I suppose God of War must be fun, since that’s all I ever keep hearing about it. It seems impossible to write an article or tweet about it without making this concession: how well-crafted it is as an engine for gleeful, consequence-free violence, how dizzyingly the blood rushes to the head as Kratos slaughters his enemies, friends, neutral parties, people who haven’t decided yet, and furniture.
(content warning: this article contains some discussion of parental abuse)
I say this to make it plain that I’m coming at God of War from a place of deep-seated, long-simmering hostility. There’s a lot of violent games, and games that make violence fun, and that’s not very interesting in itself, but in no other case I can think of is the visceral pleasure of combat invoked so insistently as all there is to it – just a romp through hollywoodized ancient Greece in a quest to decorate every flat surface with other people’s internal organs. I aim to be contrary about this: I’m going to treat these dumb murder games as if there is much more to them, because I believe that the excuse of Fun has been all too successful at drawing our attention away from what they are otherwise conveying. To be clear – this isn’t some deep lore, hidden meaning or secret message that no one so far has deciphered; it’s a frankly fairly basic reading of the content and themes that, as far as I can tell, people have just decided not to bother acknowledging.
Until recently, anyway. It’s honestly a little bit remarkable how quickly “yeah, it’s bad, but it’s fun” has done a full 180 into “thoughtful meditation on parenthood” with the release of the latest title in the series. Let us, then, read the entirety of the series as a coherent thematic whole and see whether or not such claims are justified.
The first God of War game was brought into the world in the regrettable year 2005, which also inflicted us with Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, Sin City and Saw 2. Nerd culture had already been massively in vogue for quite a while – the Return of the King movie had come out 2 years prior – and many people were tired of its tropes and themes, and concerned about the sociopolitical direction in which they were headed. Sin City in particular, as I recall, prompted a fair volume of feminist criticism. I bring it up solely to dispel any potential idea that people back in those benighted times simply did not know any better; no doubt God of War had a similarly eyerolling reception in many corners, although not having been interested in the title back then, I can’t say for sure. I feel completely confident in saying that any such criticisms were dismissed and marginalized even more swiftly than they would be today.
To me, the Batman coincidence is just as interesting. Nolan’s Batman movies have generally glamourized the hard-done-by billionaire and his crusade against petty criminals and queer-coded supervillains; with every installment, it became more difficult to honestly hold the opinion that many viewers seemed to initially, and that I was willing to entertain at the time – that they represent some kind of deep irony, and that Bruce Wayne is meant to be an antihero. What a charming innocence, to live in a world where a Hollywood superhero movie having fascist politics is something difficult to believe.
I don’t know a ton of Greek, but I believe the name Kratos is supposed to mean something like might, dominion, power, rulership; essentially, our guy’s name is Lord. Honestly, I’m of half a mind to wrap up the entire article right here – there it is, the single thematic clue that it’s sufficient to pick up on and follow through to its screamingly obvious conclusions. “Kratos” is a plain, unadorned statement of what this masculinity marketed to teens and adolescents imagines itself to be: Lord over creation, exercising his literally divinely granted right to rule with an iron fist, extreme prejudice and absolute contempt for every other living creature and inanimate object.
Frequently, when we speak of the sort of milieu that God of War is part of, we summarize it as “edgy” or “grimdark,” meaning a particular confluence of aesthetic and ethical themes that – again – can also be found in many Batman stories, Sin City, Warhammer (at the all too frequent points when it stops being an over-the-top parody), Game of Thrones and so on. The grimdark story presents itself as “realistic” – a representation of what the world is truly like in essence, if not in factual accuracy – and what it actually means by that is that its underpinning ideology is nihilism and social Darwinism. There is a clearly defined hierarchy of higher and lesser beings, the former predestined to rule, the latter to bear their lot without complaint; this is “grim” because such stories are the furthest thing from coy about the scope and intensity of suffering such a world engenders, but they also very meticulously exclude the possibility of any different kind of world, and insist on the futility of resistance to its supposedly predetermined and unchangeable order.
The wide appeal that the grimdark milieu had at one point, and in some corners still does, is not difficult to explain: a great proportion of people can probably agree that the world we live in is filled with misery and injustice. However, through their ideological underpinnings, either unexamined or deliberate, these stories end up arriving at inevitability or predetermination – not least because the successful ones wanted to sell sequels and spinoffs, and if being Grim and Dark is the entire brand identity, then the possibility of radical change is foreclosed at the outset.
An important part of grimdark is the so-called antihero, of which Kratos is a prime example. Antihero is a broad umbrella term for many different kinds of protagonists and identification figures throughout the history of storytelling, encompassing characters that are ethically ambivalent or intractable, indifferent, conflicted, insincere or “tormented” as well as actively selfish and destructive. Antiheroes are generally men, simply because most important fictional characters are men in societies where men’s creative output is the most highly valued (and because similarly constituted characters of other genders have less flattering terms reserved for them); still, this makes them important carriers of beliefs and ideas about masculinity.
In Kratos’s case, he is angry, angry, angry. There isn’t very much more to him than rage, except for the thin backstory that provides a justification and excuse for the rage. To be fair, Heracles’s murder of his own children in a divinely induced fury was definitely the inspiration here, and it does seem like the only reason for the main character to not just be Heracles must have been that actual heroes of myth are still in the public domain and not usable as a company’s exclusive intellectual property.
Heracles is instructive for another reason here: he is practically the model for what western culture thinks of as a “hero”: fearless, strong, occasionally crafty, and constantly horny. A centuries-long tradition of additions, reinterpretations and TV series starring right-wing Christian ghoul Kevin Sorbo might suggest that he was also a paragon of virtue as we understand it today, epitomizing what we believe to be the moral dimension of a hero, but one popular account of Heracles’ youth has him killing his teacher with a lute, presumably upside the head, for criticizing his musical ability, and tradition credits him with many, many other murders besides, most of them not really attributable to any particularly noble purpose. The most egregious of them, as with the slaying of his children, are often said to be the result of madness brought on by the goddess Hera, but in a lot of just as questionable cases, like that time he kills all of a princess’s brothers because they won’t let him abduct her, the storytellers didn’t even see it fit to bother with that excuse.
What I’m getting at is that the “anti” in antihero begins to seem like a very arbitrary distinction when even the man for many centuries most closely associated with the idea of a “positive” hero is often shown to be quick to anger, reckless, petty, vengeful, proud and possessive. Naturally this is the result of countless authors contributing their own twists and additions to the ever-popular myth over the years, but it is precisely that social and historical process of telling and retelling, rather than the regime of intellectual property that makes J. K. Rowling imagine she owns Hagrid and can make him vote for Nick Clegg if she wants to, that more closely reflects what a fictional character actually is. There was never some original, pure Heracles that his fandom ruined, because each new addition and derivation to the myth was a result of someone going “here’s something else I think this guy would do,” and the listeners or readers going “yeah that sounds about right” – a collaborative process. If Heracles appears to us as a loud, inconsiderate and perpetually angry brute, it’s because that’s what people generally thought the son of Zeus and the strongest man alive would act like; and really, it’s not that hard to see, is it?
All of this is to preempt an argument that since Kratos is an “antihero,” it’s not productive or useful to criticize him, since we all know at the outset that he’s kind of an asshole. Heracles is an asshole too; that doesn’t stop him being a hallowed paragon of masculine virtue, for the simple reason that the idea of “masculine virtue” throughout the ages has included a high level of tolerance for being an asshole. There is a significant rate of occurrence of assholes among powerful people, and most powerful people in recorded history have been men. What – I would wager – began as an observation of what having exceptional power and privilege allows, or requires, you to do has become an entirely different sort of story altogether, one about how being an asshole is a trait innate to all great men, a manifestation of the divine favours bestowed upon them, and a quality to be admired and emulated – because if it’s not, then how come these men are the heroes and their victims clearly the villains? The cycle reinforces itself.
Nor does Kratos being an asshole exhaust the ways in which he is presented and in which we are meant to relate to him. The Heracles parallel makes it clear that he is meant to be read as, first of all, a tragic figure: a man so consumed by one aspect of his manhood (violence) that he forsakes another (clemency and forbearance towards his family, or more generally towards “women and children,” ie, his presumed inferiors.) Also, quite blatantly, we’re supposed to think he’s kinda cool as well, in his defiance of monsters and gods and his single-minded dedication to revenge.
In Kratos, we see an absolute caricature of violent and destructive masculinity, of the culturally mandated demand to possess and destroy, but one that takes itself completely seriously. To believe that there is anything tragic about his downfall and his guilt, we must first believe that there was some place of nobility and esteem from which he fell, one where his brutality and rage were exclusively aimed at more acceptable targets – and consequently, that as long as he does not take leave of the noble goal of protecting family and homeland, all other targets are acceptable. Surely before the bloodlust clouded his vision, we must already imagine him as a warlord and conqueror, since that is all he seems capable of; should we long for the return of this kinder, gentler Kratos, who double-checks before slaughtering anyone if they’re definitely a barbarian and not a Hellene?
Yet more worrying – and this is what prompted me to embark on writing all of this in the first place – is the assumption we’re expected to make, that there really was such a Kratos whose violence never affected his family, that he was perhaps gruff, but caring deep down, that he never raised his voice or his hand against them. This, more than anything, is the deeply upsetting resonance of the widespread applause the new God of War has already received, even before it’s properly out, for “grappling with its legacy.” The painfully Christian word “redemption” has been thrown around a lot as well; Kratos has apparently renounced his sins, which weren’t even his in the first place since he’s some kind of Viking now instead of a Spartan, a sadder and a wiser man, and now that a discursive space finally sort-of exists to talk about what this character stands for, it has abruptly become time to move on from these suddenly worn out, old hat, long since accepted criticisms that just yesterday were the fringe ramblings of ideologically motivated extremists, and embrace him as born again.
I spent three entire days trying to convince myself that it isn’t completely idiotic and paranoid to point out how this demand to immediately extend forgiveness is very familiar in the context of how we’re expected to show the same limitless patience and understanding to real-life abusers. It sounds slightly absurd, of course, especially in the context of a game that I have no intention of buying. Listen: I’m sure I would find that it has plenty of charm and heartfelt moments, and is an all around enjoyable experience if you don’t think about it too hard. My issue is with the greater context of this character/intellectual property, and what his rebirth as a wholesome dad can tell us about the values of the society in which we live. Two questions occur to me with great urgency: why is it men like Kratos who deserve a 100 hour long redemption story the most? And how does anyone watch even the trailer footage of his barely contained anger at his own small child and not recoil with horror?
Granted, if my particular experience with an occasionally violent, but constantly angry and emotionally incompetent parent is really so vanishingly uncommon that the telltale signs of that kind of relationship are completely missed by the general population, that should be cause for celebration rather than criticism. My much more pessimistic intuition, however, based on the general state of cultural depictions of fatherhood and family, as well as the attitudes I frequently encounter, is that the presumption of a Loving Family is extended far beyond the point when evidence against it becomes overwhelming. In fact, my position is that the discourse of Loving Families itself is one of the top layers of a structure of cultural justifications for what is, in fact, a cultural and legal conceptualization of children as property, which generally goes unquestioned merely because “that is just the way things are.”
There is a great deal of wholly unjustified faith that, in the capitalist societies in which we live, where almost every major institution is at best indifferent to any pain or deprivation caused by the logic of the market and the commodity, and in the general case, actively abetting that logic, there is solace to be found in this one oasis of love, care and values not quantifiable in dollars: the heterosexual family. This is a familiar tune on the far right as well: to many “conservatives,” the idyllic white European patriarchal family is a bastion of a more moral, pre-modern order of the world, where everything had its proper place, before the corruption of malign racialized and gendered sleeper agents in thrall to the Elders of Zion seeped into the once noble West.
What does it say about the poverty of our conception of familial “love,” if we imagine it to be nothing more than an exemption from an otherwise all-consuming, destructive hatred for the world, from the drive to bend it to your will with the maximum possible force? What does it say about us if we even imagine Kratos capable of caring for anything outside himself?
It is now perhaps easier than ever to find traction for an analysis of family as a site of violence, a vehicle for the reproduction of an oppressive socioeconomic order and a fundamental building block in the imaginative processes of nationalism, white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy. Easier than ever – but not actually easy. It is disappointing, when a prime opportunity for that sort of criticism presents itself with the release of God of War, to instead see the word “dad” chanted over and over from all corners of the world, with complete adoration, drowning out any other sound or thought. I think we can do better.