God of War and Gaming’s Best Dad: Part 2
God of War begins with a mantra that drills its way home into the heart of its audience. What begins as bad-cop dad’s admonishment slowly reveals itself as the underpinning of a series’ transformation. God of War is rife with subtle and beautiful symbolic imagery, but most of the game’s profound moments happen as we watch the commonplace practice of fatherhood. And Kratos, as a character, becomes better for it.
In my last article, I discussed Kratos as a man shackled to the sins of his past and to the tragedy of an inevitable fate. I explained the elements that made Kratos a tragic anti-hero. Today I want to discuss his reinvention through the fires of fatherhood. Kratos’ compelling transformation from a brutal killer hell-bent on retribution into gaming’s most badass dad, is what I think makes Kratos the most dynamic character in gaming.
God of War finds a new setting in Midgard, a landscape of serene cold, harsh yet magical, with the raw intensity of the unforgiving elements. But Midgard is out of balance; the dead are robbed of their peaceful afterlife, and the other constituent realms of Norse mythology are cut off from Midgard. It’s here we find Kratos nestled in a quiet forest with a home and family.
Immediately the player receives the quest for the entire game; he and his son must go on a pilgrimage to scatter the ashes of Faye, Kratos’ recently deceased wife. But before they can depart Kratos tests the boy to see if he is ready. Now I don’t want to gloss over this distinction, despite the memes and videos that poke fun at Kratos calling Atreus, “boy.” There’s a specific reason for this distinction that is very important to the storytelling, and I’ll get to that later.
“Don’t be sorry, be better” is Kratos’ admonishment when Atreus acts too quickly and misses his mark. Their trial run of adventure ends and Kratos determines that Atreus is in fact, not ready. But fate doesn’t wait for the destined to be ready, it comes knocking at the worst possible moment- and who is at the door? Baldur, son of Odin the All-Father, who knows of Kratos and his past, and their encounter quickly turns into an earth-shattering (literally) brawl between two gods.
After their fight, Kratos’ hollow victory provides him with more questions than answers and the stark realization that their journey has been forced upon them. Collapsed in the snow after his fight, he calls out to his dead wife in desperation, “Faye, what do I do? Our son is not ready. And neither am I. I do not know how to do this without you.” Kratos isn’t only talking about the journey ahead. He’s talking about fatherhood.
This is when the audience realizes that Kratos has relied on his wife to be the parent, and now that she’s gone he and Atreus must learn to rely on each other. Kratos’ cold practicality is at constant odds with Atreus’ natural empathy and naïve innocence. The Greek god’s past trickles down as unyielding axioms from a chaotic life where “there are no good gods.” Kratos comes from a world where fathers try to murder their sons to secure their impenetrability. In that context, we can understand Kratos’ parenting methods. But Atreus doesn’t know his father’s past and, inevitably, struggles with these lessons.
Atreus’ true feelings towards what he perceives as his father’s scorn comes to light in a scene where Kratos travels in the light of Alfheim. While mysteriously trapped wandering through a mind-scape resembling his own home, Kratos listens to Atreus’ disembodied voice lament their relationship to his dead mother. “You left me here alone… alone with him. He doesn’t want me and he never will,” Atreus reveals, “It should have been him. Do you hear me? Him… not you.”
At specific points in the game, I expected the tone of the story to remain tragic. But once again, Atreus comes through with the mantra, saying, “Except… I don’t mean that… I wish he was better. I know he can be.” The role reversal hits Kratos with his admonishment, once again reminding the audience of their true quest, be better.
A lot of the rigid lessons Kratos insists Atreus learn by could be interpreted as an echoed reflection of Kratos’ internal environment. He urges Atreus to be better because he doesn’t believe he can be. He tells Atreus that anger can be wielded as a weapon although his rage overrides his sense of control. Kratos calls the gods monsters, accepting down to his very core that he is a monster because of his godhood. From this sentiment comes one of the primary conflicts of the game.
Atreus isn’t fully aware of his lineage and nature, believing himself to be just a mortal boy with an incredibly strong mortal dad. Throughout the first half of the game, other characters the pair encounter encourage Kratos to tell Atreus the truth. One of these characters, the goddess Freya, serves as a sort of mirror for Kratos. She explains that Atreus’ ignorance of his true self is what makes him ill. Players watch the young boy endure this sickness throughout the journey.
It’s about halfway through the game that sickness almost kills Atreus, and forces Kratos to make a choice.
Remember those elements of tragedy I discussed in my last article? Well, let me elaborate on why I think they’re so potent, and then I’ll explain how God of War turns them on their head. First, we’ll talk about fate. Fate is the burden of Atlas and Sisyphus, forever charged with carrying a weight that will inevitably crush them. It’s an immutable truth, and that’s why fate can seem so terrible.
Fate coupled with a fatal flaw like blinding anger, or overwhelming arrogance often brings about one of the most tragic events ever to befall a human being- causing the death of a loved one, either directly or indirectly.
In the reality of everyday life, sometimes we feel that our flaws are inescapable, passed down through torn family relationships that are tragically bound to us like Sisyphus and his boulder. But God of War says something different through the stumbling relationship between father and son. “Be better!” it demands!
And through this, you could imagine Sisyphus happy.
In the place where it matters most, Kratos chooses to be better. He accepts his past as a monster and moves forward. He once again confronts fate, not by killing it outright, but rather by telling Atreus the truth, and trusting that his son won’t make the same mistakes he did. He gambles that Atreus won’t end up paranoid and cruel like Odin and Thor, or bitter and filled with the desire for revenge like Kratos or Baldur.
The relationship between Baldur and Freya serves as a cautionary tale. Unlike Zeus and Odin, Freya’s fatal flaw was her fear, not for herself, but for her son Baldur. A prophecy foretold of his demise, and so she took it upon herself to grant him impenetrability with her Vanir magic. Her attempts to thwart fate made Baldur unable to feel and experience the pleasures of life. In the game, players discover that Freya’s fear led her to lie to Baldur about her ability to undo the spell, a lie which caused Baldur to despise and wish death upon her.
These are the departures where Kratos chooses to be better. He tells Atreus the truth and doesn’t attempt to make Atreus, or himself impenetrable to fate, mistakes, or the pitfalls of being human. He reveals his messy vulnerable past as a god who gave up his soul for revenge, and who killed his father.
“Is this what it is to be a god? Is this how it always ends? Sons’ killing their mothers… their fathers?” Atreus asks at the climax of the game.
“No,” Kratos answers, “We will be the gods we choose to be. We must be better.”
It comes without apology but serves to make amends.
At the final moments of the game, Atreus and Kratos are standing together at the tallest peak in all the realms, ready to spread the ashes of his mother. It’s here where Kratos finally calls Atreus son. This is not Kratos acknowledging Atreus as his son; rather this was Kratos finally adopting the mantle of being a father and choosing to be better.
Kratos is the hero many of us need. He speaks of having a dark past and coming out on the other side, choosing to be better. He is the acknowledgment that the journeys we take in our life are scary, messy, and unavoidable. Despite that, he wasn’t ready, wasn’t equipped with all the answers, what makes Kratos dynamic and beautiful is the fact that though he can move mountains, he was afraid to be a father. He tried anyway and chose to do better.
Thanks for reading! If you were at all intrigued by my article, I encourage that you buy the game God of War and play it. It’s an amazing, breathtaking experience you won’t forget.