Up until the 2018 God of War, the character of Kratos had laid claim to being the ‘greatest anti-hero video game character of all time’. He’s an angry, brutal man, scorned by having been tricked into accidentally killing his wife and daughter. Setting a vendetta against the Gods, Kratos – over the span of six games – laid waste to the Greek pantheon of Gods, as well as a bunch of Titans, and countless people who are simply in the way of Kratos’ wrath. This was not a devil may care attitude, instead, it’s a self-destructively reckless agenda that brings down the world as he knows it.
There’s a lot going on in the series, with the most devastating aspect of Kratos being that he is covered in the ashes of his wife and daughter, and carries a distinct facial tattoo that exists to remind him of his long gone brother. Family is key to Kratos, even though fate has dictated that he will destroy the only remaining family he has – Zeus, the father Kratos didn’t know he had.
As Kratos lays waste to the living on his anger fuelled journey of revenge, slamming viscera into the remnants of the earth with the chains of Olympus that bind him to his destiny, he also forsakes the memory of his wife and beds many, many women. Keep in mind – or don’t, as the thought alone is exceptionally disturbing – that while he beds these many women (including the Goddess Aphrodite), he is still covered in the ashes of his wife and daughter.
Yep, extremely disturbing.
On top of this, Kratos leads a charge with gender equality. Meaning, he’ll gladly slaughter men and women equally. Nobody is free from the wrath of his various tools of destruction. The violence is suitably brutal – with everything from heads slowly being torn off thanks to button mashing quick time events, or victim-perspective murders, with the fists of Kratos wailing on an ever bloody Poseidon, who holds up his hand in an attempt to defend himself. Also, in the climax of the game, the screen fills with blood as Zeus has his face pummelled, the player performing a violent self immolation (or pseudo-‘stop hitting yourself’) as they are forced into destroying Zeus with Kratos’ fists, all from the perspective of Zeus. One could suggest that the developers had reached a point where they wanted to slam home the impact of all Kratos’ destruction via these first person deaths, but instead, it feels like they were just trying to come up with a new creative way of killing characters.
The level of claret spilled throughout the series has been one of absurdity, what with there being an achievement for having covered Kratos in 500 buckets of blood. There’s a giddy, voyeuristic, gratuitous nature to the way violence is presented in the God of War series – it wants you to control Kratos in the most gloriously horrendous fashion. It takes glee in the wannabe ‘damn the man’ narrative of Kratos tearing down the world around him for being a wronged individual, even though over the course of six games, we never question Kratos’ actions – becoming complicit in his war crimes.
So much so, that when Kratos takes the conquered God Poseidon’s Princess – a topless, buxom woman, chained to a bed in service of a God who will never return, the notion that she is no different than a dog waiting for the owner to come back from a day at work – and uses her as a tool to prop a door open, of which the weight of it is too much for her body to keep open, in turn, crushing her in a horrifying fashion. With her blood spilled over the floor, and her legs sticking out of the crank’s shaft, Kratos is able to move on with his journey. The nameless Princess’ death is inconsequential, just like all the characters he lays waste to – they are mere hurdles on the path to whatever kind of absolution Kratos thinks he’s going to attain. This ‘woman as a tool to solve a puzzle’ trope reaches an absurd height with Hera, a drunk God who has little impact on Kratos’ journey, other than to be killed unceremoniously and to have her body used as weight to open and operate doors.
Then, of course, there’s another exceptionally gruesome, and over the top beating of a woman character in the last of the Playstation 3 entries in the series, God of War: Ascension. Unlike other fights in the series, this one is the most heinous of them all as Kratos does not kill his victim after brutally smashing her face in. On top of this, there was an achievement (that has since been patched out) that popped when the deed was done, titled ‘bros before hoes‘.
The aspect of trophies is one worth exploring for a brief moment – there’s a whole field of ‘trophy hunters’ out there, who find the fastest and easiest way possible to attain trophies. One of the trophies in the games is to max out all of the skills in the game. An easy way of doing this is by repeatedly bedding Aphrodite for easy experience points. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve achieved maximum stats easily. Just like Hera and the unnamed princess, Aphrodite becomes a tool to make Kratos (and in turn, the players) path to success easier.
All of this carnage, all of this brutality, all of this misogynistic, single track focused violence, exists in a world of video games that have been coloured by carnage, brutality, and misogyny. The eccentric violence of the Call of Duty series is easily regarded as being the pinnacle of toxic masculinity in games – and what with the ever combative cousin series, Battlefield, courting ‘controversy’ with its latest entry, featuring playable disabled women characters, and the cacophony of online vitriol directed at a video game where you die, respawn, and die again, and its lack of ‘fidelity’ to the very real World War II; it’s clear that misogyny knows no bounds. It’s easy to write up a list of misogynistic, violent acts in video games, but I’ll circle out another major game which rewarded the player for tying up a nameless, helpless woman, throwing her on the train tracks, and waiting for a train to come run over her, equating this act as ‘Dastardly‘. Yeah, this may exist as a marketing achievement for RockStar productions to make sure that they stay in the headlines, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, and as a way for them to court the ‘hard core gamers’ who look for any reason to hate against anybody who just doesn’t ‘get’ video games, bro, but it’s proof of there being another unnecessary action in video games that simply exists to fuel toxic masculinity. (Sidenote: would the Grand Theft Auto series lose any element of quality if they removed the sex workers from the game? No, arguably not. But, they cause controversy, so they stay there.)
All of this discussion is one long line in saying that the 2018 entry in the God of War series works as a much needed apropos to the extreme violence in video games. It appears to exist as a way of atoning and addressing the misogyny, and the extreme violence, that the series has wallowed in for so long. Yes, they are technically brilliant games that are ‘must plays’, but they do have inherent issues that have plagued games for a very, long, time. (And, when you’re as successful a series as God of War has been, you inevitably get a bunch of imitators who are less nuanced – yeah, I just called the God of War series nuanced – with the way they depict their violence and sex.)
Let’s get one of the main ‘issues’ with this new God of War out of the way. Kratos is a dad again, this time to a young boy named Atreus, so naturally, he’s trying to raise his boy to be a man. We’ll get to that in a moment. What’s notable is how in the previous God of War games, Kratos had a wife and a daughter who he accidentally killed. While his thirst to seek revenge for being tricked into killing his family feels apt, it is also worthwhile noting that the Kratos of old has a distinct ring of the ‘I have a daughter’ type of man. You know the sort, the ones who think they understand feminism, or women’s rights, just because ‘they have a daughter’. Or the ones who would veto any potential partner that their daughter may bring home. The ones who would lock them up and keep them protected from the world, if they could (a little like how Pandora is treated in the original series, really). Kratos, in the first six games, is the ultimate dude-bro. He’s full of anger, never listening to reason, never understanding the consequence of his actions.
It’s immediately evident why the Kratos of 2018’s God of War could not have a girl as a child. The world of Nordic mythology is one that I’m not all too familiar with, but given the dearth of Goddesses that would logically play out to be Kratos’ daughter in this narrative, well, it makes sense that he has a son. It’s also extremely, thematically relevant that Kratos has a son given the life lessons that Atreus imparts upon his monosyllabic father along their journey.
Well, long gone are the sex mini-games, and not just because Kratos spends the entirety of the game with his son. This is a more mature Kratos, he’s a weathered man who has grown to reconcile with the actions of his past. The Nordic mythology doesn’t feel as hedonistic as the Greek mythology does, allowing for a version of Kratos who is more at ease with living a sedentary life. The years of pain and torture that occurred at his hand have taken a toll on Kratos, with him leaving his wife and son at home to go hunt for food for them. He’s a man who has worked to be able to afford a life without extended trauma.
His wife, Faye, a frost giant from the realm of Jötunheim, has died. After cremating her body, Atreus and Kratos make way for the path to the highest peak in all the realms to scatter her ashes. Unlike previous God of War‘s, this entry is an ‘open world’ game, with quests that take you across different worlds, and have you interacting with various different colourful entities. Long gone is the notion that every being you encounter is one to conquer or be utilised in a puzzle. And, unlike other open world games (let’s say, Fallout 4 with its ‘your kid has been stolen, go get them’ narrative that is dropped immediately), God of War takes a patient, contemplative look at its story. Yes, Kratos and Atreus have an endpoint they need to reach, but they are in no hurry to get there.
Through world building dialogue from a disembodied head (Mimir, the God of Knowledge and Wisdom), we learn that Faye was not just Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ father. Her real name was Laufey, and through her dedication and care for those who were weak or helpless, she became known as Laufey the Just. As the narrative unfolds, we come to realise why she had sought out a life away from her kind, with the persecution from Thor and the Norse Gods leading to the slaughter, and subsequent extinction, of the Giants.
Faye, as someone living in secret, understands Kratos’ desire to keep the fact he is a God from a different realm a secret from his son, and in turn, the many people he meets along his journey. Yet, she also understands the need for openness, and the harmful way that secrets can affect families and lives, and in one stroke of genius game development, Faye’s touch is felt across the game through environmental touches of gold that highlight the path forward. As a nod to the tendrils of fate that guide the characters of this world through their lives, this golden touch in the game shows that Faye has already walked this journey, and is subtly guiding Kratos and Atreus to their end point – a place that not only marks the end of Faye’s story, but also works as a way of having Kratos and Atreus open up with each other about who they are.
While it would be wonderful to see a narrative game told from Faye’s perspective, we still get to see a fully fleshed out character from the discussions that Atreus has with his father about what Faye had taught him as he grew up. Not only did Faye educate Atreus about the world he lived in, but she taught him languages, and their meanings. She taught him the value of understanding the past, and understanding your place in the world. In turn, through Faye’s death, Atreus is brought closer to his father. And while Kratos’ temper has simmered down, the fire that once raged with a fury that felt like it would never cease still exists within him.
An early moment of tenderness between father and son helps introduce them to one of the best characters of the game – Freya, once the wife of Odin, and the mother of chief protagonist, Baldur. As Kratos is teaching Atreus to hunt, they manage to injure a boar. The boar flees, in severe pain, with Freya coming to its rescue. It’s explained that this boar, as with many of the creatures in the forest that Freya lives in, is a friend of hers. It is not simply an entity that can be slaughtered for food. This is the beginning of Kratos, and in turn, Atreus as well, coming to understand that they can live in harmony with the world around them. Violence and chaos is not always the way forward.
Again, unlike previous God of War games, Freya is a fully fleshed out character with her own agenda. That agenda is to ensure that her son, Baldur, is not harmed. A prophecy dictates that Baldur will die an unnecessary death, one that will bring on Ragnarök (the end of times). Freya’s knowledge of this inevitable future has her putting a spell on Baldur to ensure he remains safe from harm, another hidden secret that a character keeps from their child that may end up hurting them.
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