(This essay contains spoilers for God of War.)
God of War does an interesting thing. It sidesteps the question of whether a man who has done horrible things can be redeemed, and instead asks how such a man can keep his past from destroying his son.
I have no history with Kratos. Perhaps it was easier for me to accept him as a gruff and emotionally constipated father without seeing all the blood on his hands. Nevertheless, God of War nimbly skirts around the moral pratfalls of humanizing a mass murderer. Kratos is given “depth,” but it is through his relationship with his son Atreus, not solely in service of a personal arc. It is this subtle shift that changes the trajectory of the story from a morality play — a losing battle, given the character’s fraught history — into a humanistic story about the struggle of being a good parent.
We may not care about Kratos at first, because many would not consider him a good person. But we may care about Atreus, his young and inquisitive son (indeed, a “Boy!”) who does not deserve to inherit the sins of the father. We feel for Atreus because his youthful exuberance is so often squashed by his father’s stoicism, and because he does not yet know the truth of his father’s bloody past. And even if we do not like Kratos, we come to empathize with a man who is trying to raise his son alone, without help, without the benefit of time, without a model relationship of his own, in silent grief.
A number of questions arise given Kratos’s past, which inform (and deeply complicate) his relationship with Atreus. For example, how can Kratos instruct his son not to give in to anger when Kratos spent his entire life caving in to rage? If being a good parent means passing on the lessons learned from your misdeeds, then does being a good parent necessitate being a hypocrite? How will a child react to such hypocrisy? Should someone like Kratos tell his son the truth of who he was? Will telling Atreus the truth of his godhood free him, or will it shackle him to the gruesome fate of all gods? Given an unceasing shot over Kratos’s shoulder, we are privy to his moments of hesitation, which encompass even the minute, heartbreaking choice of whether to put his hand on his son’s shoulder. As Kratos stumbles back to the log cabin house after a brutal encounter early in the story, he confides in his wife, no longer there: “I do not know how to do this without you.” Poor Atreus is too perceptive not to sense the turmoil within his father, but as with any child with piecemeal knowledge, he can only put together a story where he blames himself. “You think I’m weak because I’m not like you,” he tells Kratos. It is a sensible conclusion to draw about a powerful father who scolds and orders and otherwise does not speak. Little does he know that the complete opposite is true.
The other relationships among God of War’s cast serve as fractals of this central dynamic. Family is key to this God of War. Dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri are embroiled in a family feud, and they badmouth each other’s blacksmithing at every possible opportunity. (When shown Sindri’s sterling handiwork, Brok offers a lovely backhanded compliment: “Even a pig farts out a truffle every now and then.” I have no idea what this means, but it is hilarious.) It is obvious to everyone that they still care about each other. What has torn them apart is their joint complicity in kowtowing to some of the worst gods in the realm. They created Mjolnir, the legendary hammer which Thor brandishes like a tyrant. But they also created the Leviathan Axe, which they entrusted to Kratos’s wife Laufey, and which enables Kratos to stand up against the Norse pantheon. It is satisfying to see these bickering brothers reunite — not to redeem themselves, but because they are family, and because there is a lot of good they can still do together (like upgrading my sick gold-drop chestplate).
On the other hand of the brother spectrum are Magni and Modi, the sons of Thor. They are brutes, on a mission to kill Kratos and Atreus. They make you reflect on what kind of parent Thor must be — all the more so when Modi retreats back to his father after you kill Magni, and Thor beats him within an inch of his life. Even so, Modi cannot help but goad Atreus on like a bully on a playground, sealing his death. Is it nature or nurture that causes him to make this final, pathetic gesture? Magni and Modi are adults, to be held responsible for their own actions, but it is also clear that they are their father’s children. As Kratos slays Magni, Modi lets out a desperate scream. They brought it on themselves — they were the aggressors. Even so, I felt a shred of pity.
It is interesting that Thor and Odin, the other two major fathers in this story, do not appear before us. We only hear of their history and see the aftermath of their violent legacies. We understand Thor through his cruel and vulgar sons, sent to kill you in cold blood and beaten by Thor in failure. We hear of Odin, who turned his son Baldur against his own mother, who imprisoned Mimir and tortured his immortal body each and every day, who crushed the giants with his paranoia and vanity. These men are monsters, and we see their shadows cast through their children. They are distant warnings to Kratos about the perils of monsters who become fathers.
Yet Kratos’s foil in this story is not another father, but a mother. Freya is, in many ways, a “good parent.” She is wise and experienced. She is a nurturing and attentive maternal figure to Atreus, in a way that Kratos could never be. When Atreus’s life is imperiled because of Kratos’s failure to tell Atreus of his godhood — just as Freya warned — Kratos knows he is out of his depth, and turns to Freya for help. Freya tells Kratos, “This boy is not your past, he is your son. And he needs his father.” If there is a moral to God of War’s story, it may just be wrapped up in those lines.
How interesting it is that the same character who dispenses this wisdom is the mother of Baldur, the game’s primary antagonist. Freya’s advice is borne out of a love for her own son, a selfless love that aspires to free all in her care from the shackles of the past. She married Odin in order to protect her people. She cured Atreus, even after Kratos turned his back on her. It makes sense that Freya granted her only son the gift of invulnerability, to shield him from all the pain and death that is part of his bloodline. This was a mistake, because without pain, discipline, or the inevitability of death to correct him, Baldur could only become his father’s son — a selfish monster without feeling, kindness, or empathy.
Still, it is difficult to blame Freya for protecting her son from Kratos. Even when she offers to let Baldur kill her, in a gesture that is sad and pointless, she is acting out of nothing but love for her son. What else can she do? It is too late to correct his course. She does not consider that Baldur must be held responsible for his own choices, and that to be a good parent takes more than love. Her rage at Kratos for killing Baldur is understandable, even natural. Parents will do anything for their children. Kratos himself acknowledges this.
Freya’s love for her son complicates Kratos’s decision to kill Baldur. Yes, Baldur must be stopped from senselessly killing Freya. Kratos wants to put an end to the cycle of children killing their parents — a cycle that seems bound to the curse of godhood, as Kratos knows firsthand. Kratos knows that Freya could never stand against her son. But is killing Baldur an act of kindness to Freya, or the greatest atrocity imaginable? Even if Baldur was a selfish monster without feeling, kindness, or empathy, doesn’t that only make him… just like the old Kratos? Is killing Baldur an act of stupendous hypocrisy? Or does it take an outsider from the family, who knows the cost of all this generational bloodshed, to break the cycle?
Fascinatingly, by saving Freya’s life, Kratos sets Freya on the path of vengeance, the same path he once walked. In stopping one cycle, he perpetuates another. He becomes the villain in her story. “You will never change,” Freya snarls at Kratos. True, in the end, Kratos does what he always does: he kills a god. This time is different, because he did it to save someone else. But if both the old Kratos and the new Kratos would have killed Baldur, do his motivations matter?
“You will never change.” Yet to us, who have been with him this whole time, it is clear that Kratos has changed. He may not say much, but he has been listening. “This boy is not your past, he is your son.” Kratos takes this lesson to heart. He tells Atreus the truth of his godhood. He entrusts Atreus with Faye’s knife. He finally bonds with his son over some weird putrid wine from his homeland. But being a good parent takes more than honesty and affection. It takes guidance. And when Atreus begins to stray the path, growing arrogant and unkind in his godhood, slaying Modi in his rage, even turning an arrow on his father, Kratos steps in, rebuking Atreus with the kind of hushed anger that all children know, fear, and respect. “You will listen, and you will not say a word. I am your father, boy, and you are not yourself. You are quick to anger, rash, insubordinate, and out of control! This will not stand. You will honor your mother’s memory and abandon this path you have chosen. It is not too late.”
In six lines, Kratos reveals his growth as a parent. These six lines contain the authority of a father, the separation of Atreus’s attitude from who he truly is, the recognition that Atreus has chosen this course and not merely inherited it (giving Atreus the power to change himself), and those words of hope, to himself as much as to Atreus. It is not too late.
This, I believe, is why the reason Kratos kills Baldur matters, even if both the old Kratos and new Kratos would have done so. The old Kratos would have killed Baldur in vengeance, an eye for an eye, just as he always has. Just as Atreus killed Modi. The new Kratos would not have killed Baldur. (“He is beaten,” Atreus says, echoing his father’s lesson. “Not a threat.”) Kratos kills Baldur only to stop further bloodshed, and to protect someone other than himself. Kratos’s reason for killing Baldur matters because Atreus is watching, and the lesson Kratos imparts in that moment, as a father, will shape his son’s future.
Like many good stories, God of War poses interesting questions and wrestles with the answers. Kratos was, by most metrics, a villain in his own series. Indeed, it is said that half of the Sony Santa Monica team wanted to ditch Kratos going into this next installment of God of War. Yet director Cory Barlog had a vision for this character, and it involved asking the right question — not whether Kratos can be redeemed, but whether his son Atreus can be saved. By narrowing in with specificity on Kratos’s history, God of War arrives at a surprisingly universal story about parenthood. Perhaps we cannot protect our children from ourselves. Perhaps it is folly to try. All we can do is use our mistakes and experiences to guide them towards what we believe is the right path. It is not too late for Atreus to become better than his father. It is not too late. Soon enough, we begin to entertain the notion — that perhaps it is not too late for Kratos, either.
Oh, I guess I should talk about the game too. It is very good, eye-poppingly pretty, very well-paced with a fine-tuned distribution of story, traversal, combat, and puzzle-solving. No one section outstays its welcome. The fighting has just enough depth to be engaging without being overwhelming, and sometimes even encourages you to slow down so that you have a moment to switch stances or dodge or block, giving combat a sense of strategy and precision that matches the new Kratos. The game is “very good” so frequently that I wished there were a few more moments where it really busted down the doors with wonder and delight. Those moments do exist, to be sure — with the Blades of Chaos scene, and the Baldur fights, particularly the last one. I’m excited to see where the series goes next. I really like holding down R2 with the Leviathan Axe and cleaving the heck out of some dude.