[Note: I'm going to try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but I will be broadly discussing the last few levels of God of War. You've been warned.]
This weekend I finished God of War. It's a great game, and I highly recommend it (for adults, of course). I'm still amazed at how fresh the whole thing felt. There was never any real repetition of locations; each level offered new and different sights and experiences.
However, there were some interesting design choices in the last few levels that got me thinking about the conflict between story-based play and skill-based play. While I found the combat in God of War to be immensely enjoyable, I have to say that story was the driving factor that kept me playing. I found myself looking forward to each new portion of the adventure, anticipating each new flashback/cutscene. I also derived a lot of enjoyment from the playable story elements, the set pieces and environments.
In light of all that, I find it amusing that, after constant defeat at the hands of Ares in the final showdown, I refused to drop from Normal difficulty to Easy, even when the game prompted me. A little background info [this may contain some minor spoilers]: the final fight with Ares includes three sections. The first two are relatively straightforward and contain some great twists. In the final segment of the fight, pretty much all of the powers that Kratos has developed over the course of the game are taken away. The player is left with no magic, and no blades of chaos. Instead, the player has a single sword and is forced to learn a new style of fighting.
Since much of the fighting style that I had developed over the course of the game relied on magic, this final showdown proved difficult. I played the same segment over and over for hours, literally. I can't remember how many times I told the game that I didn't want to set the difficulty to Easy.
I eventually gave in, and after setting the difficulty to Easy, I finished the game in one go. I don't think that I saw a different ending than anyone who finished the game in Normal mode. In fact, I'm pretty sure that aside from the battle itself there was no difference. If story was my main reason for playing, then why didn't I just downgrade to Easy immediately? I would have gotten to bed earlier, that's for sure.
A similar contradiction in my play style came up in an earlier level. Some devilish plaforming took me longer than it should have because I refused to "just get through it." Instead, I insisted on exploring the entire configuration of platforms, looking for orb chests. My desire to move quickly through the story was temporarily suspended by my need to find all the orbs.
Here's where the design choices of God of War come into conflict. David Jaffe has said multiple times that he wanted the game to be story-driven and cinematic. However, some mechanics seem designed to cater more to standard, skill- and achievement-based play. In videogame tradition, different difficulty levels usually offer different rewards. Thus, by presenting different difficulty levels, God of War implies that finishing it in Easy mode might result in a less satisfying ending. After playing the entire game in Normal mode, I was loathe to finish it in Easy mode and risk missing out on a better (or more complete) ending. Likewise, the leveling up of weapons/magic through the red orbs leads to my obsession with finding all the orb chests in a difficult platforming situation.
Now, I'm not necessarily advocating the elimination of difficulty settings or weapon/magic levels. I just think that marrying classic gameplay with an attempt at greater accessibility is tougher than you might think. God of War did a lot of things to make gameplay more accessible, but it seems to me that it could have gone further.
Or maybe I'm just more obsessive than I need to be (or think I am).
The next part of this train of thought is contemplating ways to overcome the issue of story and skill.