'God of War' Triumphs Because It Confronts Its Own Bloody Legacy

Patrick Klepek

Patrick Klepek

Kratos has always been a sad, unlikable asshole, but in giving him something to live for—a son who questions his decisions, his violence—he's finally given a real test.

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“We all gotta take responsibility sometime, huh?” mutters a young child as he quietly slings a well-worn bow over his back. His eyes never break with the towering presence nearby, a man the child calls father. To those unfortunate enough to have crossed paths with him, though, it’s Kratos, god of war. Most who question him slide through his fiery blades, blood scattered to the winds, but his son, Atreus, is different. So is this God of War. Using Atreus as a vehicle, his creators have decided to turn the tables on him, and therefore, themselves. What does it mean to create, to be, a monster?

It’s been 13 years since God of War arrived on PlayStation 2, a game whose sense of grandiosity, penchant for violence, and overwrought gravitas was utterly captivating. It looked incredible, played nearly as well, and delivered the kind of cinematic thrill ride video games promised for decades. The game’s still-memorable intro, an electrifying battle against a screen-filling Hydra, summed up the original God of War’s pitch. A badass with a purpose, tricked into killing his wife and daughter by an all-powerful deity, God of War came at a time when the notion of a “gritty” premise and an anti-hero didn’t draw critical eyerolls; it was new. It helped Kratos felt like a character with meaningful depth and pathos—more than one normally expected from an action game about fighting giant monsters, anyway.

As the roman numerals on the games went up, so did the much-applauded spectacle. Bigger monsters, larger fights, and an escalation of violence to go with it. But it increasingly revealed the series—and Kratos himself—as one-noted. It was hard to fathom how one would even go about topping God of War III’s escalation, so for a while, they just didn’t.

But God of War, releasing next week on PlayStation 4, is a functional reboot of the long running series. Though it takes place in the same timeline as the previous games, set years after God of War III, it’s a radical rethinking of what it means to play a God of War game and tell a God of War story.

Kratos’ ultimate goal in previous games has ranged anywhere from tracking down and killing a god to declaring war on every god for how they’ve wronged him. Here, though, it’s much simpler: Kratos’ wife, the mother of his son, has died, and her last wish was to have her ashes scattered from the highest point in the realm. From the opening moments to the final credits, most of the action in God of War is about this one goal. (Don't fret; an early moment suggests outside actors have their own agendas, and the game certainly indulges in the audacious spectacle that’s defined the series for years.) This focus informs the action, it informs the story, and most importantly, it defines the core relationships.

The biggest question mark about the game has been all about one of those core relationships: the one between Kratos and his son, Atreus.

God of War isn’t the first game to propose a sidekick, but there’s a reason most games avoid the temptation: It often doesn’t work. How many times have you screamed at incompetent AI, knowing their mistakes were responsible for your death? It drags everything down. Fortunately, Atreus not only works, but he’s the reason the game works at all. The roughly 10-year-old (it’s not fully said) is tightly woven into the game’s combat and story: In fights, he’s a versatile tool for tackling those in your way, and in cutscenes and conversations he’s the audience surrogate, a living metanarrative critique of Kratos’ purpose for existence.

Like many video game sidekicks, Atreus can die, but God of War gives you ample warning when he’s in danger. It’s also easy to get him back, and any hazard he’s in is usually because you’re doing a crap job of managing the fight itself. At the start of the game, Atreus does little more than pelt enemies with arrows as a distraction, but as you unlock new abilities over the course of the story, you’re given all sorts of options for how to use him, both depending on the situation and your style of play.

As Atreus progresses from skittish to empowered in combat, he does the same in the game’s story. His performance is charming, exasperating, and adorable in all the ways you’d expect from someone his age. Instead of a distraction, he’s a welcomed foil to the cynical Kratos, a character who’s spent his life rhetorically and actionably unchallenged. Kratos’ penchant for punching first and asking questions later remains a singular driver in the story, but now, Atreus becomes a real-time counter to often his questionable decision making.

At one point, after seeking out a magical item needed for the quest to continue, Kratos and Atreus end up in the middle of a conflict between two sides. Kratos doesn’t know who’s good and who’s bad, only that whoever gets in the way should probably stop—or die. After killing a boss-like character, there’s a moment where the creature begins speaking. One of the game’s regular riffs is how Kratos’ strength does little to help him understand other people, while Atreus has spent his life learning about other people and culture from his mother. When the creature talks, Kratos holds a punch while Atreus translates his speech. What Atreus hears startles him to the core: The creature claims they’re slaughtering good people.

Atreus: "Did we pick the wrong side?"
Kratos: "I..."
Atreus: "Are you going to give me some smug response about how you shouldn't care?"
Kratos: "Hrmph."

Moments like this permeate the story, changing in tone and meaning as the relationship between the two changes. (It’s also remarkably funny? As in, regularly making you chuckle out loud funny?) You can imagine what happens as Atreus grows confidence, and Kratos is forced to reckon with an individual he can’t suddenly dismiss with his fists. The most powerful storytelling in God of War has nothing to do with how the larger narrative—the war between the gods—plays out, but how Kratos and Atreus explore being father and son, now that Kratos can no longer rely on his wife to be the medium between them. He’s the parent.

Somehow, in a game about gods fighting other gods, God of War feels grounded. And because of some of the new directions it moves the series in, it has the room to explore this mythological family drama. By giving God of War small stake tension, the whole thing benefits.

The strict linearity of previous games has been dropped in favor of something more open. “Open world” is a nebulous term that often means a huge map with lots to do, or a game world with colliding systems that result in unexpected moments (see: Far Cry). It’s more of the former, which means the game is full of unexpected moments of quiet and silence, which is unusual for a series built on bombast. God of War fills these moments with meaningful, character-building banter between a forcibly bonded father and son. Atreus teases Kratos’ inability to tell a story, Kratos asks Atreus what he misses about his mother. Conversations in previous God of War games have tended to be long preambles before two beasts fight one another, but here, it’s a chance for introspection and reflection, even if it means Atreus is prying it out of Kratos. These tiny details raise the emotional stakes of fights, and the narrative beats that follow.

A little ways into God of War, Kratos and Atreus find themselves on a massive lake with a temple, which becomes their home base. From this lake, you can keep following the main story, or start exploring around, stumbling into sprawling side quests with hours of their own stories—when you hear about exploring a dwarven castle, make sure you do it. When on one of these quests, things are pretty linear, but feature all sorts of hidden secrets, puzzles, and world-building that will A) cause Kratos to humorously grumble as Atreus tries to get him to help other people and B) result in mounds of gear and skills that are worth grabbing.

I didn’t keep track, but once I had access to the lake, I spent roughly half-a-dozen hours doing whatever I could before returning to the story. Throughout the game, there’s good reason to explore every nook and cranny all over again, to the point that God of War often starts feeling like a Zelda game. (Or, honestly, Darksiders.) Even if you decide to mainline the story, you’re looking at an adventure that’ll take 20 hours to see all the way through. If you do a bunch of side quests, that time’s likely to double. I dove into a ton of side content, and it’s looking like I have, at least, another 10 hours—and I’ve probably missed some stuff.

The notion of freedom and exploration is extended to to God of War’s revised combat, too.

Your primary weapon for the vast majority of the game is the versatile Leviathan Axe, which can be wielded and thrown both in and outside of combat. (It factors into lots of the puzzles, too.) God of War walks a line between complexity and simplicity, asking players to make their own decision on how much depth they want to grant it. You can probably get through most of the game by whacking at buttons, but if you want to want to truly take advantage of what it’s offering—or survive harder difficulty levels and endgame challenges—you’ll need to dig in.

If the older games were about chaining combos, now it’s chaining skills. There are still rewards for stringing together buttons, but more often, success is situational analysis—unleashing an area of effect attack because there’s a bunch of weak enemies; switching to a certain arrow type because it’s likely to put them in a weakened state really fast.

That’s where the surprisingly deep customization comes in. This is the first God of War with loot, but we’re not talking Diablo or Destiny, where you’re sifting through hundreds of items; it’s a relatively small pool of gear at any one time. If you want to focus on strength, there’s gear for that. More health? Sure. Armor that splits the difference between offense and defense? Okay, then. There are enchantments, buffs, counters, stances, and special moves to consider, as well.

More importantly, though, it just feels good to fight. Though Kratos is weighty, combat often feels like a dance, thanks to the many options available at any one moment. Whenever I pulled up my skillset, I was shocked to remember how many moves I was regularly forgetting to use.

And given how spectacular this God of War looks, and noting its debut on PlayStation 4, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see the developers follow in their old footsteps, indulging in over-the-top and gratuitous violence meant to shock the player’s sense. This is a series where you were once asked to tap R1 and L1 in order to slowly tear the head off a character, as evidenced below:

God of War doesn’t have much of that—at least, not anywhere close to its past indulgences. There are moments when the game rewards the player with hyper violence, but it happened rarely enough in this one that I was slightly taken aback when it came up, or when it did occur, it was used in the way shock is most effective: illustrating the raw power of Kratos, and his constant inability to control himself. (Sometimes, though, it still felt masturbatory, as if the developers feel this weird burden to keep pace with the past because fans demand it.)

God of War is ultimately as much a reflection of how games have changed since 2005 as it is a natural response by the people who made the choice to make yet another game in the series. Many of the senior developers on this game have been with the series since the beginning. A number of them, including God of War creative director Cory Barlog, now have children, and you can see their tiny fingerprints all over the game. It’s part of a broader “dadification” of games, in which a largely male-dominated industry is going through the motions of aging, and the products they’re making are beginning to reflect those changes in life development.

“Our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth,” wrote games critic Mattie Brice in 2013, while critiquing the Joel character in The Last of Us. “For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated.”

The “dadification” of games often means we view the game world through the eyes of men, too. God of War is no different. Though Kratos’ wife is the primary driver of the game’s plot, we never hear her speak. She is an enormous presence, yes, but one that lingers in the shadows, whose impact is largely measured by her influence on the men in her life, not her individual achievements. There’s accomplishment in parenting a child and being a loving wife, but motherhood and being a worthwhile companion is not the totality of a woman. There are other woman characters in the game—one of them is central to the plot, with plenty of agency—but Kratos' wife isn't afforded that same opportunity.

But much like the real world, God of War is full of angry men driven by lust, power, and jealousy. And Kratos is an asshole. He’s always been an asshole, even when he’s right.

I mean, look at how he handles this poor dude on a ledge:

“I think what's interesting is to be able to take a character all the way to the brink, to take a character to the point where they're wholly unlikable,” said Barlog to me at E3. “They are anti-hero in some way, but I think it's interesting to even just look at this feeling of like—How can you bring them back from the brink? How can you redeem them in some ways?”

This question sits at the heart of God of War: Why does someone change, and how do we define progress? What does it mean to change when you don’t believe you’re capable of it? It’s a flawed premise—not everyone deserves redemption—but it’s one rooted in optimism because it’s the fourth game in the series—sixth if you count the PSP games, seventh if you count the mobile game, eighth if you count Ascension—and the story has to move forward. (Though it sometimes feels like God of War itself doesn't want to move forward; the last five hours of an otherwise well paced game are an often frustrating, if occasionally thrilling, bait-and-switch, as you're tasked with finding Yet Another Magic Object.)

One of the reasons I’m attracted to horror movies is that, like video games, they’re prone to sequels, formulas, and a habit of chasing the same highs over and over again. Whenever I find a horror franchise with a dozen sequels, I’m ecstatic. For one, it means they probably go to the moon eventually, but more to the point, I’m fascinated by the way creators try to invent new ways to press the narrative, twisting a story that should have concluded into new, unneeded knots.

God of War has always been about Kratos being unable to find peace. No matter how many people he kills, it’s never enough. He always finds another way to be slighted, a justification for his hatred, another reason to pick up his fabled blades and find more sheep to slaughter.

“The narrative attempts to keep giving Kratos new reasons to pick up his trademark twin blades might seem silly,” wrote former games critic Yannick LeJacq in a 2015 piece about Kratos’ irredeemability at Kotaku. “But if you look at them from the right angle, they reveal a tragic aspect of the game’s central character. After accomplishing his one understandable goal (revenge) in the first game, Kratos can’t just change his ways and become a normal guy again even if he wanted to. That’s not how suffering from post-traumatic stress works.”

The series could have ended with the third game, with Kratos, as a character, reaching a logical, if undeniably tragic, conclusion. There was no reason for God of War (or Kratos) to return if the plan was simply to resurrect him to walk the same path. It was well-worn.

And yet, here we are—a sequel. The developers at Sony Santa Monica could have invented a new character, but didn’t. In doing so, they’ve chosen to flip Kratos’ old motivations: What if he wanted to move on, but couldn’t?

The other reason I’m drawn to horror series with endless sequels is because it says something about us, the audience. This is also true of video game sequels that continue to center on the same character. Why are we attracted to Kratos? If it was simply the gameplay that brought us back, the main character would change. We enjoy participating in Kratos’ specific version of violent rage because he’s so good at it. We can’t look away, and if Kratos beckons us back, we need to know why he’s back, too.

God of War feels like a game made by parents, humans who arrogantly concluded they should have the responsibility to usher a child into a dangerous world beset by emerging authoritarianism, growing inequality, and the unending march of climate change. (Lest you think I’m wagging a finger, I’m currently raising one myself.) Having a kid is the fastest way to be visibly confronted with your own flaws and failings, and to be forced to reckon with the notion of legacy. Your child only knows the person they’ve met after being born, and much like the selective images we share and post on social networks, being a parent is a performance. It’s not you—it’s a version of you. It’s alluring to view a child’s ignorance as an opportunity to start over, be the better version of yourself. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right?

Most of us aren’t hiding our true nature as a god, of course, but a huge part of what makes God of War tick is how eminently relatable the problems are between Kratos and his son. All parents hide secrets from their children, arguing it’s in their best interest, even if what we’re really arguing is that it’s what’s in our best interest. This tension is at the core of God of War, and it’s one that informs everything about the game—the narrative, the combat, everything.

When you have a child, there’s a long period where everything is theory, not practice. It takes a while before what you say (and do) has meaning, and even longer before a child can reasonably question your authority, intent, and argument. People joke about their children asking “Why?” over and over again, but the moment they do, you realize how hard it is to explain how the world works, and how easy it is to lie about it. But I’ve long believed there are two general approaches: Either you try to protect your child from the world or you prepare them for it. The “world” isn’t just what’s outside the walls of your home, but what lives within them, too. The most loving parent is, too, full of flaws, weakness, and years of regret, and you can either pretend those don’t exist, or realize the best gift you can give is embracing it.

Kratos and Atreus, in turn, represent two arguments of their own. A life of mistrust has lead Kratos to conclude you should stick to what you know—screw everyone else. He’s a coward who figures it’s not worth the trouble. Atreus, of naivety and taught empathy of his mother, argues it is worth the trouble. Life isn’t worth living, he posits, if you’re not trying to make it better. In God of War, Kratos regularly, if begrudgingly, helps the innocent people of Midgard, folks he owes nothing to. He invites trouble. He does it because Atreus isn’t child in theory, a pound of flesh wrapped in a towel, but a person with thoughts and feelings of their own. In Atreus, Kratos’ cowardice is reflected in a living mirror, one he’s unable to look away from.

It’s impossible to know Kratos’ hearts of hearts, the same way we can’t know if people we know—friends, family, parents—change, either. Kratos changing means less than whether he feels it’s important to say he’s changed. Shame is a useful tool. You may not be able to evolve hearts and minds, but it’s not the one measure of success. Progress comes in many forms. People don’t have to actually change. They can pretend, while the rest move forward.

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