God of War, No More
God of War, like the industry that created it, has matured slightly in the decade since its first title. It has grown from terrible teen who thought grotesque displays of aesthetically realised violence were all a game needed, all the way through to a slightly more adjusted adult who mostly understands that the violence inherent in most games needs to be carefully tempered by context, the idea of consequence and responsibility a need underpinning, but also still enjoys the indulgence of spectacle here and there.
As with many stories form the mythical archetype, Kratos is not the most transparent of fathers. He wishes to instil in his son Atreus with a sense of responsibility, a weight of understanding behind every action, but he does so whilst obscuring many truths. They only kill in defence, and they do not involve themselves in internecine affairs that may cast them as hero or villain — Kratos even hides Atreus’ godhood from him to facilitate these teachings, knowing full well the potential for gods to abdicate themselves from moral responsibility .
Without revealing finer plot details, it’s fair to say that the game has some friction between its narrative and mechanical elements. With combat as spectacular and engrossing as God of War’s it’s hard not to make it feel like a power fantasy. At times, it is every bit as callous and and oblivious to the violence it wreaks as prior games in the series.
The decision to move the camera in far closer at once glorifies each shattering blow, whilst also attempting to offer a commentary on the commitment required for every brutal strike, mechanically and morally bringing us away from the detached cinematic of spectacle fighters, and closer to Kratos’ (mostly) measured determination.
One frequent frustration is the reliance on the “Spartan Rage” in narrative fights. It sees Kratos release his shackles and explode into a fearsome flurry of fists, a spectacle harder to justify with the themes of the narrative — is the only way of protecting his son through this unquenchable violence? It’s true he seems to regret each instance, but as a player we are undeniably rewarded for this bloodlust.
Whilst the story attempts to address this, it often becomes mired in tired reflections on the cycles of violence families (both blood and inherited) can force upon themselves, with and added twist focused on Kratos’ desire to be allowed the autonomy to chose what kind of god he will be in his new life, and to free his son from the chains of fate that bond him.
At times it capitulates to ideas of fate and legacy, and in the end it leaves me thinking there is only one way to truly assess Kratos’ wish: make this the last game. The responsibility of the medium to its message is to let Kratos and Atreus find a way forward without the shackles of a game to force them into inflicting the same violences over and over.
Whether God of War succeeds in justifying its violent spectacle is ultimately debatable, but to follow on from the story by having Kratos cut a swathe through the Norse Pantheon will cheapen everything about its story. It’s time for Kratos to finally lay down his arms, and become the god he wants to be.