No, this is not a piece about male gamers feeling marginalised or threatened by the rising number of female-led or -empowering games on the market. When I say God of War is a game men need right now, I don’t mean that it’s a game only for men, one that male gamers can just play and be their stereotypical selves. We’re in a time where men need to listen, check themselves and their inherent privilege, and change their default settings. Unfortunately, the men who probably need to listen most don’t tend to listen to women. It’s a frustrating reality, but it means that men need to start holding each other to account. And, actually, I’d argue this should be the case anyway – women shouldn’t have to constantly tell us to sort our shit out. Men need to be having this conversation among themselves, and this is why God of War is a game men need right now – it’s a game with a powerful message that, I think, is deliberately aimed at men.
-SPOILERS AHEAD FOR GOD OF WAR-
In the beginning…
The beauty of this game’s core theme can’t really be grasped without a decent understanding of the history of the God of War franchise. It started back in 2005, when the first God of War game released on PS2. A flagship game for Sony, it featured Kratos, a ripped, tattooed Spartan hell-bent on exacting vengeance against Ares, the ancient Greek god of war, who tricked him into murdering his family. Throughout the entire 7-game franchise, Kratos’s character development pretty much stays right there; his quest for revenge takes him across games to the peak of Mount Olympus with almost the entire ancient Greek pantheon of gods dead in his wake, culminating with the mighty Zeus, who turns out to be Kratos’s father. Along the way, Kratos basically has sex with every unrealistically-proportioned woman he comes across (in the form of quick-time event mini-games) and kills just about everything else in increasingly gory fashion.
The series was a pre-pubescent male teen’s wet dream; lots of boobs and epic fight scenes that made you feel like an absolute badass. I’ll be the first to admit I thought these games were amazing when I was that pre-pubescent teen, and I didn’t think twice about the gross female objectification, or the fact that I was rooting (ahem) for a cold-blooded murderer whose only real motivation was killing someone else for a terrible crime that he himself actually committed. Kratos was buff, had cool swords with chains on them, and every woman in the world wanted to sleep with him. He was a literal god among men.
A Norse God of War
8 years have passed since God of War 3, the game that ended Kratos’s journey, was released. The new God of War, which released this year, is something of a reboot for the franchise. Kratos is now older and grizzled, kicking it in Scandinavian Midgard, far from his native Sparta. From the moment the game opens – a simply beautiful scene where Kratos tenderly touches the handprint left behind by his dead wife on a tree before violently hacking it down with his axe – we know this is a completely different game. The thing that makes this awesome, though, is that this game doesn’t retcon the previous ones at all. This older, pensive Kratos is the very same Ghost of Sparta who slashed and fucked his way to the top of Olympus and murdered his own father as well as all the other ancient Greek gods and titans. He’s haunted by the memories of a lifetime of violence, and it’s clear he doesn’t want to be that anymore. Yet it’s all he knows how to be, and this is the central conflict of the story – Kratos doesn’t want his son, Atreus, to follow in his footsteps, but he doesn’t know how to teach his son this crucial lesson. He doesn’t know how to be a father, because he never had one himself.
To be fair, this isn’t an entirely original concept. The complexity of the father/son relationship – and in particular that where a man doesn’t know how to be father to his child – has probably been done to death across various forms of literature. I’d argue, though, that what works in God of War’s favour is that much of the audience has seen Kratos at his worst; we’ve been there with him, cheering when he rips somebody’s head off, grinning and watching our bedroom doors out of the corners of our eyes while he bedded woman after woman. We were intoxicated by the ultra-violence, the hyper-masculinity of it all. Yet now that Kratos is questioning all of that, it forces us to question it too. If it’s not something Kratos – and by extension, we – should be ashamed of, then why doesn’t Kratos want to pass that behaviour on to his son, Atreus? Why is Kratos afraid of his son knowing all of the awful things he’s done? Because Kratos knows now that it’s wrong. He wants to change, and in doing so he’s asking us to as well.
Father and son
As I said above, Kratos’s challenge in this is that all he knows how to do is fight. He wins his battles through nothing but violence, and the only way he knows how to show his love for Atreus is by smashing anything that threatens him to dust. While some might argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the game makes clear very early on that Kratos is not going to get by this time on the strength of his fists.
This is where Atreus comes in; his skills and knowledge are essential throughout their journey. He’s an intellectual, able to learn other languages and memorise the stories that have shaped the world they know. He is a skilled archer and has an affinity for magic. Above all, Atreus is compassionate. He has an inherent desire to do good and to help others. He’s also sharp enough, however, to understand that good deeds are often rewarded. Basically, these are all skills and qualities that Kratos just doesn’t have, and they prove to be vital in order for the father and son to succeed.
Not only are Atreus’s abilities invaluable; they’re also abilities that, in our society – and especially in modern gaming – typically aren’t considered masculine. More recent literature seems to ascribe archery as a skill mainly to women (Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn, Ellie from The Last of Us as a few examples). I don’t draw on this example to take away from strong female protagonists who happen to be skilled archers, it’s just an observation of current trends in contemporary literature. Atreus’s archery and other skill sets challenge the stereotype that Kratos perpetuates; that male heroes should be physically strong and capable of overcoming anything on brute strength alone.
It’s interesting to watch this conflicted dynamic play out between the two. In the beginning, it’s clear that Kratos views his son as weak and fragile – which, compared to him, is true in a purely physical sense. Kratos starts out by barking orders at and berating Atreus constantly, never praising him for the value he does bring nor showing affection despite, at times, wanting to; there are several scenes early on where we see Kratos reach out his hand to touch Atreus, then withdraw it, unable to show even a glimpse of vulnerability. This doesn’t mean Kratos doesn’t love his son, but it demonstrates the distorted masculine view of power or value that he has. In Kratos’s mind, his harsh, unforgiving behaviour towards his son is intended to protect him, to train him, to harden him. It’s his way of showing his love for his son by trying to keep him alive.
Ultimately this backfires; when Atreus feels like there’s nothing he can do to please Kratos, he begins to act out, fighting recklessly and genuinely putting both their lives at risk. He even goes so far as to kill a defenceless, defeated enemy, a point from which it seems there may not be a return. While Kratos is outraged by this, we know it’s not a moral outrage, but a fearful one; it represents a step towards everything Kratos doesn’t want Atreus to become – like him.
Eventually, Kratos realises that this is his failure, not Atreus’s. Once he makes that realisation and the two truly start fighting as a team, the game really takes off. From a story perspective, it shows in the way the two begin to interact, joking and telling stories – basically just opening up to each other. But it’s the gameplay that sells it; Atreus’s light and shock arrows prove essential at the late stages of the game, and Atreus seamlessly leaps into battle while Kratos hacks enemies apart, at times even holding them for Kratos to finish off.
The moral of the story
Where this all leads is, in my mind, one of the greatest lessons about masculinity, and about manhood, any piece of literature has taught me. And it’s represented in two lines uttered by Kratos at the end of his journey with his son: “We must be better” and “The cycle ends here”.
Both of these lines refer specifically to Kratos’s and Atreus’s places in the (game’s loose interpretation of the) ancient Greek and Norse pantheons of male deities, but also the common theme of patricide so integral to the ancient Greek cosmogony. This isn’t made explicit in the game, but for quick mythological context: Zeus is the king of the ancient Greek gods only because he killed his father, the titan Cronos. Cronos also destroyed his father, the primordial being Ouranos (or, rather, castrated him, which essentially destroyed him). Both Ouranos and Cronos were, frankly, terrible deities and were fearful that their sons would one day supplant them. So they each sought to kill their sons to prevent this from occurring. In classic ancient Greek fashion this only ensured the reverse happening, and the God of War series picked up and continued this theme; in seeking to prevent Kratos from taking his place, Zeus only spurred Kratos on to destroy him. By declaring that he and Atreus “must be better” and “the cycle ends here”, Kratos is ensuring that the recurring theme of patricide ends with Atreus (and the Norse god Baldur, who he prevents from committing matricide).
But this is actually only an analogy; what Kratos really means is that he and Atreus must be better than their forebears. They must be better than the fathers who raised them, better than the violence, better than the fear of weakness. Kratos is embracing his own failures and the near-certainty that his son will be a greater man than he is by ensuring he does not destroy his son’s capacity to be good like his father did to him, and his father did to him and so on. Kratos may never find true redemption for himself and the crimes he has committed, but he can ensure his son never follows in his footsteps. He has recognised the cycle of masculine anger, violence, and resentment that only begets anger, violence, and resentment, and he is ensuring it ends with him.
This is the real lesson of God of War, one I feel is deliberately aimed at men: our heroes don’t need to be physically strong, don’t need to solve all their problems with violence, don’t need to bring others down to elevate themselves. Our heroes need to be good fathers and raise good sons. They need to recognise the failures of the generations that came before and not repeat them. They need to see the good in others and value it, not envy it. They need to be better. We must be better.