Why “God of War” is a game men need right now

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…

God of War ps2 cover
The original God of War released in 2005

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

God-of-War Game Cover

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.

Kratos slicing up draugr

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.

Atreus

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.

god_of_war_screenshot_11_1920.0

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

mothers-ashes-walkthrough-god-of-war-embrace

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.

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2 thoughts on “Why “God of War” is a game men need right now

  1. This is a well-written analysis. However…

    “We’re in a time where men need to listen, check themselves and their inherent privilege, and change their default settings.”

    Listen to what?

    What inherent privilege, exactly? Please be specific.

    What do you mean by “change their default settings?” Do you mean to go actively prune and suppress our masculine attributes like decisiveness, assertiveness, ambition, physical strength? Things that can absolutely be used for evil but also good?

    Men and women simply are not the same. This movement that tells men to not be MEN is, IMO, dangerous, and also wrong. It’s not to say that us men don’t have flaws… we do. And we need to have conversations about this stuff. But I see people claim that inherently masculine traits are immoral for no other reason than they’re masculine, and masculinity is bad because it’s oppressive. Huge assumptions are made in this claim.

    “Unfortunately, the men who probably need to listen most don’t tend to listen to women.”

    Well, are women listening to men? Why is the onus always on us? Women are not some holy standard to which actions and character must be measured against. Both genders have their issues.

    “It’s a frustrating reality, but it means that men need to start holding each other to account.”

    Totally agree that men should hold each other to account. The question is, for what?

    “women shouldn’t have to constantly tell us to sort our shit out.”

    Again, there’s this implicit narrative that men are failing and women are succeeding. That men are doing everything wrong and women are doing everything right. That men are “stuck in their ways” and holding everything back while women are progressive.

    If “sort out shit out” is code for being a better father, husband, and man in general—then great. If it’s code for “act more like a woman and get in touch with your emotions and don’t show displays of masculinity”—then I think that’s problematic.

    I appreciate you writing this up. It’s food for thought. I just found the intro needed more explaining.

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    1. Kia ora Technica. To be honest, I’m a little surprised the intro to my article sparked such a response from you. Much of what I wrote is based on what is, in my opinion, fairly widely known, commonly accepted, and well-supported by studies and statistics. In any case, if you’d like further clarification on what I meant, hopefully the points below suffice:

      1. “Listen to what?” I didn’t mean anything in particular by this; I simply meant listen. Listen to women, listen to men. Listen to children. Listen to Childish Gambino. Listen to anything other than yourself.
      2. “What inherent privilege”? I have a few examples: how about the fact you and I are far less likely to be raped than a woman is? Or more likely to be paid more than a woman for the same job? More likely to be on a Board? I could go on but I hope you get the picture.
      3. On changing default settings, here are a couple of examples: thinking before you speak, or deconstructing our pre-conditioned views on what masculinity really is. You say decisiveness, assertiveness, ambition, and physical strength are masculine attributes – are you saying women can’t be or aren’t decisive, assertive, ambitious, or physically strong, or are you suggesting women shouldn’t be any of those things? If you truly believe those are inherently male traits, perhaps you should think about why you believe that, and why you might not have perceived those traits in women as much as you have in men. I could not disagree more with the claim that those traits are inherently male; in my opinion, women may not express those traits as often as men because they’re simply not allowed to for fear of being called arrogant, selfish, or rude, or not getting a job they’ve applied for, or, at the extreme end of the scale, being physically or sexually assaulted – which is statistically more likely to happen to them than it is to you.
      4. “Why is the onus always on men?” See point 2 – the onus is on men because men are the ones most likely to be perpetrating the rape you and I don’t have to worry about as much as women. Men are the ones most likely paying other men more than women for the same job. Men are the ones most likely appointing other men to Boards. Again I could go on but I don’t think I should have to. The widely known and well-supported facts speak for themselves.
      5. You agree that men should hold each other to account, but then you ask: for what? Well, you’re the one who agrees with me – I could ask you the same question. I have a starting point anyway – see points 2 and 4.
      6. An “implicit narrative that men are failing and women are succeeding”. I don’t think my article implies that narrative at all – in fact, this article doesn’t give a female perspective or comment on women and their experiences in any way. You seem to have implied that narrative yourself – another example is when you assume I am of the view that women are “some holy standard we should all be set to”. Again, this article solely concerns men and masculinity, so I’m not sure why you’ve made a number of assumptions about my agenda and my views towards women when, frankly, that’s not what this article’s about. In any case, I do believe men are failing, and if you need examples of why, I’ll direct you again to points 2 and 4.
      7. If you need a definition for what I meant by “sort our shit out”, you said it yourself: be better fathers, husbands, and men in general. Although, why do you seem to think that being a good man is mutually exclusive to being in touch with your emotions? Do you think a good man is one who shows “displays of masculinity”, as you put it, rather than, say, processing their emotions in constructive, non-harmful ways? I personally enjoy writing to work through my emotions and I don’t feel emasculated at all for doing so.

      I hope that explains my intro sufficiently and has given you even more food for thought.

      Tihema

      Like

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