Humanizing Kratos

Chase Gamwell 2018-06-08

Art by Empanda.

Note: Though this isn’t strictly a review of the new God of War game, it does contain spoilers for it and the previous games in the series. Consider yourself warned!

With its opening moments, God of War insists that it wants to tell a different story. There is no mention of Gods, no narration that hints at a greater story in the works. Instead, the player sees Kratos, far more muscular than he ever was in the past and adorned with a bushy beard, prepared to chop down a tree. He does so with all the violence and savagery players expect from a character with Kratos’ namesake, but the deed is done for the most somber of reasons: to build a funeral pyre for his dead wife. This scene is drenched with sadness, and the loss is palpable, but the message this game is trying to communicate is clear; this isn’t the Kratos we remember. He is different.

To further separate him from the previous iteration of the character, Kratos is now constantly accompanied by his son, Atreus. Different, indeed.

A New Leaf

When the game was first announced in 2014, Santa Monica hinted at the fact that it could be a reboot of the series. When gameplay was shown at E3 in 2016, it seemed that they had held to that possibility. And the opening moments of the game were doubling down that outcome.

It was an interesting concept, to think that Kratos had been so fundamentally changed from the character we knew before. He was still as grumpy as the previous iteration of the character, and his interactions with his son were as cold and awkward as we might have expected, but to think that this Kratos was no longer the unbridled rage monster bent on the destruction of the Greek Pantheon – merely a transplant of the character form one mythos to another – seemed like a missed opportunity.

But the game’s opening chapter, just like Kratos’ identity, was a lie.

The curtain is lifted when a Norse God shows up at Kratos’ door. In typical God of War fashion, words give way to blows, and Kratos is once again the man/God we all know him to be. It is a spectacular reveal that elevates the character to meet the expectations of the player, but also serves to pose more than a few questions.

They are hastily pushed aside by Kratos in favor of the task at hand: to deliver the ashes of his wife to the highest peak in the realm.

Specter of the Past

Kratos makes an honest effort to deny everything that he is as they embark on the journey. Even though his insane strength and knowledge of the world prompts questions from Atreus, he feigns ignorance, or decries the very things that make him who he is. On multiple occasions he tells us that nothing good comes from the Gods.

It’s almost jarring to see how vehemently Kratos pushes back on the past that’s threatening to wash over him, but it makes sense from a narrative standpoint. In all of the previous God of War games, nothing good came from his dealings with the Greek Gods. Even when he was the God of War, for however brief a time, he was never allowed to belong. The result was an all-out brawl with the champions of Olympus that nearly ended the world.

So, it’s no surprise that he keeps what he is hidden. Atreus, his son, doesn’t know of his father’s true nature, or his own. And Kratos takes steps to make sure it stays that way – something, it turns out, he has to do a lot.

Nearly every friendly NPC they meet seems aware of Kratos’ divinity, and his identity as a strange god hiding in Midgard soon becomes an issue. Though he manages to continue keeping it a secret for a long while, the ramifications of his presence are far reaching for himself and his son.

Family Matters

But Kratos’ greatest concern is the present rather than the past.

Without his son, it would have been easy for Kratos to go on a killing spree across all of Norse mythology, but Atreus is the lens that keeps him tied to his purpose. It’s a strange thing to see, considering how cold he is to the boy at the beginning of the game, but as time wears on, it’s clear to see that Kratos cares for him and wants only the best for him.

It’s this gradual softening of Kratos that paints him in an entirely new light. In the past, we’ve only known him as a broken man bent on the destruction of the Greek Gods that had forsaken him. And, across three games, we get to see his rise to Godhood, his fall from it, and his eventual revenge. On occasion, we’ve seen him soften for other, similar, characters, but none of the consideration he’s shown for those characters was powerful enough to break through rage and revenge that consumed him.

Here, none of those passions are evident. Instead, we get to see that most of the rage from Kratos’ past has cooled into something more akin to focus. It’s still keen, and anything it is pointed at is burned to ashes, but it’s clear that however many years have passed since his time in Greece, Kratos is far more mature for it.

That maturity is bred out of a greater responsibility. His deceased wife, and the child at his side, have molded him into a new man. And it’s the focused time with his son on their quest that begins to break down barriers and show us what else he can be other than the hardened killer we’re familiar with.

Father and Son

Kratos time with Atreus, and how the two affect one another, is likely one of the most elegantly handled character arcs I’ve ever seen.

At the beginning of the game, Kratos and Atreus are nearly strangers. It’s explained that Kratos has spent enough time away from home that neither are comfortable around one another, and this lack of familiarity underlies Kratos’ cold attitude and Atreus’ chronic uncertainty.

The two get by, but it’s clear that they won’t be able to complete their quest as they are. Both know it, yet neither are ready to change the status quo, so we see them both approaching the situation from two sides of the same coin. The situation is relatable because nearly everyone has been in a position where they are forced to rely on someone they aren’t comfortable with. It’s almost painful watching these two stumble along in each other’s company for a few chapters.

At the same time, it’s gratifying to watch as Kratos attempts to be a father to a boy he barely knows. In the past, we’ve mostly seen the violent side of his character, so this behavior is wholly unique as far as Kratos is concerned. Of course, we know that he was a father before he brutally murdered his wife and daughter, but that time in his life was overshadowed by his service to Ares and the terrible price he paid for it. Finally being able to see him as something other than the Ghost of Sparta is refreshing.

Becoming a Father

From the word go, it is clear that Kratos has no idea what to do with Atreus. Being a father is something wholly past him. And it shows in every line of dialogue. As the game wears on, Atreus warms up to Kratos far faster than Kratos warms up to the boy. This leads to a few priceless exchanges, some which stretched the boundaries of Kratos as a person (like when Atreus asks Kratos to tell him stories).

All of these little moments serve to tear away the coat of severity that Kratos has worn for so long. Over time, the player gets to see Kratos soften, and his stony facade slowly fades away. This is exemplified in the way he addresses Atreus, and how he deals with the boy over the course of the narrative. Actions that used to be delivered as orders (BOY! Read this!) change to requests (Over here. Can you read this?), and criticisms turn to lessons.

This is especially important when Kratos is forced to confront his past.

A (Brief) Return to form

Atreus falls sick and Kratos is forced to take the boy to a witch they met near the beginning of the story. She tells him that the boy must know his true nature, and in order for Atreus to be healed, Kratos must go to the one place the axe he wields cannot help him.

He’s forced to use the blades of chaos.

For the first time in the game, Kratos is alone, and the ferocity we’re used to seeing from him is displayed full force. He stomps through Helheim (Norse Hell) with the blades of chaos and destroys everything in his path. For the first time, we get to see his rage bent towards a selfless purpose rather than revenge.

It’s awesome to see him doing it and utterly nostalgic.

The Man in the Mirror

As soon as Atreus learns the truth, it’s clear to see that he’s going to fall far and hard, but it isn’t until Kratos witnesses him kill a minor god out of spite that we realize just how far gone the boy is. For all of Kratos attempts at keeping Atreus from learning the truth, it turns out that hiding too much only contributes to his downfall.

This is dealt with over the course of the next few chapters as Atreus continues to grow in his arrogance. It all comes to a head when Kratos faces the same God that appeared at his house in the beginning of the game. He orders Atreus to run, but the boy refuses and they are thrown into Helheim (Norse Hell).

The result is that Kratos finally realizes the difference between being a commander and a father. Thus far, all of his attempts to be a father to Atreus have really just been him teaching the boy how to be a good warrior and soldier. Though they’ve had their share of tender moments over the course of their journey together, it wasn’t until this moment that Kratos realized that his attempts to shield the boy–and teach him to view everything without passion–has only served to push him down the same path he tread so many years ago.

After this, we see a shift in Kratos’ behavior. Old habits die hard, so he finds it difficult to completely shirk the man he used to be, but how he deals with Atreus takes on a whole new timbre.

The entirety of this arc takes hours to play out, but seeing it unfold is astounding. Watching both of these characters grow in tandem, affected by actions and reactions to each other, is a fantastic example of character development.

New and Improved

At this point, it’s impossible to see Kratos as the rage filled monster we knew before. Though once or twice throughout the course of the narrative, we get to see him react to specifics from his past, it’s clear that he’s spent enough time away from Greece to allow that part of him to fade from existence. Even as he wields the blades of chaos, it’s clear that who he was no longer drives him.

Kratos’ skill, and the violence that he’s so apt at doling out, are still present, but the way it is delivered harkens back to the focus I mentioned earlier. And it’s refreshing to see him stick to his newfound convictions regardless of how often he is tempted by the savagery of Midgard.

A step in the right direction

At the end of the day, I’m very happy to see Santa Monica take the series in a different direction. I’m glad to see that they’ve chosen to do something different with the character. Too often, game studios hold characters to the same, or similar, arcs in every game. Often, this repetition becomes tiring and it’s easy to lose interest.

I’ll admit that the original God of War series started out as an intense thrill-ride, but as the storylines in the original three games began to run together, I lost interest. In the end, I wound up watching the cutscenes for the last third of the second game and all of the third. There were definitely some interesting attempts at character development in those games, but everything wound up coming back around to Kratos’ rage and his thirst for revenge when all was said and done.

Here, the game is thoroughly committed to God of War being, first and foremost, a family drama, with the Norse Gods as a backdrop for a quest that is intensely personal. And playing a game that puts the characters, and their motivations, first is mightily refreshing.

Though this isn’t meant to be a review for the latest God of War game (and, to be honest, I haven’t finished it quite yet because I’m going for the platinum trophy), I can’t recommend it enough. I was excited to play it from the moment it was announced, but I had no idea just how good it would be, both from a narrative and gameplay standpoint.

And, if anything, Kratos works much better as a human character than a monstrous one!

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