grace a screen, attempting to scale Mount Olympus to kill Zeus. Despite his iconic appearance, the game isn't hugely concerned with character. Kratos is merely a beautifully animated cursor that enables you to deliver optimum atrocity. Granted, if you play the series attentively, you can discern a background knowledge of Greek mythology, but it's not really about story, either. Like the Indiana Jones movies, God of War 3 serves up just enough historical context to secure narrative gravitas.

In recent years, the increased computing power available to developers has led to games with improbably vast environments to explore. Projects such as Grand Theft Auto render conspicuously epic, living worlds and invite you to discover them on your own terms. This is the narrative freedom that video games always promised - the ability to roam untethered to an author and write your own adventure. But this is the antithesis of the God of War experience.

Despite empowering the player with the "rage of Sparta", Kratos is shackled to a narrative rail laid by the developers. The game seldom offers you choice, but rather a set of explicit instructions to be followed. As you guide Kratos down his predefined, brutal path, the camera sweeps through only the most dramatic angles. The game knows where you need to stand to look fantastic and it certainly wouldn't trust you - an amateur - with the camera. You have only to watch the game for a few minutes to realise that this is no bad thing.

Nowhere is this understanding of the language of cinema more evident than in the climax of the showboating opening battle. Picking up immediately where God of War 2 ended, Zeus, a cage-fighting Santa, has summoned the Olympians to defend his realm. So begins a brutal fight with Poseidon, in which the watery god is pummelled into his bloodied, mortal form. As Kratos strides over to complete the job, the camera snaps to Poseidon's point of view, from which your violence is witnessed.

It is a bold inversion, old to cinema but fresh to video games, which climaxes as you are invited to push down the two thumbsticks on the controller in your palms. The screen snaps black. Out, vile jelly, indeed.

God of War 3 is an exquisitely designed fetish object. Architectural pornography, muscled male bodies and shocking violence are carefully measured out for your transgressive pleasure - and yet, for all its excess, it is unable to deliver fully on its aesthetic promise. Occasionally, Kratos finds fragments of manuscript lying on the ground. These are displayed on the screen as text to read, and the experience stalls. It is in such moments, where the game strains towards an idea of "respectable" literacy, that it exposes its insecurities.

God of War 3 hums with energy and intelligence, but, for all its macho swagger, is still trapped awkwardly in the mainstream. When you've invested this many millions in producing a video game, there is only so much transgression that shareholders can stand. As Kratos walks us to the very edges of Sony's corporate taste, the overall effect is of a 21st-century remake of a 1980s video nasty.

Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil