*Light Spoilers ahead*
I always thought that Kratos from God of War was an irredeemable character. And I don’t just mean that in the context of his fictional universe, where he’s slaughtered almost everyone and everything in Greek mythology. I mean that as the lead of video game series. He always felt juvenile to me, a brooding try-hard that would have fit in the pages of a Rob Liefeld comic.
During the first God of War I put up with Kratos’s shouty rage fine enough, but by the second game in the series I actively disliked the guy. By the third I was playing God of War despite Kratos and couldn’t even finish the game. I felt like I was guiding a more self-important Freddy Kruger through Greek myth, butchering everyone in sight. Zeus wasn’t so great a guy in mythology or in the God of War series, but Kratos felt like the real villain by the end.
So, it was to my complete shock that when I finished the new God of War. I not only liked Kratos. He had also become one of my favorite characters of the current console generation. A complex, imperfect hero that often succeeds despite his rage, not because of it.
The main reason for Kratos’s transformation is his Dadifaction. He’s a father and single parent, tasked with spreading his dead wife’s ashes from the highest peak in all the nine realms. His son Atreus feels like a real kid. He’s super inquisitive, but also at times self-conscious. He lies and screams at his Dad, and rather than talk about his emotions he sulks. He’s often generous but can be selfish and makes some truly horrible mistakes. And yet despite all this Atreus never feels annoying, never feels like a character you don’t want to protect and guide.
You can tell that Kratos has a rocky relationship with his son. He takes his role as father seriously, but he’s distant to Atreus, shouting orders more than parenting. I thought at first that was because Kratos didn’t know how to be a dad, and there’ an element of that. But Kratos’s distance from his child runs deeper than that and showed something that was absolutely necessary for me to care about Kratos again, regret.
Kratos is never repentant in the new God of War. But he is a man who is ashamed of his past. He’s buried the ‘Blades of Chaos’ his signature weapon and refuses to use them save as a last resort. He breaks Greek pottery depicting him to try and hide his former self from Atreus. And when in Hel and Kratos is tormented by visions of himself beating Zeus to death, he cries out for Atreus to look away.
Kratos never comes out and says he’s ashamed. When anyone asks why he won’t reveal his past to Atreus he says it’s to protect the boy from his own godhood. And yet through their journey Kratos realizes that his legacy is no longer his alone. In having a child he needs to tell Atreus who he was, so the boy can understand where he comes from. It’s only by revealing his past to Atreus that Kratos begins to come to grips with it himself. He finally acknowledges, ‘I killed many who deserved it, and many who did not.’
Rather than being something to run from Kratos’s past as a monster makes him more real. He still experiences rage, but he also tries to hold it in check. When tormented by those he killed, rather than scream at them like he did in the past he instead grudgingly agrees with them. He’s a man ashamed of himself and only by caring about Atreus more than himself is Kratos able to let go of his past angst and vengeance and grow as a character.
Fatherhood changes you. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. And fatherhood has been changing video games for the last two generations: The Witcher 3, Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’, the Bioshock games, and The Last of Us all have included stories about being parent, but none of them have felt so transformative as God of War. The new God of War is proof that we all grow up at some point, that we can regret our past while at the same time accepting it. All we need to do is care about something or someone more than ourselves.