Warning: Spoilers ahead for God of War. Do not read until after you’ve beaten the game!
God of War feels like an impossible game. That’s adjective been used often by fans to describe the series, mostly when it comes to the massive boss fights and camera effects. Kratos often squares off against beasts several times his size, including hydras, gods, and the jaw-dropping fight against the titan Cronos, in which our buff hero is no larger than ant on Cronos’ body. These setpieces are incredible works of technical display, ones that had me wondering how the hell the developers pulled off their scope and intensity. Outside of those moments of awe, though, I never had a deep love for this action/adventure series. Mostly because, well, Kratos sucks. He’s really awful; he’s an impulsive, rage-fueled murderer incapable of seeing anyone as anything more than materials he can use or obstacles on his quest for revenge against the gods of Olympus.
Admittedly, there was something entrancing about Kratos’ repulsiveness when God of War released in 2005. There had been anti-heroes in games, of course, with the likes of Kain, Agent 47, Arthas, James Cash, and others. However, Kratos was an entirely different level of anti-hero, especially as the series went on, with his actions becoming crueler. One instance in God of War III stands out in my mind, where Kratos sacrifices an innocent woman so he can get past a locked gate, forcing her body to be chewed up by a massive wheel as she’s killed in excruciating fashion. It’s a grim death, one excessive and revolting in its utter cruelty and conducted with sociopathic indifference.
Like I said: Kratos sucks. However, there is a narrative justification there. In the end, the original God of War games are about a man who ultimately becomes the thing he hates the most: a petty and cruel god, bringing misery to everyone around him. The whole saga is a fascinating, brutally nihilistic story that requires demolishing its protagonist and challenging players’ notion of what it means to be a hero and a villain. God of War sends players on a massive power trip and then forces them to burn down the whole pantheon.
The new God of War does something very special with that charred foundation, planting seeds in ruined soil that somehow manage to sprout into a profound and beautiful story about what it means to genuinely regret the past, and the trials of seeking redemption. The new game finds Kratos and his son, Atreus, journeying to the highest peak in all of the realms to scatter the ashes of Faye, Kratos’ lover and Atreus’ mother. It’s a long journey made longer by the sort of epic battles and plot twists God of War has always been known for, but the heart in this entry is different.
Instead of embracing the raw, bleak perspective of the last series, this new God of War focuses on Kratos’ attempts escape his past and teach his son how to survive a harsh world. In this way, Atreus doesn’t just exist as someone Kratos loves but also his chance to put good into the world after a lifetime of being a violently malignant force. Let there be no mistake: The fights in God of War are still incredible sequences that you have to play to believe, but what impressed me most were the quiet, conversational sequences that manage to rewrite such an unlikeable protagonist into such a deeply sympathetic character.
Between battles and story events, Kratos and Atreus talk. Well, Atreus talks. Kratos mostly grunts and occasionally chastises his son when he screws up in combat or is impulsive. “Don’t be sorry, be better,” he growls at the boy after his son apologizes for failing to hunt a deer. This is deftly expanded on later, near the end, after Kratos reveals his history of murder and rampage in Greece before coming to Midgar, when he tells his son he must be better. It’s clear, then, that Kratos is not just talking about Atreus needing to improve himself for the sake of survival, but also to not make the same moral mistakes his father has:
Atreus: Is this how it always ends? Sons killing their mothers? Their fathers?
Kratos: No. We will be the gods we choose to be. Not those who have been. Who I was….is not who you’ll be. We must be better.
One of the recurring themes that shows up in the new God of War is the futility and dissatisfaction of vengeance. It’s clear from the get-go that the years have been unkind to the Ghost of Sparta. He carries himself almost like a monk, in solitude, straining to rein in his anger and not fall victim to the same impulses that made him the monster he was in the original trilogy. During nearly all of his interactions in the game, with friend and foe alike, Kratos is considerably more composed than his younger self, issuing threats with a low growl instead of yelling, silencing those who annoy him with a glance. Kratos emerges as a character that feels real, someone trying to make best out of the lessons they’ve learned from the traumas they’ve suffered, both those brought on by others as well as his own actions.
But does that make him redeemed? We are, after all, talking about a god who reduced not just Mount Olympus but Greece into a wasteland, probably killing countless innocent people as a byproduct of his rage. The answer here is “No, probably not,” but that actually makes this incarnation of Kratos even more compelling to me. Redemption and closure are ideas that take root mostly in fiction. Life is messy, and chances are you’ll end up being the villain in someone else’s story through your own actions, whether they’re malicious or unintentional. That unease and regret is just something you likely have to live with. In the end, there is only the way forward and presenting this mass-murdering god as a regretful man trudging forward in spite of everything he’s done and everything that’s been done to him is both uplifting and discomforting.
I was surprised by just how much I wanted Kratos to have a happy ending despite knowing he doesn’t deserve it. But then again, what does “deserve” have to do with anything? Especially in the world of mythology, where many a mortal has been flicked into the underworld for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The new God of War doesn’t let its brutal protagonist off the hook, as there are several scenes dedicated to letting you know just how terrible Kratos’ list of sins are, but it doesn’t damn him either. The new game, in a sagely move, presents its protagonist to you free of judgment and instead opts for striking a balance between moral complexity and emotional earnestness. More than anything, I think the new God of War represents a triumph in the struggle of video game storytelling to present people as they are: often difficult, almost always sympathetic to a degree, and desperately looking for peace and hope in a frightening wilderness.
For more on the new God of War, be sure to check out our review.