I recently was able to (finally) obtain a PlayStation 5. One of the coolest things about this oversized new console is that if you have PS Plus (Sony’s online subscription), you can download PS4 classics for free. There are about 25 games available, including notable titles such as The Last of Us and the remastered Crash Bandicoot collection. However, one game caught my eye: God of War (2018).
Right about this same time, the trailer for God of War: Ragnarök had just dropped, causing a wave on the internet. One of the biggest ripples was the game’s portrayal of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder; Thor was not an ultra-ripped, muscly hunk. But fat. To many people whose primary exposure to Thor is through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is supposed to be ripped. If he is anything other than absolutely shredded, it’s to be the butt of a fatphobic joke. But an overly muscular Thor is not really canonically correct in the context of Norse culture and mythology. (For more on why Thor’s depiction in Ragnarök is mythologically correct and an active challenge to white supremacists’ use of Norse mythology for racist purposes, see @JacksonEflin’s Twitter thread on the topic here.) Needless to say, Thor’s appearance in Ragnarök caused a stir.
I was obviously greatly intrigued by Thor in this upcoming game, but as a direct sequel to God of War (2018), I started to think about checking it out. After discovering that I could play it for free on my new PlayStation, I knew I had to dive in. Thinking I would enjoy a fun, murderous romp through some Norse mythology, I was fully unprepared for the emotional wreck I was about to become.
God of War (2018), usually referenced that way to distinguish from the original 2005 game, is a soft reboot of the series from Santa Monica Studios. Kratos, a Spartan demigod who in previous games massacred the Greek gods, finds himself several decades (centuries?) later in Scandinavia, raising a son, Atreus, as a single father after the death of his wife, Fey. The main quest centers around fulfilling Fey’s final wish: to have her ashes scattered from the peak of the highest mountain in all the realms. God of War (2018) was considered among the best games of the year and went on to win Game of the Year at the Game Awards, the D.I.C.E. Awards, and the BAFTA Game Awards.
Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
One of the things that are most noticeable when you start up this game is Christopher Judge’s deep bass as he interacts with Atreus (“BOY”). The story starts following the death of Fey. But there is noticeable unease between Kratos and his son. Right from the beginning, Atreus’s desire to prove himself to his father is palpable, but so is another aspect of this father-son relationship: Kratos has largely been absent during Atreus’s childhood. Atreus is afraid of what Kratos thinks, but more importantly, he wants to impress his father and prove that he is deserving of Kratos’s love, time, and attention.
Kratos may try to keep his cold, hard exterior even around Atreus, but underneath that mass-murdering, tattooed skin is a bleeding heart that cares so deeply for his son.
The story of Kratos before he arrives in Norse lands sees him having to kill his own family. He never had anyone to rely on other than his weapons. He does not know how to be supportive of another. But despite all of this, Kratos has found that he loves his son.
As you progress through God of War’s story, you see the relationship between father and son develop. In the beginning, Atreus and Kratos are both inexperienced: Atreus in adventuring and Kratos in parenting. But with each successful battle, you see their confidence grow. Atreus no longer just responds to Kratos’s commands but begins engaging in tactical maneuvers of his own. Likewise, Kratos, an expert in combat, begins to rely on Atreus for diversifying the strategy of battle.
Emotionally, of course, is where Kratos grows the most. The parental, protective feelings that Kratos feels for Atreus are uncomfortable and traumatic for him. This particularly shines through in a scene where he and Atreus first set eyes on the mountain they intend to climb with Fey’s ashes. It is a very emotional scene where Atreus is struggling through the grief of losing his mother. In response, Kratos instinctively reaches out to comfort Atreus but pulls away at the last minute. Not knowing if Atreus wants or needs his comfort, or even if it is the right response to Atreus’s grief, Kratos is unsure of himself for perhaps the first time in his life.
Atreus and Kratos’s relationship moves in starts and stops as you attempt to scale the mountain. However, when a mysterious pitch-black fog prevents them from progressing, the two find themselves having to travel to Alfheim, home of the light elves, and the scene of an eternal battle with the dark elves. As Kratos attempts to retrieve the Light of Alfheim, the power of the Light pulls him into a vision-inducing sequence that appears to last only a few moments. These visions are narrated by Atreus, voicing to Kratos just how much he wants to impress his father. When Atreus finally pulls Kratos from the hallucinations of the Light, you find yourself surrounded by piles of dark elf bodies.
Kratos angrily confronts his son: “I was only gone moments!” Atreus: “NO! You’ve been gone a long, long time. I didn’t know what to do! You left me here, AGAIN! Why don’t you care?” Something has changed in Atreus. Being abandoned by his father for what turned out to be hours, fighting for his life reminded Atreus of how he felt before Kratos returned to his life. The heartbreaking part of this is that Kratos heard Atreus he was trapped in the Light of Alfheim; his son wished Kratos was the one who died instead of his mother, but as he traverses through the light, Atreus admits that he loves him and knows he is trying to be a better father.
As you travel back to the Realm Travel Room that brought you to Alfheim, Atreus’s interactions with Kratos have clearly soured. Atreus just wanted his father to be there for him, and instead, Kratos left him abandoned to fight a horde of darkness.
Atreus does eventually calm down and seemingly forgives you, but after a while, he starts to fall ill to the chronic illness that has plagued Atreus for most of his life. It turns out that this illness originated from Atreus’s godhood being suppressed. Kratos and Fey made it a point to keep the nature of Kratos and Atreus’s divinity from Atreus. Kratos’s first-hand knowledge of the corruption that godhood brings to deities made Kratos worry for his son. Kratos did not want to watch Atreus fall to the corruption of the immense power contained within him. But trying to deny Atreus’s birthright almost ends his life. And to save Atreus’s life, Kratos literally has to travel to the gates of Hel.
Reminiscent of Hercules’s and Odysseus’s trips to the underworld, Kratos travels to Helheim to obtain the heart of the troll that guards Hel’s gates. This actual trip to the realm of the dead is symbolic of a need for Kratos to kill his old life: one where he feared the godhood of himself and his son and instead embraced the very nature of his and Atreus’s divinity. Nothing drives this point home more than the fact that Fey’s Dwarf-made Leviathan Axe is essentially useless against the hordes you fight in Helheim. Instead, you must use the Blades of Chaos, Kratos’s signature weapon, that he had kept buried under his house, hoping never to use them again. Yet it is the Blades of Chaos that allows Kratos to save Atreus’s life. By embracing their godhood, Kratos saves Atreus.
Godhood does go to Atreus’s head, though. However, this is short-lived after Atreus quickly discovers the consequences of his actions after killing Modi, the son of Thor. Ultimately, the vengeance of the gods comes in the return of Baldur. Through Baldur, we see the harm parental protection can bring, as Freya’s blessing of invulnerability ended up becoming Baldur’s curse.
By the end of the main story, Atreus and Kratos achieve their quest, but as a father and son who have changed drastically. They are a team now, working together, supporting one another, and most importantly, trusting one another. In fact, as they take the final climb, Kratos lets Atreus carry his mother’s ashes for the first time. And then, as they scatter Fey’s ashes on the peak of the mountain, Kratos finally puts his arm on Atreus’s shoulder, providing comfort in a way he was hesitant to until this point.
God of War (2018) is a fantastic story about Norse mythology, but more importantly, about how to build a trusting relationship. Kratos and Atreus are only able to complete their quest once they truly begin to trust and support one another as father and son. This strength they gain from one another allows them to overcome unimaginable odds and complete the most important quest that Kratos or Atreus has ever undertaken. I cannot wait to see what God of War: Ragnarök teaches us.