I think we can fairly say that our society has a Mary Sue problem.
I’m not going to say that this is something new, really, but it’s a noticeable trend in popular literature today. Over-powered characters made for blatant wish fulfillment is kind of a thing in fiction. However, I think that something we often fail to notice is that Sues are not just limited to our books and movies.
Yes, I’m talking about video games.
On the one hand, this is understandable—people want the interactive medium of story-telling to cater to their wish fulfillment. In short, you want to play a badass, you want to feel like a badass, and if you want to make a successful video game franchise you often have to make a character who continually overcomes overwhelming odds in order to make the player invested and give them both satisfaction and a challenge.
But that doesn’t mean that characters shouldn’t have distinct personalities or limitations, and their great feats have to be justified by the world they’re living in. Take Assassin’s Creed —Desmond quickly picking up fighting skills is explained by his living through the memories of his ancestors, who often found themselves in combat situations. Is this realistic? Hell no. Does it work within the parameters that the game has set? Yes.
Enter Kratos from God of War.
God of War is perhaps one of the weirdest things for me, in that I continually bash it for its abuse of mythology and I still pay attention to the narrative, but I never really bought the games because I’m a cheap bastard like that. When I first heard that there was a mainstream video game series based on Greek mythology, I got pretty excited, until I found out that it was essentially a gore fest with boobs sprinkled here and there for fanservice.
“But Juracan!” I can hear someone saying, “Greek mythology had sex and gruesome violence in it. You weren’t honestly expecting anything like the Disney movie, were you?”
First: don’t you dare mention that travesty in a conversation about mythology, ever. Second: yes, there was plenty of sex and violence in Greek mythology. But there’s a huge difference between a story saying, “Theseus cut off the Minotaur’s head,” and showing Kratos repeatedly and angrily impaling Theseus and viciously slamming a stone door on the guy’s head while fountains of blood spewed across the screen.
Why is Kratos brutally killing Theseus? Simple: because Kratos is a Mary Sue. Or Gary Stu. Whatever, you know what I mean.
Now, this is an examination based on narrative, not gameplay. So no, this isn’t a review of the series, nor am I condemning the games in that or any other regard.
Nor is this an essay about all of the mythology the games get wrong. Yes, I may mention it here or there if it’s related to the point, but if we were to list everything that’s wrong with the mythology in the games, we’d be here all day. I mean, I could do that, and from what I know of her, Pyrotra might stick around for some good mythological discussion, but I’m not sure you other guys and gals out there care.
So let’s look at Kratos’s life, shall we? Kratos is a Spartan captain who makes a deal with Ares, the Greek god of war, to save his own life and kick all kinds of ass across the known world as the deity’s champion. He is forced to kill his wife and children in a fit of madness by Ares, and in retaliation he severs ties with the god of war, and is haunted by nightmares of killing his family. The other gods realize that Ares is getting out of control and conquering the world…
…so they decide someone’s got to take him down. Zeus has forbidden divine intervention for… reasons… so Kratos is chosen to destroy Ares by using the power locked inside of Pandora’s Box. Long story short, he kills Ares, but his nightmares don’t leave and he decides to kill himself. Athena saves him, though, and gives him the now-vacant throne of the god of war on Olympus as a consolation prize. The narrator exposits that remains the god of war throughout human history.
…Until the next game, where we find out Kratos has become just like Ares and refuses to heed Athena’s warning to stop killing everything. Zeus takes away his godhood and kills him, but Gaea saves him from Tartarus and tells him to go to the Fates to change his past. Kratos does so, the Fates refuse, he kills them, and he goes back to declare war on Zeus, bringing the Titans with him which leads into the third game where Kratos kills everything that’s left, including himself.
Okay, a vast oversimplification, and I’m not even getting into the unnumbered games yet, but that’s the gist of it.
Now look at the story for the first game: that’s a solid story. He gets wronged, and is given a chance for vengeance and redemption. It’s a nice arc, and is mainly self-contained. Kratos is mostly a sympathetic character, and we understand where he’s coming from and why he wants to get there.
We do run into some issues in the details, of course, that come up if you think about it for five seconds. Kratos gets killed but fights his way out of the Underworld. How come nobody else does this? Why doesn’t Ares just do this after he gets killed? Ares gave Kratos his power, why doesn’t he just take it away?
The problems start rolling in full force during the second game with Kratos killing the Fates. I’m sorry, no. If it had been established that the Fates don’t actually decide people’s… well, fates, then I might buy this. Like, in Asura’s Wrath, we see Asura fight and win against Chakravartin, an incredibly powerful creature that claims to be the Creator. The thing is we only have his word for it—we’ve never seen if Chakravartin actually created the world, or if he is just taking credit for it. So when Asura beats a super-powerful being who claims to be God, then we can kind of buy it.
But the Fates predict all that happens on Kratos’s journey to see them, everything that happened in the past, and even having a mural in their temple foreseeing three figures following a star through the desert. There’s no reason given for why Kratos can kill them. This shouldn’t be a fight—the Fates would just say Kratos dies and he does. But like every antagonist of the series, they decide to keep a firm grasp of the Idiot Ball and get into a duel with the former god of war.
The narrative falls apart in the third volume, when we see that Kratos kills several major Olympians, causing world disasters. After ripping off the head of Helios with his bare hands, the sky goes black. After beating Poseidon to a bloody pulp, gouging his eyes out and chucking him off of Mount Olympus, the world floods. When Hermes dies, a plague of insects swarm upon the hapless Earth. Does Kratos comment or worry about any of this? Nope! But at the end, Kratos kills himself and releases the power inside him, Hope, unto the world, giving it to mortals.
…what the hell.
This is Mary Sue fiction at its purest, guys. It’s a character, inserted into an already established world, who kicks everyone’s ass six ways to Sunday and in the end is supposed to be good because… reasons. Despite mourning his wife and children’s murder, Kratos has sex with Aphrodite, and is shown to apparently get orgies going at brothels just by showing up. And hell, we’re not even going into the inconsistencies. He kills the Fates and controls their loom, so he can change time, and it’s obvious that the past can be changed, because the Fates threaten to change the past so he loses to Ares. But when Kratos goes and stops Zeus from killing him… shouldn’t he not be there by virtue of re-writing history? And then he keeps coming back from the Underworld, except when any other god does it, they appear as Force ghost things but Kratos doesn’t because he’s the protagonist?
I can’t emphasize how overpowered and ridiculous this character is! Even the Winchesters need help to climb out of the afterlife every other season, but Kratos does it by Protagonist Power alone. He kills Thanatos, the personification of Death! He is the center of a prophecy regarding the end of the gods (so much for defying the Fates…)! He punches Heracles to death! He fights and kills Zeus, the king of the gods (who also happens to be his father)! And regularly has sex with multiple women (while mourning the death of his family)!
And what pisses me off is that because at the end he gives Hope to the world or something he’s supposed to be a hero. Never mind that he never actually does anything good solely for someone else’s sake in the entire run of his story, mercilessly slaughtering people who aren’t even posing a threat to him without a moment of remorse. Never mind that he never takes an opportunity to help the people around him that are in danger when he has every opportunity to. Never mind that his emotional state is mainly pure unfiltered rage and screaming, and that he doesn’t develop as a character at all throughout the entire story other than being given something else to get angry about. We’re supposed to like this asshole and think that he made the world a better place.
I feel like so much of his actions are supposed to be incredibly badass, but it all just sounds ridiculous. I mean look at it—it’s laughable. Robert E. Howard’s Conan isn’t that over-the-top in manliness, and that guy’s a walking testosterone factory! At least Conan has a code of honor and friends, neither of which Kratos even understands. Kratos isn’t a character, guys, he’s a sixth grader’s idea of manliness. And I feel like no one actually calls Sony on it, because it’s a video game and it’s not supposed to have a good story or something.
Well, screw that. I am, right now. Aside from being a mostly solid character in the first game, Kratos is perhaps one of the biggest Sues I have ever seen in the history of fiction, which given the rise of teen paranormal romance in popular culture, is saying something. The guy’s a hate-ridden douchenozzle that’s only successful because the plot says he is. I’m not saying there can’t be protagonists who are overly powerful or violent or vengeful, but don’t do all three and then expect me to take it at face value that he’s a good guy because he’s the protagonist.