The myth of Ragnarök promised the destruction of everything for the creation of something new. But by the end of the latest God of War game—after fulfilling the real prophecy of killing Odin so the other Norse realms can thrive—the biggest surprise is just how little doomsday changes much of anything.
Sure, Odin dies. But as the game’s final prophecy wall depicting Kratos being worshipped goes to show, the death of the All-Father only seems to make way for a new, slightly less odious patriarchal godhead to take his place. Queen Freya is even relegated to resuming her supporting role in that new patriarch’s story. She gets no wall shrine of her own to prophesize the grand part she'll play in rebuilding the post-Ragnarök future she sacrificed and fought so hard to ensure. Meanwhile Atreus, Kratos' son and the game's version of Loki, sets off to fulfill his grandiose destiny as champion of the giants. In the process, he leaves behind his love interest Angrboda—who suffered years of loneliness to ensure her people’s survival before Atreus ever knew about their struggle—so she can continue painting prophecies of a future she will not star in.
Like the rebooted God of War games themselves, this new era for the Norse pantheon marks a significant tonal shift away from what came before it. But the fundamental worldview of who and what it worships remains the same. It was men, their violence, and their egos. Only now it is men, their boys, their begrudging violence, and ego-driven savior complexes.
This wouldn’t feel like such a letdown if everything leading up to Ragnarök didn’t seem to telegraph a seismic change for the series by teasing Kratos’ death. Yet despite the game’s expanded scope, setting, and plethora of far more interesting women characters, Ragnarök appears incapable of imagining a world that does not exclusively revolve around men.
In a way, that’s understandable. God of War creator Santa Monica Studios doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel with every game. Maybe Kratos and the themes of hypermasculinity that surround him are so embedded into the DNA of the series that it’d feel disingenuous to tackle anything else within its confines. 2018’s God of War surprised us all by managing to squeeze more juice out of what many presumed was a dry, tired old well. But you can only reboot your series as a meta-commentary on your character’s own toxic, hyperviolent legacy once. The second time around reads like a lampshaded perpetuation of the very problem you claimed to confront. If the flatness of Ragnarok is any indication, the series' premise confines it to a box that also robs one of the most talented game making teams in this industry from reaching its full potential.
The real insult of Ragnarök lies in how it pretends to care about reinventing the wheel.
Throughout the game, the gods are repeatedly told that they must better themselves for the sake of creating a better world for their children, and in turn make their children better gods for the sake of the world. But for the most part, only the men and boys seem to require this betterment, while the women and girls must wait patiently on the sidelines for them to catch up. Throughout God of War, only fathers get the chance to play active roles in building that better world, while the mothers exist as passive ideals of divine femininity to teach them how.
Kratos’ greatest fatherly epiphany is realizing that Atreus should’ve been listening to his mom all along. Thor’s greatest moment of redemption comes from finally believing what his wife Sif had been telling him all along, too—only after it comes out of Kratos’ mouth though, of course. Freya certainly had some shit to work through, I guess. But her arc is still about putting the pieces of who she already was back together after men systematically destroyed her life by selling her off as a peace offering, abusing her, blaming her for their own incompetence, then prioritizing their own savior complexes over her autonomy.
I could forgive 2018’s God of War for its narrow focus on issues of fatherhood, hypermasculinity, and what that passes down to our sons. While unfortunate, its intimate narrative almost necessitated the game’s total lack of thoughtfulness toward motherhood by shafting Freya’s arc and refrigerating Faye. But there was no lack of opportunity in Ragnarök for a thematic broadening. In fact, failing to do so only turned the story’s larger scope into a whole lot of unnecessary bloat, padded out with a mini story arc for every single realm and the representative character designated with explaining its cultural context. Worst of all, the game gives us several tantalizing glimpses into what a future for the God of War series beyond the patriarchal lens could look like: If not a story of motherhood through Faye or Freya, then the equally universal (and timely) story of a young girl who must both care for her elder and keep her cognitive decay from destroying the world.
But if we ever do get to see Angrboda and Grýla’s story play out, it will inevitably be from within the margins of yet another male protagonist’s main storyline. Because Ragnarök makes it clear that, if there is any future for the Norse pantheon in this series, it will be Atreus’ to inherit. Kratos may deem his son ready to assume the mantle as harbinger of this brave new world. But we’re talking about a teen boy whose personal growth journey starts with him sociopathically murdering another god on a whim, then putting everyone around him at risk in pursuit of his own egomaniacal glory. In what way does that earn him the right to play savior to a nearly genocided people?
But boys will be boys, Ragnarök director Eric Williams all but says in defense of Atreus’ many egregious mistakes. Maybe I could buy that Atreus’ poor decisions were just the normal mistakes of a young person who’s overly eager to save the world, as Williams wants us to. But again, we don’t see either Angrboda or Thrud making anything close to such errors, despite equal fervor for their cause. Both girls serve almost exclusively as plot points for the development of their male tether. And in the end Angrboda—the far more qualified champion for her people—still hands the sack of soul-filled marbles she spent her whole life protecting back to Atreus anyway.
Ultimately, Ragnarök did succeed in destroying one thing: my hope for whatever comes next.
Loki’s inevitable ascension as the future godhead and main series protagonist is not the revolution that we were promised would rise from the god of war's ashes. It’s just the status quo with marginal improvements. It’s the same story we’ve seen from countless games before, and the same one the rebooted God of War decided to tell twice now: Male protagonist succeeds in lifetime achievement of becoming slightly less shit.
During the scene with the Norns (the Nordic version of the Greek Fates), it becomes obvious that the game’s own creators know how contrived the whole thing is. The three prescient seers break the fourth wall multiple times to basically roll their eyes at the camera, commiserating with the player over how tired it all feels: “He still slays gods, but now he’s sad about it?” the oldest one sighs. They call Kratos the “protagonist,” bemoan the predictability of his actions, and even call it a “common mistake of story craft” to “focus on the second act to the exclusion of the final.”
Being self-aware about a game’s derivativeness doesn’t make it any less derivative, though.
Ragnarök wants us to believe that, ultimately, by avoiding his prophesied death, Kratos proves that we really are the makers of our own destinies, and that our choices decide our fates. But in every way imaginable, the game only proves the Norns right: Every decision made is so dreadfully predictable that the outcome of this whole series might as well be predetermined.
Jess Joho is an award-winning LA-based freelance journalist and critic currently pursuing fiction full-time. You sick freaks can find her words in the LA Times, Vice, Rolling Stone, and Mashable.