header is screenshot from God of War Ragnarök
Killing Gods, Feeling Bad
Reid McCarter

This article is a continuation of one written around the release of Ragnarök’s 2018 predecessor. It includes plot details from throughout both games.


In 2018’s God of War, craggy demigod Kratos had grown his nü-metal goatee out into a more respectable, well manicured beard, departed his mythological ancient Greek homeland, and headed north to settle down with a (new) wife and (new) child in an(also mythological) ancient Scandinavia. The game began soon after his second wife’s death, leaving Kratos to figure out how to solo parent his son, Atreus, and try his best to restrain his desire to beat another pantheon of deities to death in the process.

Presented as a more mature, emotionally complex vision of a campy, adolescently blood and sex-obsessed videogame series, this God of War ultimately functioned as yet another form of wish fulfillment—one that traded the cheaper fantasy of unstoppable, bulging-veined revenge for another type, where nurturing a healthy father-son relationship is as straightforward as bringing your kid along for an extended wilderness trip and not strangling them to death in the process.

Having established a notionally functional relationship between Kratos and Atreus with God of War 2018, its sequel, Ragnarök, is tasked with showing what comes afterward. And, in proper sequel escalation form, the personal drama of Kratos and Atreus’ small family (the Kratoses?) now takes place against the backdrop of the Norse end of the world, too.

The decision to set Ragnarök within the context of, well, Ragnarök is a clever one. Apart from the spectacle that comes with the world’s end—the sun- and moon-eating wolves, giant serpents, ships made from human nails, and globe-destroying clash of supernatural beings that come with the Norse telling are definitely spectacular—there’s also the previous game’s revelation that Atreus is its fiction’s version of Loki, a god whose importance to the setting far outweighs Kratos’ own. As Loki, Atreus becomes an appropriately unpredictable figure. By knowing even the roughest outline of the god’s role in Ragnarök, most players can be assumed to view Atreus/Loki as more than just a little boy sidekick and tool to aid his father’s self actualization. He’s a mercurial figure—a literal shapeshifter who, in the Eddas, is described as having orchestrated Baldur’s untimely death and, subsequently, sparked the series of events that would culminate in Ragnarök+.

Kratos, watching his son assume an essential place in his new home’s mythological order, loses some of his centrality as a character in the process. This, along with the duo meeting other Norse gods, provides opportunity for the prior game’s shallower depiction of fatherhood to become complicated by circumstance and comparison.

That latter point comes most notably from the on-screen introduction of Odin. In Ragnarök, his title of All-Father is used in appropriately grand fashion to portray a kind of ur-bad dad. Because Odin, father of Thor and Baldur and former husband of Freya, reigns over the Æsir gods as the most powerful of male deities—and because, in the game’s fiction, he controls them with the mercilessness of a totalitarian dictator—he functions in fiction as the patriarchal presence writ large. Diminished in complexity and theological potency in this role, Ragnarök’s take on Odin strips away the favourable qualities associated with the god, or twists them, in the case of his insatiable desire for knowledge, into a malicious need for the utmost power over others. Cast as a villain, Odin embodies what the game considers the worst aspects of fatherhood. A need to control. Fury at disrespect. Ignorance of his family’s own wants and feelings. Tremendous pride.     

Thor, in Ragnarök, is depicted as a self-loathing alcoholic who’s obedient to Odin at the cost of his own free will, the grandfather’s iron grip on the Æsir and his son extending through to Thor’s own wife and daughter. When Thor appears in the game, he’s depicted as a pitiful figure. He drinks and sulks and flies into violent rages, his own considerable powers exercised only at the behest of his father. Instead of treating him with respect, Odin orders Thor to do his bidding, seeing him as a tool and insulting him when he voices any resistance. It’s hard to imagine any cult devoted to such a miserable sort of deity.

Contrasted with Odin and Thor, Kratos appears downright cuddly, his relationship with Atreus a model of exceptional parenting. Having experienced an emotional sea change resulting, most likely, from realizing that Atreus is Loki and must more quickly accept his coming adulthood in order to survive Ragnarök, Kratos has become a far gentler father than he was in the previous game. He listens to Atreus’ opinions more readily. He talks out his problems with other gods rather than smash them into steaming piles of divine giblets as soon as they frustrate him. He is, in short, a better guy than he has been in any God of War to date.

Outside of his comparison to figures like Odin, though, Kratos and Atreus’ relationship is still hampered by the father’s nature as a character. While the rest of the game’s cast may all but rend their clothes when expressing emotional turmoil, Kratos’ arc—punctuated as it is by quiet scenes of his rocky mug twisted into mute consideration of his psychological dilemmas—is still pretty straightforward. 

He, now a good dad, must figure out how to continue being a good dad as his son looks beyond him and outward into the rest of the world. There are bumps along the way—spats really—but the point is that he’s raising a teenager now and these kinds of disagreements are part of the process. These arguments always resolve in neat reunions between parent and child, Atreus’ feints at rebellion sorted neatly into “run away from home” segments where players control him, knowing that the format of the game means we must return to Kratos’ point of view before long. Even alone, Atreus doesn’t agonize over the presumed pain that growing up with such a previously inattentive, distant parent must have caused him. He simply loves his dad and needs to get away from him from time to time—needs, also, it should be said, to venture forth into the world on his own to further investigate a prophecy of his father’s death that he’s desperate to avoid.   

The emotional maturity that might have surfaced on Kratos’ end of this dynamic is still kneecapped by the legacy that God of War, and its protagonist, drags behind it like a millstone. In the original, Greek mythology-set series, Kratos eventually got over his own parental angst by beating and electrocuting his dad, Zeus, into a greasy stain. The same spirit, if not intent, is captured in the shallowness of Ragnarök’s character development. We’re shown a potentially complex relationship between a child just beginning the process of becoming an adult and a father who has just recently decided to begin demonstrating love and empathy for that child. But, instead of figuring out how both sides of this relationship are able to move beyond their past, God of War externalizes their “growth” by treating a difficult emotional and psychological situation as if it’s another god whose health bar needs whittling down, or an environmental puzzle that provides a reward when solved. The biggest breakthroughs both characters achieve come not through scenes of reflection or dialogue, but as the result of a mission completed or a dangerous situation resolved in a pile of collaboratively killed monster bodies. Just as the plot might lead the characters in an unsatisfyingly written novel, the action game design leads the development of Ragnarök’s father and son relationship++.

If wish fulfillment in the Greek series revolved around an adolescent attempt to kill your dad for all the ways he fucked you up, God of War 2018’s, as the first part of this article argued, is about applying the same straightforward, videogame-y logic to learning to parent a child. Now, in Ragnarök, it’s extended to a wider, twofold  fantasy: That your dad will admit when he’s wrong and that your son will genuinely accept that apology.

The end result is much the same as the 2018 God of War. Kratos’ relationship with his son still comes across as an overly simplistic dream that a strong familial bond can be forged by learning to hug your kid more often and listen to their problems. Staged in contrast with Odin’s characterization, Kratos’ silent brooding may give him an appearance of thoughtfulness, but, ultimately, he’s trapped in a role—and a videogame series—that seems unwilling or unable to provide opportunities for him to show what’s truly running through his mind.

Though the wrinkles to its plot and the space it provides for moments of quiet contemplation make Ragnarök’s narrative far stronger than what came before, they still aren’t enough to overcome the limitations of a design ethos that is better suited to blunter and bloodier videogame power fantasies than attempts toward emotional catharsis. To paraphrase a character from the game, Kratos is still killing gods like he did before, only now he feels bad about it. That, in this case, isn’t enough.


There’s likely a reading to be found in how the end of Loki’s bondage at the beginning of Ragnarök matches Ragnarök’s own Loki/Atreus stepping out of his father’s shadow to finally make decisions on his own near the game’s climactic battle in Asgard.

++ This is apparent, too, in how abruptly Freya finally decides to forgive Kratos and Atreus' for Baldur's death at the end of a mission together.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV ClubGQKill ScreenPlayboyThe Washington PostPaste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.