As part of our new series of patron-supported Critical Compilations, today we tackle 2018’s God of War, brought together by Alon Lessel. Alon is a game critic, musician and Trotskyist from Israel. You can follow him on Twitter and Youtube.
A “well refined, polished, awesome game”, God of War is not “angry for the sake of being angry”. It doesn’t “forget about the plot and forget about the characters”.
These are all quotes from a review of God of War, but not the 2018 critical and commercial hit; they are taken from a 2005 video review by Alex Navarro for GameSpot. Navarro talks at great length about this “ultimate anti-hero” who would “kill anybody” and has “no mercy for anyone”, and praises the game for how it doesn’t “take itself very seriously”. By the end, we are promised, “you are stoked to be killing the god of war”.
Writing for IGN, Ivan Sulic describes God of War 2005’s story as:
… so satisfying its culmination left me in a giddy stupor… an ever evolving, ever more breathtaking collage of brutish cutscenes and critical twists… If ever there were a more consistent, uncompromising character in videogaming, I have not met him. Kratos does not once falter on his quest. His demeanor never changes, nor does his murderous nature.
This is supposed to be praise!
Of course, standards shift with time, and retrospective looks at the seminal 2005 release have generally been far more grounded with their praise. In his review of the remastered God of War III in 2015, Jim Sterling summed up the macho attitude that permeates the series’ storytelling, doing his best to praise with faint damnation:
Kratos spends his time yelling and screaming at glistening men who yell and scream right back at him. The plot of any given God of War game is borderline gibberish. The women are mere window dressing and Kratos himself is thoroughly unlikable – he’s as cruel as he is callous, and his defining trait – angry dude avenging the obligatory dead family – is a most extreme example of what drives almost every male videogame protagonist these days. It’s base, vulgar, problematic – a celebration of excess and a codifier of the status quo.
It is the Heavenly Kingdom of the Edgelords Eternal. All may bask in its testosterone-soaked glory.
Daniel Starkey, in a retrospective article for Digital Trends, highlights some issues with the game’s combat mechanics, and especially, with its puzzles:
… puzzles aren’t always as clever as you’d hope: There are some brain-teasers, sure. One, for instance, involves a bunch of Tetris-style blocks that you need to piece together to unlock a door. And that’s well enough, but also can’t help but feel a little contrived. Many ancient civilizations built bizarre and ridiculous temples and structures, but none, so far as we know, made contraptions like this. Compared to all the thought that seems to have been put into making the combat feel natural and seamless, asking a giant angry muscle dude to move heavy stones around just doesn’t quite fit.
That feeling settled as I kept playing. I wished, for some time, that there was a bit more variety in the combat. What’s there works very well, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game would have been a little better off had each foe been a puzzle unto itself, as we’ve seen in later games, such as Shadow of the Colossus.
With a new entry putting Kratos’ relationship with his son at the center of its story, many writers questioned whether a new God of War could offer the sort of reckoning with the careless disregard for human and, in most cases, female life, that was so clearly on display in previous titles. Could a new game deal in such intimate, emotional material without causing severe dissonance to those familiar with its history?
Early opinions, mostly expressed in reviews, answered this question with a resounding “yes”. Giant Bomb’s Dan Ryckert writes that:
Kratos spends most of his time in the early hours of the new game by chatting with his young son. Compared to the seemingly intentional lack of nuance in the series’ past, it’s handled extremely well this time around. Kratos is no longer a screaming avatar of rage that expresses himself via quicktime event. He’s older and sadder, with a quest of fulfilling a loved one’s dying wish instead of exacting vengeance on every god that crosses his path.
In his review for Waypoint, Patrick Klepek suggests a parallel between the narrative shift in God of War and contemporary discourse about civility and public shaming:
A life of mistrust has lead Kratos to conclude you should stick to what you know—screw everyone else. He’s a coward who figures it’s not worth the trouble. Atreus, of naivety and taught empathy of his mother, argues it is worth the trouble. Life isn’t worth living, he posits, if you’re not trying to make it better… Shame is a useful tool. You may not be able to evolve hearts and minds, but it’s not the one measure of success. Progress comes in many forms. People don’t have to actually change. They can pretend, while the rest move forward.
Klepek also praises the interplay between gameplay and story, expressed in the way Atreus’ growing confidence allows him to be more effective in combat as well as more assertive in his views:
Atreus not only works, but he’s the reason the game works at all. The roughly 10-year-old (it’s not fully said) is tightly woven into the game’s combat and story: In fights, he’s a versatile tool for tackling those in your way, and in cutscenes and conversations he’s the audience surrogate, a living metanarrative critique of Kratos’ purpose for existence.
As Atreus progresses from skittish to empowered in combat, he does the same in the game’s story. His performance is charming, exasperating, and adorable in all the ways you’d expect from someone his age. Instead of a distraction, he’s a welcomed foil to the cynical Kratos, a character who’s spent his life rhetorically and actionably unchallenged.
However, once one looks past reviews and starts digging into more reflective writing about the games, a very different picture emerges. God of War promises a more nuanced story, reflecting on the series’ history of violence, but the gendered nature of this history is not only not addressed, but is in fact preserved, in somewhat less explicit ways. In In ‘God of War,’ Moms Come Last, Dia Lacina describes the disposability of women in the game as it is reflected in its attitude to mothers, whose role, according to God of War, is to raise their sons and then get out of the way:
Atreus, armed with the skills his mother taught him, must face the dangers of the world. But for that to be possible, her role is to die. In the world created by God of War, sons have to be separated from their mothers to become men. The contribution of men is to perform the final test?the viability of a son in the world. Rearing and nurturing is women’s work, but also letting go. If a mother can perform her role and depart she’s succeeded, and with a little luck her son will pass this fatherly test and become a man.
Faye [Atreus’ mother] is deemed a success, she’s lauded and mourned throughout the narrative. Even Kratos, who already has one dead wife in his past, allows himself to grieve… Freya, (the only other key woman character in the game) on the other hand, is set up to fail, astoundingly… Freya is presented as an archetype of femininity that exists outside of male-dominion?the classic isolated witch. But really, she’s a goddess, and her secrets don’t end there. She’s also the mother of Baldur?the raging, invulnerable, tattooed berserker who assaults Kratos early in the game.
A remnant of the regressive ideas that permeate the early God of War games?ideas that this offering claims to grow out of, it’s a duality of motherhood through a misogynistic lens. The benevolent nurturer who knows when and how to wean (and depart her child’s life entirely) , and the possessive monster who can’t let go.
Gita Jackson explores similar themes in It Sucks To Be A Mom In God Of War:
Freya acts as Kratos’s narrative foil. Like Kratos, Freya has regrets and complex feelings about her own son, the angry Baldur. Her relationship with her child represents a hypothetical bad ending for Kratos and Atreus’ relationship. She’s the cautionary tale.
Kratos’s wife and Atreus’s mother, Faye, is not a foil but an impossible inspiration… Faye is held up as the Platonic ideal of parenting. We hear that she was warm and present where Kratos was cold and absent. This works because players don’t know that much about her as a person. She’s a symbol being carried around by our two leads, regarded as perfect because she doesn’t have the inconvenient messiness of being a living person. Faye is the most mythological thing in this game about myths: a perfect parent.
Holly Green, writing for Paste, criticizes the portrayal of parenthood in the game from a different direction – its portrayal of fatherhood, or rather, what it says about societal standards for it. The article, titled, appropriately, God of War Is a Great Reminder That Most of Our Dads Suck, discusses how the praise for Kratos and Atreus’ toxic relationship reflects just how poor father-child relationships tend to be:
There’s a lot to recognize in Kratos’s failings as a father: he’s emotionally withholding, he’s resentful of his parental responsibilities, and he’s clearly in over his head. At times he resists Atreus’s naive optimism as if he’s actively trying to crush his son’s spirit. The cruelty is hard to watch.
Yet, so many sentimentalize the relationship between Kratos and Atreus… What’s more tragic, that Kratos can’t relate to his son or that so many folks relate to these characters?
I want to hold the game accountable for what it reinforces about binary gender roles within parenting, but it seems almost unfair to judge the writers for reflecting the only understanding of fatherhood that many of us have ever known. People can only perform the positive social behavior that has already been taught to and modeled for them. And Kratos, as a written character, is the product of a society that all of us are affected by and participate in, one that makes it difficult to normalize even the smallest amount of emotional vulnerability…
I understand why so many people identify with Kratos and Atreus. I just wish we lived in a world where they didn’t have to.
At this point, it’s hard not to notice a very clear line of demarcation: while almost every reviewer contributing to God of War’s extraordinary Metacritic score is a man, more critical articles are almost exclusively written by non-men. This is not true in all instances; In God Of War Has Finally Grown Up, Amanda Yeo describes a re-framed Kratos, one who serves as a critique of antiquated masculinity, to be replaced by a more compassionate and humanistic one represented by Atreus:
Kratos has returned a changed man. Violence still defines him, but he is self-aware enough to know what he has done and what it has done to him, and is doing his utmost to instead change himself into the man he wants to be: A man of self-restraint and consideration, one capable of guiding a young boy’s growth to adulthood.
Kratos is thus portrayed not as the pinnacle of virile, masculine perfection, but as a deeply flawed figure trying to learn from his past actions and ensure he never repeats them.
Meanwhile, Atreus himself is an example of the next generation of men. Within the game’s first few minutes, he displays a reverence for life that is unlike Kratos and indeed atypical of most video games.
Klepek aside, the overall trend is clear-cut: male reviewers tend to be far more forgiving with God of War’s handling of women, and opt to focus on the father-son relationship between Kratos and Atreus. In this sense, nothing is new. The series has always been a critical darling, rarely dropping below 90 on Metacritic, but women’s perspectives have always been far more critical. Rose Teppelin sees an inevitable echo chamber effect:
This is where my true problem with the tone of the conversation around the new God of War comes into play; it’s being largely led by a group that would never stop, or be challenged to stop, and re-evaluate the problematic aspects of this game’s heritage and message.
The God of War series is something of a staple of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. In Women As Reward, Sarkeesian mentions four different God of War games, discussing their portrayal of women as dispensers of experience points and achievements.
Yeo herself describes how the older God of War games – specifically, God of War III – failed to appeal to her, with their gendered violence and overly-sexualized female characters:
My most enduring memory of the previous God of War games is an uncomfortable university gaming session, wherein I sat amongst a group of men, watching a half-naked Aphrodite seduce Kratos… The hypermasculinity threaded throughout, and the hypersexuality of the women depicted therein, was alienating.
I couldn’t connect with the depiction of Kratos as a hero. In one scene he’d be protecting a young girl. The next: hauling terrified women around and quite literally using them as objects, discarding them to gruesome fates once they were no longer useful.
Even his protection of others seemed borne less out of genuine affection than because they were “his things”.
Women relentlessly threw themselves at him, yet he was completely unappealing. Whenever a nameless, bare-breasted woman squealed and pleaded with Kratos to either bed her or leave her unharmed, I felt pushed further away. The zeitgeist of games at the time was, perhaps unintentionally but no less effectively, inhospitable to those outside the stereotypical gamer paradigm.
I liked the game. It just didn’t like me.
In The Game of The Generation, Jackson Tyler takes this further, focusing not on the game’s hyperbolic misogynistic violence, but the disturbing allusions made to much more common abuse:
Everyone knows that in God of War III, Kratos ties a topless woman to a gear, using her broken body as a doorstop as he progresses through the level. Less mentioned is the way her voice quivers as she sees Kratos coming, and how explicit the game is about her direct fear of him as an avatar of masculine sexual violence. What is horrific about God of War is not the extremity of the violence, which often borders on parody, but the terrifying familiarity of its misogyny.
Dad of War
The question of maturity and addressing past sins was raised constantly following the reveal of the new God of War in E3 2016. But what has only rarely been raised in critical writing is: what would such maturity or reckoning with the past look like? God of War is an old franchise; it found its starts in the latter days of the PS2, two entire console generations ago – an eternity in video game terms. Even by inertia alone, by force of the aging of both its developers and audience, the God of War of 2018 could not be the same as that of 2005. Klepek writes:
It’s part of a broader “dadification” of games, in which a largely male-dominated industry is going through the motions of aging, and the products they’re making are beginning to reflect those changes in life development.
God of War is is no longer the shameless, repugnant celebration of violent masculinity it once was. But in focusing on these surface-level expressions of underlying themes, an important nuance is lost: maturing is not the same as growing older. God of War’s toning-down does not excuse from the need to answer the question – what, in essence, has changed about the game? Tyler writes:
God of War has always been the game of the generation, a mirror in which we can see ourselves and our values, polished with a spit-shine and shot up to the top of the charts. In 2005, this meant Devil May Cry with the irony sanded off, simple combat and violent spectacle, with some light Zelda puzzles and Jak and Daxter platforming to keep you from getting bored. It took the beloved games of the era and removed their soul, smashing them together into unholy frankenstein that with an almost self-aware cynicism seemed to ask the audience: is this enough? The answer, of course, was yes.
Fast forward thirteen years, and little has changed. God of War (2018) has arrived to near universal critical adulation, and it is the game of the generation once more. The sources of inspiration may be different, but the underlying ethos is the same. It’s the combat of Resident Evil 4 and the narrative design of The Last of Us shot out of opposite ends of the Large Hadron Collider, upon which the word “Skyrim” has been haphazardly painted. God of War is back to do what it does best: to declare for all to see what video games are.
And indeed, this removal of the soul involved in the making of God of War 2018 is perhaps the most outstanding feature of the game, and the most insidiously successful one. Many people have argued for and against God of War’s claim on maturity, but this is usually a question of tone and expression – How does Kratos express his desire to kill? How does he pursue his goals? How does the game judge him for his decisions – and very rarely of content. For indeed, does it really matter that God of War speaks in a more adult tone if it doesn’t actually say anything? As Tyler concludes,
That God of War sells itself as a violent father’s redemption story and ends with a condemnation of overprotective motherhood is the game in microcosm. Its thematic content is the gotta hear both sides of parental abuse; men be raising their godly offspring like this, women be raising their godly offspring like this. Violence is evil, though it’s also good as hell. Things were bad before, but they’re better now, just please don’t ask me how. God of War takes the status quo of video game culture, packages it in prestige aesthetics and sells it back to us as insight. God of War tells us that we’re big boys now, and it’s all going to be okay.
If you have a link you believe would be a good fit for this compilation, drop us a line! This post was last updated on January 29, 2019.