The Triumphs and Failures of God of War

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Kratos is a Spartan warrior turned god who’s fled the Greek Isles after enacting a destructive revenge quest. Seeking refuge in the Nordic tundra, he falls for Faye, a woman with a hidden origin, and fathers a boy named Atreus in a secluded cabin. Kratos barks orders at him, but not much else, and the pair are forced into reckoning their distant relationship when Faye dies. The story opens with Kratos assembling a funeral pyre, from which he bags and attaches Faye’s ashes to his belt. Father and son set out to complete Faye’s final request, to be scattered from the highest peak in all the realms. Not long into the journey, however, Kratos finds he’s merely traded one adversarial pantheon for another, and their ritualistic journey is caught in the crossfire between wrathful figures of Norse mythology.

God of War (2018) is an attempted reboot of an acclaimed and long-running franchise that last appeared in 2013. Having not owned the older PlayStation consoles, where the series remains exclusive, I entered this game with only passing knowledge of a character that carries considerable baggage. However, from what I gathered about the original God of War games, Kratos is far from likable, relatable, or even tolerable at times. His rage-fueled persona is one extremely loud note, and he possesses the same amount of personality as a cinder block. The original trilogy is not known for subtlety or self-awareness in both its violence and misogyny. Indeed, God of War has a spotty, to put it lightly, history with its female characters that’s frankly embarrassing.

For these reasons and more, I was not particularly intrigued at the idea of revisiting a character to form a redemption arc with an estranged son. What piqued my interest, was that one of the series’ creators, Cory Barlog, was motivated partly by the experience of having a child himself and having to consider facets of life he’d never known before. In a conversation with Waypoint, Barlog explains how Santa Monica Studio “pulled milestones [and] moments” from childhood:

The first time you see a fireworks display, the first time you go on a roller coaster, the first beer you have together. All these kinds of milestones that you have together that you remember.

They stick with you in life. We’re trying to look at those and bring them and transpose them into the world. It brings a bit of truth, right? They’re born from a real moment. It’s not this artificial thing that you’re creating. These are actual moments that human beings have, whether they were the kid or the adult in the situation. They all had these rites of passage with their parents. I try to bring as much as I can into it.

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I love a mechanically rich game, but what often draws me in is the narrative. I want personal stories that inspire me to write. I want moving experiences I can share with my partner, whose mutual interest in the medium fills me with joy. I thought we could get that with God of War, and I was mostly right.

Though even as I think back now, I’m conflicted. The word for God of War is “uneven”, like the peaks and valleys of the mountain range encircling the game world. What the game never failed to accomplish, however, was miraculous awe. God of War uses color remarkably well, from the violet hues of Yggdrasill, the world tree, to the bubbling red magma pits of the fire realm Muspelheim. I gazed upon the opulent curvature of the Light Elf sanctuary, and withered in the presence of a giant eagle whose wings sent gusts across the frozen land of the dead. The environments were imaginative and full of detail, and everything just seemed to function with a strange connectivity. God of War’s center-most landmark is a golden temple that operates like a divine railway turntable, propelling our heroes into new areas with dutiful groans and hisses.

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But the lasting impact of God of War rests on the effectiveness of a father and son tale in a strange land. The story is propelled by the singular and static purpose of fulfilling last rites, but a lot of things inevitably get in the way. Every obstacle is accompanied by fetch quests for a magical amulet or key or incantation or something. This series of mythical MacGuffin’s kills the pacing, and robs the last third of the game of its intended effect.

God of War wants to trace a broad redemptive arc for Kratos who learns how to be vulnerable in grief and love a child who he fears is growing up to be like him; violent, vengeful, stubborn. But Kratos just doesn’t move enough for me. By the end of the story, the pair mostly express their newfound bond by being a more effective warrior duo. I was waiting for more compassion, less machismo bravado, but I don’t think I was ever going to get that. The pair treks across the connective fabric of reality itself, yet I can measure Kratos’ emotional journey with a yardstick.

OK, I’m being a little facetious because God of War has genuine strengths. The two leads have incredible chemistry throughout the adventure. Christopher Judge lends his commanding voice for Kratos and Sunny Suljic brings Atreus to life with optimism and determination. Though it doesn’t reach the lengths I wanted, their relationship grows through nuances. There is an apparent shift in how Kratos and Atreus regard one another. The father softens, ever so slightly in minute glimpses, and the son grows bolder, unafraid, and comfortable with his only male role model.

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So in this complex epic about fatherhood, what exactly is Kratos’ legacy? God of War attempts to confront his violence and anger, sure, but the series’ most glaring blemish, its lack of constructive representation of women across over half a dozen games, is mostly ignored. God of War III let’s you bang Aphrodite off-screen, complete with button prompts and force feedback, while her half-naked hand maidens jealously coo in the corner. What does this mature, brooding, bearded 2018 reboot have to offer? There’s Faye, the mom reduced to the consistency of coffee grounds, and Freya.

God of War’s Freya is an amalgamation of her Vanir namesake and Frigg, the canonical wife to Odin the Allfather and mother to Baldur, the game’s primary antagonist. In an effort to protect Baldur from attack, Freya blessed her son with invulnerability to hurt and pain. But her aura of protection robs him from all sensations, including pleasurable ones like food, drink, and sex, pastimes he was quite fond of. This has turned Baldur into a masochistic berserker seeking out formidable opponents who can make him feel again or, ultimately, relieve him of life, all the while carrying out decrees from his omnipotent father. There are kernels of a compelling through-line here. One that aligns both Baldur’s affinity for violence with Kratos’ desire to let his most egregious battles be forgiven and forgotten. There’s the beginning of a foil relationship about parentage as well. Kratos, who is reluctant to take on the mantle of father, and Freya who envelops herself with love for her child and the urge to make things right for him. But by the time we even learn of Freya’s true identity, the game is already beginning to stumble into its final act.

Instead, Freya feels underdeveloped and underutilized, and her sudden adversarial turn during the climatic boss fight inspires confusion more than anything else. Without an arc of her own, Freya exists alongside Faye, the Mom-In-A-Bag. In her essay “In ‘God of War’, Moms Come Last”, Dia Lacina argues that in a game wholly about men, motherhood exists on a binary spectrum:

In the world created by God of War, sons have to be separated from their mothers to become men. The contribution of men is to perform the final test―the viability of a son in the world. Rearing and nurturing is women’s work, but also letting go. If a mother can perform her role and depart she’s succeeded, and with a little luck her son will pass this fatherly test and become a man. But if, as in Freya’s case, she is unable to relinquish control, to let her son experience life without a tether , then she has failed, and with her, her son. As a result, Baldur is not the gilded god from myth, but a cruel sadist.

In her persistence, Lacina writes, Freya is framed as the “embodiment of overprotective motherhood, one that is desperate, manipulative, weak, and secretive”. Freya oscillates between two roles: the nurturing healer with a secret and the nagging impedance constricting your movements and staying your axe hand. Freya’s position is presented not as a “misguided love afforded to the curt and restrictive love of Kratos”, but a “self-serving, asphyxiating love”.

Faye, on the other hand, continuing with Lacina’s essay, is “deemed a success, she’s lauded and mourned throughout the narrative” like a “saint”. Faye is the driving force behind the story, yes, she is the fulcrum that leverages her family’s love to create the drama, but she’s also dead and voiceless. She’s a catalyst for this grand adventure that’s sacrificed at the altar of fatherhood and a masculine coming-of-age. And that, it would seem, is her rightful place.

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With Baldur slain and the path to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants, restored, Kratos symbolically passes Faye’s ashes to Atreus to carry towards the final ascent. It’s an affecting scene that conveys a shift in responsibility, a growth to manhood, a recognition between warriors, that’s laced with the unfortunate fact that this catharsis couldn’t have happened without snapping the neck of a divine and learning almost nothing in the process. God of War postures at the idea of breaking cycles of violence while simultaneously reinforcing them.

As father and son near the highest peak in all the realms, their North Star driving them through this grand adventure, it’s revealed that Faye was not only a secret giantess, but a clairvoyant one at that. Etched and painted along the walls of a ruined mausoleum are depictions of the game’s events: foes defeated, relics recovered, bonds forged through grief and adversity. Faye knew far more than she was letting on, and seemingly has devised a master plan for the family’s journey and ultimate purpose in the fate of the universe. This is the closest God of War got to giving Faye a voice or agency before, together, Kratos and Atreus reach deep into her ashes, her fleeting organic tether to Midgard, the realm of mortals, and lets them fly into the wind while swelling strings and soprano vocals mark her exit.

There is so much genuine care and craft in God of War. It wants to do many things with the right intentions, and there are flashes of something greater, something that recognizes how and why the idea of a redemption of a maligned character is partly self-indulgent and ridiculous, but I was left with a lingering uncertainty. By the end, Kratos is still one loud note stratified by a talented orchestra.

Once final rites are performed valiantly, father and son descend back into the mausoleum flanked by their preordained graphic novel panels. I’m released back into the game world unladen by what little pathos I had. God of War wants to keep adventuring, exploring, fighting. Atreus wants to keep checking off the boxes. But both characters are eerily silent while I mop up collectibles and rid my map of stubborn icons. Their silence mirrors my ambivalence, my longing for something to care for again, and my lack of excitement for what comes next.

One thought on “The Triumphs and Failures of God of War

  1. Pingback: Some Games I Played in 2018 | Polyphonic Prayer

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