So the new God of War was released for Playstation 4 a couple of months ago, and it features the return of the series’s protagonist Kratos as he and his son Atreus explores the worlds of Norse mythology. The game is, surprisingly, not a revenge quest of any sort; the Plot is that Kratos’s wife has died and he and his son are fulfilling her final request of spreading her ashes from the top of the highest mountain in the worlds. Sure, there’s a lot of killing on the way, but the killing isn’t the point anymore.

For the most part the game has received high praise from critics, especially in regards to Kratos’s character development. For the first time in years, the main character in God of War is actually a likable person, and you don’t feel bad about playing as him. It’s actually rather touching to see Kratos bonding with his son and trying to teach him to learn from his mistakes over the course of the story instead of mutilating other people who are in his way with little provocation.

Weirdly enough, there are some fans of the original trilogy that take issue with both the new characterization and the critical praise it’s attracted. I’ve heard quite a lot of the accusation “This isn’t God of War anymore!” with people suggesting that the series lost its identity because it no longer featured an obsessively angry man screaming and violently murdering almost everyone he came across. I’ve also heard, “They’ve changed Kratos to a completely different character!” because they miss the old personality. For most other stories I’d understand this defensiveness against an extreme shift in direction, but for God of War it troubles me more than anything else.

The problem with these accusations of God of War not being the same is that, from a writing perspective, that’s objectively for the best. These people are essentially saying that they’re upset that Kratos is no longer murdering defenseless people who have yet to actually do something to deserve it. It’d be like if you got mad at your friend for no longer beating his wife because “It’s not how you used to be, it’s just not the same anymore.” These old school fans are acting like the new game commits the crime of not being manly enough, but that’s not what’s happened here. Kratos by the time of God of War III wasn’t just a testosterone-filled Macho Man, he was such a deranged monster that even the developers of the games didn’t like him anymore. He kills several gods for the crime of being in his way, and in doing so breaks the world, causing the sun to go black, the seas to flood, plagues of insects and disease to spread and storms to erupt unchecked.

I mean yeah, when it’s all done he feels bad about it, but only after he’s already killed Zeus and completely apocalypse’d the world. Nowhere on his quest does he start to think maybe he’s gone too far and should stop killing characters who at their core only want to defend their home and the world from a rampaging monster that keeps brutally murdering their family members and even carries around one of their heads as a trophy. Aside from giving “Hope” back to the mortals he doesn’t try to fix the world in any tangible way.

And I mean yeah, he feels bad about killing the girl who reminds him of his daughter, yeah he feels bad about killing the other guy who wanted to protect the girl who reminds him of his daughter, but this is all juxtaposed with him slaughtering gods and mortals who committed the capital crime of trying to defend themselves and their home. Feeling bad about being an omnicidal monster doesn’t count for anything unless it actually stops you from being an omnicidal monster.

So in a way, they’re right. The new game is not the same God of War, and it’s not the same Kratos. But that’s good, because the old Kratos was actually a monster by the end of it and making the player actively take part in his bloody rampages was plain disturbing.

Compare this to the PS4 God of War, in which Kratos deliberately avoids killing anyone who isn’t actively trying to kill him at the time. His son Atreus even convinces him (or rather, you, the player, who is controlling him) to go out of his way to try to help people on side quests. When Kratos finds an opponent who is down and helpless, he goes so far as to say to his son, who wants to finish the job, “He’s beaten, he’s not a threat anymore,” and try to let them live. Kratos doesn’t even kill the final boss of the game until he starts strangling one of their friends. It’s self-defense, more than anything. “We must be better,” he says, trying to show his son how not to make the same mistakes he did, not to be consumed by rage and bloodlust. There’s not only regret, there’s an active effort to be a better person and make the world a better place.

The change in tone and characterization isn’t the only thing I’ve seen people in a snit about. Some people argue, such as this YouTuber in this video rather angrily titled ““GOD OF WAR WAS ALWAYS DEEP YOU COWARDS!”“:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFmjUkKs768, that the entire series had always had depth and that Kratos had always had this level of awareness. The soft side of Kratos was always there, the argument is; after all, he feels bad about his dead family a lot, and he feels a paternal bond to Pandora (aforementioned girl who reminds him of his daughter) and doesn’t want to sacrifice her to kill Zeus like he’s been told to. Which…is a pretty stupid argument, because all of these supposedly “soft moments” are juxtaposed with Kratos unrepentantly murdering people right and left. As Yahtzee puts it in Zero Punctuation:

There’s a whole sideplot where you have to rescue a little girl and she reminds Kratos of his dead daughter and that he thinks he can be redeemed through her, all the while still holding the disembodied head of Helios, which he tore off to use as his own personal flashlight.

[Which makes it all the more disconcerting that Yahtzee himself said that he didn’t like how the new God of War was different than the last few, being yet another of the gamers claiming the series has lost its identity.]

It takes more than the protagonist muttering “What have I done?” to make an interesting and sympathetic character, people! Kratos’s entire “Revenge on Zeus!” plot is built on the fact that Zeus put him down because he wouldn’t stop going around Greece slaughtering people for no reason. This is something Kratos never apologizes or atones for, because right after Zeus kills him he gets freed from the Underworld and goes on a quest to kill the Fates so he can kill Zeus. Kratos doesn’t grow as a person, he just becomes angrier and more obscenely violent. Look, I’m more sympathetic to the protagonist of Arawn, and he’s the king of Hell! At least in that comic, Arawn executes this horrible violence mostly on people who are even more evil than he is, so you don’t feel bad about him doing it. But Kratos continues to get worse and worse and somehow there are people who think that this is a sympathetic character?

There’s a segment where the video talks about Calliope, Kratos’s daughter, who, in one of the games appears in the Underworld and Kratos acts like a doting father when he’s around her. Which…doesn’t make sense and doesn’t fit very well with Kratos as a character. Even before he goes full on ominicidal, Kratos was a Spartan military officer and had obvious issues with anger and cared more about conquest than spending time with his family. Claiming that Kratos was also a sweet, loving father and also a cold-hearted military man who refused to listen to his wife’s pleas to spend more time at home…isn’t good writing, and the video using it as an argument falls flat.

[That video I linked to earlier also declares that God of War did the nigh impossible by adapting Greek mythology into a story for modern audiences, working on the false assumptions that A) God of War is an accurate adaptation of Greek myths and B) no other piece of fiction has adapted Greek myth into a cohesive story for modern audiences.]

I haven’t even gotten to detailing all of the Sue-ish aspects of his character in the first few games (again). Let’s not kid ourselves, Kratos in the original God of War trilogy is a quite a Mary Sue. He goes up against the Fates, the embodiments of fortune and destiny, who can rewrite reality on a whim and travel through time, and still manages to kill them so that the player can feel macho about killing powerful women, I guess. Kratos dies several times and simply fights his way out of the underworld, because Kratos is so manly he can’t even stay dead. He has sex with countless women because we wouldn’t want to think that women wouldn’t throw themselves at a pale, ugly, scarred bastard with a permanent scowl on his face. Ghost of Sparta actually has a mini-game in which streams of women in a brothel throw themselves into his bed for a chance to sleep with him. In the same game Kratos fights, defeats, and ends up killing the Greek personification of Death. By the end of the Greek part of the saga he’s less a complex character and more a male power fantasy, but only written by and for men who haven’t interacted with other human beings in any meaningful way for years.

Put plainly, stripped of all the dressing: in the original series, Kratos is a man who’s so manly that women flock to be his lover, yet he’s also powerful enough to kill things that by definition cannot be killed. And yet some God of War fans are acting like replacing this with a likable and sympathetic protagonist whose reality doesn’t break to cater to his violent and sexual urges is a bad thing?

Call me silly, but the original God of War series doesn’t strike me as good writing.

And call me squeamish, but I don’t understand why there are people arguing that they’d rather be playing as a character that kills people as they’re begging for their lives. For whatever reason I’d rather play as a character who, while having a past full of doing unequivocally terrible things, is actually trying to do better and raising his son to be a better man than he was.

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  1. The Smith of Lie on 28 June 2018, 06:16 said:

    I vaguely remember Extra Credits episode on God of War sequels and how they destroyed any kind of character developement the original game had (this does not take 4th one into account, the episode predates it by quite a while). So at least you are not the only one who didn’t like the Kratos as overly wrathful bundle of rage with no redeeming qualities.

    Now here’s a different question – is it bad to have a character like that? I can imagine that people who just looked to God of War games for a cathartic dose of over the top violence might be a little justified in their reaction to new Kratos. It doesn’t matter wheather he is superior from a storytelling, role model or just a likeable human being viewpoint, as long as he doesn’t provide them with the type of entertainment they were looking for. It’s sort of like if the 4th 50 Shades of Gray book suddenly took a turn and was a tense, psychological thriller about abusive relationship – even if the writing and story were in any objective measure superior to the previous ones, at least the target audience would feel a certain amount of whiplash.

  2. WarriorsGate on 28 June 2018, 21:06 said:

    I watched the first minute of that video, and as soon as the barrage of headlines appeared I was immediately reminded of Red Letter Media’s “Scientist Man” utterly debunking the supposed “misogynist backlash” against the Ghostbuster reboot. Especially the bit when the film flopped and Melissa McCarthy’s talking head was slowly obscured by clickbait headlines about “manbabies” while she furiously backpedalled with some #NotAllMen.

    Anyway.

    These days, it’s practically de rigueur for corporations to sell their products by touting how forward-thinking they are and how “This is what we need right now”, then hyping up a fake backlash with a Tweet or two taken out of context to make their product look even more “woke”. Or, in Disney’s case, alleging nonstop racism and sexism against its stars to distract shareholders from the enormous box office bomb they dropped.

    How much of this backlash have you witnessed firsthand, and how much of it comes from these marketing puff pieces—which are probably paid for?

  3. Juracan on 29 June 2018, 18:39 said:

    I vaguely remember Extra Credits episode on God of War sequels and how they destroyed any kind of character developement the original game had (this does not take 4th one into account, the episode predates it by quite a while). So at least you are not the only one who didn’t like the Kratos as overly wrathful bundle of rage with no redeeming qualities.

    Stumbling on that video again is actually part of what prompted me to write this! It’s very good (as is Extra Credits in general).

    Now here’s a different question – is it bad to have a character like that? I can imagine that people who just looked to God of War games for a cathartic dose of over the top violence might be a little justified in their reaction to new Kratos. It doesn’t matter wheather he is superior from a storytelling, role model or just a likeable human being viewpoint, as long as he doesn’t provide them with the type of entertainment they were looking for. It’s sort of like if the 4th 50 Shades of Gray book suddenly took a turn and was a tense, psychological thriller about abusive relationship – even if the writing and story were in any objective measure superior to the previous ones, at least the target audience would feel a certain amount of whiplash.

    I think…yeah, it’s good to turn the character/story into something else if the original was toxic and objectively terrible. Like, no, 50 Shades of Gray isn’t just bad, the title character is actually an abusive rapist and the fact that he’s portrayed as a romantic lead is just plain disturbing. Kratos is a similar case, I think: it’s not just that he’s over-the-top violent in his original incarnation, it’s that it’s portrayed in a way that barely questions that violence. There are plenty of other games that you can play to get your over-the-top violence quota filled without the player character in-story being a mass-murdering dickbag.

    To an extent, I get feeling like your favorite story has changed into something it’s not, and I understand that might be difficult to get on board with, but in the case of God of War (or Fifty Shades) that it kind of should and objectively that’s a good thing.

    That’s a good question though!

    These days, it’s practically de rigueur for corporations to sell their products by touting how forward-thinking they are and how “This is what we need right now”, then hyping up a fake backlash with a Tweet or two taken out of context to make their product look even more “woke”. Or, in Disney’s case, alleging nonstop racism and sexism against its stars to distract shareholders from the enormous box office bomb they dropped.

    How much of this backlash have you witnessed firsthand, and how much of it comes from these marketing puff pieces—which are probably paid for?

    I…don’t think there’s a grand marketing conspiracy of hyping up controversy by hiring rabid fanboys. The reason, of course, being that if there were, I think more articles of praise for the game would include a “Then these stupid fanboys said—” type of comments, which I haven’t seen any of. This also seems to be a bit of a vocal minority; the majority of games, and God of War fans, seem to be cool with the direction the series has taken. I’ve seen remarkably little press complaining about the complaints. So I don’t think it’s a marketing ploy, no.

    That, and the developers haven’t exactly made a huge point of what they’ve changed. Yeah, they’ve been open about the changes they’ve made, but creative director Cory Barlog has been really enthusiastic about not just the new direction of the games, but where the games were before and that it’s all part of an evolving franchise.

    So, uh, yeah, I wouldn’t take much stock in the suggestion that it’s all a marketing conspiracy.

  4. The Smith of Lie on 30 June 2018, 07:45 said:

    Kratos is a similar case, I think: it’s not just that he’s over-the-top violent in his original incarnation, it’s that it’s portrayed in a way that barely questions that violence. There are plenty of other games that you can play to get your over-the-top violence quota filled without the player character in-story being a mass-murdering dickbag.

    Now that you mentioned it this way, I think the old Kratos could have actually been a vehicle for a rather deconstructive take if the games showed him as the monster he was and actually put the player in the role of a villain of the story. Sort of like Spec Ops: The Line.

  5. Juracan on 30 June 2018, 08:18 said:

    I actually have heard the take on the game God of War III (this Kotaku article) that argues that you’re playing as the villain. And I would have less of an issue with this sort of thing. But…again, I’m not sure this works, because it’s not like you’re playing as a morally ambiguous villain trying to do something good—Kratos is just a bloodthirsty douchebag, who violently takes down a bunch of figures who shouldn’t be able to go down so easily all the while bouncing back from stuff his enemies can’t for no reason.

    So yeah, I like the idea of that, but if that’s what the makers were going for, they didn’t do so well.

  6. Sam B on 30 June 2018, 12:01 said:

    I don’t think the whole “Kratos is the real villain” angle works because then you’d have criticism of his actions in the game itself. Since Spec-Ops got brought up, that one worked because the protagonist is convinced that he’s doing the right thing and is shown through the story that he’s not and the game even tells you that he’s not (“do you feel like a hero yet?”). But while consequences of Kratos’s actions are shown and characters tell him he’s wrecking everything, he never even shows doubt regarding his actions until the end.

    Also, as a counter example of a protagonist from a hyper violent game that isn’t just an angry bloodthirsty killing machine, Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes works. He’s definitely not heroic, but his personality works within the game’s over-the-top setting. And he still has clear morals like refusing to kill Shinobu because she’s a kid and sometimes even treats his opponents with honor and dignity, even mourning them. Hell, the second game even gives him character development by having him start off looking for revenge, but then decides to finish his quest just to put an end to the endless cycle of violence the UAA perpetuates.

    Again, Travis isn’t a hero. But he has more to his character than Kratos did and he’s more relatable to the player.

  7. Apep on 30 June 2018, 15:54 said:

    I haven’t played any of the God of War games, though I have watched an LP of the first game, have heard from other sources about the other two games, and actually watched several hours of someone streaming the latest game. And honestly, it’s only the most recent one that I have any interest in playing (but can’t, because I have an XBox One, not a PS4. Kind of regretting that decision now.)