Raising a New Generation- An Interpretation of God of War (2018)

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

It’s crazy to think how far video games have come. From just a few dots and lines on a screen all the way to 2018, where a grown man can squint at an amazingly rendered Hollywood-style movie in between actually gameplay and say to himself- “What is this trying to say to me?”

And as fun as God of War (2018) is, there’s enough meaning beneath the surface it spills out over the Lake of Nine and wraps around the entire GOW world.

When your main characters are constantly throwing in lines about what it means to be a god, “the reach of your godhood”, and the kind of life they must live due to their inherited state of being, I started to wonder what we, mere mortals, are supposed to take away from such characters. Surely we’re not just watching superpowered characters do superpowered things that have no relation to us, right? Right.

It’s also about their secret decapitated head friend. Gotta hit all the major demographics.

On the surface, mythological setting or not, the story is about a dad and his son. The supernatural could be left out and replaced with a contemporary setting, it doesn’t matter- you could still tell a near-identical story. The Road (2009) and Road to Perdition (2002) tell similar stories of a father and son surviving together in harsh climate that causes the boy to lose his innocence all too quickly and by way of learning that their dad isn’t free from getting blood on his hands- and that’s life.

But I’m just going to skip to my point. The original version of this article was long and boring, with a lot of set-up about the history of the game and how we got to where we are. But if you’re reading this, you already know about God of War and you don’t need all that.

The 2018 God of War really is about a father and son, growing up, family, etc.; all of this is true. But the message is a bit more specific- How do you walk the thin line of keeping the next generation from making the same mistake as you…while letting them make their own decisions- which is to allow them to make the same mistakes as you. Confused? No? Good.

Much of the turmoil our two leads face throughout the game comes from Big Daddy Kratos’ unwillingness to tell his son Atreus anything about himself or his past. He was a mass murdering psycho who became the Greek god of war who, as he puts it- “[I] killed many who were deserving…and many who were not.”

He’s got that right. Remember when Kratos used a temple slave as a door stopper after she repeatedly begged for her life? Ugh.

You can say Kratos wasn’t a bad guy or however you justify playing as him, but he wasn’t a good guy. He was more  anti-villain than anti-hero in the sense that any good that came from him was more of a byproduct of his actions rather than the intended effect. Kratos does some pretty nasty things in the original games.

But by God of War (2018), it seems he’s left it all behind. Not only his homeland, but his permanently enraged temperament. By the time we meet him, he’s still an imposing figure, but much more somber. While some of this can be contributed to his wife’s death, what backstory we get hints that he’s been this way as far back as his son can remember. To keep out of the gods’ sight and to leave his old, vicious ways behind him, Kratos lives almost as a monk would.

Being a good dad means risking failure and the consequences are more severe than as a single guy running around Greece killing monsters. Kratos can no longer pass off the parenting responsibility to his wife. Now everything he does is going to be absorbed and reenacted by younger eyes. And that’s if Kratos can even make him strong enough to survive the environment.

The problem for Kratos, as with many real-life fathers, is figuring out what his son needs to know about his own heritage or how he came to be the kind of person he is. If you’ve done the difficult task of living well and just, this part might come easily enough. But if you, like Kratos, are embarrassed of your “previous” life, you might lie to keep it secret. Or just refuse to talk at all. Both can have serious consequences. One consequence may include resentment of the parent(s) and another might have the child following in the same shameful footsteps of the parent while having no knowledge of their father/mother’s mistakes. It’s funny how naturally history repeats itself.

But how good can a relationship between a father and son be if the only answers to any questions are a simple “yes”, “no”, or the feared “That is none of your concern”? Eventually Atreus’ life is at risk in part due to Kratos refusing to tell Atreus about their “godhood.” Kratos hates himself and he hates everything involved in his past. There’s no need to dig it up because a little boy is curious, right? Wrong. I’m going to stop answering my own questions now.

Though the original games were fun to play and the brutal combat was ever-satisfying, I was burnt out by the second installment- Kratos killed Ares and became the god of war. In the sequel, he kills more gods including Zeus, who he learned was his father and you learn (in keeping with Greek myth), Zeus killed his father. It’s a never-ending cycle and that inevitably became the point of the game. You kill enough in the first two games alone to become somewhat desensitized to the impact of your kills and the meaning of it all. In many ways, it was video game junk food.

Whaaa? You mean the Nemean Cestus gauntlets don’t sensually whisper “Subtlety?”

But in 2016, a gameplay trailer was revealed of Kratos again- now in Scandinavian lands and older, more grizzled, with a young boy tagging alongside. Clearly, God of War was being taken in a different direction. And while that direction didn’t seem softer than the original games, as blood and beasts were as present as ever; the introduction of Atreus, Kratos’ son, the violence had a different impact than one would have expected on most viewers/players.

During one scene toward the beginning (and kept in the final game), an elk that Kratos and Atreus hunt is shot by Atreus’ arrow and bleeds out. Kratos gives Atreus a knife to “finish what [he] started.”

This isn’t fun. It doesn’t make the violence look cool or edgy as the earlier titles had where you might makes right and you’re trying to be the mightiest. It made things seem permanent, and as though decisions have consequences that don’t go away just because the actions we take need to be taken.

Now of course this newest installment still has plenty of violence and it’s enjoyable for sure. The gameplay is polished and I never became tired of waves of attacking hordes because the most effective kills never lost their appeal.

But contrast this to the seemingly mindless overkill of the original games that had no deeper message past “You wanna win, don’t you?” and it’s surprising how emotional things get.

What does planting a little kid to a violent rampage add to a story? One might say that slaughtering enemies next to Atreus keeps the effect of the violence closer to the surface, as well as Kratos’ actions. Now that Kratos is a murderous jerk in front of someone looking up to him, it makes you wonder how this will rub off on Atreus.

And not long after Atreus finds out he’s a god, how does he act? It looks like he’s going down a dark path regardless of what Kratos has been trying to teach him. Eventually he’s brought back to his sensible self but in the God of War universe, things could have gone either way. And it might have been due to Kratos’ actions and/or inactions. It would have been tough to say, much like wayward kids in reality. Some kids are just going to disobey, while some were never taught in the first place.

It’s unclear what mistakes and trials could have been avoided throughout the story had Kratos been a better father to begin with, but that’s the point of the journey- to grow. Kratos has to finally accept that being on his own and doing whatever he thinks is best isn’t enough anymore because raising his son as best he can is now the goal. Doing any less would make him a failure even after achieving godhood.

And Atreus has to do what kids are supposed to do with their parents- listen and learn.

“Uh, no boy, listen to ME, not the voices in your head. Boy?”

It’s not a coincidence that the game’s main antagonist, Baldur, is wild and untamed. This is in heavy contrast to Kratos’ stark and stoic demeanor. Not only can Baldur not be hurt, but he can’t be killed thanks to a magic spell his mother Freya placed on him to keep him from being harmed. It’s what helps to drive his madness, though it’s not clear he was all there from the start. But the positive to Baldur’s immortality comes with the negative of having no feeling, no access to sensation and it’s from this we can see what may be in Atreus’ future, should Kratos fail as a father- directionless and wrathful.

Baldur’s story is not a criticism of motherhood, but a warning of the consequence of what happens when a parent, specifically a mother, does everything she can to keep her son from growing up; from being hurt by the world, and eventually, from dying.

How exactly is Baldur’s story telling of the way a mother can ruin her child over the father? Because the ways a mother and father can destroy their child’s life are usually very different. While Freya was overbearing in her protection of Baldur, Kratos seems as though he would do little more than shrug should Atreus die in the wild. “Too weak” may have been his response. Or at least that’s how it seems at first.

After a while, one can conclude part of Kratos’ emotional reservation is to keep himself from ruining his son, in one aspect or another.

One of the best known Developmental Psychologists, Erik Erikson, devised a specific theory on psychosocial development. He gives eight optimal outcomes he calls “virtues” that people should hope to attain during our life and it begins during as early as when we’re born. To attain these virtues, a person must balance between two polar opposites.

For example, during the age Atreus is at the time GOW takes place, about 12 or 13, Erikson details the stage where the virtue one hopes to attain is known as “fidelity,” or rather allegiance to a cause or person. The two traits Atreus would need to balance between identity and role confusion, as Erikson puts it. Atreus knowing who he is and where he stands in the world would be a much better outcome than being confused about his role in life, yes? Erikson says those who fall to the latter side of the “fidelity spectrum” we’ll call it, are bound to have an identity crisis; a term Erikson himself coined.

(Side note: You can read a more in-depth view about Erikson’s theory on psychosocial development here)

And we see this begin to happen throughout the story.

When Atreus falls ill, finds out his father has been keeping secrets- it causes Atreus to start losing himself. He’s becoming uncaring, rash, and arrogant. It becomes that much more important that Kratos step up his father game if he wants to keep Atreus from becoming the sort of figure most gods in the GOW universe are, as the role a parent plays in their child’s life cannot be understated. His mother is dead, the world is harsh, and his father seems to not care about anyone but himself. It would be easy to allow things to get worse. Atreus doesn’t know who he is and it’s due to Kratos’ cold and distant ways.

To see what the failure of the parents look like within the story, again, look to Baldur.

It’s not a coincidence Baldur appears at our heroes’ home. It makes it clear there are no more safe places. The journey must be undertaken whether they want to or not now.

The villain’s story is usually the mirror image quest to the hero while having already failed at what the hero hopes to do. And God of War does this perfectly. Kratos is the father who is forced to make difficult decisions every step of the journey in how to raise his son now that the boy’s mother is dead…while Baldur’s mother has taken away the consequences of any decisions he could possibly make just so he can stay safe forever, good as her intentions may have been.

And why would a mother do that? To protect a loved one, naturally. But at a certain point one would need to admit they’re protecting themselves and what the parent wants over what the child needs. To have a kid is to accept that the world might kill them. Have you ever met someone whose parents clearly hadn’t let them experience enough of the world before they met you? There can be a number of outcomes, but few of them come with positives. It seems more that the positives exist despite their upbringing.

Though Baldur might not represent the traditional image of the sheltered child, given the apparent immortality and strong presence, his character is still along the lines of the rich and affluent child whose parents allow them whatever they want whenever he wants it. Maybe his parents are divorced and attempt to buy their child’s love instead of telling them no from time to time. Did Billy get a DUI? No problem, I’ll get the lawyers on it. Did Sally not make the grade to get into the right school? No worries, Daddy knows the dean. Is Baldur endlessly destructive and chaotic? Better that than have him harmed.

Overprotection not only destroys the potential of the child, but can harm those around him/her.

We know there are reasons for Freya not wanting Baldur harmed. Perfectly sensible reasons, in fact. But at a certain point, you’re holding off the inevitable, with no good to anybody. Contrast Freya’s connection to Baldur with Atreus’ connection with his own- Baldur is overshadowed and hateful toward his mother while Atreus is forced to grow up due to the loss of his. Baldur’s character is a great foil to Kratos and Atreus individually.

After the final battle, Kratos reveals to Atreus his bloody past, including having killed his own father, Atreus asks if a god is bound to living an endlessly violent life.

Kratos responds-

“Who I was is not who you will be. We must be better.”

And it’s this that sums up Kratos’ ultimate lesson to learn. It wasn’t enough for him to end the tyranny of other gods, but also to control himself. Then it wasn’t enough that he could control himself but to learn how to dole out justice accordingly rather than simply stifle the power he has. And not only this, but to pass these lessons on to Atreus. Any talk of “How to be a god” isn’t meant only for the divine but rather as a way of getting across the tremendous responsibility a parent has; as well as anyone who hopes to do better by themselves and for the people around them.

We’ll see in the sequel if any of these lessons stick with Atreus and if Kratos is even around to witness it.

“If there is any responsibility in the cycle of life it must be that one generation owes to the next that strength by which it can come to face ultimate concerns in its own way.”

-Erik Erikson

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