Kratos, star of the long-running God of War video game series, is a complete asshole. This has been true since the first game appeared on the PlayStation 2 back in 2005, where players guided the roaring, untiringly murderous demigod through a blood-soaked revenge mission against Ares, the Greek god of war himself. It remained true as he slaughtered the rest of the pantheon (and every hapless mortal in his way) in that game's sequels and it stays the case even with his latest game, the confusingly named not-a-reboot, God of War, released last week.
Set years after the original series' timeline concluded with Kratos killing his father Zeus — the last of the Greek gods on his bucket list — in 2010's God of War III, this new story moves from the ancient Mediterranean to a similarly mythological version of a bygone Scandinavia. Far removed from his Greek past, 2018's God of War opens with Kratos now a recent widower, morosely raising a young son named Atreus who he relates to only with enormous difficulty. The game follows the pair as they trek to the highest mountain peak in the realm, on a mission not to knock off any Norse deity in particular but to do something more mundane: scatter the ashes of their dead loved one.
Swapping out a revenge story for a tale of father/son bonding creates a drastic change in tone. God of War, in 2018, wants to be taken seriously. The original run of games was more like B-movies — candy-coated gore porn whose enormously violent combat and razor-thin plotting made them impossible to take seriously. Pointedly crude and sneeringly “edgy” as these stories were, Kratos was hard to accept as anything other than a parody.
His one-note screaming, murdering, and seething were a teenage boy's id rendered in lovingly schlocky detail — a nü-metal song come to digital life. No video game character, before or after, has been as consistently angry as Kratos, or as hilariously determined to kill the powers that wronged him. It didn't matter if a mythological Titan was the size of a skyscraper or a rival god more powerful than the mortal mind can comprehend, Kratos rushed into every fight with the idiot resolve of a Chihuahua growling at a grizzly bear.
Now, though, Kratos is meant to have grown up — and the series he stars in along with him. He speaks less often and, though just as angry when it comes time for a fight, is presented as more thoughtful and complex than his past iterations. He isn't hunting down enemies, for the most part, but simply protecting himself and his son from their attacks. His rage comes out in battle, but, outside of it, his gritted teeth relax into a presumably thoughtful scowl. Most notably, players of this latest God of War are meant to empathize with its main character as he tries to figure out how to raise his son to be a better man than he ever was. We're meant to feel sorry for him, even as we're repulsed by how emotionally withholding and just plain cruel he is in disciplining and training Atreus along their journey.
In a lot of ways, this more nuanced approach to Kratos' character marks a welcome change. Though the unrelenting aggression of the original God of War made the series hilariously over-the-top, its unquestioned embrace of such a reprehensible protagonist, over a total of seven different entries, was long overdue for examination. The very same, distinctly adolescent and rigidly “masculine” power fantasy that made guiding him through the decimation of the ancient Greek pantheon mindlessly entertaining also went largely unexamined by the series' creators.
It was good camp, but the implications of presenting a story like it without any self-criticism of its featured anti-hero became only more disappointing as the series progressed, ramping up the inventiveness and scale of the character's juvenile butchery and utilitarian view of humanity (in its worst moments, players killed pleading slaves to solve pointlessly cruel puzzles and played out off-camera sex scenes to earn power-ups).
Positioning Kratos as a single father, confronting his past in raising a young man, provides a direct entry point to those discussions of violence and masculinity the series has traditionally ignored to its detriment. The pair's godhood and the danger that lurks around every snowdrift and rock wall of their monster-ridden home neatly contextualizes the game's willingness to tackle the issues of male entitlement and culturally-mandated violence that past God of War entries so fully accepted as part-and-parcel of their stories.
After finishing a battle against an angry troll or watching a scene where a defeated enemy's life is spared, it seems natural enough for a father and son to have a few words about when violence is or isn't warranted. When they receive help in their journey from the towering Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr, whose scaly body dominates the horizon of the world, or narrowly escape the pursuit of a Norse god out for blood as part of a supernatural temper tantrum, the subject of how to appropriately exercise the powers that come with a privileged birthright makes a convenient talking point.
The only problem is that the character of Kratos functions so much better in a world of schlock than one in which players are meant to treat him as a conduit for discussions of intergenerational trauma and violent masculinity. Repurposing his creaking action hero archetype for a different kind of game — one willing to think about what its story says to its players or slow down the barrage of action scenes to allow quieter moments of conversation — works well enough, but Kratos is still too limited in range, stuck between stoic silence and bursts of anger, to express the complexity the story wants to convey. This new version of God of War is an improvement in many ways, and an overdue reckoning with a series' past, but it's still held back by a protagonist who can't move forward quite as well as the rest of his game.