God of War is a Fantasy about Your Dad Not Sucking

(Contains full spoilers for everything that happens in the new God of War)

At the final confrontation of God of War 3, the culmination of 50 hours and seven games’ worth of the series’ signature violence, the camera changes to a 2D perspective and you fight Zeus like you’re playing Mortal Kombat. This is the beginning of the end for Kratos and the series’ single theme of vengeance and all the selfishness that comes with it, and suddenly the camera picks a new perspective, as if to say:

“Here, look at this! Isn’t this cool?”

In an interview with Giant Bomb, Corey Barlog: the director of the new God of War noted that in every game that preceded it the camera was the extension of the game developers. The player had no control over what was being shown to them, they merely controlled Kratos within the frame. The new God of War, he’s keen to highlight, has a player-controlled camera that never cuts. You’re not being shown something anymore. You’re doing it.

These two points, taken together, interest me. Because the most honest moments of the new God of War are when you’re participating in the same savage, nihilistic violence of the series’ past from this new perspective. Violence it claims to regret. The player’s first encounter with a Norse god devolves into a vicious scrap between two men who cannot chill the fuck out. The fight plays out like the nastiest and most entertaining in the series. The game wrests control away from you at brief moments to transition the fight, a bare-knuckle combo slips seamlessly into scripted choreography and back.

If this new God of War succeeds at anything, it’s in taking the series’ adolescent fascination with staged violence and translating it into something more immediate. Here you are, strangling a thinly-disguised Jeremy Davies in the dirt as he screams at you to make him feel something, all because both of your respective machismo's couldn’t stand to be within 10 feet of each other. This, the new God of War posits, is the necessary violence. The protecting your family violence. The stand your ground violence. And it’s just as childish and destructive as it was 13 years ago.

According to this new God of War, Kratos’ past was full of the wrong kind of violence. As Kratos says himself, he killed many that deserved it, and many that didn’t. This is true. The large majority of the Pantheon who died at his hand were colossal dicks, and their cruel and demeaning deaths were somewhat deserved. Watching Kratos tussle with the Greek gods of myth was a “I don’t really care who wins” situation. If you’ve been consuming voyeuristic depictions of men hurting people from a young age, as many of us have, the God of Wars past are noteworthy only in how thoroughly and uncritically they celebrated them.

But God of War (2018) isn’t really interested in discussing Kratos’ violent past. It has already made up its mind. Kratos went too far, was too cruel and didn’t know when to stop. The game makes a big deal about Kratos’ family troubles, especially Zeus’ murder at his hands. It’s bizarre that this is the callback, the thematic lynch-pin which ties the new God of War’s themes of parenthood, masculinity, violence, and regret to the rest of the series, and not the dozens of innocent men and women that Kratos butchered purely because they were in his way. Zeus (no stranger to patricide himself) genuinely meant Kratos harm for no reason other than that he was a threat to his godly supremacy, and while I generally frown on killing your dad, it’s not like he didn’t have it coming.

But for the new God of War, this cycle of children murdering their parents for letting them down, for not being good enough, is the cycle Kratos aims to break. That’s the violence he regrets, the violence he doesn’t want to pass on to his son. He constantly rebukes his son, Atreus, for a lack of discipline, for it’s disciplined violence that the game is wholeheartedly in favour of. The right people must die for the right reasons, but only when they threaten your survival. He wants Atreus to be better than him, and this is framed against the revelation to all that he killed his father. Implicit in this is that he doesn’t want Atreus to grow up to hate him, to want to kill him. “We must be better” he growls as he snaps Baldur’s neck, who moments prior, was throttling his mother for robbing from him a lifetime of feeling. Better how, exactly?

The answer is in God of War’s strange and stilted examination of parental roles, particularly paternal ones. The experience of playing Kratos is the process of solving problems, of overcoming obstacles to his and Atreus’ journey. Puzzles, enemies, and level-geometry stand in your path and the game strings these elements along in alternating chunks. It’s a slow, relatively tension-free meander through a parade of minor inconveniences, almost all of which are solved violently. The game’s breakthrough mechanic: throwing and retrieving the axe, is used in almost every puzzle to freeze mechanisms or move objects. The Blades of Exile return as more than just a mechanical and thematic callback, they can be used to transfer energy from one glowing node to another in a sort of whip-based relay. Even when trying to solve a physics puzzle, Kratos’ only verbs are violent ones.

Even Atreus’ contributions to the puzzles involve using shots from his bow to power up crystals and set off explosions. For a game that is so concerned about its violent legacy, violence is woven into every aspect of its playing. Bar the act of climbing, there is nothing in God of War that Kratos can’t solve with a bit of thinking and the judicious use of force, and this goes largely unchallenged by the narrative. At one point, Kratos rebukes Atreus for butchering a helpless, belligerent Modi. Atreus responds with the remark that he thought Kratos was teaching him how to kill, to which Kratos replies that he is only doing so to ensure his son’s survival.

God of War isn’t really interested in discussing why teaching someone to kill implies that killing is necessary, or even desirable. It’s more interested in the question of what violence represents as a metaphor for male behaviour more generally. It never interrogates whether violence is ever the appropriate response. Kratos’ blind, indescriminate violence in the previous games is framed as the result of allowing your anger to control you. His more reserved, expedient violence in the new God of War is done out of necessity, representing his personal growth and maturity.

Kratos even shows remorse at tearing out an troll’s heart, something he did six times before breakfast in past games, as it’s needed to concoct a potion that will revive a sick Atreus. Again and again, Kratos does what the narrative says must be done for the good of his family and this is the same in hour one as it is in hour 30. This, the game says, is fatherhood. Good Parenting. Because Kratos’ narrative arc isn’t about him accounting for his violent self and changing his ways so that his son might not repeat his mistakes. That would require him to model any sort of behaviour that wasn’t at least partially consistent with his worst self.

Instead, it’s about Kratos learning to talk to his son, to explain why he is the way he is and to tell, rather than show, Atreus how not to repeat his mistakes. He already regrets what he did as a younger man, he has changed his nature for something slightly better. The main tension in the game comes his inability to convey this, which is why the story is actually about four or five emotional conversations divided and distributed evenly between all the murder and puzzling. It regularly feels like a conversation that could lead into a genuine breakthrough in Kratos and Atreus’ relationship is halted a fifth of the way in with a “Speak not of it, Boy” to be resumed later.

For the first half of the game, the narrative toys with making the player identify more with Atreus than Kratos before retreating to the safer ground of “Parenting’s real tough you guys.” In another world with a better script, God of War is about the fact that your father will never be comfortable with being emotionally honest with you, that he would rather you become as closed-off and angry as him than confront the damage together.

The ideal masculinity, according to the game , is one where your dad is honest with you about how he fucked up and how he doesn’t want you to fuck up. It’s one where a man does only what is necessary, but what the game considers necessary is muddy at best. There’s no interest or desire from the game to interrogate this extremely prevalent idea of masculinity. Anger and violence are acceptable to God of War’s writers as long as they are appropriate and proportional to the perceived threat. However, these questions of what kinds of masculine expression are acceptable exist in a narrow frame. There’s the abiding sense that they cannot imagine a masculinity without violence, that Kratos has found the right kind of way to be violent and now needs to figure out the rest

All this ham-fisted emphasis on men doing what is necessary poses the question: what happens when your conceptions of what is necessary butts up against someone else’s? This occurs exactly once in God of War, when Baldur attempts to kill his mother, and the answer is so incoherent that you almost forget the question.

Kratos’ companions agree that killing Baldur was the right thing. But why? Do cycles of violence end with the death of a child, rather than the death of a parent? Freya herself pledges mortal retribution on Kratos for saving her life at the cost of her son’s life. What cycle has been broken, then? Was killing Baldur purely utilitarian? Was stepping in even necessary? How are we better? The game isn’t really sure.

Baldur’s execution, and it is an execution, is carried out because Kratos cannot stand by and watch what he sees as history repeating itself. It draws a parallel between Baldur’s violent designs on his mother and Kratos’ revenge on Zeus, but are they really the same? Zeus was a treacherous asshole who felt threatened by Kratos, while Freya took Baldur’s sense of pain away to protect him. It implicitly says that the desire for retribution for a father’s cruelty is the same as the anger at one’s mother for being overbearing. Neither are good, healthy impulses to have in your life, but they also aren’t the same.

This weird equivalence reveals a lot about the game’s uncomfortable views on gender, especially if one takes into account the rest of the female cast. God of War may no longer dismiss or brutalise women, but that doesn’t mean it likes them. The women in God of War are liars and manipulators. Faye, Atreus’s mother and Kratos’s wife whom they bury at the game’s opening, never speaks. She is referred to throughout the game as a wise, moderating influence on Kratos and as a tender and attentive mother until it is revealed that, unbeknownst to her family, she was a powerful agent of the Giants who predicted and orchestrated all of the events of the game. Athena appears in the doorway of Kratos’ shack as he retrieves his Blades to tell Kratos that he is still a monster, to which he replies that this may be the case, but at least he’s not her monster. The moment when Freya robbed Baldur of all sensation, determined to protect the one thing in her life that brought her joy, is portrayed as an expression of suffocating maternal selfishness.

Women, and mothers especially, are shown to scheming, conniving, blinded by maternal instinct, and manipulative. All the while Kratos and Atreus regularly interact with characters like Sindri, Brok and Mimir who are all comic variations of straightforward, honest men.

There’s the implication, through Atreus’ character, that mothers and fathers teach their sons separate things, separately. Kratos has no involvement in Atreus seemingly comprehensive education on Norse mythology, nor does he teach Atreus anything of his own culture until the final moments of the game. He teaches man things: hunting, fighting, surviving and dismisses his wife’s parenting as frivolous. The game never really addresses or interrogates this. Kratos starts to show some interest in the aspects of Norse culture that relate to the task in front of him, but it’s Atreus who constantly questions other characters for information about the world. It’s accepted that Kratos has important, powerful things to teach Atreus about being a man if only he could just open up more.

This, according to the game, is Kratos’ greatest flaw and it’s a relatable one. Many of us have our history with emotionally closed-off fathers. Patriarchal repression isn’t going anywhere fast, and it’s endearing to play a game whose sole narrative tension is whether a father will be honest with his son. It’s cliche at this point to ask whether Barlog and his team are okay, whether they’re seeing a therapist, and how their relationships with their dads are. Of course, the answers are: sure, probably, and bad. Why would they be any different from us?

The issue though, is that they have made a game which imagines a world where Kratos, and the narrow view of masculinity that he embodies, can be redeemed by being open with Atreus. It’s not enough for an awful man to regret his actions and make peace with himself through his relationship with his son. In his own words, he needs Atreus to be better than him. Because in not passing on those mistakes, they die with him, and in their dying he is redeemed.

It’s such a contrast to the perennial, memetic dad game: The Last of Us. Though not without its own faults, The Last of Us had an incredibly dim view of the type of masculinity that both its protagonist Joel, and Kratos portray. Underneath the hardiness, the survivalist edge, The Last of Us asserted, is a bottomless well of selfishness and insecurity. Doing what was necessary for Joel meant protecting himself from hurt at all costs, going so far as to dash humanity’s last hope to avoid losing someone else, and then lying to her about it so that she didn’t shun him forever. Joel embodied many of our popular assumptions about fathers and paternal masculinity, and The Last of Us concluded that they are all pernicious.

God of War presents the opposite. It imagines a mystical fantasy where your father is honest with you and himself. A magical realm upon realms where the gruff, angry dad deserves absolution because he acknowledges that he does one thing yet says another. A strange, ancient place where this kind of masculinity is allowed to be good. And in doing so, it’s profoundly, misguidedly hopeful.

And isn’t that true to our experience of fathers? In presenting a story where our fathers were somehow open and honest and present while still being the angry, taciturn men that they so often are, the developers at Sony Santa Monica have made something as contradictory and optimistic as fathers themselves.

Perhaps that was the idea.