God of War is one of Playstation’s most well-known franchises. The first God of War game came out on the Playstation 2 back in 2005 – I was an excited college student who took a bus all the way to the nearest game store of my small college town just to pick it up. I’m a sucker for mythology and a game themed around Greek mythology was right up my alley. It ended up being absurdly popular – spawning two more direct sequels and several prequels and spinoffs. The next game in the series comes out this Friday for the Playstation 4 and it’s been getting rave reviews and is one of the highest reviewed games on the platform and of this generation of games.
What makes this particular game interesting, though, is that it’s completely throwing away the formula from the previous games. Kratos, the main character, is well known through gaming circles as basically being the villain protagonist of the God of War series. He’s murderous, cold-hearted, consumed by revenge, and doesn’t give a crap about anything other than his stated goal of killing the gods. The games themselves are mature content to the Nth degree – you perform bloody finishing moves on all the creatures you fight, you sacrifice innocents to progress, and when you face the gods Kratos despises in combat you better believe they are brutally murdered in horrific fashion. And most of the God of War games have sex mini-games, too, just to tick all the boxes.
But the new God of War is taking things in a different direction and it’s brought up some interesting questions regarding moral philosophy and the idea of redemptive behavior.
So here’s a brief synopsis of the start of the story for the upcoming game: Kratos, after his revenge spree against the Greek gods, has taken up retirement in the lands of the Norse gods. He has a wife and son, and at the beginning of the game his wife dies (of natural causes, we’re led to assume) and her last request is for Kratos and Atreus (their son) to spread her ashes at a faraway mountain top. That’s where the story begins – obviously something else happens because there’s plenty of Kratos killing monsters in gameplay trailers I’ve seen, but the general gist of the story is an older, wiser, less bloodthirsty Kratos taking his son on a trip to spread his wife’s ashes in some interesting father-son bonding time.
But the dilemma that has come up is “does Kratos deserve any sort of quiet redemption?” We’ve seen what he did at his worst – torn heads off gods, sacrificed people for no reason other than that was the answer to a puzzle – and he’s murdered many, many people. He’s a monster in all senses of the word – so can we actually take him seriously as a grizzled father figure trying to teach his son as they trek to fulfill a dying woman’s last request?
From what I understand, Kratos is still grumpy and violent – he hasn’t suddenly turned into Mr. Rogers for this game. But even in a more subdued state, it brings up certain moral questions. As the player, when you played through the glorious violence of the previous God of War games you kind of accepted that you were controlling an amoral monster. In general there weren’t many discussions about “is Kratos bad,” but rather “we know Kratos is bad, but on a scale of 10-20 how bad is he?” (The answer was usually “25.”) But now we’re getting a game where not only is Kratos forced to reflect on his actions, but we are reflecting on our own actions in being accepting of the behavior as an escape through a video game.
This game in particular presents a very unique opportunity because we’ve been a part of Kratos’ bloodthirsty rampage from the beginning. We’ve controlled it. And often times when we’re given a character who has a questionable past it’s just that – the past. We get to see the character when the immorality of what they’ve done is weighing heavy on them and they’re choosing to take redemptive action. And if we do see them in the midst of their worst moments, it’s often being done “for the right reasons.”
As an example, let’s look at Black Widow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s introduced to us in Iron Man 2 as an awesome sidekick for Tony Stark who kicks butt in her own way. She becomes a part of the main team of the Avengers – but has “red in her ledger” in her own words. By Winter Soldier, it’s confirmed that she has dirty laundry which is aired out at the conclusion of the movie. And she (controversially) vocally expresses that she thinks of herself as a monster in Age of Ultron. All these things establish her character as an assassin and spy who lived in a moral grey area for most of her life. But she’s a hero, she’s a good guy, and her actions are considered wrong but redeemable. We’re never forced to watch any atrocities she may have committed. We don’t have to participate in her mission where she assassinates an entire family. We do get to watch her do “good” things, though.
Even when villains get to redeem themselves, it’s often a redemptive act at the very end of their story – think Darth Vader. They get to go out with a “good” act – they’re still villains, but on their way out they have a touching moment so the audience can empathize with them. This is done usually to contrast against a more blatantly evil villain such as the Emperor in Darth Vader’s case.
But with Kratos, gamers are put into a very unique position. They’ve put possibly hundreds of hours into the God of War franchise and knowingly committed violent, despicable acts with Kratos. The roaring, rampage of revenge story that they partook in was all their own doing – and they didn’t have a choice in the matter. This wasn’t like Mass Effect or other role-playing games where you can choose good vs. evil actions. Kratos’ story begins and ends with him being a bitter psychopath and you have to willingly tap the button as you tear off a guy’s head. Anyone who has played the games in the series has experienced Kratos’ murderous backstory first-hand and won’t be able to brush it off as “something that happened in the past.” They lived it, and it makes it that much harder to forgive a person when you’ve experienced what they’ve done right alongside them.
And so because of this, now there’s some talk of whether or not Kratos even deserves to be redeemed in this new story. Is Kratos a person that can be reformed to a degree? Is it even believable? Does anybody actually want to see him reformed? If given the choice as players, would we prefer to doom Kratos to an infinite loop of more and more mass killings for our own personal entertainment, instead of face the possibility that an awful, murderous person can still have moments of good thanks to his son?
When the Uncharted series was at the height of its popularity, the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” became a buzzword (or buzzphrase, I suppose) among the people who wanted to sound intelligent while discussing the games. (It was thrown around so much that a trophy in Uncharted 4 was actually named “Ludonarrative Dissonance” and you got it by killing 1000 enemies.) Ludonarrative dissonance is a term coined in 2007 that points out the conflict between a video game’s narrative and its gameplay. In the Uncharted games, the protagonist Nathan Drake is essentially just as much a mass murderer as Kratos – he shoots and kills numerous bad guys over the course of his five games. But it’s done under the veneer of an Indiana Jones-style adventure, so Drake is always wisecracking and he’s always presented as the ambitious hero. The games never really address the fact that he murders entire platoons of men working for the bad guys. It’s just part of the gameplay because what else are you going to do in an adventure game, really?
Kratos’ journey was the complete opposite. There was never any ludonarrative dissonance when you committed violent acts as him – it was in his nature and you knew that from the very beginning. You didn’t have to pause and wonder “hey, is Kratos actually a bad guy for slaughtering all these people?” Because you knew he was, and either you were all-in with him or you weren’t playing the game. And now in the new God of War, we have an opportunity to go even further. He’s clearly going to be committing more violent acts, but will his son be questioning them? Will we, as the player, be questioning them? Will Kratos himself, now older and subdued, be questioning them?
I know I have at least one friend who isn’t interested in playing the new God of War, mostly because he thinks it is chasing the same demographic as The Last of Us and trying to be more thinkpiece heavy. I’m excited for it, though. Partly because I want to see what the developers do with Norse mythology (I’m still excited over mythology games, okay?) and partly because I think it’s interesting to see what they do with a character that is so widely regarded as the villain protagonist. There’s so many ways to explore how a character grows away from their past and I’m hoping that Kratos’ development is worth exploring. All signs (and reviews) point to this game being the best in the franchise, so I doubt Sony has fumbled the ball with their production. I just hope they confront his past in a well-written way and don’t blow this opportunity.
I’m looking forward to diving into the new world with Kratos and Atreus. Personally, I’m all for seeing a new side of Kratos and seeing him develop as more than just a character out for revenge. I don’t know if he’s earned his redemption or not, but I’ll be right alongside him on Friday enjoying his story.