God of War and Gaming’s Greatest Dad: Part 1
That’s the stunned expression of gamers everywhere, an audience starved in the age of free to play, microtransactions, and fast paced competitive shooters where your heroes seem hardly heroic, mindlessly pitted against each-other in matchmaking (I’m looking at you Overwatch). Holy shit! did God of War make an entrance, upending every single expectation. Single player story driven experiences are supposed to be a thing of the past, and they’re supposed to be a bad investment. God of War proved them all wrong, as Santa Monica Studios took a brutally tragic anti-hero and reinvented him into a nuanced and compelling father, and perhaps the champion gamers needed.
Today I want to begin our journey with an in-depth look at Kratos, the main protagonist in the God of War franchise as we discuss his transformation from tragic hero into his epic comeback as dad of the year. I want to ask: what makes Kratos one of the most dynamic characters in gaming history?
The latest entry into the God of War series is a total cliff dive departure from the previous games, taking place in a sublimely designed Midgard. The dead run rampant, their souls denied entrance to Hel and warriors bereft their right to Valhalla. Meanwhile Odin and the Aesir gods are depicted as paranoid and cruel, ruthlessly crushing and hunting any adversaries in a bid to prevent the end of the world and their ultimate downfall: Ragnarok. What they could never count on was the vagrant Greek god Kratos settling down amidst the fantastic and magical setting of Norse mythology, marrying again and having a son, Atreus, who is also his companion throughout the game.
I’ll get to that later however, because that’s the story of the Kratos in the Norse era, but to put his transformation into context we need to understand his past among the pantheon of Greek mythology, a past of suffering, bloodshed and chaos, a past where he derives his namesake as the God of War.
Debuting in 2005, the first God of War game introduces a cursed warrior; players are immediately thrust into a rage fueled vengeance bender and slowly learn the reason for Kratos’ thirst for blood. After ten years in service to the Greek god Ares, Kratos was a Spartan soldier who won decisive victories for the god of war, and in return was tricked into killing his wife and daughter. Thus he was cursed, his skin stained by the ashes of his slain loved ones, turning him into the Ghost of Sparta.
So why was it Kratos could be tricked so easily? The easy answer; Kratos was an instrument of war, blinded by savagery and a calloused heart hardened by a lifetime of battling for survival, refusing to abandon the Spartan campaign until “the glory of Sparta is known throughout the world”. He had anger issues. But what players discover through the course of the God of War games is that Kratos’ life has been plagued by the meddling of gods and the fates from the beginning.
Kratos’ history unfolds as a series of traumatic events followed by stints of revenge. This culminates in a tormented psyche that plagues Kratos, endless nightmares that push him over the edge, seeking suicide in an attempt to end his suffering. Fate, being what it is, had other plans for Kratos.
This theme is prevalent in both the Greek and Norse iterations of God of War, although handled differently in both. Fate and tragedy go hand in hand- tragedy being the lesson of those that work against divine will, or sometimes tragedy being a window to wisdom for those that realize their impotence at the hands of destiny. This aspect of the tragic hero is played out explicitly in the Greek era of God of War- Kratos literally takes on both gods and fate, rending both to bloody pieces in beautiful displays of carnage. Despite all his efforts, in the end, he remains the unwitting pawn of fate and the gods.
And in the end, Kratos destroys it all. The game God of War 3 finishes the Greek era of the series with the world left in ruins, the actions of Kratos brand him; Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, one of the many ill gotten titles he received by those who knew his fate better than him. However, exploring Kratos as a tragic hero would be incomplete if I didn’t discuss his father, Zeus.
It was Zeus who began the tragic string of events that ultimately led to his downfall, because he too attempts to thwart his own fate. Prophecy foretold that his demise would be at the hands of a marked warrior, that marked warrior being Kratos. Despite his efforts to circumvent destiny, even as a god, he too ended up playing right into the machinations of the omnipotent power of fate. It would be Kratos, Zeus’ own son, who would plunge a blade through his heart, destroying Mount Olympus and the world.
This brings us full circle back to another recurring theme explored by the God of War series: familicide. This theme is prevalent in the deepest tragedies found in religious mythology all over the world, hitting at the heart of humanity. In tragic literature defined by authors such as Shakespeare and Sophocles, a family member causing the death of another is an agony that induces suicide and madness. Medea killed her sons to cause Jason an unspeakable anguish, Antigone is condemned to death by her uncle, Creon, for burying brothers that slew each other in battle, a condemnation which stole from Creon his only son, and famously Romeo and Juliet were driven to suicide because of fate’s ill timing and their families’ efforts to tear them apart.
The first three God of War games hinge on these themes of familicide and the relationship between tragedy and fate. Molded by these classic elements, Kratos is wrung out through the games with sadness and loss. The result is a character boiled over with anger, arrogantly raging against everything in his path- and honestly there is not much more to him than that.
“Be better.” is the elixir through which the new God of War transmutes these seemingly determinate and absolute elements of tragedy, drastically altering the fate of Kratos. God of War examines Kratos through the lens of fatherhood, in a story where he must work to reconcile his past with his responsibility of preparing his son for an epic journey that changes them both.
The Norse chapter of Kratos’ saga is where we’ll return in part two. We’ve discussed his tragic past and laid the foundation for what’s become God of War’s epic comeback.