Kratos can kill anything. Wronged by the Greek gods in the original game, the goateed, steroidal Spartan warrior embarked on a bloody rampage to destroy every force, natural or supernatural, responsible for his suffering. After his wife and daughter were murdered while his mind, like Hercules’, was clouded with divine fury, Kratos set out to complete labours of a more straightforwardly violent sort. By the time God of War III wrapped up, Kratos had killed his way through a laundry list of deities that included Ares, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Hercules, Hephaestus, Helios, Hera, and his dad, Zeus.
This last act, Kratos beating the bearded face of his father until the pantheon entire died out in a smear of chunky red pulp, marked the destruction of an entire theological worldview. Ancient Greece was extinguished under the fists of a man so thoroughly angry he transcended the religious ordering of his reality. Some extra nonsense about hope and fear, airy concepts rendered material through a twisting, hyper-“game-y” interpretation of the myth of Pandora’s Box, adds wrinkles to the ending, but the basic plot point remains simple enough: Kratos overthrew an ancient culture’s metaphysical grounding by beating the shit out of its Olympian avatars until they were all dead.
Power fantasies are common to videogames. A military shooter allows the player to turn the tide of battles against entire armies, both historical and fictional; a role-playing game uses dozens of hours of incremental gains in power to turn a supposedly humble village teenager into a world’s saviour. The idea is straightforward: the player, if skilled and determined enough, embodies characters capable of superhuman acts. Despite the hand-wringing over the greater implications of these fantasies, it’s really a neutral design concept, dependent entirely on the context of a game’s narrative to take on any greater meaning, malignant or benign. To suggest that a plucky hero with enough dedication to doing good can become strong enough to save his home from evil isn’t all that nefarious. To show, as in God of War, that one man’s unrelenting anger, aimed at any force opposed to his will, can make him more powerful than his gods—that’s something else.
But this has always been the appeal of God of War. Kratos, scumbag that he is, is not someone to admire. The games, despite their abidingly sophomoric idea of “cool”, are best read as the chronicles of a stupid man whose personality is confined to an infantile inability to conceive of a world whose problems are solved by any means but outrageous violence. Listen to his mucosal screaming and look at the sneer fixed permanently on his face and it becomes hard for anyone but a teenager to take his shit seriously. The power fantasy in all of the Greece-set God of War games is pretty much impossible to buy into. Instead, the player is an uneasy accomplice to the series’ protagonist—a wincing observer who carries Kratos along his journey simply to see what kind of ridiculousness he’ll get up to next.
In 2018’s God of War, though, this idea is meant to be complicated. Picking up long after the events of God of War III, Kratos is now a single dad, raising his son Atreus in mythological Scandinavia. He’s sad, but still angry; a terrible father who seems to know that he’s terrible. Atreus is a walking wound, hungry for his dad’s approval when he isn’t shrinking from his hostility. Though the earlier games all revolved around the death of Kratos’ family, in this version of God of War, the loss of yet another one of his wives—Atreus’ mother—is portrayed as something sorrowful rather than simply the spark that sets off a tremendous fury. The entire plot of the game revolves around father and son journeying across Midgard (there are a few stops to others realms, too) on a kind of momentous funeral procession. Their goal, regardless of what manner of gods or monsters they fight along their way, remains, simply, to reach the summit of the highest mountain peak they can find in order to scatter their dead wife/mom’s ashes in accordance with her last wishes.
The game changes very little in tone over the dozens of hours required to accomplish this task. A chatty severed head, introduced midway through the plot, provides a bit of comic relief, but the general timbre of the journey is surprisingly gloomy and restrained. Unlike past God of War entries, the boss fights are disappointedly small-scale (an enormous dragon and two encounters with a swaggering, greasy-bearded version of the god Baldur offer a few notable exceptions). The spectacle of the past is reduced to something that, while fantastic enough to include magic and ogres and a decent amount of bare-handed vivisection, is distinctly quiet in comparison to the bygone days of squaring off with, say, a rampaging, house-sized Poseidon or a version of Cronus suitably gigantic enough that Kratos angrily scampers across his body like a vicious hamster. The new God of War’s fights are mostly set in arenas. The slower, more deliberate combat system pits Kratos against creatures roughly the same size as him. It emphasizes spatial awareness, on-the-fly enemy prioritizing, and actual small-scale tactics beyond slamming a series of combos until everything bad disappears from screen. (Yes, there are experience points, too. Kratos now crafts gear and scours the world for honest-to-goddamn loot.)
Scenes placed between fights are more pacific than anything in the past, too. Instead of silently running from place to place, grunting out double-jumps, Kratos and Atreus walk, climb, and boat around Midgard while having conversations about the Norse gods, their relationship, and the landscape. They solve a lot of puzzles together and, to wit, none of their solutions involve murdering screaming civilians. Most notably, Kratos, who will not so much as place a comforting hand on Atreus’ back during the game’s opening scenes, grows close to his son and the pair develop a surprisingly functional relationship by talking out their problems.
This is a power fantasy of a different shape. In the past, the absurd drive of God of War was to embody a piece of shit strong enough that he could kill the gods. Now the spectacle of physical strength is replaced with one about repairing the fractured emotional distance between authoritarian father and desperately eager son. This has and will continue to be praised as a sign of maturity, but it’s really just a shift in priorities. It was easier to see the motivation behind Kratos’ past adventures as a way to make the player—assumedly young, straight, male—feel as if they could do anything if they set their mind to it. The world bent to accommodate the lust and fury of a character who two-dimensional women eagerly invited to their beds (in the economy of God of Wars past, orgasms are a simple game of Simon Says timing, and reward experience points) and who could render divine reality into slumping bags of loose meat with enough violence. Now, though, the world bends in a new way, the story reaching its expected conclusion with father and son having patched up years of formative trauma through the psychic band-aid of having gone on a particularly grueling road trip together.
The physical power fantasy is easier to see through. It’s transparent in what it offers. The new God of War’s gamified take on the complexities of emotion are a little more insidious. With the assumed logic of any great videogame quest, the son and the father will grow to understand one another—to put the past in the past, even if the worst of it was rearing its head just days before the story begins—by leveling up and beating the final boss. There are complications, of course: their progress toward healing is interrupted by the standard second act character swerves (in this case Atreus temporarily becoming a cartoonishly hubristic baby maniac). These issues are patched over soon enough, artfully-but-simply, so that the fantasy endures to the finale and the question of violent legacy, whether directed at gods or family, is dealt with well enough to be a thing of the past. More adult in its preoccupations, this latest iteration of God of War is still remarkably similar to its more colourful past when it comes to filtering the difficulties of life into a pleasantly hopeful narrative arc: everything difficult, whether frustrations with a station in life or a relationship with family, is resolved by putting in the hours.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.