header is screenshot from God of War
How to Talk to Your Dying Father
Chris Breault

“Father, you’re almost dead!”

This is what God of War’s Atreus says when his father gets hurt. What kind of a warning is that? Imagine running into a hospital, checking the vitals monitor, and shrieking “Father, you’re almost dead!” Imagine jumping up on a table and yelling while Kratos chokes on a grape: “Father, you’re almost dead!” Atreus is not a normal boy.

When Kratos’s health bar drops to its last reserves, the line jars you out of the game. Nobody, not even a videogame kid with oddly total knowledge of his father’s health, should voice his concern in such a baldly artificial way. But Atreus sometimes talks like a tutorial screen wearing a boy-mask. If you fail the game’s Muspelheim challenges, he steps almost completely out of character in urging you to leave and return later with better gear. He drops leaden reminders like “before we go to [objective], we can explore again!” in seemingly every chapter of the game, well after players have learned the pattern.

But the “almost dead” line kills me. Players don’t need Atreus to tell them what hurts. God of War resounds with feedback; it’s not a game like Wolfenstein II, where you barely feel the bullets land. Kratos walks off-center at the base of the third-person view, so your eyes rest just above the health gauge in the bottom left. When you’re almost dead, the bar turns red, and you notice. (The PS4 controller’s light bar also turns orange, but you don’t notice.) The screen dims briefly every time you take a hit; when you’re almost dead, the edges of the image pulse red. You hear the amplified thump of Kratos’s heartbeat. The message “you’re almost dead” has been sent in triplicate. (By comparison, 2013’s God of War: Ascension does not fix Kratos’ position in the shot, hangs the health bar a little awkwardly at top left, and lacks the blood pulse and heartbeat effects.) You don’t think about the UI frame that provides the first three warnings. But the “you’re almost dead” bark, piled on top of every other effect, strikes a false note that strains the entire performance.

God of War’s full-throated combat uses companion barks to reinforce nearly every UI signal. Atreus and Mimir (the talking head you carry around) yell the whole time: whenever Atreus starts firing an arrow, whenever he’s ready to fire arrows, whenever he’s out of arrows, whenever you’re about to be attacked, whenever you’re hurt. (If you want to add to the wall of sound, you can summon Ratatoskr, who drops a one-liner whenever he unearths a stack of Rage Stones™.) The lines sometimes misfire, and the guy “behind you” is a projectile in front of you, or the attacker “to your right” is on your left. But each shout is really a cue to dodge, and that works out no matter where you roll, usually.

The cacophony of companion barks, enemy hisses, and projectile or weapon impacts plays off the protagonist’s characteristic silence. In every fight, Kratos is a pillar of strength. He doesn’t flit around like Bayonetta or Dante. He counters heavily with his shield and foes skate backward over cliffs. He sends their frozen bodies away to shatter against walls. He launches them upward where Atreus’s arrows hold them stuttering in midair (a Capcom/PlatinumGames special). Finding the quickest ways to delete individuals from the mob is the finest feeling in the game. The volume of information swirling around Kratos makes it more satisfying to cut down the noise, enemy by enemy, until the storm breaks.

Maybe I enjoy that part of God of War because I want its world to shut up. I get that it’s built around the back-and-forth between the endlessly curious, linguistically gifted Atreus and reticent Kratos. (More broadly, it’s a road trip with a voluble child and his weary parent.) I appreciate that it sketches out its sinister Norse mythos through stories told incidentally while traveling, rather than strapping you to a chair to endure garish God of War III-style cutscenes. But God of War is one of the most talkative games I’ve ever played. For all its chatter, it never shows you the comic timing of The Witcher 3, the Hollywood melancholy of Red Dead Redemption, or an endearing style of its own. The defining characteristic of dialogue in God of War is that it is constant.

Carefully wrought landscapes like the giant Thamur’s corpse are blanketed with ready-made quips, as if the developers wanted to provide both a level and a Norse fantasy podcast to listen to while playing it. Atreus and Mimir talk mythology through each boat ride and cosmic jaunt between realms. Optional areas come furnished with wall-to-wall commentary, even if all of it reiterates the same idea, such as “Muspelheim is hot.” Sidequests like “Family Business” give Atreus and Kratos time to muse about how a child could kill their parent, even though the core plot of the game hits all the same beats much better and gains nothing from this supplementary discussion. (The start of “Family Business” also has the corniest shot of Kratos’s “haunted” face in the game.) You never find an ancient wonder without instantly hearing a “whoa” or “wow” from your companions, and over time their predictable amazement stifles your own. God of War has a much higher tolerance for redundancy than dead air.

I do like, sometimes, to look at something or think about something or retry something difficult without anyone piping up to give me a hint thinly disguised as a thought. God of War is one of the few games that can afford to cover its entire running time with animated conversations from good actors who sound like they might have even been in the same room. But did it occur to anyone that it’s possible to say too much? To hit the same notes too often? To have Atreus prod you to look at the same Points of Interest you’ve already noticed until your sense of discovery is, Father, almost dead?

People talk about the “quiet moments” in God of War as a contrast to the unbroken slaughter of its predecessors. But the game is almost never literally quiet. Only at the end of the plot (in one of a couple neat payoffs) do the heroes complete a task without commenting on what they are doing or talking about another time that Thor killed someone. It helps you see that periods of silence should have been part of the rhythm of the game all along, as they are in games like The Last of Us, which trusts its environments to tell a story without endless verbal annotation.

As an action game and as a story, God of War easily outclasses Western peers like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Arkham Knight. But it’s ambitious to try to follow so closely in the footsteps of The Last of Us, the obvious model for God of War’s cinematic surly-father story. The Last of Us never put a foot wrong: everything, from the low-key script to the collectible comics you read, develops its core concerns of loss and sacrifice. Its companion characters speak tersely and draw less attention to their role as signposts. (At the same time, its extremes of gaminess—like enemies ignoring your companions—simply exist, without the wink-wink acknowledgments of Atreus or Nathan Drake, and recede into the background.) The Last of Us builds slowly, scene by scene, and never betrays your growing investment in its narrative.

God of War is not so controlled. It breaks character whenever it thinks you need a push, and pads its script with a wealth of superfluous lines that finally feel like nothing but a status symbol. It never stops talking, I think, because it worries that just giving you a game to play was not enough.


Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.