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Violent games are a dime a dozen and I’ve written about plenty of them for HeadStuff. Some delve into the depths of their characters’ minds as to why they commit so much brutal violence. For some it’s about freeing the world from Nazi occupation. Others do it for survival. One does it because killing demons to heavy metal is fun (DOOM isn’t that deep). God of War does it for vengeance. But what happens when these reasons aren’t good enough anymore?
To be clear killing Nazis in video games will always be popular and good but as for the others maybe it’s time to reexamine the tortured anti-hero that populates so many games now. Playing as Joel in The Last of Us was groundbreaking in storytelling terms. Gaming had very few damaged father figures that were as popular as Joel became in 2013. He was easy to empathise with despite the brutal fashion he dispatched so many of his fellow thugs in. The ending where Joel rescues his ward Ellie who is immune from the virus that devastated earth is controversial to say the least. In saving her from certain death on the vivisection table Joel ultimately dooms the human race. “How much would you sacrifice to save who you love?” the game asked. For Joel it was everything but still players empathised with this man they had come to know. Didn’t he deserve a modicum of happiness in a world that had stripped him of everything?
Kratos – the protagonist of all eight God of War games – is much, much harder to sympathise with. The first game released all the way back in 2005 on the PlayStation 2 gave the Ghost of Sparta a scrap of a backstory but it was enough to get players to root for the ashen-skinned bald dude with a weird chin. The next six games proceeded to tank any kind of vulnerability or pathos that Kratos had accrued. In God of War 2 he kills his only ally admittedly by accident but it was in God of War 3 and the in between prequels Kratos is revealed as the truly psychopathic, genocidal maniac that he is.
Killing the Minotaurs in the God of War series was always a brutal affair but hey maybe the only way to kill a bull-human hybrid is to rip off its horn and proceed to gut the poor creature. With that said was it really necessary to pull the sun god Helios’ head off and use it as a torch for the rest of the game? I would say no but that’s just me. God of War 3 ended very definitively with the Greek pantheon – admittedly a cabal of rapists and sadists – destroyed and Kratos vanished. But in gaming as in film and comic books there’s always more to flog off a dead horse.
God of War, a soft reboot of the series, was released on 20 April and took the gaming world by storm. As of this article it has sold more than three million units worldwide – the fastest selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever. Hundreds of years have passed and Kratos has spent the intermittent centuries travelling the world dwelling on his past. He eventually settles down in Scandinavia and marries a woman named Faye with whom he has a son Atreus. Faye dies just before the game begins and Kratos with Atreus in tow sets out on a quest to scatter her ashes and bond with his son. What follows is pretty typical of a God of War game; kill lots of monsters and a few Gods but at least this time there’s a better story right?
Well kind of. We never see what changed within Kratos. Cory Barlog – the game’s director – said that Kratos made the decision many years ago to let go of his past and endeavour to leave behind the rage and pain that turned him into the monster he was. It’s a lot easier to forgive a violent person who has changed when we see what has changed them. We see Kratos become a loving father over the course of the game but we never see what enabled him to become that person. Kratos cares about those he loves but not knowing where that love and compassion has sprouted from makes it difficult to understand who Kratos is now. The God of War series didn’t move from A to B but rather to Z. This game feels like the end of a very long journey rather than the beginning of a new one.
To say that God of War is a bad game because of this is wrong. It maintains the move perfect gameplay of its predecessors allowing players to feel powerful without having to master complex combos or moves. A great deal of the interactions between Kratos and Atreus feel natural and watching the two grow closer through story beats and combat is often moving if not outright heart-warming. Elsewhere the likes of the two Dwarves – Brok and Sindri – and Mimir the reanimated head Kratos carries around on his belt work as amazing foils to Kratos’ grumpy and warlike nature. Mimir sees a knife from his homeland at one point and when Kratos mocks it the horned head responds: “This is why nobody likes you.” A fair point and something that needed to be said way back in God of War 2.
Neither has the series lost its penchant for massive spectacle. From fighting a dragon that spits lightning to massive totem wielding trolls God of War gives the people what they want. Yet still these niggling doubts return. It feels as if we’re missing pieces of what made Kratos able to take the leap from mass murdering God to fatherly woodsman. Whereas Joel’s story was fleshed out often in conversation with Ellie and others in The Last of Us Kratos’ feels like it has a massive gap. It’s hard to empathise with a man who’s committed such dreadful acts as Kratos has especially when we don’t know why we’re supposed to empathise with him. Trying to be a good father does not make him a good person. With that said sticking an axe in an ogre’s face is still really fun.