2018’s God of War speaks profoundly about the care with which we must treat the powers we are born to. But what worth should we give to power?
[This article contains major spoilers for God of War (2018).]
LET’S BE CLEAR: I am not a man. I’m not much of anything, really, which is purposeful on my part. I was raised in femininity, but I am now rather masculine (or I’d like to be), though my relationship with masculinity has always been fraught by my upbringing.
God of War (2018) is a game with masculinity embedded into its molecular core. Fundamentally, it’s about the relationship between father and son, the responsibility one has to use their power to make the world a better place, and how one can shed an identity defined by violence through making deep emotional bonds.
But however hard it tried, I felt disconnected, and there was a familiar sinking in my stomach as I played: I was not the target audience. The message wasn’t for me. It had been touted as one of the greatest video game narratives of all time, a global must-play, a heroic feat of storytelling– but I simply could not relate.
I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, though, in this specific case. God of War has something deeply vital to say to a subset of people who desperately need to hear it, and the road to that moral is one hell of a ride.
To understand the gravity of it all, we must briefly return to a blood-drenched beginning.
The sky is red over Olympus.
After the first game in the series was released in 2005, the God of War franchise prided itself on hyper-violent immorality– the idea that you could inhabit the muscled body of a character that was murderous and power-hungry and evil was, for many, its main selling point. Of course, there were other draws; the series has been praised for its impressive graphics, thrilling combat, towering set-pieces, and compelling stories– most games in the franchise have received critical acclaim. Every mainline title boasts Metacritic scores in the mid-90s, and even the side games don’t drop below an 80. These games are beloved.
I’ll be straight with you: I haven’t played any God of War games besides the most recent entry. Does that make me unqualified to write a whole article about its narrative evolution? Maybe, but I have watched a bunch of lore videos and stuff, so hear me out.
Look, yeah, Kratos, canonically, has reasons to hate the Olympians. He has reasons behind his blood-thirst and rage, most notably his upbringing as a Spartan soldier and the death of his family. However, I sincerely doubt that, at the time, its audience considered that as a focal point worth much more than a cursory glance. Kratos hacks, and he slashes, and he levels cities full of civilians, and he rips heads apart (oh, and he fucks, ha, isn’t it radical how you get to do a sex in a video game?). That’s all Kratos is, in the originals– a scowling vessel for cutting things up real good. That’s, for the most part, the extent of his character.
To a youth playing these games in the mid-2000s, there wasn’t any point to the murder. The murder was the point.
But as gods die, as tides turn… everything changes.
2018’s God of War follows Kratos many years after his days fighting against the Olympians. He’s become a hermit in the woods of Scandinavian Midgard, and when the game picks up, his wife, Faye, has just died, leaving him and his young son, Atreus, with one task– scatter her ashes from the tallest peak in all the realms.
Along their journey, they befriend rival-sibling dwarves Brok and Sindri, ally themselves with the omniscient talking head Mimir, make enemies (and short work) of Thor’s sons and the pain-resistant god Baldur, get swallowed by a snake, get betrayed by a witch, journey through hell and back (twice!) and begin the end of the world a hundred years ahead of schedule.
Kratos and Atreus’ father-son relationship lies at the centre of this game. At the offset, Kratos is harsh, cold, secretive, and constantly testing Atreus, his callousness compounded by his grief. However, as they face life-threatening dangers, they grow closer and closer, and their trust in each other grows, culminating in Kratos finally telling his son his godly origin, and the truth about his own blood-soaked past.
Following its release, reviews started pouring in. Not just from critics, but from friends. “Holy shit,” they all said. “This story will change your life. Everybody on the planet needs to play this.”
So I did– a little late, but I got there. And, hey, I really loved it. I loved playing this game. I thought the combat was exciting, the characters were layered and loveable, the reveals were unexpected yet satisfying, and the narrative had a clearly-communicated moral that many took to heart.
This game feels like several concurrent attempts to repent for the sins of the past– Kratos, for the murder of his pantheon, and the IP itself, for elements of its previous seven entries. God of War is an atonement for itself, a new beginning in literally every sense.
It sends a stark message: power doesn’t have to corrupt you. When you are born with more power than others, you can wield that birthright for good.
And you can shed the violence of your past. No matter how cruel you once were, how terrible, how broken, you can still learn to be better. You have to dedicate yourself to that, to change, to growth, to being good. We owe it to one another. To our families. To the world.
What a thrilling parallel to how masculinity is handled in our times! The shattering of paradigms of seemingly-inherent violence, the recognition of stark power imbalances, the stoppering of a culture of cruelty passed down by bloodline, specifically from fathers to sons… God of War speaks to how the toxicity that comes bundled in with masculinity can be, with time, unlearned. Kratos says it best himself– “the cycle ends here.”
What’s most fascinating to me is how effortlessly this ties into the series’ meta-narrative. Games about being an evil asshole for no reason just aren’t good enough anymore. They used to be, and that attitude had very real consequences– on the industry and on the people who play them. For men who played the originals as kids, or teenagers, or young adults, this game must have felt like a slap in the face. It’s moral-driven, relationship-driven, it gives a fuck about what it means as art. Kratos looks at his gory past and tries his damndest to repress it, at first. He hides it from his family, and from himself, and it makes it impossible for him to heal, or change, or grow. But he figures it out, slowly, through human connection: acknowledging that you did a bad thing, or that your thought process was harmful, isn’t enough– you have to do something about it. Be better.
And that’s what this game is! That core idea isn’t just woven into the story, it shines out onto its wider, real-life context. For the most part, we now live in a time where killing for the sake of it isn’t an acceptable narrative anymore. Liking the idea of killing for the sake of it isn’t cool anymore, either. And this game knows exactly how to get that message to the people who need it.
Kratos teaches Atreus to adhere to morality, or he is undeserving of his power– do better with the privileges you have been given. God of War tells video games to step the fuck up in the narrative department or get left behind.
I think both Kratos and God of War are a little flawed in their execution here and there. For one, Kratos isn’t a particularly caring parent. He’s commanding and cold at times, sometimes veering into an uncomfortable brutality. Call me crazy, but I don’t think physically shoving your kid immediately following the death of his mother is a great way to help him get better at hunting.
Then again, that early-game Spartan harshness might be the point. I found myself thinking, hey, Kratos fucking sucks! several times in the first few hours, and I think that was intentional. Kratos evolves in very apparent ways. He learns to be tender and honest with Atreus, at least by the end. It’s no accident that the beginning of this turning point is their first meeting with Freya– when he is forced to heal something.
Speaking of Freya, it also has to be noted that this game is fairly lacking in non-male perspectives. There are only two central female characters in the entire story, and one of them is dead before the game even begins.
And Freya… is interesting. Prior to the events of God of War, she was seemingly in an abusive relationship with Odin, and in her attempt to break off their marriage, he cursed her to never be able to harm a living creature, and trapped her in Midgard. Her only source of joy by Odin was their son, Baldur, but it was foretold that he would die a needless death. While attempting to make him invulnerable to harm, she left him unable to feel anything at all. Left with weakened powers, and despised by her son for causing him so much (emotional) pain, we find her living anonymously as the Witch in the Woods.
She presents herself as an ally to Kratos and Atreus, expressing concern and empathy for their situation, and doing them magical favours several times throughout the plot, whether that be new arrows, resurrecting a dead head, or bringing Atreus back from the brink. However, they learn the truth about Freya’s identity and what she did to her son. When Baldur attacks them and a battle ensues, she uses her magic to protect him, even after he attempts to kill her… and even when he begs for death. While he strangles her, she tells him she loves him. After Kratos finally kills him, she is enraged, and swears vengeance upon him.
She acts as a clear foil to Kratos; loving, warm, pacifistic… at least to the naked eye. Both are parents who love their children more than anything, but Freya’s overprotectiveness over Baldur is what causes him the most harm, and Kratos’ treatment of his son as capable and responsible for himself (though worryingly hands-off at times) allows Atreus to flourish. While Kratos tames his rage by the end, Freya succumbs to it, with a final, chilling vow of revenge.
Is Freya’s unhealthy attachment to her child gendered? It depends on your reading; it doesn’t seem intentional, but it may indirectly imply a supposed gendered difference in parenting styles. In fiction, mothers are often portrayed as overprotective and smothering, while fathers can often be written as neglectful, or laissez-faire– this, of course, being a result of societal structures denominating women as familial care-takers, and men as uninvolved in parenting entirely.
As well as this, I found myself questioning some of the philosophical grounds the narrative stands on.
God of War points out that power doesn’t have to be expressed violently, and how we must find ways to help those in power learn to act with compassion and atone for their past violences. Power should be used only for good, which is true!
But wouldn’t it be, in a moral sense, better to dismantle imbalanced power structures altogether? It leaves ethical decision-making solely to those who hold said power, without asking why they hold it at all. It’s an unreliable solution, that (as evidenced in the narrative) lets a lot of bad people do a lot of bad things. Kratos and Freya and Baldur get to tear up the Midgardian wilderness with their moral conflicts, but the villages are all empty. The humans have all been driven out, or killed, or turned into undead Draugr. The giants have been slaughtered. The elves have been locked in an endless war. The gods have clearly misused their powers and privileges; is it wise for Kratos to trust that his own power is the best way to defeat theirs?
What is more harmful– the powerful, or the power itself?
I don’t think God of War is really equipped to answer that. Perhaps it could have attempted to tackle it, and perhaps it will in its forthcoming sequels. But it’s something that haunted me through every play session.
For a game with such a clear moral, it only left me with more and more questions– about the game, and about myself.
When you exist in the margins, how do you relate to a god?
Look, I’m not the target audience for most AAA games. That’s not a fact that’s transparent or blatantly spoken about, but… I just know, maybe through intuition, or maybe through the repetition of patterns… and the same familiar let-downs. The fairly-attractive-but-not-too-attractive middle-aged white guy on the box art, back turned, facing an open world with a gun in his hand; the hero shooter rosters where every woman is lithe and made-up, standing coyly in bodysuits beside hulking trolls and motor-mouthed alligators; anything David Cage has made, ever– I’ve seen it all before, I know not to expect too much.
I took one look at the cover art of God of War and went, yeah, okay, sure. Fine. Look at this little kid, he’s a cutie! My eyes darted over Kratos. Hey, they’re on a boat! Maybe this game is about something! I didn’t dare get my hopes up.
Many narratives employ the use of an ‘audience surrogate’– the point of view character, someone whom the audience doesn’t just sympathize with, but are supposed to actively see themselves as. Almost all video games utilize this by nature. God of War, of course, places Kratos in that role. This game is a new beginning for Kratos just as much as it is for the intended audience, and all the lessons he learns are meant to be just as applicable to the player.
This is where I felt the most disconnected. Of course I couldn’t relate to Kratos! I’m rather young, and I’m certainly not a cis man. I don’t have a history I deeply regret. I don’t have all too much power in society. I could tell the game wanted me to empathize, but I just… couldn’t. I don’t understand what fatherhood feels like. I don’t understand what boyhood feels like, either, though I definitely felt myself relating to Atreus much more than Kratos.
(Side note: hey, Loki is pretty queer in Norse mythology, so if Atreus doesn’t get a nuanced arc about identity (both godly and personal) in any of the sequels, I will be considering it a personal slight, CORY.)
I know, objectively, how deeply important this story must have been to the fathers and the sons who played it, and I think it’s a crucial thing. It’s incredibly valuable that a video game this huge and this popular got to speak about breaking the cycle of learned toxicity through the parental line. I can’t express enough how vital I think that is.
But much of the narrative felt entirely inaccessible to me. I’m used to not relating to white male protagonists, believe me, but this time felt different. Like… like I was almost there, watching through a window. It’s an incredibly bizarre feeling, to be so close to breaking through, to touch masculinity but never truly embody it. Not in the ways that get written about, anyway.
I think God of War does an incredible thing with its story. It’s so well-crafted, so finely tuned. I just wish I could feel it, really feel it, the way everybody else did. Well, everybody in the target audience, at least.
Maybe one day.
Parts of God of War made me feel so hopeful. Others made me feel more lost in myself than ever.
Masculinity is a strange beast– socially constructed, structurally upheld, a withered ghost disguised as some solid and attainable thing. It traps men like amber, raising them to believe they can take the world for themselves if they repress their emotions in all the right ways. Even if some eventually throw out that toxicity, even after growing and learning and changing, masculinity pervades, still, in the belief that one has the right to preside over all the world’s choices.
We do what we please, boy. No excuses.
How much of masculinity is defined by power? How much of femininity is defined by the struggle with powerlessness? Can we ever make anything new when the building blocks are provided by a world that is set in its ways? Can we believe in constructs so much that they become real? Can we believe in constructs so much that they become gods in their own right?
Close your heart to it.
The more questions I ask, the more circles I walk in. Maybe I can never break into masculinity, maybe I shouldn’t even want to. Or maybe the good men will outlast the bad ones, maybe the world will commit to being better, maybe I’ll shed my skin one day, maybe I cant control others but I can still choose my own path… or maybe the world will end. Maybe one day nobody will have any power at all. Maybe the villages will flood with people once more, maybe the sky will fill with ash and the earth will build itself anew, maybe the World Serpent will swallow itself. Maybe it’ll take the gods with it. The constructs with it, too.
Try again. Weak. Again.
How do we change? To what extent can we repent for the violence we have caused? How can we possibly forgive others for crushing us under their boot-heels? How do we even begin to forgive ourselves for such a thing? Is it possible? Can someone please tell me it’s possible?
You are not ready, boy.
Does masculinity have to die to redeem itself?
God of War (2018) was developed by Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, and is available on Playstation 4.